The power of culture in a world of politics

Retired NBC national security correspondent Fred Francis, along with other prominent media members, explore cultural diplomacy Friday at SU.

In the aftermath of a devastating earthquake that killed 23,000 Guatemalans in 1976, journalist, Fred Francis looked up to see US Air Force planes whizzing in.

He’s never felt prouder, he said. Within 72 hours the US had four field hospitals set up, kitchens and thousands of soldiers on the ground. “We were the good guys then,” Francis said, “We jumped through hoops to help people.”

Francis, a 40-year journalist and retired national security correspondent with NBC, spoke to public affairs students, Friday, as part of Maxwell’s 3rd annual Association of Public Diplomacy Scholars symposium.

John King, of NBC was originally slated to speak but was pulled away to cover the upcoming election. In his place, he sent a five-minute video, discussing many of the hot-button election issues right now. One of the most over arching issues, King said, is one that “some find to be too corny or too cliché.”

“We were raised in a country where the American dream was more or less the guarantee that we would do better than our parents and that our children in turn would do better than us,” King said in his video, “Generations and generations of optimism empowered a sense of hope and a sense of American pre-eminence even dominance in economic and world affairs.”

Francis, the keynote speaker for the day of events, argued that the US has lost their “good guy,” image of latter-days leaving the next generation of public diplomats to reclaim it. 

Scholars in the Public Diplomacy program hosted the annual symposium in an effort to create dialogue and engagement with experts in public diplomacy and related fields.

Francis, who covered every major war for NBC, spent eight years as a Pentagon correspondent and now lectures on public diplomacy, media relations and communications. He’s a frequent guest in the Maxwell School’s National Security Studies Program.

In his time covering the world, Francis said he saw a shift from the United States’ “good guy” era to a much more fragmented and less popular image today.  This move, he said, happened around the late 70s and early 80s as a result of partisan gaffes and world events. It began around the time of the Iran hostage crisis and the invasion of Granada and followed to more recent history with incidents of Islamic terrorism and subsequent images of people applauding American deaths in the street.

Francis also presented a series of “what ifs” to the audience that has influenced the course of history. What if Jimmy Carter had named George H. W. Bush Director of the C.I.A. over friend, Stansfield Turner? Francis asked. Would either Bush have become president? Would the Iraq war have happened?

What if the Clinton administration hadn’t warned Pakistan of an impeding strike against Al Qaeda to capture Osama bin Laden in the early 90s? Would bin Laden have been caught? Would 9-11 have happened?

Hypotheses aside, Francis’ ultimate charge to the audience was to get the United States back to a place where they’re seen as “good.”

“Before we fix our image in the world we need to fix ourselves,” Francis said.

His suggestions: Pull troops out of Afghanistan. Focus on the economy, national debt and invest in education and foreign exchange programs. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a Democrat, a Republican a member of the tea party, “ Francis said. “You’ve got to get involved. We’re not a super power anymore.”

Student reaction 

Yuri Borovsky, a second year student in the master’s program in Public Diplomacy said the symposium, as a whole, was stronger this year but more based on individual perspectives rather than academics.  As for Francis’ perspective, Borovsky had mixed feelings, “I think he’s a great journalist, a terrific speaker and a good policy maker. I wouldn’t necessarily put him in charge of the country,” Borovsky said. “His argument seemed a little simplified.”

Nick Lombardo, a second year public diplomacy student found the keynote address discussion provoking—the goal of the symposium.

“For calling him in as a pinch hitter on two days notice I thought he brought up some compelling issues that were easy to grasp,” Lombardo said. As for the argument that the United States has lost its positive image, Lombardo attributes that to a highly connected and far-reaching media. 

“More individuals have more access to media and stories so they’re seeing more than they ever have,” Lombardo said, “And they don’t always like the pictures they see.”

The media panel: reporting the story

The final part of the third annual Association of Public Diplomacy Students Symposium featured a panel of three distinguished members of the media.

Al Primo, the creator of the Eyewitness News format, Xian Wen, the Bureau Chief in the U.S. for the Chinese People’s Daily, and Gordon Slaven, the British Council’s Director of Global Partnerships, fielded a variety of questions from the crowd, speaking on their career experiences, views on new media and the role it plays in public diplomacy. David Chanatry, a journalism professor at Utica College, moderated the panel.

The panel, put together by co-coordinators Olivia Franken and Daniel Moulton, was the result of nearly a yearlong effort between the two chairs. “We looked at the previous two symposiums and we wanted to bring together the two parts of our major, public relations, and international relations,” she said.

Slaven spoke about his organization’s goal of reaching three main groups: leaders, influencers and “aspirants to global citizenship” through collaborative efforts in cultural relations. “We live in a multilateral world today…no one is thinking locally anymore, it’s all global,” he said.

Primo spoke of how the school shootings at Columbine inspired him to create a news program for children featuring anchors and reporters their own age. “You never saw young people on television unless it was sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll,” he said. “We thought kids talking to other kids might make them more receptive to watching the news on television.”

After shopping to all the major networks he eventually started his own company and today Teen Kids News is broadcasted weekly to 177 countries worldwide. He shared the story of how he assisted in setting up the programming at a station in the Republic of Georgia several years ago.

While he was there, a grenade destroyed a television station controlled by political dissidents. “It’s difficult in those political situations. How can you be objective and not incur the wrath of the leadership?”

The third panel member, Wen, brought a unique perspective to the audience. Educated in Beijing, he has worked for the People’s Daily since 1974. During his introduction, he praised Nelson Mandela and spoke about his use of history to connect with a new culture when on assignment.

His advice to journalists was to study the history of a county or area and to show the story to readers. He spoke from experience. For most of the 1990’s, he was the only Asian reporter covering many important events in central and southern Africa. For Wen, a key part of any story he writes is thinking about how China can learn from what he’s writing about.

All three members of the panel, though from different backgrounds, agreed new media is changing the way news stories are reported and told. Primo summed up their thoughts on one key idea. “You can have all the new toys but you still have to be able to write well,” he said.

Student reaction 

Ryan Suto, a master’s student in the public diplomacy program and the online communications coordinator for the APDS, thought that the panel was informative yet a little lacking. He did, however, appreciate the connection between the two topics. “I think the best part about new media and public diplomacy is that this allows global communication without gatekeepers. No one decides what we want to hear. When it comes down to it, people are less oppressed and can communicate different points of view.”

Suto tweeted throughout the discussion and asked several questions from people following his tweets. 

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