American foreign correspondent Nick Schifrin, currently a special correspondent at PBS NewsHour, recently began a visiting fellowship for the second consecutive year at the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service.
Schifrin made his first visit to campus on Monday, September 11, delivering a public program – “Unwrapping the Russian Riddle” – and teaching an off-the-record class with students on Russia.
Recently, Schifrin offered an inside look at Russia and President Vladimir Putin’s influence with the week-long PBS NewsHour series “Inside Putin’s Russia.” Schifrin and producer Zach Fannin traveled to more than a dozen cities and conducted 40 interviews while reporting on Russian identity, propaganda, and opposition, among a range of other topics.
Before his public program and session with students on September 11, Schifrin answered questions about his experiences with the Clinton School and how best to follow today’s busy news cycle.
What were your first thoughts when Dean Rutherford approached you about a fellowship?
I had never done a fellowship, per se. I had taught a little bit and spoken a little bit, but never combined the two at an academic institution. I think that is what Dean Rutherford approached me about – the idea of having a place where I could go and speak to students and the local community, and have the chance to mentor students. That’s what I focused on last year. We did four events on four different topics – four different foreign policy challenges – and held a class on each. I hope my presence here gives students the ability to think about foreign policy through someone who has experienced what was going on out there. Not from an academic perspective, but more from a practitioner’s perspective.
We combined that with as much mentorship that I could do. I would meet with many students and talk with them about what they were hoping to do, how I could help them, and I hope that I helped them individually. It was my desire to be in an academic setting, give students something new, and give them a little personal guidance from someone they had not necessarily had a lot of exposure to.
How would you describe your average seminar?
I had prepared a combination of power point slides making points I wanted to make, inviting guests to speak to the students, and then my own pontifications, I suppose. They were all off the record, which meant they were designed to be free flowing, and they were designed to be honest. Whether it was from the ambassador to Pakistan at the time, from myself, or other journalists I invited, I wanted to be able to give the students an unvarnished notion of what life was like in the countries I had worked, and where perhaps they might be considering for their international projects.
It was relatively structured, actually. I think today’s lecture on Russia will be less structured, because Russia is something that everybody wants to ask so many questions about. I will play some of the videos we created in Russia and we will talk about them. But the general idea was to not only expose the students to me, but to someone like other journalists and/or diplomats, who could inform their thinking about a certain subject.
Was it an easy decision to come back for a second year?
Of course. Dean Rutherford has been very supportive and very encouraging, and the students have been rewarding for me. I hope I’ve been able to give them some insight. As long as I am able, I will certainly continue to come back.
Have your seminars or lecture style changed since you started last year?
I don’t think they have, actually. I suppose I come in today knowing what students will want or won’t want a little more than I did a year ago. For example, I think the Russia conversation needs less structure because I think a lot of people are going to ask a lot of questions. But no, that hasn’t changed. I expected a student body that was interesting and interested, and that’s what I found. I expect a lot of questions about why I do what I do and what it is I saw, and I try to answer those. Hopefully I will continue to do that for this next class.
How do you follow the news?
It is almost impossible to stay on top of it, I would say. There is a school of thought that I still adhere to, that you read – whether on your phone, tablet, computer, or on paper – the newspapers cover to cover, or at least as much as you can. I believe that you see more if you do it that way. The experience of reading a newspaper is still quite nice, I think. There is nothing that will replace that.
But the reality of course is that few people subscribe to the newspaper who are my age or younger. Everyone is on apps, or tablets, or computers, and the algorithms have already kicked in. So, the apps already know what stories you like or don’t like and they point you toward those. There is a disadvantage in reading newspapers electronically that you just can’t get around.
That said, there is nothing wrong with opening up your phone and reading The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, or whatever. I still believe that there are brands out there that are required reading, and then beyond those, there is the wealth of Twitter and aggregators and whatnot that you can create for yourself. In general, I try and consume some audio in the morning and then as much text as I can.
Do you subscribe to multiple newspapers?
Yes. The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal, I think, are the big three that most people read, and are going to be invaluable every day. Things like the FT (Financial Times) and The Economist are also pretty important. The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and websites like War on the Rocks are great for anyone interested in war and conflict. When it comes to broadcast, PBS NewsHour obviously, but beyond that, it is much more about what I have time for.
For busy college and graduate students, what other advice do you have on how best to follow the news?
Have some brand loyalty. Don’t only rely on your Facebook and Twitter feeds. I understand people who have no brand loyalty because they don’t think it is necessary, but I do believe that, like reading a series of books, reading a newspaper every day or going back to the same site every day provides more perspective than just finding random stories. I think you will probably have a better sense of the ebbs and flows of our current affairs if you tend to read the same outlets on a regular basis. I am not saying you must subscribe to The New York Times or whichever newspaper you prefer, but trying to read an outlet regularly will give you a little more perspective than if you read nothing regularly.
Is there anything else about this experience with the Clinton School that stands out thus far?
What Dean Rutherford and I talked about originally, and what I hope is still the case, is that as especially first-year students think about their assignments that will bring them overseas, I hope to expose them to different parts of the world and give them a realistic sense of how journalism works, how foreign policy gets created, and the interaction between the two in different parts of the world. I hope that even my small seminars will give them some perspective as they go about deciding where they are going to work overseas, or what their capstone is going to be. I think that would provide a different voice and a different lens through which to learn about the world and decide where they are going to go.