The Good News Is…

(Reprinted from the Macaroni, Golden Valley, Minnesota, 2005)
By John Toren, Editor/Publisher

The visiting fellows of the World Press Institute gathered at Macalester College in St. Paul on November 15 to share with us the highlights, and also a few low-lights, of their four-month stay in the United States. They had come from Nepal, Argentina, Austria, the Philippines, and other far-flung places to witness life as it’s lived on the farms of Minnesota and Wisconsin. They’d toured the cities and newsrooms of Boston, Seattle, New York and Miami, and travelled the streets of Chicago in police cars. In fact, during their brief stay they saw more slices of American life than many Americans see in a lifetime. The difficulty of characterizing such a bevy of experiences notwithstanding, each fellow spent a few minutes at the podium describing his or her most memorable impression.

Several of the speakers chose to focus their comments on a single aspect of American life. Daniela Tuchel, for example, from Romania, displayed a degree of understated wit that may be a hallmark of her people by restricting her comments to prisons. She began by reporting that she knew nothing about the truth of allegations by the Washington Post that the United States had erected torture prisons in her country. She went on from there to discuss her visit to a penitentiary in Atlanta, which she found strangely well-appointed. “The food smelled quite tasty,” she reported, very much unlike the food served in Romanian prisons, and the drug-dealers and murderers were chatting cordially with their jailers and guards. She ended her remarks with a final touch of wit, by expressing the hope that the criminals in Atlanta did not have access to more cable channels in their cells than she did in her home back in Bucharest.

Anne Jambora, from the Philippines, was surprised on her arrival in the United States, to see so many American flags on display, even in front of private homes. “Such a display of patriotism would never take place in the Philippines,” she told the crowd, “even on Independence Day. In fact, it seems that many Fhilipinos simply want to flee the country.” She devoted the remainder of her talk to a description of her experiences with the Chicago police, whom she found to be very upright and often compassionate with regard to the problems of immigrants trying to get ahead however they can. Once again, the bribe-and corruption-ridden Filipino police do not measure up.

Teodora Vassileva of Bulgaria, though impressed by many aspects of American life, was most surprised by the number of homeless people she saw in the streets of American cities. She found it incomprehensible that the richest country in the world could not, or would not, do something for such people. On the other hand, she admitted that the streets of her cities are plagued by beggars in the

Oliver Twist mold, who are both beaten by and beholden to their cruel adult bosses.
Raj Kumar K.C., a reporter with The Rising Nepal in Katmandu, was struck by the optimism he found everywhere in the United States. He had expected Americans to be somewhat arrogant and swaggering, and he had braced himself for the worst, but found to his surprise that a spirit of friendliness and volunteerism was evident everywhere he turned. He was flabbergasted, for example, to find an 85-year-old woman baking bread for youngsters at the reformatory in Red Wing. “Why do they do this?” he asked. “That would never be seen in my country.” Several times he interrupted his remarks to assure us, “I am not trying to flatter you, but this is what I experienced.”

Daniel Cavero, the editor of a small tabloid in Lima, Peru, was most impressed by the large budgets American newspapers have at their disposal in pursuing the news. “In Iraq, every American journalist has a car, a driver, a translator, a photographer, a few body guards, and $25,000 in cash to met unexpected expenses….” And you could just see the cogs churning in his head as he thought, “Boy, what I could do at my small paper with money like that.” What he actually said was, “I spend a good deal of my time and money merely translating the reports of others.”

Tang Ju, the News Director of International Service at Dragon TV in Shanghai, approached the podium with no sign of the nervousness exhibited by one or two of her colleagues. After all, her reports reach 500 million viewers dispersed across China, Macao, Australia, North America and Japan, and she also is a frequent contributor to CNN World Report.

Tang Ju dwelled at some length on her encounter with “the most unusual theory I have ever heard.” At the “Discovery Institute” on the West Coast she met up for the first time with the theory of “Intelligent Design,” and she wanted to let us all know that the theory was bunk. “If someone designed DNA, then who or what designed the being that designed DNA?” she asked, following the path of infinite regress made famous by Aristotle and other thinkers several millennia ago.

Her impressions of the United States per se were less interesting, however, than the issues she bought up later during the question-and-answer period. The growth of the Chinese economy is much in the news these days, and Tang Ju was at pains to re-assure the crowd that prosperity in China will never be a threat to world peace. She expressed irritation that American journalists so frequently refer to her country as “Communist” China, perhaps unaware of the fact that this epithet effectively distinguishes it from “nationalist” China (i.e. Taiwan). In China, she told us, the word for the United States is “beautiful land” and she asked us to reflect on the fact that although we are the most prosperous nation in the world, and successful people are usually well-liked because “that is the trend,” all the same we have lately developed a knack for turning even our friends into enemies.

Matthias Bernold covers legal affairs including crime, human rights and terrorism at Vienna’s Wiener Zeitung, which is often described as the oldest daily newspaper in the world. During his brief presentation he spoke of the changing nature of news in the United States, and of the tendency of the young to dispense with printed newspapers entirely, many of them preferring to keep abreast of current affairs through tailor-made internet sites, or to ignore political and social events entirely. While Mattias applauds these innovations, he also sees a danger in the tendency of individuals to focus their attention very narrowly, by means of websites and blogs that dovetail with their interests, the result being that they find it difficult to converse with others or to take an active part in the social life going on all around them. He echoed the thoughts of Raj Kumar that America was the land of optimism, adding the wrinkle that Europe, in his opinion, was the land of ultimate pessimism.

Raphael Gomide, a reporter for O Dia in Rio de Janeiro, won the 2004 Amnesty International Global Award for Human Rights Journalism for a series of articles on modern-day slavery in Brazil. He spoke near the end of the program, and found it necessary to reiterate the opinion of several of his colleagues that the United States was remarkable for its ability to integrate a wide variety of ethnic groups into its social fabric, and for its tradition of charitable giving and volunteerism. During the question and answer period Raphael described problems that journalists face in Brazil—he himself not least among them—reporting freely about government corruption, but also noted that the recent scandal involving bribes given by the administration to secure votes in the legislature was originally exposed to public view by the press.

Pilar Conci, of La Nacion in Buenos Aires, was the last to speak, and she thanked the audience both for coming, and for not leaving before her turn had come. In her remarks she touched upon the theme of social integration, and observed that although Argentina is a country of immigrants, it has not done well at handling a recent influx of native Americans from other parts of South America. She noted that everyone who worked in the hotel where the group stayed in Chicago was from Latin America, but went on to reason sagely that this was a sign that more well-established Americans had been successful at getting better jobs. The Latinos she spoke with complained about the long hours and bad pay, but it was a lot better, they admitted, than anything they could hope to earn back home. Pilar also came in contact with Latinos in positions of authority during her visit, especially in Miami, from which she deduced that in time, at least a certain degree of upward mobility is possible for anyone.

After the conclave World Press Institute friends, Frank and Judy Jossi, opened their home to the fellows for further conversation, and before long the room was abuzz with many small conversations—a sound that’s one of the great delights of civilized living. The pain associated with such an experience comes from the thought that you will later hear tell of conversations you missed out on. For example, Tang Ju delivered an eloquent description of an exhibit of armor she had seen in a museum somewhere out East, in which German, French, Italian, and other designs were shown to echo traits of each nation’s military character. The Chinese armor in the display was made out of silk. “As you see,” she concluded, “China has never been an aggressive nation-state.” Meanwhile, in another part of the room, Daniel Cavero may well have been discussing the recent arrival of Peruvian exiled ex-president Fujimori in Chile and the odds on whether Peru would be successful in their attempts to extradite him.

But I have nothing to complain about. I received more than my fair share of intellectual stimulation from Teodora Vassileva, “Teddie” as her friends call her, who painted an attractive portrait of the warmth to be expected from Bulgarians. They are “southern” people, she told me, and a few days spent in her region can thaw even vacationing Swedes, turning them into singing and dancing and drinking fools.
I discussed the affects of altitude with Raj Kumar K.C., and the ease with which Buddhists like himself accommodate themselves to Hindus, Moslems, Christians, and other religious groups. Pilar Conci and I reviewed the recent success of the Argentine tennis program, which has resulted in the presence of four of her compatriots among the eight contestants in the Tennis Masters Cup in Shanghai. (Pilar used to be a sports reporter.) At some point the conversation turned to literature, and to the work of Julio Cortázar in particular, whom we both admire. As (bad) luck would have it, she had not read my favorite among his works, Around the Day in Eighty Worlds, and I had never heard of her favorite, Historia de cronopios y de famas. Pilar had trouble finding an English equivalent for the word cronopios. “It’s difficult to describe even in my language,” she told me. I made a mental note of this. Such words can be very revealing once you get a grip on them—for example, the Greek “arête,” the Japanese “aware,” the seldom-seen American word “moxie.”

(I have since learned that cronopios is not one of those revealing but untranslatable words. Rather, it is a type of creature that Cortázar himself invented, and can only characterize by contrasting it with other types. He explains, for example, that a cronopios differs from an esperanza and also a fama, in his attitude toward travel. esperanzas are sedentary—they don’t like to travel at all. Both famas and cronopios like to take trips. The famas are precise and fastidious, however, and over-careful in their preparations; the cronopios, in contrast, are haphazard and careless, letting things come as they may. If the whole thing sounds a little nonsensical and surreal, it is. In fact, this jaunty and slightly unhinged, yet altogether cheerful and exuberant quality, is a large part of Cortázar’s appeal.)

The most involved conversation I had at the Jossi’s, however, was with Mattias Bernold. I complimented him on the subtlety of the joke with which he had begun his presentation—it involved the unrelieved pessimism of Europeans—and he replied sternly, “That was not a joke.” He went on to explain how difficult it is to live with the weight of centuries of accumulated culture, a recent history of militarism and worldwide disgrace, and a kitbag of values which have become outworn through familiarity. In order to lighten the mood, I mentioned that one of my favorite writers was an Austrian whose dark, bitter style came out of that world, yet struck me as almost comical. “Who?” Mattias asked. “Thomas Bernhard,” I replied.

Bernhard was one of Mattias’s favorites, too, as it turned out, and we discussed his various works—Woodcutters, Wittgenstein’s Nephew, Concrete—his hatred of Austria, and his will, which stipulated that none of his plays were ever to be performed in Austria again, ever. We went on to discuss a few of our other favorites, including Martin Walser and Max Frisch. Mattias was surprised that I had never read Grass. I was surprised that he had never heard of Heinrich Böll—but perhaps I had merely mangled the name beyond recognition. I informed him that his favorite among Frisch’s novels, Homo Faber, had been made into a movie called Voyager, with Sam Shepherd and Julie Delpy. I was about to describe the long and involved discussion I once had with Mr. Shepherd himself, about how he had played the role, but (luckily for Mattias) our conversation drifted on toward current events, and he asked me some sincere and penetrating questions about why the news so often exposes the worst aspect of everything.

“What have you heard about Austria?” he asked. “Schwarzenegger? Kurt Waldheim?”

“He was a Nazi,” I said.

“He was in the army,” Mattias corrected me. “And he was also UN Secretary General.”

“And what about that Haider fellow — was that his name? — who was so controversial a few years ago?” I asked.

“Yes, his party has never severed its ties with the old Nazi party. He has little power now, but it’s a disturbing element in our political life.”

Mattias had made his point. The various tidbits I could recall hearing about Austria were all bad. He completed his side of the argument with greater economy. “Everything we hear about the United States is bad.” I was going to bring up a recent scandal in the Austrian wine trade, but thought better of it. Why belabor the point? Instead, I cranked up my crack-patted theory about why the news is always bad. “Good news is unsatisfying, and people are usually suspicious of it anyway. Bad news has more of an edge, which is what people are looking for. Truth is always a matter of looking deeper; looking deeper exposes what’s hidden. Why is it hidden? Because it’s bad. The “objective” style of traditional news reporting is riddled with innuendo, intentionally or not, and it almost magically exposes to view all the uncertainties of a given situation. After all, no one knows what’s really going to happen. Hence, news is always unsettling, rather than reassuring. And that’s what sells newspapers.”

All the talk about Nazis had naturally brought the issue of immigration and minorities to light. Mattias wanted to know how the United States had made integration and social cohesion a reality, unlike many of the European states. I don’t know the answer to that question but I did observe, in the spirit of wine and conversation among friends, that Americans are from all over. They know it, they talk about it sometimes—but it really doesn’t mean that much to them. I also pointed out, as an aside, that the United States had gotten some of the more liberal slices of the European population during the upheavals of the nineteenth century. He had observed how familiar many aspects of Minnesota and Wisconsin seemed to him, and I reminded him that after the failure of the German Revolution of 1848, Germany took a sharp turn to the right politically, and countless liberals emigrated to America. Many of them settled here in the upper midwest.

It became clear to me as we chatted that Mattias had a great many ideas about what was going on in the world which the evening’s forum had allowed him to express only very imperfectly. He had a lot of questions too, and I was enjoying my role as American “man-on-the-street.” In fact, I would have liked this wonderland of stimulating observations and cultural conjectures to roll on and on into the night, but the fellows themselves, gracious and accommodating ‘til the very end, had another long day of presentations ahead of them, and at a certain point, with the first snow of winter falling icily outside, it became clear that the time had come for everyone to pack up and go.