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Liberty + Leadership Podcast – Jillian Kay Melchior, Novak ’11

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In this week’s episode of the Liberty + Leadership Podcast, TFAS President Roger Ream ’76 sits down with The Wall Street Journal editorial page writer and 2011 TFAS Robert Novak Journalism Fellowship recipient Jillian Kay Melchior. Listen to hear Jillian’s take on everything from the war in Ukraine to the crackdown in Hong Kong and much more. Jillian is a fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum, and prior to her time at The Wall Street Journal, she was the political editor at Heat Street and a fellow with The Steamboat Institute. Her writings have been published in National Review, The Wall Street Journal, Cosmopolitan, The New York Post, The Weekly Standard, Commentary, TechCrunch, The Detroit News and other publications. The Liberty + Leadership Podcast is hosted by TFAS President Roger Ream and produced by kglobal. If you have a comment or question for the show, please drop us an email at podcast@TFAS.org.


Episode Transcript

The transcript below is lightly edited for clarity. 

Benjamín Goycoolea [00:00:00] Hello, everyone. My name is Benjamín Goycoolea. I’m a dentist at a private clinical practice in Chile. I’m a 2020 alumnus of the TFAS Santiago program, and you’re listening to the Liberty + Leadership Podcast.

Roger Ream [00:00:11] Today, I’m excited to welcome Jillian Kay Melchior, editorial page writer for The Wall Street Journal and winner of the 2011 TFAS Robert Novak Journalism Fellowship. As one of TFAS’s former Novak Fellows, Jillian is skilled in investigative reporting and sharing stories that matter. Her recent reporting has taken her to the war in Ukraine. Jillian has also played an instrumental role in the reporting on the 2019 Hong Kong protests and China’s persecution of Christians. Stateside, she’s broken significant stories on government waste, fraud and abuse, energy and environmental issues and organized labor. Her commitment to uncovering the truth is why she is a leader in the journalism community and one of TFAS’s prominent alumna. I’m excited to discuss with her today some of the lessons on liberty and leadership she has learned over the years and talk with her about many of the stories she has covered. Jillian, thank you for joining me and welcome to the show.

Jillian Kay Melchior [00:01:16] Thank you so much for having me.

Roger Ream [00:01:17] Well, I’m really looking forward to this because you’ve covered so many exciting stories. You’ve given us a lot to talk about. But before we talk about perhaps Hong Kong and Ukraine, I’d love to ask you a little more about your Novak Fellowship project, which you did on China and the persecution of Christians there, as I understand it. Could you give me a little bit of a better synopsis of what that project was about?

Jillian Kay Melchior [00:01:43] Yeah. So I wanted to get into reporting more on China, and I wanted something that was relatable to a U.S. audience. Christianity seemed to be that thing. But it’s also something that strikes so much at the heart of how China governs, how the Communist Party governs, because if you think about religious freedom, what’s tied up in that is freedom of speech, freedom of assembly. You’ve got property rights tied up in it as church properties and churches are being razed there, so it’s a really complicated issue. It’s got a deep history in China and it’s something that the Chinese government is threatened by. It doesn’t like the idea of independent religious practice. It views it as a rival to the Communist Party for people’s loyalties. My theory going in was that this was going to butt heads. You know, when I went there and started reporting, one of the really interesting things that I didn’t expect to find is learning how the Communist Party destroyed civil society. If you look at things like the Cultural Revolution, how it turned neighbor against neighbor, and how the church was kind of getting together and rebuilding some of those interpersonal relationships among Chinese people. It’s interesting now to look back at some of that reporting because when I was there, it was right before Xi Jinping took power and it was a softer time. I would say we’ve since then really seen the Communist Party tighten its grip on all elements of Chinese life, and that certainly extends to religious practice. You’ve seen people going around to churches saying you need to take down that picture of Jesus and put up a picture of Xi Jinping. I think it’s also a bit of a bellwether for where China is. And unfortunately, that’s not in a good place. But having that experience, reporting it at that specific time, gave me a point of comparison to see how much more intense the repression has grown. It also was really helpful for understanding the workings of Chinese government and the way that people relate to their government.

Roger Ream [00:03:41] Has that repression led to a slowing of the growth of Christianity in China, or does it sometimes have the unintended opposite effect of people doing it quietly and in homes, still trying to practice the religion and proselytize? Where do you see the church today? Is it a possible force for future change?

Jillian Kay Melchior [00:04:06] You know, I’m optimistic for that. When I was reporting on this, one of the most interesting statistics I heard, and counting religious adherence is always a difficult thing because it’s a matter of faith, but the number of Christians in China were roughly rivaling the number of people who belong to the Chinese Communist Party. I think if you look back through China’s history at the times when repression has been the most intense, that’s when you’ve seen the most explosive growth of the church. The Communist Party isn’t able to answer the spiritual needs of Chinese people. It sure tries, it would like to, but as Hong Kong’s premier publisher, Jimmy Lai, who’s now actually behind bars, said, it’s an inversion of Christianity. It’s an inversion of what the Christian God does because it’s a government that’s saying, rather than sacrifice myself for you, you should sacrifice everything for me. It’s very demanding. It’s not a self-sacrificial government, but it’s trying to operate as a god. So, yeah, I do think that it’s certainly a challenging point in time for China’s Christians. I’ll be really interested to see what happens now to the church in Hong Kong as China tightens its control. But I do think there’s potential for Christian growth. The other thing I’ll mention is when I talk to average Chinese people about how they felt about it, Chinese Christians, one of the things that they said is, “We don’t see a conflict between our being good Chinese citizens and our being Christians. But if the government makes us choose, we’ll choose God first.” I think that some of the repression that’s happening right now is setting up an unnecessarily adversarial relationship between Chinese people and their government.

Roger Ream [00:05:42] Well, how was the Novak Fellowship helpful in that reporting and writing you did at the time?

Jillian Kay Melchior [00:05:48] It was instrumental. I couldn’t have done it without that Fellowship. It paid for my year to go to China. It’s something I couldn’t have afforded to do on my own. It gave me the chance to really dig in, in depth, and devote my full time to reporting this story well, to catching the nuance, to digging into the history. It also provided me with mentorship and suggestions about where to try to get this published. I think it was fundamentally not just the start of my understanding of China, but the start of my career as a foreign correspondent. It was just an incredibly cool opportunity.

Roger Ream [00:06:23] Good. Well, now you graduated from Hillsdale College, as I recall, and you were a Robert Bartley Fellow at The Wall Street Journal?

Jillian Kay Melchior [00:06:31] I was!

Roger Ream [00:06:32] Fill in some of the gaps there – how long had you been at The Journal before you got the Novak Fellowship? Which came first?

Jillian Kay Melchior [00:06:41] Oh, boy. It kind of comes full circle. So right after graduating from Hillsdale in 2009, I got a journalism fellowship to go report in Hong Kong. I was out there for three months as a Bartley Fellow. I came back after that and started working for other New York publications. I didn’t get a job at The Journal right off the bat after finishing my fellowship, but that Hong Kong experience really sparked an interest in China and a love for foreign correspondence. The Novak Fellowship helped me kick that off the ground and take it to the next level. I ended up writing a lot of the things that I did for my Fellowship and freelancing them out to The Wall Street Journal. I benefited from working with some of their editors and established that relationship. In 2017 I ended up getting to come on The Wall Street Journal full time.

Roger Ream [00:07:27] Wonderful. Wonderful. Well, we have been proud of the fact that The Wall Street Journal editorial pages have hired several of our Novak Fellows, and they work there full time now, and now we have the Joseph Rago Fellowship. We’re so pleased, it’s a labor of love for us to operate the Joe Rago Fellowship because of the great work he did as a reporter there, and the sad death of Joe was a blow to a lot of us. We’re pleased to work with his parents, his family, and with your colleagues and Paul Gigot to have a Rago Fellow at The Journal every year, and two of them have now been hired on full time as well. We love this relationship, and I just think The Wall Street Journal is by far the go-to paper for everyone to read each morning to get a perspective on the world. I find it very interesting that you really epitomize the Robert Novak model of journalism because you do reporting, as many of your colleagues do, but when you pick up a piece written by Jillian Melchior, you’re getting new information. It’s not just opinions. It’s reporting you’ve done. So, you went to Hong Kong again in 2019 when things were really heating up with demonstrations against the end of the two systems, one country process. Tell us about some of that reporting you did back then at a very exciting time, and now looking back, a sad time for that great place.

Jillian Kay Melchior [00:09:01] When I was doing my Novak Fellowship, I actually got to spend a lot of time in Hong Kong. Again, talking about that time versus now, Hong Kong, when I was in my Fellowship, was a place that Chinese Christians would go and find a safe harbor. They could meet there, they could unite in fellowship with other believers around China. They could get access to learning and training and materials. It was a place not only for economic freedom and freedom of speech and rule of law, but also for religious freedom. In 2019, what happened is basically the Hong Kong government had been trying to pass legislation that would allow for the extradition of people who are tried in Hong Kong to the mainland, and that that basically destroys the prospect of rule of law in Hong Kong. It destroys the concept that Hong Kong operates as one country, two systems, that it has an independent judiciary, a different form of government than the mainland. I woke up one June morning to read the headlines that a million Hong Kongers had taken to the streets. I just really wanted to be there. So I ended up going in, talking to my editor and then pretty much getting out on the next flight there and arriving just in time for another protest about this. Hong Kongers are incredibly peaceful. They would like to express their political will at the ballot box. They don’t always have that opportunity. So they’ve done this through peaceful protest. I rolled up jet lagged just in time for the Hong Kong police to respond to these peaceful protesters with tear gas, and it got crazy really fast and chaotic really fast. That set the tone for the summer. You had at different points up to 2 million Hong Kongers peacefully protesting in the streets. At times, they did escalate the protests into a more confrontational place, but that was initiated by the government responding to peaceful protests with violence. And unfortunately, that culminated in 2020 with the Hong Kong government and Beijing imposing national security legislation that negates one country, two systems, that makes Hong Kong just another Chinese city. What we’ve seen after that is the incredibly brave pro-democracy activists that I interviewed, that I got to know, being rounded up and arrested, put behind bars and potentially facing up to life in prison for supposedly endangering national security. They did that just by wanting to have a say in the governance of their city. It’s heartbreaking to watch. This is a place where it used to be the only location on Chinese soil where you could commemorate the Tiananmen Square massacre, the martyrs of that. Now it’s a place where if you show up and even try to remember or hold a candle, you’re risking arrest. It’s just heartbreaking to see within the scope of about three years how that has gone from being a paragon of freedom for the Chinese people to a place that is completely controlled and repressed. I’m really worried about what the future looks like for Hong Kong and for my sources and for my friends there.

Roger Ream [00:12:01] Well, some years ago, The Fund for American Studies established a program at the University of Hong Kong, and I had the opportunity to make six or seven trips over there to help establish it and to attend the program and meet the students who are from all over Asia and the United States. Hong Kong becomes a special place if you spend much time there.

Jillian Kay Melchior [00:12:22] It does.

Roger Ream [00:12:23] It does make it so sad to see what’s happening here and to read about friends who supported us and were involved in the program, including the great Jimmy Lai, who’s in prison for believing in democracy and freedom of speech and the press. We are actually going to be honoring him this fall in New York at our annual journalism dinner. He’s someone who deserves everyone’s attention, and I pray that he will find a way to get released from prison at some point here. When you read about his escape to freedom from China to Hong Kong when he was much younger, to see what he’s had to go through in Hong Kong, it’s just so sad and tragic.

Jillian Kay Melchior [00:13:05] I’m so glad that you guys are commemorating him. He’s a really brave guy. I think one of the things that stood out to me interviewing him is that he didn’t have to stay. He’s somebody that had a foreign passport, had the money, had the resources to get out. But he believes in what he says. He’s a proponent of freedom in Hong Kong and he’s willing to put himself on the line for that. I was talking to him, he was saying, “I feel like I have contributed to this movement. I have spoken out for it. And it’s important to stay here and see it through.” He’s paying an incredible sacrifice for that. I’m very honored that I got to meet somebody with that that level of courage.

Roger Ream [00:13:42] Yeah. Just shifting now to the other side of the world, boy, you’ve done some brave reporting in Ukraine. I think you made several trips there, starting with covering the refugee crisis of people trying to get out of Ukraine to Poland and other neighboring countries, to the Belarusians that are bravely going there to fight the Russians. That’s quite a story. It’s now more recently you’ve gone there again to give an update on a number of aspects of that war. Do you see, other than the bravery of Ukrainians who continue to fight and really believe in their country as a place that’s a nation state that does not deserve to have its territorial integrity invaded, where do you see this going? Is there hope that at some point there can be a peace that is still respecting the nationhood of Ukraine?

Jillian Kay Melchior [00:14:46] Yeah. What I keep coming back to is that I think there are a lot of ways that Russia can win this war. I think there’s really only one way that Ukraine can win the war, and that is by holding on to the territory that it had before Russia launched this invasion. And why I say that is because we now know what Vladimir Putin’s intentions are with Ukraine. It is to take Kiev, it’s to control the country. It’s to topple the government and put Putin in charge, basically. I think we saw this in 2014 when you got the annexation of Crimea, when you had conflicts beginning out east. There was an attempt to negotiate an agreement there. We’re talking about the Minsk agreement. And basically, I feel like now if Ukraine cedes any territory, and this is something that Ukrainian polling also reflects, by the way, the idea is that the West may think that it’s a way of getting Putin to back off, but it’s really giving him breathing room to let his soldiers take a rest, to stock back up on munitions, to put all the things back in order that he needs to pursue that end goal. I think Ukrainians have a very difficult and long fight ahead of them. For sure they have outperformed expectations. When they have the equipment from the West that they need, you see them delivering really impressive results. You’ve also got a really strong civil society that is supporting some of the military efforts. It is an amazing thing to watch how Ukrainians are crowdsourcing military equipment, how they’re getting together, and you can go to volunteer centers and see refugees who are hand weaving nets for camouflage. I mean, it is an all-of-nation effort to defend themselves, but that is because they view this as an existential fight, and it’s going to be a difficult one. When you look at military conflicts, usually the biggest armies with the most guns, to put it bluntly, win. So I think they’re up against really tough odds. The United States and Europe should be focused on helping them win decisively.

Roger Ream [00:16:48] What’s it like going there to report? I mean, you’ve been in interesting situations interviewing the head of the railway and railroad workers who are keeping the railroad network going and supplying Ukraine. You’ve been on the refugee side of things. You reported on civil society, something you just talked about seeing talking to the Belarusians. What is that actually like? I mean, it must take a lot of courage to head into Ukraine, into the battlefield, in a sense, and cover this.

Jillian Kay Melchior [00:17:17] Well, I haven’t gone to the front lines. I’ll put that out there. A lot of journalists and photojournalists who’ve been a lot braver than I have are getting much closer to the action. I don’t think that I necessarily need to do that to do a lot of the stories that I’ve covered, because I want the big picture. I want the insights and the stories that are going to say something about the broader war. And for our page, sometimes you can do that from a bit of a distance. I just got back a couple weeks ago from Kiev, and it’s interesting. It is a bit nerve wracking sometimes. The morning that I was driving in, there had been a couple of missile strikes on the city. So you’re driving toward that, and there’s a lot of uncertainty about what will happen next, I guess. As you drive in it’s one thing to look on the map and see how close the Russian invaders got to the center of Kiev. It’s a totally different experience to drive it as you’re coming into town, probably about the distance from midtown Manhattan to JFK Airport, or about 13 to 15 miles, roughly. You start seeing things like burnt out tanks or charred cars on the side of the road or buildings that have been completely reduced to rubble or have these huge scorched holes in them. And I think that seeing that is pretty overwhelming, especially when you realize that every single one of those are somebody’s home or somebody’s business and that maybe not everybody made it out alive. It’s sobering. In Kiev itself right now, it’s a really weird mix of normalcy and warlike environment. On one hand, you can meet with people for interviews. Government, business are both up and functioning. You can actually go have a decent meal. At the same time, it’s not unusual to be woken up in the middle of the night with an air raid siren. People do kind of adapt to that. I think it’s like when you read World War II history, the stiff upper lip of the British, you’re now starting to see that with Ukrainians. They’re not intimidated. A lot of times, I thought this was actually really puzzling when I went there. I’ve come to understand it a bit better now that I’m on my second trip during the war. So at first I was really mystified that people were ignoring the air raid sirens, and I thought they weren’t taking them seriously. What I realized, I think since then is people do not necessarily rush to the basement every single time I try to, but I think it’s more of an expression of determination about not letting Russia deprive them of the normal life that they have to the extent that they have it, and it’s a signifier of resilience that you can threaten our country, you can threaten our nationhood, but we’re not going to back down. You don’t intimidate or scare us. It’s very much the Ukrainian spirit right now.

Roger Ream [00:19:58] Yeah, that was an interesting piece you wrote on the on the railway system in the country.

Jillian Kay Melchior [00:20:02] Thank you.

Roger Ream [00:20:02] As I recall, you noted that they employ about 230,000 employees to keep that system going and that the CEO of the rail system travels everywhere the railroad operates, where he has employees. Certainly a sign of courage, I think, that he said he wouldn’t send employees anywhere where it was so dangerous that he wouldn’t also be willing to visit there. I don’t know if you’ve had the opportunity to meet President Zelensky, but he seems to be almost a Churchillian figure in his bravery in leading the people there, at least from my perspective, watching it from a distance and not up close like you are. Can you touch on examples of courage that you’ve seen in your reporting there? We like to focus on courageous leadership and provide examples to young people in our programs of that kind of courage and what it takes. Do you have some thoughts about that?

Jillian Kay Melchior [00:20:57] I do. So the railway story is actually a really good one. You mentioned the CEO, and I think he’s really impressive in showing good leadership in that he does go to some of the more dangerous places and lead by example. I wanted to do that story since the onset of the war because I was so struck by ordinary people who are doing exceptionally courageous things. I mean, you’ve got a soldier going to the front line and he’s maybe saying goodbye to his wife and his family once. These railroad guys were going every 48 hours or every 36 hours back into the danger zone, back out again to rescue people. It was kind of remarkable understanding that none of them really said no. So the interview that stood out to me was with a 20 year old train steward. He and his girlfriend ended up doing these rescue operations to Kharkiv. And he was telling me about, how in the early days of war, you’d had rail infrastructure that ended up getting struck. He was in Kharkiv when something struck really, really close to the train station. Everybody dropped to the ground. He could actually feel the vibrations in the floor. But he was saying that at times like that of heightened emergency and danger, that you’ve always got people who rise to the occasion. It was pretty cool to talk to them because every single train route, those trains are made for about 600 people but are packed with about 3000 people. They managed to get a lot of people to safety. And it wasn’t just adults. It was mothers traveling with young children. They even let the pets on, going to refugee camps. You see people carrying their cats. It’s a source of real comfort for them. I think talking to that 20 year old about what a difficult experience it was for him to listen to the stories about what people had seen and endured, to push past his endurance in some ways because you’re staying up really late. The trains have to travel quickly out, but slowly enough to do it safely, especially when they might be a target themselves. Hearing him talk about staying up for 48 hours to do this and then having the discipline to go back and do it day in and day out, I thought was pretty exceptional and amazing to hear. But it’s also very characteristic of the Ukrainians that I’ve met. The other one that strikes out to me in Lviv earlier this year, I was interviewing a dad who got his family to safety. Men between 18 and 60 can’t leave Ukraine right now. He was saying that he could stay in the safety of western Ukraine, but he felt like the city of Kharkiv needed him. He actually ended up going back to try to help clean up the rubble and rebuild. That’s something that he opted to do. Nobody was telling him to do it. He’s not a military guy. He just saw need and decided to meet it.

Roger Ream [00:23:34] That’s remarkable. And it’s remarkable what we’ve seen among the host countries who’ve taken in refugees in Poland and other countries on the border. You’ve done some reporting there, I know. What are your thoughts about the civil society that’s grown up among Polish people and Slovaks and to some extent the other countries there taking in refugees? Have you done some reporting there?

Jillian Kay Melchior [00:23:59] I have. It’s a grassroots effort. You see a lot of people taking Ukrainians into their homes. It’s not like this big organized government top down thing. It’s citizens being like, oh, you showed up and you needed a place to sleep. Come over to my house. You can crash in my spare bedroom. I think it’s also a real reflection of how Europeans are looking at this conflict, realizing that Vladimir Putin’s ambitions don’t necessarily stop with Ukraine, that if he’s going to engage in a war of aggression here and it’s going to be conducted in such a brutal manner that you need to think about whether he’s going to do that to somebody else. Right now, Ukrainians are on the front line fighting for this and dying for it. I think that certainly in Poland, certainly in a lot of the border countries, but further out too, a lot of people realize that this isn’t just the humanitarian thing to do. It’s a matter of national interest. Ukrainian soldiers need to be able to focus on fighting the war, and they can do that better if they know that their wife and their kids are being protected and taken care of somewhere safe.

Roger Ream [00:24:54] We’re very proud of some of our alumni are involved in that process. I’ll just call out two. Both the Polish permanent representative to the UN and the Czech permanent representative to the UN are TFAS alumni, and they both spoke with tremendous moral clarity when the UN was debating and passed a resolution condemning the invasion. We’ve had a program in the Czech Republic since 1993. We have a lot of graduates who are both Ukrainian and from elsewhere in that region who are really engaged now. This summer, I wrote a column about this, but about two months ago, we got an email from a young woman saying, I’m in a bomb shelter in Kharkiv. I’m trying to apply to your summer program in Prague, but I am having trouble getting a hold of my professor to write a letter of recommendation. We went right back to her saying, you know, don’t worry about that. You have a full scholarship if you can make it to Prague this summer. And she’s coming. It starts in a couple of weeks. I think we’ll have five Ukrainian students with us in Prague. We have one with us this summer in Washington, D.C., and lots of Ukrainian alumni who are involved in this, and Americans who have gone over to try to help deal with the refugee problem. It is great to see that bottom-up civil society that stepped up to help in so many ways along the way. I’m glad you’ve written about it.

Jillian Kay Melchior [00:26:23] Oh, thank you. Yeah, it’s pretty incredible. You know, I think what I’ve seen in Hong Kong and in Ukraine is when you have freedoms that are really basic and important to people under attack, it’s surprising and inspiring how quickly civilians rise to the occasion and organize themselves and don’t wait on government to do it. People fight for their own freedom. It’s an honor to witness.

Roger Ream [00:26:46] That’s an important lesson we try to teach in our programs for students. Let me ask you about The Wall Street Journal. I’m sure a lot of people who listen to this podcast, our subscribers, get the paper edition and read WSJ online. They watch the weekend program that Paul Gigot hosts. What’s it like working at The Wall Street Journal? People want to know the inside scoop on things.

Jillian Kay Melchior [00:27:10] It’s the best job in the world. Our opinion page is really unique. You referenced this before that it’s opinion, but it’s reported. I’m just so incredibly lucky to be working in a place and with a boss that will let me go to Hong Kong, let me go to Ukraine, take the time, use the resources to go out and do my own reporting. It informs our analysis. I mean, when we report something, when it’s an editorial or an op ed, there are so many phone calls, there’s so much public records work, investigative stuff that goes into it. I think The Wall Street Journal certainly has really high standards. We’re a publication that stands up for free markets and free people. It’s just the best job ever. It’s so fun.

Roger Ream [00:27:55] When you start to report on Ukraine, for instance, you pretty much have to single mindedly focus on that through that process, and then at some point you decide, oh, maybe I’ll shift over to writing about government waste and abuse or the environment or other issues you’ve covered in the past. Is that pretty much determined by you or is that your boss telling you it’s time to shift to something else?

Jillian Kay Melchior [00:28:20] Oh, it’s a group effort. I definitely tend to get sucked into stories that I find all consuming. Hong Kong was one and Ukraine is definitely one. One of the cool things about the opinion page is we are encouraged to be the expert on a lot of things. I think that sparks a lot of curiosity in the world. We talk to a lot of different people across a lot of different policy areas. The goal, and I’m not sure I always reach it, but the goal is to be able to write well about a lot of topics.

Roger Ream [00:28:49] You’re doing it well. And sadly, I guess the topic of Ukraine is not going away any time soon. I would predict you’ll be going back to Ukraine to do more reporting, but hopefully it’ll be of a different nature than it’s been so far, and you’ll have some good news to bring us about a shift in the battlefields over there. Let me ask you also about lessons that you might offer young people who come to our program interested in careers in journalism. It’s been a profession that’s changed a lot over the last few decades that The Fund for American Studies has been focused in that area. It’s like a pendulum swing where I think 25, 30 years ago, some of the journalists who we work with were predicting that the age of media bias was coming to an end with the burst of podcasts and websites and digital media and starting with cable TV, that there’d be so many sources of information that the three-network coverage of things would diminish. Instead, we’ve got this media now that seems so splintered between two camps and an audience that’s divided. Would you recommend journalism to young people today who think they might want to pursue that as a career?

Jillian Kay Melchior [00:30:14] I would. I think it’s the best job in the world. You get license to indulge your curiosity and to ask impertinent questions to people in power. I think that’s a great thing. That said, I do think there are a lot of people who go into journalism who actually want to be in politics. Knowing yourself on that will save you some heartache. If you don’t feel like you must be in journalism, it can be a really hard and rough and tumble job. I think it’s worth it, and I’ve never had regrets. As far as advice goes for them, I think I’d probably say a couple of things. First of all, I know a lot of young journalists starting out are in a really unique position in that people always want to cultivate young talent. I would say to start your career of impertinence now. Figure out which journalists you admire and cold call them. Reach out to them. Have a conversation with them. You can learn a lot about your field and your career trajectory and expand your network in a way that may yield really unpredictable and exciting opportunities. So definitely take advantage of that. It’s something you can do in your twenties to an extent that you can’t really do in your thirties and forties, so make the most of that. I would also say, you know, talking about the age of polarization right now, I am in opinion journalism. It’s reported opinion journalism. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having an opinion as long as you’re being upfront with your readers about your perspective. In fact, I think maybe that’s a more honest way of doing it sometimes than pretending that you don’t have a bias or bringing your own perspective to the table. I would say nobody really cares about your feelings about an issue that much. They care about what you can tell them that they don’t know. Building a deep base of knowledge or expertise in a couple of areas that you really care about, where you can bring something to the table that nobody else can and inform your opinion and inform other people’s opinions – that’s going to get you a lot further than just mouthing off emotionally. Unfortunately, we see a lot of that in opinion journalism these days. But it doesn’t endure. It’s not that important, and you have the chance to do it. So if you’re a young journalist, build your investigative reporting skills, build your source list and find a couple of things that you can know more about than anybody else.

Roger Ream [00:32:32] Oh, that’s great advice. For a minute there, I thought I was listening to Robert Novak because he used to give that advice to students as well as seasoned journalists about the importance of giving readers information and not just your opinion of things, especially if you’re a 20-year-old just out of school who’s doing some reporting. Well, that’s been great. I might ask you for some advice as well for young people today about courageous leadership. I emphasize it being courageous. Part of that is being curious, you know, being a lifelong learner, that someone who’s courageous needs to be willing to ask the right questions and explore different ideas and be willing to listen to others who might have different opinions. We find our students, when we sit down with them at orientation and put an emphasis on the importance of having friends in their lives who have different opinions than them, they really take to that, I think. It’s heartening to hear. I had breakfast with some students today who’ve been in our program now for four weeks this summer. I asked, “Are you having really bitter, knockdown, drag out arguments in the dorms at night now about recent Supreme Court decisions, perhaps?” They said no. “What we’re doing is listening to people’s opinions and learning that other people have different perspectives that we have to respect and try to learn from.” And I said that’s great because we need more of that in this country and not have people unwilling to talk to longtime friends because they have different views on a hot topic of the day. What advice do you have in general for young people about how to be a leader or courageous leader as they go into their careers?

Jillian Kay Melchior [00:34:31] I mean, I’ve been really lucky to meet some incredibly courageous people. We talked about Jimmy Lai, but I think certainly in Hong Kong, in Ukraine, some of the unsung heroes are just ordinary people. I think the common thread there is not a lack of fear, but a certain level of certainty in their convictions and then acting in a way that is in accordance with their moral beliefs, you do what you need to do, what you feel like is right to do, and don’t let other people’s actions inhibit that. Sometimes in a situation of war or really disruptive or confrontational protests like we saw in Hong Kong, where maybe you’ll get tear gassed, in situations like Ukraine where it can mean going to the front line and putting yourself in danger. That’s certainly one example of it, that you act in a way that’s in accordance with those beliefs, regardless of how someone else will act or what they will do. I also think that we’re living in a time of cancel culture. We’re living in a time of enormous social pressure on people not to act in correlation or with their convictions. I think sometimes that requires as much courage. I’ll also just add some of the people that I respect the most, there is a deliberation and a wisdom that goes into those actions, too. It’s not seeking out danger. It’s not seeking out like the most controversial or confrontational things. It’s mitigating risk when you can. It’s acting wisely when you feel like you need to. I think that’s what I’ve learned from observing it.

Roger Ream [00:36:07] Great advice. Thank you. I appreciate so much you being our guest today on the Liberty + Leadership Podcast, Jillian.

Jillian Kay Melchior [00:36:16] Oh, thanks for having me.

Roger Ream [00:36:17] Well, it’s been wonderful and I know you’re under deadlines every day to write and to edit and to get a paper out. It must be intense, but having your time this afternoon has been wonderful. I thank you very much for sharing your story with us. I think it’s been an empowering conversation, especially for the young alumni who have the opportunity to listen to us today.

Jillian Kay Melchior [00:36:39] Great. Thank you so much for having me. It was a pleasure to talk to you. That Fellowship has really had a lasting effect on my life, and I’m glad to hear that other young people are getting that same opportunity because it can lead to such incredible things.

Roger Ream [00:36:55] Thank you. Thank you for listening to the Liberty + Leadership Podcast. Please don’t forget to subscribe, download, like or share the show on Apple, Spotify or YouTube, or wherever you listen to your podcasts. If you like this episode, I ask you to rate and review it, and if you have a comment or question for the show, please drop us an email at podcast@TFAS.org. The Liberty + Leadership Podcast is produced at kglobal Studios in Washington, D.C. I’m your host Roger Ream, and until next time, show courage in things large and small.


About the Podcast

TFAS has reached more than 46,000 students and professionals through academic programs, fellowships and seminars. Representing more than 140 countries, TFAS alumni are courageous leaders throughout the world forging careers in politics, government, public policy, business, philanthropy, law and the media.

Join TFAS President Roger Ream ’76 as he reconnects with these outstanding alumni to share experiences, swap career stories, and find out what makes their leadership journey unique. With prominent congressmen, judges and journalists among the mix, each episode is sure to excite your interest in what makes TFAS special.

If you have a comment or question for the show, please email podcast@TFAS.org.

View future episodes and subscribe at TFAS.org/podcast.

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