ChinaBeat - Risky Business

Oct 72008

The question was posed so quietly, and matter-of-factly, that it took a moment for me to realize the significance of what was being asked.

I was discussing with my class at Tsinghua University the kinds of pressures that business journalists can often feel as they prepare their stories. I told them about executive egos, and corporate press relations, and the spinmeisters who seem to proliferate particularly when, as often happens, politics and economics intersect.

The class is graduate level, part of the Global Business Journalism program at Tsinghua. The program is supported by Merrill Lynch, Deloitte, Bloomberg and the Knight Foundation.

The student, who isn’t from China, was clearly interested in the discussion. But then she added: “What do you do when you receive threats of physical violence?”

I have to admit, I didn’t have a good answer. To be sure, I am certain there are many p.r. people who have said they’d like to kill me at one time or another. And I know for a fact that some editors have shared that sentiment, at least on occasion.

But fortunately my professional relationships have always remained steadfastly nonviolent.

I can vaguely recall the Don Bolles car-bombing in Arizona, as he investigated organized crime there. And once I had two co-workers literally have their car rolled off a mountain in Eastern Kentucky during a coal strike. Unfortunately, they were still in it.

But I had to admit to the student that, as a journalist working in America, personal violence just has never been something I spent any time worrying about. Even when covering money laundering, I never heard suspicious footsteps. I never dropped a story out of fear. I did get uncomfortably wedged between striking Eastern Airlines mechanics and a battalion of riot police once, but that was hardly an everyday occurrence.

When I asked if any of the other students believed journalism in their homeland could bring bodily harm, several of the non-Chinese students raised their hands.

It was a sobering moment. Living in Miami, I am keenly aware that I live at the intersection of two hemispheres where the safety of journalists are in stark contrast. One of my former co-workers at Florida International University, Mario Diament, an Argentina native, lived through that country’s dreadful Dirty War, and once related to me ghastly stories about the fellow reporters who simply disappeared.

There was the Tampa reporter, Todd Smith, who was tortured to death in Peru in 1989. And today, various locales where drug traffickers are a de facto government are known to be less than concerned about freedom of the press. The Inter American Press Association estimates that 332 journalists have been assassinated in the Americas in the last two decades.

One can’t help but wonder how many others were scared into a different line of work.

It’s a sad and tragic problem that is far from resolved. But I had always thought that it was primarily journalists of the political variety who were most at risk.

Interestingly, my students believe that, in some countries, it’s business journalists who are particularly vulnerable. The problem, in a sense, is that good business journalists know that you follow the money. And in countries where money will lead to corrupt officials and/or criminal activity, the solution is to intimidate and, if need be, shoot the messenger.

There is the case of the Forbes Russia editor, Paul Klebnikov, being murdered in Moscow in 2004, for example. Anna Politkovskaya, a harsh critic of Putin, was gunned down in 2006. Daniel Pearl wasn’t pursuing a business story, but his killers were keenly aware he worked for The Wall Street Journal.

Not having any war stories really to tell, I then asked the students why they were pursuing journalism as a career. Does the threat of violence concern them?

And to the person, each who responded said they believed journalism is a way to improve the lives of their countrymen. They were not Pollyanna-ish. They are fully aware of the possibility of danger. But they were adamant that journalists must, somehow, find a way to do their job, in spite of the risks.

My final advice was, simply, that no story is worth getting killed for. That’s because you’ll never get to tell it.

I guess, like a lot of teachers, I wanted to tell my students that it would all work out, that they were going to be all right. But I can’t promise that.

So I had to settle for being proud that young people from four continents, the Pacific Rim and Asia Minor are willing to pursue journalism, risks and all, yet disheartened that they live in a world where that is their reality.