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Nieman's China deal

THE NIEMAN Foundation at Harvard University was formed to improve the quality of journalism. It will be going against its mission if it helps train 40 Chinese officials who will be trying to manage the press during the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

News about the program to train Chinese officials caused great concern at a Nieman Fellows reunion over the weekend. Since 1938, the Nieman Foundation has chosen midcareer journalists -- 25 in 2004 -- to spend a year at Harvard. Many come from foreign nations, including China and others with repressive governments. These journalists get a sense of American freedom in the hope that they will communicate the importance of free expression on their return home.

The Nieman Foundation has a well-earned reputation for training the press. It should not be in the business of training press handlers -- officials whose job it will be to shape coverage of a news event. Bob Giles, the foundation curator, said over the phone yesterday that the 40 officials will comprise representatives of the Olympics Committee, local governments, and the Chinese press establishment. These are just the people who will try to convey the message that China has fully entered the modern world, while downplaying the huge human cost -- street beggars, air pollution, government corruption, religious persecution, and the lack of a legal process to redress grievances.

Giles contends that the one-week training, to be held next month in Cambridge, will have indirect value for journalists who cover the games. ''The curriculum will be about how the American press works, the fundamentals of the First Amendment, to let them understand what journalists expect when they come to China, including the opportunity to move around the country rather freely," he said. The Chinese officials, however, will be judged by their superiors on how well they slant coverage toward positive news.

According to Giles, the idea for the training session came from people at the John K. Fairbank Center for East Asia Research at Harvard. The Nieman Foundation will get $20,000 for its efforts, with $13,000 of that for food catering. Scholars at the Fairbank Center have to deal with Chinese officialdom, but the foundation does not operate under that necessity. It ought to refuse to take part in the training.

Giles has taken the foundation beyond its traditional work on fellowships. One innovation is the website, which offers pointers on how to probe the institutions of American society. China could use a site like this, but it won't get one under its present government. The Nieman Foundation should do nothing to empower officials of that same regime who will try to focus journalists on rosy Olympics stories at the expense of the Chinese institutional failings all around them.

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