I’ve just completed my debut on Chinese TV before what was probably the biggest audience in my 35-year journalism career.
I was a guest on the nightly news show called “Dialogue” on CCTV (China Central TV). It’s a half-hour program where policy experts sit down and debate — freely, in my case — important international issues. No yelling. No screaming.
That alone is a big change from my appearances on — and viewing of — American TV news.
Here are some other differences between being a guest on Chinese TV and American TV:
1. No limo to pick you up.
2. No make-up artist.
3. No green room.
4. All of the anchors know what they’re talking about.
5. All of the anchors speak perfect English.
6. In-depth discussion of international issues.
7. Thirty minutes. No commercial interruptions.
8. No interruptions at all — the host and other panelist let me finish each answer before responding themselves.
9. No limo to drive you home.
10. I rode my bike home from the East Gate of Peking University subway stop after finishing the show.
Professor Dunham’s first lecture, a set on Flickr.
My new life is in full swing now. I taught my first multimedia journalism class on Wednesday to my first-year Global Business Journalism students and Tsinghua University’s international journalism students.
The class is big in size and in talent. As a first project, they took photos during the lecture. Here’s their report.
In case you have trouble opening the Flickr slide show in your browser, here’s a direct link:
Little by little, there are signs that I’m adjusting to life in China. I still speak terrible Chinese, but I’m making (slow) progress. Some other signs point to a shorter-than-expected period of adjustment in my new country. A few examples:
- At my apartment, I’m eating more meals with chopsticks than with forks, knives or spoons.
- I take the subway and wander the streets of Beijing without fear of getting lost.
- I venture off campus on my bicycle into the chaotic swirl of Chinese traffic.
- I add money to my subway fare card without the help of my Teaching Assistant.
- I price things in yuan and don’t convert to dollars anymore.
- I leave my passport at home when I go out.
- I don’t get upset when the Internet connection is really slooooooooooooooooooow. Like the Texas weather, just wait an hour and it’ll change.
- I don’t get upset when a car is driving down the wrong side of the road and appears to be heading straight for my bike.
- I’m posting on Weibo as often as on Twitter.
- I’m beginning to understand the difference between the four Chinese speech tones.
- I’m beginning to understand a few street signs. In Chinese.
- I’m starting to get the hang of sign language. Or maybe charades.
- I’m starting to think it’s normal to ride your bike after dark without any lights.
- I’m starting to say “ni hao” to people rather than “hello.” (With Caroline Ward, it’s still “ni howdy!”)
- I can introduce myself as “DOO-NUH REE-KUH” rather than “RICK DUNHAM.” (I’ll pass along my real Chinese name when my colleagues show me the spelling.)
- I don’t check the Internet every day to see what’s happened to the Phillies … or Nats … or Eagles … or Redskins.
- I come home every night and turn on CCTV in English to discover what good deeds President Xi has done today. And what’s new in Turkmenistan.
- I thank my lucky stars that I took this job.
I continue today with another edition of Rick’s Rules, my lists of professional development suggestions for journalism students and veteran journalists alike.
TOP TEN TIPS FOR EFFECTIVE INTERVIEWING
1. Prepare, prepare, prepare.
There is no substitute for adequate preparation — and no excuse for “winging it” in an interview. You should become an expert on the interview subject and the subject matter. If you show that you know your stuff, you are more likely to gain the respect and confidence of the interviewee.
2. Choreograph the interview in advance.
Plan out what you hope to accomplish and the series of questions that will get you from Point A to Point Z. Also plan out what you will do if the interviewee tries to hijack the interview. (See below.)
A major mistake made by reporters is that they don’t pay attention to what the interviewee is saying; they just wait to ask the next question on their list. It’s very, very important to listen attentively. Your interview subject may tell you something that leads to a valuable new avenue of questioning.
4. Follow up.
Persistence usually pays off. If somebody tries to evade your question, try again. Depending on the situation, you can decide whether to rephrase the question or simply tell them that they haven’t answered the question. If your interview subject is evading the question, you want to let them know that you know that they aren’t answering.
5. Word your questions carefully.
You don’t want a “yes” or “no” answer, especially for audio or video. Ask a question in a manner designed to elicit a descriptive answer. It is embarrassing when you look at your notebook after an interview and you see that the answer you wrote down was “no” rather than “I didn’t do anything wrong.”
6. Know when to be the tiger and when to be the fox.
It’s important to gauge the personality of your interview subject and know when to be aggressive, when to be empathetic and when to admit your ignorance. Doing the right thing at the right time can pay off — big time. Doing the wrong thing can ruin an interview.
6. Don’t assume anything.
Ask Ms. Smith how to spell her name. It might be “Smythe.” Ask for job titles and spellings of home towns, spouses and employers’ names (if you are not certain). When possible, it’s good to double-check via a Google search to confirm on their personal or business web sites.
7. Know your subject material and don’t fake it.
You are supposed to be prepared. Remember that. But if you don’t know something, admit it. Don’t say that you’ve read a book — or a report, or an article — if you haven’t. If the interview subject believes you are fudging, it harms your credibility.
8. Don’t let the interview get hijacked.
When your interviewee says “that’s a good question, but the important point is….,” he or she is trying to change the subject and deliver a pre-packaged spin. Make sure to return as soon as possible to the questions you want to ask.
9. Don’t talk too much.
If you have a 15-minute interview, you want almost all of it to come from the mouth of your interview subject. Don’t go off on tangents or monologues. Don’t engage in too much chit chat before you get to your questions, unless you have plenty of time for the interview.
10. Appearances matter.
Look and sound professional. Don’t dress inappropriately or chew gum. Don’t smell of smoke or alcohol. It may sound obvious, but you’d be surprised how many reporters mess up their interview before uttering their first word.
I’m not one of those often-wrong, never-in-doubt Americans who visits a city for a week and decides he knows everything about its history, culture and politics.
That having been said, I do have a few first impressions through the eyes of a China newbie. Here are some random observations of life in Beijing by the numbers:
Number of Beijingers wearing anti-pollution face masks
Number of Beijingers wearing bike helmets
Number of Beijingers who have used hand signals while riding bikes
Number of Beijingers holding a cell phone while biking in traffic
Number of blonde people sighted in Beijing
Number of blonde people sighted in Beijing who are not friends or students of mine
Number of European-origin people seen on the subway
Number of people speaking English on the subway
Number of Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants seen around town
Number of people who have asked me about the Cowboys, Redskins, Eagles, Texans, Ted Cruz, the Tea Party, Mitch McConnell, Nancy Pelosi or Capitol Hill gridlock
Number of students who have asked me about the American government’s lies leading up to the invasion of Iraq
Number of universities in this section of northwest Beijing
Number of Texas on the Potomac alumni now living and working in Beijing
Number of people I’ve met who have worked or studied in Pennsylvania
Number of Texas Aggies I’ve run across. (Gig ’em, Caroline!)
The eagle has landed. I’ve been in Beijing for four days now — long enough to hike a remote section of the Great Wall, sample the best Peking Duck (Beijing Duck? Just plain roast duck?) of my life and explore every nook and cranny of one of the most beautiful college campuses in the world — but not quite long enough to get over jet lag.
Rather than write the traditional “first impressions” story, I’m going to share five of my pleasant discoveries in Beijing and an equal number of things that will take some time to get used to.
1. Tsinghua University is one of the most beautiful in the world. It’s made one of those top ten lists for beautiful campuses, and I can see why. From the magnificent gates to the marvelous and varied sculpture, from the breath-taking canals and lily ponds to the impressive architecture and ivy-covered walls, this is a fine environment for teaching and for learning.
2. The high quality of the faculty. They don’t call it the MIT of China for nothing. The professors here are among the best in the world. The journalism faculty is uniformly excellent. I hope to live up to their very high standards.
3. The high quality of the students. I could tell from the moment I began my new student orientation session last Friday morning. These students are the best and the brightest, not just from China but from around the world. They are smart and they are motivated.
4. I can get around town without too much problem. It is a problem that I don’t speak Chinese. (Yet.) But the Beijing subway — most of which was built for the 2008 Olympics — is modern, efficient, inexpensive and very easy to navigate. Crowded? That’s a given. There are more than 20 million people here in the capital.
5. I can communicate with the outside world. Yes, I heard all of the warnings about the Great Firewall of China. And all the blocked sites. The good news, at least at this point, is that I have been able to communicate with all of my old and new friends with only minor problems.
Things that might take some getting used to
1. A fifth-floor walk-up apartment. On the bright side, I’m getting a lot of aerobic exercise every day.
2. Cold showers for four days. Well, I finally have hot water. Actually, I’ve had it all along but haven’t known how to turn it on. You see, the instruction guide to my apartment is in Chinese and I’m linguistically challenged. It means I also couldn’t figure out how to use the satellite TV. Or the apartment internet. The take-away lesson: Keep taking those Mandarin lessons on the Mango app.
3. Can you believe the way people drive around here? Washington drivers are awful. Drivers in Rome are maniacs. Drivers in Naples view traffic signals as suggestions. Drivers in Beijing are all of that and more. U-turns in the middle of traffic. Left turns from the right lane. Turning right on red without stopping or even looking for pedestrians or bike riders.
And while you’re at it, watch out for the bikes coming at you every which way. And the pedestrians darting across highways and major thoroughfares in the middle of traffic.
4. The parking situation. People park any place they can find a space. Not a parking space. Any old space. They park on sidewalks. They park on pedestrian malls. They park where they want, when they want. Just get out of the way when the car is coming at you.
5. Peanut butter is hard to find. I love Chinese food. I could eat it almost every meal. But I am going through peanut butter withdrawal now. Yes, yes, I’ve been told that you can get peanut butter at Walmart and in European grocery stores in Beijing. But I haven’t gone on a scouting mission yet.
My final White House pool report: Inside the Cabinet Room as President Obama meets with congressional leaders on SyriaPosted: September 3, 2013
On my final day at the Houston Chronicle, I was fortunate enough to have White House pool duty, where I witnessed up close the debate over possible military action against Syria. Here is the pool report I filed to fellow reporters:
In-town Pool Report #1
Meeting with Congressional Leaders, Pool Spray
Tuesday, September 3
With the Obama administration ramping up its efforts to persuade Congress (and the American people) to back a resolution supporting a U.S. military response in Syria, President Obama met with a bipartisan group of 16 lawmakers in the Cabinet Room.
A tight pool got a glimpse inside at the top of the meeting. (Check TV video for more precise quotes and more atmospherics.)
The President was seated between House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, on his left, and House Speaker John Boehner, on his right. Flanking Pelosi were Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, House Majority Whip Eric Cantor, Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Rep. Eliot Engel. Flanking Boehner were National Security Adviser Susan Rice, Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer and Sen. Bob Menendez.
Vice President Joe Biden sat directly across the table from the President. The VP brushed his fingers across his temples and held his hands clased in front of his mouth as the President spoke.
Secretary of State John Kerry, seated at one end of the table next to Rep. Engel, sat with his hands clasped in front of his chin.
White House press secretary Jay Carney stood behind Kerry.
The congressional leaders sat without expression throughout the President’s six minutes of public remarks.
President Obama began speaking at 9:52 a.m. EDT, summarizing his case that Syria “should be held to account” for what he said was clear evidence of chemical weapons use.
“I made a clear decision that America should take action, ” he said.
He then addressed the congressional leaders, calling for hearings and a “prompt vote” on a Syria resolution.
“The key point that I want to emphasize to the American people,” President Obama said in the take-away quote (check transcript for accuracy): “It is proportional, it is limited, it does not involve boots on the ground. This is not Iraq. Thos is not Afghanistan. This is a clear proportional response…”
The President responded to one question, saying the U.S. “will be more effective” if Congress approves a resolution. President Obama said “I’m confident” Congress will act.
The pool was ushered out at 9:58 as the President twice said, “Thank you, guys.”
He then started the meeting by saying “good to see you, Buck” to Rep. Buck McKeon.
Other lawmakers in attendance were Sens. John Cornyn, Bob Corker and Carl Levin, plus Reps. Kevin McCarthy, Ed Royce, Dutch Ruppersberger.
White House reps also included Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, James Clapper, General Martin Dempsey, Rob Nabors, Ben Rhodes, Miguel Rodriguez, Tony Blinken and Jake Sullivan, per pool wranglers.
Some of the lawmakers may speak at the stakeout after the meeting. Open press.
On a personal note, today is my final day with the Houston Chronicle. I am heading to Beijing tomorrow to teach multimedia journalism and run the Global Business Journalism program at Tsinghua University’s graduate school of journalism. It has been an honor and privilege to cover the White House for most of the past 29 years.
I’d like to salute the hard-working White House correspondents who strive for transparency, access and information. And I’d like to wish Godspeed to President Obama, my (very) distant cousin on the Dunham side. My grandfather Barrows Dunham and President Obama were both known as Barry to their schoolmates, but the comparisons end there.
Good luck to all!
I’ve been reading the invaluable journalism handbook “The Bloomberg Way” as I prepare to start my new life as a professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing. One of the many must-remember pieces of advice for journalists (whether seasoned or student) is author Matt Winkler’s suggestion to draw up a “top ten” list of influential people on your beat.
In his chapter on preparation, Winkler instructs the reader to get to know those influential figures on her or his beat.
Since I have covered the U.S. Congress for the past 29 years, I have put together my own list of ten most influential members of the U.S. Senate — as an example for my students and as a discussion topic for my friends in Washington:
1. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell
The Kentucky senator has proven time after time that a minority senator able to command 41 votes can have more influence over the Senate’s agenda than the leader of its majority.
2. Arizona Sen. John McCain
President Obama’s favorite frenemy in the Senate is a key player in almost all legislation to emerge from the Senate — even if his maverick ways rankle colleagues.
3. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid
The feisty Nevada senator controls the Senate’s calendar but not necessarily the outcome.
4. New York Sen. Chuck Schumer
He’s a liberal Democrat able to build partnerships with conservative Republicans. Effective and relentless.
5. Texas Sen. John Cornyn
The second-ranking Senate Republican, an articulate and telegenic lawmaker, is more likely than McConnell to be the public face of the not-so-loyal opposition.
6. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul
it’s rare for a freshman senator to be one of the chamber’s most influential, but the first-term firebrand (and potential 2016 presidential candidate) is a key figure in both the Tea Party and Libertarian wings of the Republican Party.
7. Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin
Like Cornyn, the number two Senate Democrat is a smoother spokesman for his party than the top guy. He’s also a key player on immigration issues.
8. Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker
The former Chattanooga mayor has emerged as a pragmatic conservative and a get-it-done legislator in the mold of legendary Tennessee Sen. Howard Baker.
9. South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham
He might denounce Barack Obama and meet with the president on different issues on the same day. John McCain’s sidekick is a power in his own right.
10. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz
It is exceptionally rare that a first-year senator ranks in the upper echelon in the upper chamber (Hillary Clinton and Phil Gramm are the exceptions that prove the rule). The hard-line Houston conservative has made his mark with an unceasing assault on the Obama administration and a skillful alliance with conservative opinion leaders.