Wednesday, 3 June 2009

The Flight from Stereotyping

The thing that's most on Tom Gjelten's mind as he retreads himself midcareer as a Benton Broadcast Fellow at the University of Chicago is a fear of being stereotyped at National Public Radio. "I have enjoyed covering Central America for NPR," the fortyish boyish looking broadcaster confided at the Swedish diner at the edge of the South Side campus, "but I don't want to be stereotyped as their man in Managua." He's got his wish--so far. This year he's been studying German and political modernization in Eastern Europe with a Polish emigre intellectual, the better to open an NPR Berlin bureau in July when his battery recharging sabbatical is over.

Fear of being stereotyped could well be the theme of this funky deviation from the blander norms of NPR. Although he edited the editorial page of the University of Minnesota daily ("It's the best college daily in the country," he informed me with uncharacteristic hyperbole), he was no journalism major. Anthropology was his passion(he took sixty hours of the stuff, to enrich his American Studies major, that and daily reporting), and the cool commitments of that discipline of culture study is still evident in the way he thinks and broadcasts.

His first job was teaching in a minuscule community school on Northhaven, off the coast of Maine, 100 students K-12. He did fifth and sixth grade. It was out of this "specialty" as an observer of problems in small communities with problems of economic development that he became a free lance consultant. His first published work was "Schooling in Isolated Communities" for the State of Maine in 1978.

Next he did similar studies in Southern Appalachia, still without a mike in hand. But, finally, to expedite his research, he taped the disputants (parents versus an unfeeling superintendent in Letcher, West Virginia) in the kind of hassle that communities with strong ideals and straitened resources have in the fiercely independent coal fields. The super thought the parents' push for security and autonomy was goddam socialism. It made riveting radio, his neophyte broadcast for NPR. Still it hadn't occurred to him to be a broadcaster. He started hiring out to the National Institute of Education in the U.S. and to the OECD in Paris.

The world was his subject, the world of small communities out of the economic mainstream. He made pretty good money working for the big bureaucracies, and did pro bono work for groups without the dough. Finland, Scotland, Sweden, Spain. He spent a couple of weeks in the Outer Hebrides in December 1980, doing pieces on the anti-NATO brouhaha over sub bases. He was veering nearer and nearer to his ultimate profession of choice. NPR's star Central American reporter. By 1983 he was on staff.

At the U, his interest in anthropology had led to a visit to the Honduras coast town of San Juan Tela, a United Fruit outpost. The high school Spanish he polished there stood him in good stead in monolingual America where it's a miracle if a reporter can deal with the indigenes on their own linguistic terms. In 1984 he covered a UN population conference in Mexico City for NPR.

In 1985 he went to Nicaragua for them. In 1986 he set up a bureau in Mexico City. During the recent Panama adventure he was on R & R from being a Benton Broadcast Fellow in Mexico City, enjoying the holidays with his girl, when NPR commanded him to perform in the war zone. Reluctantly he bid goodbye to his sweetie, and you probably heard his dispatches, if not the tone of frustration.

But it's more than the stop everything and go regimen that bugs him at this moment. He doesn't want to be stereotyped as NPR's "man in Central America". With the clout that his track record as a peripatetic reporter has earned him and the prestige that goes with his current academic fellowship, he can pretty much call his next shots. In July, this son of a Mason City, Iowa architect, will open an Eastern European bureau in Berlin. Two things dominate his mind at the moment--mastering German and learning as much as he can from his mentor at the University of Chicago, Adam Przeworski, a specialist on the modernization of polities in Central Europe.

The Benton fellowship is an ideal venue for such retooling. The University of Chicago is no journalism hot spot. They don't even have that major there. It's a place where you dig in to possess difficult intellectual ideas and broaden your perspective for good. In this enterprise he has the good fellowship of eleven other journalists from all over (a woman from Seoul and a man from Beijing are in this seventh "class" of Benton fellows). They meet once a week formally to address current topics with other journalists and academics. They also have glamorous digs in the high rise overlooking the nearby Lake Michigan.

William Benton, the legendary advertising agency founder (Benton and Bowles), supersalesman (Encyclopedia Britannica), senator (from Connecticut), and all around intellectual gadfly, would be proud of this small but potentially powerful "retraining" school in his name. If Gjelten began his professional life as an analyzer of small communities without power, he's now in an even smaller one with great access to the powerful and a commitment to bring the resources of a great university to bear on the daunting agenda that begins with a vengeance among the black underclassers a few blocks away from their privileged sanctuary.

This Norwegian American will make a difference if anybody can. He has the demotic instincts and the elite perspective. Nobody is ever going to corner Tom Gjelten in a stereotypical box. Starting in July you'll be able to make more sense of the turmoil in Eastern Europe because he's pausing to refresh his intellectual batteries in South Chicago.

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