Some reporters are driven to get a story.
And then there is the reporter who will, well, drive to get a story.
As an NPR reporter trying to interview average citizens in China, one of the world’s most repressive societies, Frank Langfitt kept hitting, well, dead ends.
“An American journalist asking a Chinese stranger about politics is just a total loser,” he said.
On a hunch that most passengers will talk to a cabdriver, Langfitt started hacking in Shanghai, with one extra: free rides. Locals, pleased—and disarmed—by the price, were also intrigued to encounter a non-Chinese driving.
“They would start interviewing me,” said Langfitt. “I rarely brought up a sensitive topic. I just waited till they did.”
All of this lead to stories that covered a lot of, well, ground. Langfitt’s passengers—most of them well traveled and educated—often acknowledged the limitations on their freedoms, but they also told him about their efforts to make the best of their constrained situations. The government’s policies may have spawned a culture of contradictions and suspicions, but many of his riders still believed in the Chinese Communist Party.
Langfitt says that, for a lot of Chinese, “the economic growth of the past 30 years has been unbelievable. Often a conversation would begin: ‘Well, I grew up in a mud hut …’ This would be someone who now had a penthouse overlooking Shanghai.”
Many of the people whose stories he featured on NPR became friends, including, as he told The Times of London, a human-rights lawyer and a pajama salesman who ran an illegal Christian “house church.” And then there was the fan who was not profiled but was a very devoted listener. Turns out he was a spy who was tasked with listening to his broadcasts.