Students taking a news reporting class this year with Beth Knobel, Ph.D., assistant professor of communication and media studies, will receive an insider’s look at the life of a foreign correspondent.
Knobel left her 19-year-career as a news reporter, a CBS News producer and a former chief of the network’s Moscow bureau to teach at Fordham in 2007. But this summer, when the conflict between Georgia and Russia escalated suddenly on Aug. 7, she was called back to “active duty.”
Knobel, who spends her summers in Russia with her husband’s family, was co-writing a guidebook for young journalists with Mike Wallace when CBS asked her to cover the events from its Moscow bureau.
“I’d always kept my press accreditation and last summer I ended up doing one radio report in two months, but this summer obviously it was a critical situation,” she said. “What I thought would be three days turned into three weeks.”
CBS enlisted Knobel to file several daily reports for its radio and television affiliates around the United States on the status of the fighting between the U.S.-backed nation of Georgia and the Russian-backed breakaway region of South Ossetia.
The conflict attracted scores of international press to the area. Knobel collated reports daily from one CBS producer on location in Georgia and a host of other field reporters working for international agencies such as Reuters and the Associated Press. She also relied on independent news agencies and blogs to help develop the whole story.
The biggest challenge to getting the story out, Knobel said, was trying to find balance.
“Both sides had very strong points of view and each hurled strong allegations of genocide and mass killings at one another,” she said. “As journalists, our job is to say what is going on, but it was very difficult, especially during the first few days, to figure out what was truth and what was not. At times, all we could say was that there are two sides to the story, and they do not match.”
While the United States press is accustomed to daily briefings from the Pentagon during military operations, Knobel said that the Kremlin paid little attention to international news organizations wanting information. Attempts to get Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin or President Dmitry Medvedev to sit down one-on-one with CBS during the conflict met with no success. Kremlin spokespeople preferred to report news of the fighting to Russian-controlled media outlets.
In fact, Knobel said it wasn’t until three weeks into the skirmish that the Kremlin offered any western reporters an interview. At that time, the Kremlin allowed five hand-picked stations, including Al Jazeera, a French network, the BBC, CNN and the English-language Russia Today television station, to speak with Medvedev.
“It is a bit frustrating,” Knobel said. “We try to press them for answers but they just tell us, ‘We get plenty of press coverage even if we don’t speak to the western media.’”
“As Russia’s economy improves, it becomes more and more an international powerhouse, one with government control over its news outlets, so the [spokespeople]don’t feel they have to be open,” she explained.
The experience also gave Knobel a jolt of inspiration to teach her TV and radio scriptwriting course this year. “I’m looking forward to explaining to students how to tell a story in 25 seconds, or in six minutes,” she said.
It further acted as a reminder of the importance of the freedom of the press.
“Without a free press [operating in other nations], the Russian people would have gotten a really stilted view of what was happening,” Knobel said.