The latest edition of PragueCast, NYU’s Prague’s podcast that covers all matter of exciting topics related to the city. Created by NYU Prague students with support from NYU Prague professor and BBC correspondent Rob Cameron, PragueCast is always an interesting listen. The latest edition explores what happens when most of the city is sleeping, discovering Prague at midnight. Have a listen here – https://soundcloud.com/nyupraguecast/midnight.
Tomas Vrba has been teaching literature at NYU Prague since 1999. He studied philosophy at Charles University, but after signing the human rights document Charter 77 in 1977, he had to take menial jobs until the Communist regime collapsed. Since then he has worked as a journalist, editor, and translator. Most recently he translated “Fascism: A Warning,” the latest book of his good friend Madeleine Albright, which is coming out in Czech next month. He also translated her earlier book, Prague Winter, and he is currently chairing the boards of the Forum 2000 Foundation and the Archa Theatre.
How did you start working at NYU Prague?
Jiri Pehe, NYU Prague Director and I knew each other from Forum 2000, and he asked me to teach the literature class, as I had been involved in publishing since 1990. At the time I was wrapping up my time as a journalist (I was editor in chief of the New Presence magazine). Since then, I’ve been teaching here as well for other international programs.
What classes did you initially teach?
Originally I taught two courses at NYU Prague- Modern European Literature and Contemporary Central and East European literature. We were a part of the Russian Slavic department, so we had to have East Europe in the title…. But from the beginning, we all agreed that it would be better to focus on the Central European content. After a few years we realized that it would make more sense to combine the courses. I try to show literature in a larger framework- something between cultural history and literature. I have always argued that a novel can be a good source of history. The last eighty years of Czechoslovak literature have been strongly connected to history and politics.
Do you think the students have changed since you started teaching at NYU Prague?
I can distinguish the two different generations. Today’s students could theoretically be children of the first students I taught. Of course they have different life experiences. Contemporary students read less, but their curiosity is the same as it was twenty years ago.
At the beginning of every semester, I ask the students which countries they have visited – twenty years ago, this was usually their first trip abroad. Now, virtually everyone has been somewhere. Of course you have a different experience when it’s your first time abroad.
What is one of your strongest memories from your class?
Some of my top moments in class have been during class debates. Czech students usually have read more, but they are shy to speak – here it’s the opposite.
I remember one student who wasn’t a big reader – actually he admitted that he had never read a novel – so I asked him to read one. He was studying hotel management and he wrote an excellent paper about I Served the King of England [Bohumil Hrabal’s novel set in a hotel] which he divided in two parts. One part was about the reader’s experience, and the other part was an analysis of the organization of the hotel in the novel – the student really understood and appreciated how well it was organized in the 1920s.
What do you think the students get out of coming to Prague?
I always ask the students to write about their Prague experiences- you can do that in a literature class – and I find out how they’ve discovered their individual Pragues. Most are soon fed up with the tourist industry, and they discover things outside of the center, in the suburbs where they live – Holesovice, Vinohrady. For many of them Prague is quite a romantic and mysterious experience.
Do you think students today are as interested in literature as they were 20 years ago?
Originally I had 10-15 students in my class. Now, sometimes I won’t teach for a semester because there isn’t enough interest. Generally, I am afraid that there is something dangerous happening globally. Courses in the humanities are more and more limited even at the top universities. Oxford and Cambridge have started offering management courses in recent years.
You have recently been involved in projects connected to the 40th anniversary of Charter 77 – curating exhibitions that have even toured to the USA. Do you find that young people are interested in topics relating to the former Communist regime?
Yes, I saw a lot of interest last year during the 40-year anniversary events connected to 1977 – and this year, I see a lot of interest in the 50-year anniversary of the Prague spring and the Soviet invasion in Prague. Ten years ago, my daughter said to me there’s nothing to protest against! Well, now there is a lot- and young people are active in elections, they are engaged. Ten years ago, the world looked all right – now, it’s gone crazy.
What has meant the most to you as an NYU Prague professor?
Last year I was invited to a conference at the Czech and Slovak museum in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where I attended a panel of American professors of Czech language and literature. During the introductions, one of the scholars on the panel said that she was there because of Professor Vrba, who she studied with in Prague. That was nice.
The best recompense for me has always been looking at half a dozen, a dozen pairs of bright eyes. That’s still true – NYU students are very motivated.
Around 5,000 students have spent a semester at NYU Prague over the past 20 years. We contacted a few to find out how their time in Prague affected the trajectory of their lives. Here are their stories:
Seventeen years ago, I was enjoying similar brightly-colored fall leaves while hiking amid castles, the company of new friends and inspiring lectures at NYU in Prague. That fall provided several opportunities that have influenced my life. I heard the very inspiring activist and late President Vaclav Havel, together with the Dalai Lama and other leaders speak at Forum 2000. I learned of the plight of Romani people and went on to research their access to education. Studying women’s rights in transition in post-socialist contexts, as well as the Czech Republic’s EU Accession process provided a useful foundation for my future work.
Perhaps the most life-altering opportunity that studying in Prague provided was proximity to Prishtina. Seventeen years ago this month, I begged my parents for what some may consider an unusual birthday present: a plane ticket to see Kosovo’s first democratic elections. I was fascinated by the United Nation’s experiment in governing post-war Kosovo. If I had not been in Prague, I would not have had such a unique opportunity to witness a (not-yet-recognized) country’s first elections.
After completing my BA, I persistently sought to return to Kosovo. Eventually, I secured a position at a local civil society organization (CSO), supported by the East-West Management Institute (EWMI) with funds from USAID, to strengthen Kosovo CSOs’ advocacy capacities. Since then, I have continued consulting for EWMI, among others, in various civil society support initiatives worldwide.
The vast majority of my last 16 years has been spent with the Kosovo Women’s Network, a network of 138 diverse women’s groups working to further women’s rights. As Program Director / Lead Researcher, I have (co)authored 24 publications on issues related to gender equality, several of which have informed new laws and policies in Kosovo’s state-building process.
In my work, I regularly have drawn from my knowledge gained in Prague, particularly in advocating for Kosovo’s EU Accession process to attend to the needs of both women and men; writing about the position of women in post-socialist Kosovo; and volunteering for Roma rights organizations.
I’m often asked how I first came to Kosovo, and the story always starts with, “I was studying abroad at NYU in Prague…”
Nicole Farnsworth is the program director and lead researcher at the Kosovo Women’s Network.
On a recent research trip to Prague, I returned to the neighborhood where many of us lived during our semester in fall of 2004. I was immediately relieved to discover that our nightly hangout B-52 was exactly as we’d left it, still weirdly decorated with airplane fuselage and parachutes. Nearby Krymska street is a different story. The Shakespeare a Synové bookshop has been replaced with the ultrahip Café v Lese, and the neighborhood is now teeming with
Generation Zed backpackers. Nearby, Žižkov still has its edge, but the rest of Prague feels much more polished these days. The hypercapitalist mall at Nový Smíchov has a 4-D movie theater. Sometimes I feel like I’m in Austria.
But I still can’t let go of Prague. Or is it the other way around? “Prague won’t let you go, the little mother has claws,” wrote the guy on all those souvenir t-shirts. Officially, the reason I return so often is because I’m writing a book about American and Czech writers during the Cold War. The seeds for this project were actually planted at NYU in Prague in 2004, in seminars taught by Tomáš Vrba and Jan Urban. At the time, I had no idea that my semester in Prague would change the trajectory of my life. Now I’m a professor at Arizona State University, which means I have a great excuse to escape the air-conditioned nightmare that is Phoenix in the summertime. But if I’m honest, the book is just an excuse. Prague is where I go to escape what Philip Roth called the “indigenous American berserk.” Prague is where I go to disappear.
Some things don’t change. In 2004, we all stayed up into the early hours to watch two major American events: the ALCS between the Yankees and the Red Sox and the election between John Kerry and George W. Bush. (Both my teams lost.) As I write this, the Yankees and Red Sox are about to face off in the playoffs for the first time since 2004. And we’ve got another election coming up on November 6th, which also happens to fall on the due date of my first child. Back in 2004, I remember buying two books at the bookshop on Krymska: The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick and The Plot Against America by Philip Roth. Maybe my twenty-year-old self was on to something. It’s not too late to teach my future kid to speak Czech.
Brian Goodman got his PhD in American Studies from Harvard University. He is an assistant professor in the Department of English at the Arizona State University and is writing a book about the exchange of literature and culture between the USA and Czechoslovakia during the Cold War.
As a junior at NYU, I studied abroad in Prague. My initial interest in studying there was my mother’s Czech heritage — she grew up in a farming community of Oklahoma Czechs and my grandmother had preserved some knowledge of the language. I fell in love with the city of Prague, and its art and literature, the history of which had never been a subject of study back in the United States. Desiring to learn more, I continued to study Czech language, literature, and visual culture at the MA level at Columbia, and then for my PhD at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. I continue to travel to Prague ever year, and even had the opportunity in 2009-2010 to return to NYU in Prague as an employee! The friends on the fabulous staff there are still some of my closest in Prague.
Studying at a big university like NYU, I relished the more intimate environment of the Prague campus, and my experience there as an undergraduate has had an indelible mark on my life and career since.
Meghan Forbes earned a PhD from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor with dissertation about the avant-garde in interwar Prague and Brno. She is now at the Museum of Modern Art in New York as a Contemporary and Modern Art Perspectives Fellow for Central and Eastern Europe.
Callum Voge (Fall, 2012)
As a student of international politics, I was intellectually attracted to the Czech Republic’s unique political history and transition to democracy. Having grown up in China, I especially wanted to learn about the differing experiences of communism in China and in Europe.
While at NYU Prague, I interned at a non-profit media organization called Project Syndicate where I produced content for the organization’s social media channels and conducted research on international media markets. After graduating from NYU, I had the opportunity to return to Project Syndicate for a full time position. I have now been working at Project Syndicate for four years and manage the organization’s external media partnerships in 50 countries.
Prague has always been a special place to me. The concentration of non-profit institutions and the large foreign community in Prague creates a unique environment – at times Prague feels like a very local city while at other times very global. Prague’s increasing internationalization over the past years has made it an exciting place to live. You only need to look at the city’s food scene to see the change. When I first moved from New York I could only dream of the restaurant diversity that I had known. Now I can easily have Indonesian food one night, Venezuelan another, and Georgian the next. The feeling that Prague is moving in the right direction makes it an exciting time to be here.
Callum Voge is the Senior Global Relations Manager at Project Syndicate, where he is also the internship mentor to current NYU Prague students.
Kieran Kesner (Spring, 2013)
It wasn’t the first time I visited Prague and that’s probably why I decided to return. Prague represents the crossroads between the quintessential Western European study abroad experience and the Eastern European culture, which entwined with my own family history, so I was eager to explore.
Studying in Prague was as much a period of self-realization as it was an opportunity to live abroad and immerse myself in a different culture. It was at this intersection that I began to explore what inspired me most as a photographer, learning about and sharing other peoples stories. While studying abroad, I found those stories in the often misunderstood and much maligned Roma people, known to the outside world as Gypsies. Through significant research on my own and mentorship from local NYU professor, Ivana Dolezalova, I began traveling around the country on weekends and school vacations to spend time with Roma and experience first hand, their rich culture, and kind generosity. While prejudice and discrimination is a centuries-old narrative for the Roma, my personal experience strongly confronted the oppressive counter-narrative I was hearing. It was through this experience that I learned how the camera can provide a unique opportunity to interact and connect with people, often despite language barriers, that few other mediums share.
Today, I continue to work full time as a photojournalist and photographer/videographer for newspapers and magazines around the world as well as for commercial, corporate, non-profit and lifestyle brands. In the last year alone, I have traveled to over 20 countries for work assignments, feeding off a spark that began when I chose to study at NYU Prague, and which I hope will continue for many years to come.
Kieran Kesner is an award-winning photographer, videographer and visual storyteller based in Boston. His work has been published in numerous publications including the Boston Globe, The New Yorker, the Guardian, and the Wall Street Journal.
You might remember the band “With Snack” which performed regularly in the Osadni basement during the spring 2014 semester. Former music students Aviv Goldgeier, Matti Dunietz, and Evan Lane are still in the progressive R&B band, which has been renamed Valipala and is based in New York City. They released their debut digital album, Mango City in 2017 (available at https://valipala.bandcamp.com/album/mango-city) and are releasing a new single on October 26, 2018.
One of the most well-known NYU Prague alumni is Ari Leff (Spring 2015)- now known as Lauv – a singer/songwriter whose single I Like Me Better has had over 100 million views on Youtube. Last June he was ranked as number one on Billboard’s Emerging Artists chart.
Another NYU Prague celebrity is Camila Mendes (Fall 2014), an actress who plays Veronica Lodge in the TV teen drama Riverdale, for which she won the she won the Teen Choice awards in 2017. She recently acted in the comedy film The Stand In, to be released in 2019.
Christina Ng (Spring 2009) is an editorial producer for CBS news, where she’s been employed since 2011. She’s also worked for CBS as a reporter and as assistant to anchor Diane Sawyer.
Hunter Nolan, (Spring 2012), was the cinematographer on Before the Flood, a climate change documentary directed by Fisher Stevens, produced by Leonardo DiCaprio and executive produced by Martin Scorsese. He also worked on the award winning documentaries Before the Flood, Sky Ladder and Racing Extinction.
In 2017, Kim Pham (Spring 2012 ) – entrepreneur and founder of Oxtale – was recognized as a Forbes 30 under 30 honoree for her work at Frontline, building VC platforms.
Allan Peng (Spring, 2016), who was active in the PragueCast and Prague Wandering blog, is now a producer at CBS News Radio, working on an upcoming podcast about polling, as well as other digital audio content.
Melanie Weisner, who studied vocal performance at NYU Prague in 2006, is now one of the top American female poker players. As of 2016, Weisner is ranked 38th on the Women’s All Time tournament money list.
Three CDs that were initiated and coordinated by NYU Prague professor and pianist Patricia Goodson were recently released; they all also include her solo performances.
Macbeth and Other Orchestral Works by Geraldine Mucha was released by Arco Diva in November, and commemorates the centenary of Scottish composer Geraldine Mucha’s birth. Mucha – married to the son of the Art Nouveau artist Alphones Mucha – moved to Prague after WWII with her husband. As well as composing in Prague, she did much to protect her father-in-law’s supposed “bourgeois” work and legacy under the oppressive Communist regime. Patricia Goodson became friends with Geraldine Mucha (who lived to be 95) at the end of her life and has continued to promote her work after her death. This pieces on this album were performed by Patricia with the the Hradec Králové Philharmonic and Irena Troupová. MusicWeb International writes that “American pianist Patricia Goodson plays commendably in both the concerto and the variations; she is a strong reason for the success of this disc, as is the contribution of the Hradec Králové Philharmonic Orchestra under their astute director Andreas Sebastian Weiser in a well-engineered recording.”
Later this year, the same label will release a CD of Geraldine Mucha’s chamber music which will include solo performances by Patricia.
Patricia also organized a CD devoted to chamber works by New Zealand composer Dame Gillian Karawe Whitehead (released in March by the New Zealand label Rattle Records), which jumped to number 2 on the New Zealand classical charts shortly after its release. It features the Stamic Quartet, oboist Vilém Veverka and Patricia on the piano; there will be a launch at the New Zealand Embassy in September. The pieces were performed in Berlin and Prague before they were recorded at Studio HAMU. Whitehead is one of the most acclaimed composers from the Australia/New Zealand region; in 2008 she was given the title of Dame for her contributions to music in New Zealand.
To listen to some pieces from the albums, please go to http://www.patriciagoodson.com
NYU Prague professor Michal Rataj also has a new CD, Sentenceless-Sentence, which was released in January, 2018. It consists of electro-acoustic pieces composed during 2013 – 2017 and consists of a rich variety of sound palettes and emotional worlds. They range from acousmatic music through mixed forms towards text-sound performance. On April 11 Michal presented the album and his work to our students at a public concert at NYU Prague. You can here it on: https://michalrataj.bandcamp.com/album/sentenceless-sentence
Several of Rataj’s compositions will be performed this spring. On April 28, The Long Sentence, will be performed at UC Santa Cruz, featuring the San Francisco based award-winning Del Sol Quartet and Ben Leeds Carson on piano. On May 5-7, Temporis-concerto will have its US premiere performed by the Santa Rosa Symphony, conducted by Bruno Ferrandis. Czechs can hear his music on May 25 at a concert called Škrábanice / Scribbles in Nachod as part of the Czech Museum Nights.
Michal Rataj is a composer, performer, sound designer whose work consists mainly of electro-acoustic and chamber/orchestral instrumental music. His work has been performed throughout Europe and in the USA, and he has composed soundtracks to numerous documentary and feature films and TV series. Later this year viewers can hear his music in two Czech films- Jan Palach (by Eva Kantourkova and Robert Sedlacek) and Pivnica/The Cellar directed by Igor Voloshin.
Like Czech history, Mark Slouka’s life has been accentuated by the number 8. In 1948, his parents escaped from Communist Czechoslovakia. Ten years later, in 1958, he was born into a “Czech speaking ghetto in Queens, NY.” The family first returned to Prague on a visit in 1968, and in 2018, Mark and his family made a permanent move to Prague.
NYU Prague has benefitted from this move – Mark has launched a creative writing workshop open to all students and staff. “I teach how writers read – beginning writers need to learn to read their own work critically,” explains Mark. “And we talk about the use of silence- what is left out of an opening is what brings a reader in.”
Mark Slouka has published eight books and is currently working on the ninth. His work treads the line between fiction and nonfiction, often delving into aspects of his family’s Czech history. His latest book, Nobody’s Son: A Memoir is about his parents’ escape from Czechoslovakia and how their lives were affected by memories of betrayal. His novel Visible Worlds – based on his mother’s complicated past- was a finalist for the British Book Awards. His short stories have been selected for the anthologies of Best American Short Stories and the Pen/O’Henry Prize Stories. In June, a Czech translation of Nobody’s Son will be released.
“One of the reasons I am here is because my books have always been bicultural – they walk the line between languages, culture, histories, between the present and the weight of the past.
Having spent my life in the States it made sense to connect to that other half of me. It’s always seeped into my life. I am fascinated by the weight of history on the present. What city is better for that than Prague?”
Mark’s first language was Czech, and he has had a “lifelong affair with the language, the culture, with palacinky [crepes] and svickova [creamy beef stew].” Despite the fact that he was born and lived in New York, he remembers hearing English for the first time when he was five and was surprised that the speakers didn’t understand Czech.
Until now, seven months was the longest time he had spent in Prague – he was here on on sabbatical in 2003 – but he felt like it was inevitable that he would come back. When he retired from the University of Chicago in 2008, he decided to try to focus more on writing. Moving to Prague seemed to make sense. “I love getting away from the car culture – it’s so isolating. In Prague, people sit in pubs and talk to one another.”
NYU Prague will host a reading of his work in the beginning of the fall semester.
- Why has migration theme become such a powerful instrument for today´s populists and nationalists?
- Does this represent a new trend or is it rather a revival of similar stereotypes from the 20th century?
- What should be an appropriate response of democratic societies?
- How does this situation vary in different European countries and in the United States?
- Why is there so much fear and hostility towards migrants and refugees in the Central European countries which are not typical targets of migration?
Regina Polak, University of Vienna
Tomáš Lindner, Respekt
Martina Mašková, Czech Radio
Salim Murad, New York University Prague
Jiří Pehe, Director of New York University Prague
Rosie Johnston is a high-energy PhD student who is spending this year in Prague researching 1950s Czechoslovak radio propaganda. A few months ago, she and Czech TV journalist Tereza Willoughby were talking about how the world has changed in the age of new media. But their conversation made both of them start to wonder just how much politics and the manipulation of media really have really changed since the early days of radio. “People were worried about radio as a new technology in 30s and 40s. I’m not sure if we are in a historically unique era,” explains Rosie.
Normally a conversation like this would be over once the bill was paid in the cafe. But Rosie, who has organized several conferences at NYU Prague, shared it with Associate Director Thea Favaloro, and together they decided to keep it going with a 7-part talk series aimed at Czech and American students.
“We wanted to create a forum where academics would talk with people from outside the Ivory Tower – journalists, novelists, film makers, Youtubers,” explained Rosie. “This is a project about dialogue, speaking across generations, across nationalities.” Because all of the lectures are about one theme, the hope is that people will attend on a regular basis – sharing ideas, making contacts. The series is designed to attract NYU Prague faculty – several of whom are on the panels – and their students, as well as young people from the Prague community.
The first session featured seasoned academic and NYU Prague Director Jiri Pehe who met with Karel Kovar (“Kovy”), the most popular Czech vlogger who has become a political commentator for the youngest generation. Dinah Spritzer, a journalist teaching international reporting at NYU Prague, moderated the event.
Academics from universities outside the Czech Republic are also participating. Carolyn Birdsall from the University of Amsterdam will talk about soundscapes of Nazi Germany; she’ll be joined by David Vaughan, a journalist and author of a book about the failure of Czech Radio to counter Hitler’s propaganda in 1938. Dean Vuletic – professor at the University of Vienna who spent a semester at NYU Prague as a graduate student in 2003 – will talk about pop music’s effect on the politics of postwar Europe. Keynote speaker Kathryn Cramer Brownell from Purdue University will have the final lecture about the rise of the celebrity politician, outlined in her book Showbiz Politics: Hollywood in American Politics.
The series is also partnering with One World, Prague’s most popular film documentary festival. Kim Longinotto, award-winning British film director well known for her advocacy of women’s rights, will present her latest film, Dreamcatcher, about the trafficking of women in Chicago. The film will be followed by a Q&A, in which Longinotto will speak about how documentary film can do activist work.
So far, the series has attracted wide interest from an audience of varied backgrounds. “At the first discussion with Jiri Pehe and Kovy, the best question came from someone about 12 years old who asked whether Zeman or Babis is more of a threat to democracy… Despite all discussions of generational divide, we are all worried about the same things”.
New Media….Old Tricks Series
January 30, 17:00 Political Commentary Today – Jiří Pehe & Kovy
February 6, 17:00 – The Migrant Crisis in the European Press – Salim Murad
February 27, 17:00 – Radio and Nazism – Carolyn Birdsall & David Vaughan
March 6, 19:45 – Documentary as Activism – Film Screening + Discussion (in partnership with One World Festival): Kim Longinotto
April 10, 17:00 – Media & Constitutional Democracy – Discussion: Jiří Přibáň
April 17, 17:00 – The Politics of Eurovision – Dean Vuletic
May 9, 17:00 – Showbiz Politics – Kathryn Cramer Brownell
Many of us have heard about the vogue of Paris and France after the First World War, but few know about the exodus to Moscow and the Soviet Union in the 1920s and 1930s, or the particular appeal of revolutionary Russia to American women in revolt. In fact, by the early 1930s, so many “American girls” had come “barging into the Red capital” in search of jobs, adventures, or husbands, that news articles were being published on the subject. This talk will provide an overview of American women’s love affair with Russia from 1905 to 1945: from their admiration and empathy for the female revolutionaries who challenged the Czar; to their attempts to re-envision domestic life, romantic relationships, and work using Soviet models; to their efforts to embody and perform revolutionary selves in a context supposedly free of racism and anti-Semitism. A century after the Russian Revolution, what does the forgotten story of “American Girls in Red Russia” tell us about where we’ve been and who we are now?
Two years ago, NYU Prague Associate Director Thea Favaloro joined forces with several other study abroad organizations to create a more formal network. They founded the Association of American University Programs in the Czech Republic (AAUPCZ), which currently is made up of 8 member organizations. In 2017, AAUPCZ joined the European Association of Study Abroad Programs.
“The association provides a forum where we talk about experiences, discuss issues that affect us all, and share resources,” explained Thea Favaloro.
The impetus for creating AAUPCZ was because of issues relating to visas – staff from many study abroad organizions were struggling with changing and unclear regulations about Czech student visas. “We realized that if we were to act collectively, it would give us a stronger voice with local authorities,” said Favaloro.
Since then, the organization has explored more ways to become stronger by working together.
This fall they launched a series of diversity training sessions for staff from all member organizations. In December, NYU Prague hosted a session on LGBTQ for staff from all organizations. A transgender American student from the CIEE study abroad program shared her experiences as a student in Prague. Thea Favaloro spoke about NYU Prague’s resources for LGBTQ students, and Kim Strozewski from CET gave a presentation about what administrators should be aware of when working LGBTQ students abroad. The next training session in the series will focus on issues of race and privilege.
Journalists, scholars, activists, politicians, librarians, students all came together from November 2-4 to debate how to combat fake news at the conference Media in the Post-Truth World: The New Marketplace of (Dis)information.
Speakers from sixteen countries – many from post-Communist countries seeing the rise of right-wing extremism in government– brought their different takes on how fake news is playing out in their countries. The conference was organized as part of the Prague Media Point, an annual event dedicated to discussing the changing media.
Discussion topics included the role of traditional media and the spread of fake news. On this subject, Ute Schaeffer from the Deutsche Welle Academy said: “As journalists we have to stop finding excuses why not to react in the face of fake news! We have to offer inspirational stories to the public.” Maranke Wieringa from Utrecht University added that it is often politicians themselves who spread false information to legitimize their policies: “The problem isn’t that politicians don’t read traditional news, but that they ignore it.”
Russia expert Mark Galeotti and leading sinologist Martin Hála discussed the spread of state propaganda. Martin Hála argued that while Russians may attempt to delegitimize the Western narrative, they lack a competitive strategy or ideology. Chinese propaganda, on the other hand, is both better-funded and more strategic, offering a well-thought-out Chinese alternative to the ‘decaying’ Western model.
What are some ways journalists can try to regain credibility in the current climate and untangle the web of misinformation? The conference focused on practical solutions, not only scholarly discussion, featuring presentations of successful projects that focus on enhancing media literacy and validating facts. IREX introduced a project that has sought to increase media literacy in Ukraine. “It does not matter what information we receive, but how we receive it,” said project director Mehri Karyadgyyeva. Matus Kostolny from Dennik N, a successful independent, readership-funded Slovak online newspaper,declared: “Should journalists become activists? Yes, if we are defending democracy!” “The conference took us out of our academic bubbles,” said NYU Prague Assistant Director for Academic Affairs Vanda Thorne.
Aurora Wallace, Director of Undergraduate Studies at NYU Steinhardt’s Department of Media, Culture, and Communication, spoke about fake news in a historical context, noting its origins with the HG Wells 1938 radio show War of the Worlds. Sarphan Uzunoglu from Kadir Has Universitesi in Istanbul noted that ‘Post-truth’ is nothing new, lying is a part of politics; in polarized communities it is a great industry.”
The masterminds of the conference are Jakub Klepal from Keynote and Jeremy Druker, NYU Prague faculty member and founder of Transitions, an NGO established to strengthen the news media in post-Communist countries. „We live in an era of relativizing the truth and informational chaos,” notes Klepal. “ Independent, quality and investigative journalism must survive because it is one of the pillars of liberal democracy. For our future, it is essential that we do not cease to seek the truth, even though we are often lost in misinformation and fake news; otherwise, we will end up in chaos and passivity.”
The conference was organized by Transitions and Keynote, with the support of NYU Prague, the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung Prague, the Representation of the European Commission in the Czech Republic, Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany in Prague, Open Society Fund Prague and the Institute of Communication Studies and Journalism at Charles University.