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Minding Our Business



July 2010

Freedom's Messenger
A trek through Central Europe

There is a quantum leap from the classroom to the settings where history has unfolded. For us this summer, that meant tracing footsteps through the streets and squares of Budapest and Prague, getting inside the shipyard of Gdansk where the workers’ union Solidarnosc was born, crossing what had once been the death strip at the Berlin Wall.

A three-week study tour of formerly communist countries in central Europe was the centerpiece of a six-credit summer study of the cold war, the collapse of communism and the role of the media. We’d laid the groundwork in the classroom — a crash course on Marxism, Leninism and communism and a history of the roles of journalists and propagandists. Our students, after all, are a post-cold war generation.

Then we set out to test our hypotheses. Not all survived. Many of the Hungarians, Czechs, Poles and Germans our students met told them what they had lived through were imperfect forms of socialism, but not the idealized goal of communism. Anecdotally, at least, we learned that western media — Radio Free Europe, Voice of America, RIAS — were welcome voices across the Iron Curtain. In one instance, the 1956 Hungarian uprising, RFE may have encouraged the revolt against communism. But each effort to overthrow or alter communist rule had indigenous roots.

As planning for our course evolved, Professor Dick Moore and I felt it essential to introduce our students to a chronological sequence of events: 1956 in Hungary, 1968’s Prague spring, Poland in 1980, and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The itinerary was ambitious, about four days in each country. We travelled by rail between cities and by public transportation as much as possible within cities. The students rubbed shoulders with locals and learned how to navigate trains, subways, trams and on foot.

Sights and sounds in Budapest
Visit the class blog for more video>

While there was free time in each city to explore, shop and even watch World Cup soccer matches, we also had two or three meetings each day with academics and journalists. We had 18 straight days of sunshine, almost surely a record for central Europe, along with increasing heat. The ride from Prague to Warsaw became known as the sauna train, for lack of air conditioning. At times, we were all tired. Not every meeting or conversation was scintillating. Many were riveting.

Since returning, we’ve dissected the experience step by step, almost meal by meal. Predictably, some thought the trip too long and too crowded. Others would have liked a longer venture at a slower pace. Professor Moore and I have considered where the trip might have been shortened or needed to be lengthened.

All nine students, as it turned out, were from the School of Journalism and Mass Communications. We’d hoped for a few more students and a mix of journalism and political science majors. It would have created a more varied dialogue. But the group of 16 students, faculty—including Drs. Gordon Smith and Don Puchala from political science--and accompanying spouses, ranging from 19 to 71, travelled well together. We became masters at moving and stowing heavy luggage on trains. The expertise of the faculty members created a useful complement of journalism and political science with specific knowledge of the areas we visited and the historic background of the cold war.

From a personal perspective, the trip was a return to places once familiar yet now much transformed. Between 1968 and 1981, I had been a correspondent in Europe covering the developments of the cold war. Subsequently, as a correspondent at the Pentagon and White House, I frequently returned. I had seen the tanks in Prague’s Wenceslas Square. I had heard President Reagan declaim, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

The Prague Spring was part of my own journalistic experience, as was the Poland of Solidarnosc and the divisions of Germany and Berlin. My wife, AP reporter Susanne Schafer, had reported from inside the shipyard of Gdansk when Solidarnosc was created. We were able to convey our personal journalistic experiences to the students. At the same time, we shared their perceptions of how the countries had struggled and changed after communism.

We reveled in the still slightly rough freshness of Budapest, the ebullience of Warsaw and Gdansk, even the clutter of tourist crowded Prague. But we especially were struck by the brilliance of a Berlin united and the near obliteration of the scar that once divided it, though enough of the wall has been retained as a remembrance of the past.

We had great meals where once there were only glum restaurants. We observed Poland’s presidential runoff—a meaningful, not predetermined election. We rode bikes across the line where East Germany’s “vopo” border guards used to hunt down would-be escapees. We celebrated the Fourth of July on a Baltic beach.

|   The Column

Charles Bierbauer

Minding Our Business is a column by Charles Bierbauer, dean of USC's College of Mass Communications and Information Studies and a former CNN and ABC News correspondent.

This column addresses issues faced daily by students, faculty, editors, news directors, public relations experts, and media managers about our professions.

We welcome feedback.

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