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Stanford Report, January 23, 2002

Award honors journalist's work in Asia


One of the things Stanley Karnow is proudest of is having been placed on President Richard Nixon's "Enemies List." It ranks right up with receiving the 1990 Pulitzer Prize for In Our Image: America's Empire in the Philippines and the Shorenstein Award -- which Karnow received Thursday for his work in helping U.S. readers understand the complexities of Asia.

Stanley Karnow Photo: L.A. Cicero

Karnow, whose frontline reporting has appeared in publications such as Time and the Washington Post, is the first recipient of the award, which is being bestowed jointly by the Shorenstein Forum for Asia-Pacific Studies at Stanford and the Shorenstein Center for Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard. Walter Shorenstein, who made opening remarks at last week's ceremony, established the award to further greater understanding between the United States and Asia. Presenting the award to Karnow were Russell Hancock, director of Stanford's Shorenstein Forum, and Alex Jones, director of Harvard's Shorenstein Center.

Karnow has won great respect from his peers for his independence, thoughtful writing and knack for being in the right place at the right time. "Stanley Karnow keeps popping up in so many of the historical hotspots in the last half-century that his only rival is Woody Allen's Zelig," said David Greenway, former editorial page editor of the Boston Globe and a member of the panel that chose Karnow for the award. "And Zelig isn't a journalist."

Karnow was already a legend, Greenway said, when he arrived in Southeast Asia for the first time. "He was better informed than anyone else and had sources we only dreamed of."

After receiving the award, Karnow regaled the more than 100 audience members with an anecdote-filled lecture titled, "Asias I Have Known." Karnow, who accepted his peers' praise as a "journalist of the old school" who always wore a coat and tie even in the tropical heat, spoke about how he had to learn to observe local courtesies such as not greeting people in Thailand with a handshake. He shared stories about locals who had become his friends. He recalled how the only Vietnamese staff reporter for Time during the war reconciled working for an American magazine and being a Viet Cong informant, and also, less seriously, how Chiang Kai-shek's false teeth clacked as he railed on about reconquering China.

Karnow's career began in Paris in 1950. After stints in North Africa and Hong Kong, he found himself in Saigon in 1968 for the Tet offensive and covered the Vietnam War until its conclusion. Despite Nixon's attempt to keep Karnow from accompanying him to China -- the president drew a line through Karnow's name on the press list and wrote "Under no circumstances" in the margin -- Karnow still managed to make the trip.

"Asia gets into your blood, your psyche," he said. "It was a perpetual excitement about its diversity." One of the keys to understanding Asia, he said, was to understand its "difference" -- not only in the ways the West stereotypically finds the East inscrutable, but in how northern China differs from southern China, how Koreans still smart over the Japanese occupation, and how the Philippines boasts eight languages and 80 dialects. Karnow also described the way Asia is hurtling into the future and still holding on to traditional practices like feng shui in Hong Kong or arranged marriages in India.

When covering Asia, he said, "you can be a specialist, but not an expert."

In his long career, Karnow said he has noticed a change in the way the American public pays attention to world news. Young people these days, his younger son included, he said, seem to be more interested in Asia than his generation. "When I graduated from college, everybody was thinking abroad to Europe," he said.

Journalists who attended the awards ceremony on Thursday night and a panel discussion on Friday morning appreciated hearing Karnow speak. Claudia Kalb, a Knight fellow who has worked in and studied Southeast Asia, said that often journalists are so intent on working on their own stories that they do not get a chance to learn from each other. "To be able to have the opportunity to listen to the experience and intelligence of the older generation of journalists is incredible, interesting and instructive," she said.

Despite the accolades, Karnow remains humble. His advice to reporters, especially foreign correspondents, was the advice Harold Ross, once editor of The New Yorker, gave to his reporters. "Don't tell me what you think," Ross said. "Tell me what they think."

"It's a craft," Karnow said of journalism. "We're like guys building cabinets."