“It is something very different to see a resistance movement, to be amongst partisans rather than regular soldiers, because it is ordinary people fighting for their land, their homes, their villages, their friends and families, it is the war of the ant, the war of the weak against the strong”, says a distinguished war journalist Chris Kline, who joins teaching staff at Kaunas University of Technology (KTU) this semester.
In the second part of the interview the American veteran war correspondent, former CNN International, ABC News and Fox News reporter shares the unforgettable memories from the war in Chechnya and the unresolved massacre of 400 women in Mexico, and talks about his “baptism of fire” as a war reporter.
He also gives professional advice to future journalists and encourages the students to stay curious about the world and its possibilities.
In your career as a journalist what interview you are most proud of?
I am most proud of my wartime interview in Chechnya with rebel President Aslan Maskhadov. I was literally the last journalist to interview him in person on camera to see him alive. I embarked on a 750km clandestine trip across the Russian held Caucasus months after Grozny had fallen to the Russian Army with an FSB price on my head. I travelled in disguise by car, on foot, on horseback, past 40 Russian checkpoints and even ran across a Russian army base in the middle of the night and to this day it remains the only journey of its kind. I interviewed the rebel leader in the middle of the forest only a few km away from 3000 Russian soldiers that would have happily killed us all and there was just our three-man news team and Maskhadov and about a 60 of his fighters.
Russia propaganda greatly maligned him, he was not a radical Islamist, he was a secularist, a democrat elected in a ballot the OSCE and UN had judged free and fair, a man with an impossible task trying to liberate his people and completely abandoned by the world. My editor at ABC News Nightline told me that my job was to bring back the human face of the Chechen people then, to counter Russian propaganda and I did just that and I will never forget it and to my great sadness almost everyone I came to know there who helped me, died a terrible death in battle or executed or undergoing torture at Russian hands.
And of course that the resistance movement that persists today has largely radicalized is also to me a great tragedy, but most of the Chechen people are still not at all as Moscow would have the world believe they are. And it is something very different to see a resistance movement, to be amongst partisans rather than regular soldiers, because it’s ordinary people fighting for their land, their homes, their villages, their friends and families, it is the war of the ant, the war of the weak against the strong.
I won a national journalism prize in America for this expedition and Ted Koppel one of America’s most famous living foreign affairs broadcast journalists told me when I came back to London to edit my secret documentary for Nightline, that I was “either the foolhardiest or the most courageous journalist” he knew of for having pulled it off. The film and even all my transcripts of the assignment are now in the archives of several American universities and a print version of the story made it onto the front page of one the major British newspapers. I am proud of this but it meant much more than mere praise or a prize, it changed my life forever and it was my baptism of fire as a war reporter, all I had done before as a journalist was preparation, in Chechnya I became a real war reporter, I fulfilled the promise I made as a boy.
What about the interviews from the other side of the world, from America?
The other interview I am almost as proud of was in Cuidad Juarez, Mexico with the state prosecutor there, when I was CNN’s Mexico Bureau Chief. Juarez today is still the locale to have witnessed the worst unresolved case of serial murder of women in the entire Western Hemisphere. There is no other femicide like it and nearly 400 women have been brutally murdered and there is still no resolution and very likely even complicity between Mexico’s organized crime drug cartels and police for the murders. The killing spree was already in full swing when I questioned the state prosecutor. I challenged her lack of professionalism, corruption and dedication to solving the case and gave her no mercy on camera, because I was myself horrified at the slaughter of all those poor women in the desert of Chihuahua, a desert killing ground they still call the “desert of masks” because the truth is still not known and the killers have not been caught.
I met many of the mothers of the victims, so I felt an obligation to them, a moral obligation. The day after CNN aired my interview with the state prosecutor, she resigned and all the Mexican national newspapers wrote articles that my interview had sealed her fate. I wish I could have done more and I want to go back to Jaurez, if it’s possible and Juarez because of the current narco-violence is today now a war zone in all but name. There is a saying in Mexico from over a century ago that this memory reminds me of “poor Mexico so close to the United States, so far away from God.”
What are your goals for teaching at Kaunas University of Technology?
Thinking of the arc of my professional life I’d like to share as much of the hard won knowledge, experience and perspectives I have gained in a positive humanistic way with my students and offer them something they wouldn’t otherwise experience, to expand their horizons in an unconventional way. I hope I will inspire some of them to become future journalists but as my colleague in the Multimedia Engineering Dept. Julijus Jakutavicius says “we are here to teach them how to think for themselves,” and of course this is a core mission.
The communication skills, the analytical skills, the self-confidence, the hard life lessons, the open mindedness, the curiosity, even the moral and philosophical and spiritual implications of what I do and have done, a broader cultural view, turning some orthodox ideas upside down, all transcend journalism, though they are intrinsic to it, so they should be applicable and helpful no matter what path any student I am privileged enough to teach alongside my colleagues, chooses later in professional life.
It makes sense to me as well that I am in the multimedia department because I am a multimedia journalist working with the written word and audio-visual journalism in various different genres, so the department is a natural fit for me. My colleagues have a deep technical knowledge and I have a lot of practical experience outside of the classroom so I also think that we naturally complement one another bridging the gap between the theoretical and actuarial.
I have already taught one class alongside Julijus and it was like a good game of tennis, where we each hit the ball in a different way towards the same objectives. I also think that given my background in international affairs I am also able to introduce subject matter on current events in the outside world that one would normally not expect in a purely technical classroom. As ever I always think of the human element as the most important factor especially in my interaction with the students, where because I am a foreigner and specifically with a very open and forward manner, as is common in my culture as an American, moreover no journalist should be shy and I am not remotely shy, also means my approach is different and I will strive to push students beyond boundaries they felt they couldn’t cross before, because of the natural reserve many Lithuanians have as a cultural trait.
What makes a good journalist?
A journalist at his or her best is at once a generalist able to confidently undertake any subject, a specialist acquiring specific areas of expertise, a diplomat, a negotiator, a communicator, an investigator, a narrator and storyteller, documentarian and witness, a seeker after truth, an expert on debate, a social commentator and observer, a defender of justice and democracy, a voyager and traveller, a student of the human condition and always in the pursuit of greater knowledge and on the quest of new ideas and discovery. Sharing some of that can’t hurt anybody.
What skills you want to develop in your students?
I want to open up my students, not just to themselves and to new knowledge but to the world beyond the classroom and how they perceive themselves in it. And because I remain a working journalist outside of KTU, there is a beneficial symbiosis where my work feeds back into my lectures and it’s not one sided, the interaction with the students also stimulates my own thought process and creativity, so it’s a two-way street as we say in America, a real exchange.
Moreover, KTU now provides me with my intellectual home in Lithuania, it gives me a passport to better understand your culture and your people on a deeper level, and this is a great benefit to me, so I can only return the favour. The head of the Department Armantas Ostreika took a progressive decision in wanting to take me on board as did the Rector of KTU in hiring me, in recognizing that having someone with a strong professional record from a working environment radically different from KTU would add a new dimension to the classroom. I hope I will achieve that and give the students an expanded perspective and knowledge base, as they will do for me.
Have you ever been involved in teaching?
I have trained and mentored both American and British young journalists as well as trained a broadcast newsroom in South Asia, when I advised Tolo Television in Kabul, the leading independent TV network in Afghanistan, so for me KTU is also a new experience as a professional and cultural ambassador. How effective I will be here will be as much a test of my own abilities to myself as anything else I have done around the world, a new environment, a new challenge. And I must say I feel so welcome in the department, even from the administrator, Asta Rimsaite, who goes out of her way to help me always with a smile, that I already feel I have found my home away from home in Lithuania. I feel as if I belong here and I hope it will be a long relationship.
Lastly I’d say where possible one of my objectives in keeping with an intra-disciplinary spirit, will be where possible to also sometimes collaborate with other departments in other faculties, where subject matter or themes makes that a desirable choice, especially in the humanities field. This is only the beginning, we will do a lot together, we can all be proud of, I have no doubt about this. And I have lectured at other top US universities such as Dartmouth and Smith in the Ivy League, but this is the first time I have been formally invited to become a visiting member of a faculty at any institution of higher learning and I accept it as an honour and a compliment and I mean just that, because as people get to know me they will understand better it is not my nature to offer false praise or modesty. I am secure in my identity and my achievements, but I have always understood that learning is a lifelong path and I am here to learn too.
You have been working in CNN, ABC, Fox News. Do you see a job in an international news channel as a possibility to KTU or any other Lithuanian university?
I see no reason why a KTU student should not aspire to join and work at one of the premier US or indeed international news organisations if they indeed aspire to become professional journalists. I would say that learning English to the highest level of proficiency is a vital requirement and after that acquiring a working knowledge of other languages will only increase their ability to further enter the realm of international journalism. I speak four languages and this has been invaluable to me in my work.
Journalism is transforming, as much as our world is and it is an exciting time to be a journalist, in some ways more challenging and dangerous too sometimes, but if it is truly one’s heart felt deep vocation, I have long believed that is well worth the hardships and hard labour it entails to become a professional journalist. It is a marvellous way to interact with the world, to study the world, to immerse oneself in the world and telling the story of the world is a great privilege. I don’t regret one second of my life as a journalist, even in its darkest days, it made me who I am, and anything I have achieved, a future journalist graduating from KTU can also achieve if they are tough enough, determined enough and passionate enough.
What is your advice for future journalists?
A further piece of advice I would give is to study everything, be curious about everything, gain specific knowledge where you excel in a particular area, as I have in all facets of geopolitics and conflict, yours may be different, but close your door to nothing, because ours is an ever more complex world and you never know what you may have to navigate. Lastly, not just because the Multimedia Engineering Dept. is hosting me, I’d say be multi-skilled, because this is the future and the future is already here. A journalist today must excel in every skill set, he or she should be able to work in print, radio and video and photography, so even if you will do some better than others, learn a working knowledge of all these communication and storytelling tools.
Otherwise, don’t be afraid, believe in yourself, set out your objectives, remember that talent without discipline is nothing, so work hard, don’t be lazy, nothing worthwhile in this life comes without hard toil, perseverance and passion, be willing to sweat to reach the summit of your ambitions and perhaps one day you too will become a correspondent at CNN, AJE, the BBC, SKY or France 24 and who knows perhaps you will start your own network. To learn more than I write here, you will just have to come to my class!