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NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports on Bosnia and pasta

STANFORD -- Sylvia Poggioli can't remember all the awards she's won for her reporting on the war in Bosnia, but she will never forget the faces she's seen and the heart-rending stories she's heard.

"It was the most draining, the most difficult story I've ever done," Poggioli said of the report that won last year's National Women's Political Caucus/Radcliffe College EMMA Award for her National Public Radio (NPR) broadcast titled "War in Bosnia: Women's Bodies Used as Battlefields."

"These were women who could only talk about the experience in the third person, as if it had happened to someone else," Poggioli recalled in a telephone interview from her home in Rome. "They had been rejected by their families and were living in refugee camps, and the whole thing was awful, just horrible."

Poggioli will discuss her coverage of the civil war in the former Yugoslavia and her reporting on the fall of communism in Eastern Europe at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, April 19, in Kresge Auditorium. Her talk, titled "A Journalist in Post-Cold War Europe," is the seventh annual John S. Knight Distinguished Lecture, sponsored by the Knight Fellowships for professional journalists. The lecture is free and open to the public.

"I'll basically be talking about the changes and the contradictory aspects of the transition from communism to post- communism," Poggioli said of her lecture. "Practically everywhere, with the exception of the Czech republic, reform communists have been returned to power. There's been a variety of reasons, but one of the main ones has been the rejection of the very fast pace of economic reform which has caused so much hardship for so many people. Before, at least, they had security."

Poggioli has been covering the Balkans for NPR for the past six years, but the past six months have taken the greatest toll.

"Really, it's become quite overwhelming," she said. "The turning point for me was when I went to Mostar after the siege had ended. I had been there just a few days before the war broke out and I could remember walking across the old Turkish bridge.

"When I returned, the Croats had blown up the bridge and the whole Turkish sector was in rubble. There were spent cartridges everywhere, and these people had been under siege, in their cellars, for 10 months."

Always, it seems, her concern comes back to the people whose lives have been so brutally affected by the stories she must report. Her most recent series for NPR's All Things Considered and Morning Edition, for example, focused on Islam in Europe, with particular emphasis on the difficulties faced by Muslim women growing up in France.

"Her voice has a very serious quality on air because of the subject matter she has to deal with," said Robert Duncan, Poggioli's editor at NPR. "But she is great fun to work with and we really have a good time together."

Duncan recalled a recent feature Poggioli did in response to a headline in a leading U.S. paper that read, "Pasta will make you fat."

"She went out that night to a restaurant in Rome and did an informal poll," said Duncan. "There was one guy who said, in essence, 'This from a country that gave us hamburgers and Coca- Cola?' It was great."

Poggioli has been European correspondent for NPR, based in Rome, since 1982. Last year she was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and her report "Religious Tour of Sarajevo" won the Excellence in Media, Silver Angel Award. In 1993 she won the Edward Weintal Journalism Prize for diplomatic reporting from Georgetown University and a Peabody Award for "Prisoners in Bosnia." In 1992 she was part of an NPR team that won a Dupont-Columbia award for coverage of the Gulf War.

The daughter of Italian anti-fascists who were forced to flee Italy under Mussolini, Poggioli was born in Providence, R.I., and grew up in Cambridge, Mass. She graduated from Harvard University in 1968 with a bachelor's degree in Romance languages and literatures, and went on to study in Italy on a Fulbright Scholarship.

She was actively involved with women's film and theater groups in Italy and worked at the Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto before becoming an editor on the English-language desk of Italy's Ansa News Agency.

Poggioli spent the 1990-91 academic year as a fellow at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. There she published a paper on "The Media in Europe After 1992 -- A Case Study of la Repubblica." Her research focused on the daily newspaper for which her husband, Piero Benelezzo, is East European correspondent.

"The paper was really about ownership of the media, which has become an enormous issue in Italy," Poggioli explained. "It's a hard story to tell because it is tragic but sounds very funny.

"Basically it has to do with former premier Silvio Berlusconi, who owned three of the six national television networks, and how he created his own electorate. He sold ridiculous dreams of the most crass consumer type, a Hollywood soap image of life, and he won the election."

Of all the challenges she's faced in reporting from Rome, Poggioli says coverage of the Vatican ranks at the top of the "difficult" list since there is virtually no access to sources there, especially for women reporters.

"The great majority of what we call 'Vaticanists' are former priests," she said. "There are very few women reporters covering the Vatican, and all of them are foreign.

"There's nothing really overt," she added. "You just don't get noticed."

The Knight Lecture series, begun in 1988 with a grant from the Knight Foundation, has previously featured Washington Post political writer David Broder; author Taylor Branch; CNN correspondent Peter Arnett; Des Moines Register editor Geneva Overholser; Rolling Stone national editor and author William Greider; and New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis.

"Sylvia Poggioli's reporting of the war in Bosnia has enlightened everyone who listens to National Public Radio, and we wanted people in this area to have the chance to listen to her at greater length," said Jim Bettinger, deputy director of the Knight Fellowships program. "She helps keep public attention on the horrible fighting that has devastated the former Yugoslavia."


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