From N.H. to Moscow, and back

by Mark Herman | 10/29/03 6:00am

Russian majors take heart: Christopher S. Wren '57 credits his studies in Dartmouth's department for launching his distinguished career as a foreign correspondent for the New York Times, he said Monday in an interview with The Dartmouth.

While Wren was a reporter for the New York Times' metro section, a job opened in the newspaper's Moscow bureau. Wren took the position because he spoke Russian. He later became the bureau's chief while Leonid Brezhnev was the Soviet premiere.

"It was a rugged place to work," Wren said, remembering how he was once beaten by plain-clothes police officers and once accused of being a spy by the Soviet government.

Despite these incidents, Wren and his wife enjoyed Russian culture, he said. During his tenure in the New York Times' Moscow bureau, he made friends in the underground rock music scene and smuggled in guitar strings that they could not purchase under communism.

Wren also noted that the harsh winters did not bother him. "The climate was like Dartmouth," he said. "The snow came early and often."

Wren's career spans several continents and decades. After gaining prominence as a foreign correspondent through his work in Russia, he went on to cover the Middle East, China and South Africa in a total of more than 3,000 articles for the New York Times.

From his distinguished career, several stories stand out in Wren's memory, including his coverage of Nelson Mandela's release from prison in 1990. Despite the story being televised sooner than it could be included in a newspaper, Wren said his report provided the necessary perspective and analysis that was not included in the televised report. The article appeared on the front page of the New York Times the next day.

"Even though they scooped me on the news event, they didn't scoop me on the story," Wren said, recalling how he ran to his car and drove to the nearest phone to call his editors with the news, only to learn they were already watching the story on CNN.

Events like Mandela's release from prison may be the exceptions in a reporter's career. "A lot of reporting is just waiting and standing around for people to say no comment," he said.

Wren retired from the New York Times two years ago.

Since then, he has remained active in journalism, submitting pieces for publication and working with Russian newspapers, which face challenges including government attacks on the press, low circulation and widespread corruption.

"I felt I should give something back to Russia for having launched me as a foreign correspondent," Wren said of his work with the Knight International Press Fellowships program.

The program dispatches experienced journalists to locations around the world where they train members of foreign media outlets. Wren has trained Russian journalists in both the reporting and business ends of publishing. "It's like a Peace Corps for journalists," Wren said.

During his recent trip to Russia, Wren observed many of the problems Russian journalists encounter. In Togliatta, a city in western Russia, he worked with an editor who was investigating the murder of his predecessor.

Wren said six editors were shot there in total. In another instance, Wren worked with a Russian newspaper that was evicted from its offices at the government's request.

More commonly, struggling newspapers were bought by individuals with their own agendas -- politicians, businesspeople and even those involved in organized crime. Many newspapers also published paid profiles of people or products that are not marked as advertisements.

Wren will speak more about issues facing journalists on Wednesday at 4:30 p.m. in Filene Auditorium, as part of the Montgomery Endowment's series on truth and ethics in journalism.

Wren's point, he said, was to illustrate that Russian journalists have a harder time than their American counterparts in accurately covering news.

"American journalists are spoiled," Wren said.