Katja Gelinsky’s Peculiar America

The German newspaper whose web site is now marginally better organized has two reporters based in the United States for its main news section. One, Matthias Rueb, is said to be one of the paper’s heavy hitters. They post him where they want to have an impact, certainly within German debate, and if possible at a European level or in the host country. (The paper has several such correspondents.) This is not his story.

His apparent office-mate is named Katja Gelinsky, someone I only know through her writing. Writing that has inspired an amusing game, which I will now share. Visit the web sites of the major US newspapers (Washington Post, NY Times and, in a pinch, the LA Times) plus CNN. Find the strangest, most lurid story that a European audience could understand without much explanation. With a startling degree of accuracy, this is the story that will appear in the next day’s issue of the Frankfurter Allgemeine under Gelinsky’s byline.

Violence is a regular feature; violence against gay people and members of minorities makes a story more likely to appear. Lawsuits are also good. Death penalty stories are always usable. Strange religious angles are not bad either. Natural disasters are good, especially if they demonstrate Americans’ innate indifference to the environment. Further rules of the game entail that no European stereotype of America must ever be challenged and that at least four out of every five articles must portray America and Americans in a bad light.

I’m not saying the stories are false. Just that the picture that is built up by a steady stream of these articles is one that bears very little resemblance to the actual country Over There. (Until a better book comes along, read Not Like Us by Richard Pells for a sense of how this problem goes in both directions, and has for more than a century.) Gelinsky’s oeuvre is both product of and contributor to German prejudices about the United States.

From time to time, I will post titles of Gelinsky’s stories to demonstrate this thesis. Links are unlikely, because the web site still needs better organization, but I will point out date and page if the story appears in a dead tree edition that I have at hand.

From today’s web edition: “Women who eat low-fat foods are not healthier”
From today’s paper (p. 9, col. 1): “Santa Ana winds fan forest fires”
Monday, Feb 9 (p. 9, col. 1): “Search for the Bedford murderer has deadly end”
Recent editions that I can’t lay my hands on at the moment featured articles about iPod buyers suing Apple because of hearing loss and about a violent attack on a gay bar in Massachusetts; Monday’s article was a follow-up on that one.

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About Doug Merrill

Freelance journalist based in Tbilisi, following stints in Atlanta, Budapest, Munich, Warsaw and Washington. Worked for a German think tank, discovered it was incompatible with repaying US student loans. Spent two years in financial markets. Bicycled from Vilnius to Tallinn. Climbed highest mountains in two Alpine countries (the easy ones, though). American center-left, with strong yellow dog tendencies. Arrived in the Caucasus two weeks before its latest war.

8 thoughts on “Katja Gelinsky’s Peculiar America

  1. Well, the MEMRI case is fairly different. They’re probably project of the Israeli government, and they’re certainly not journalists.

    Foreign correspondent bias is hardly organized, it’s caused by a confuence of stuff.

  2. Yes, that’s very common.

    You can do the same for The Economist and several German newspapers. There are always one or two trend-setting articles in each issue of the Economist, or surprising statistics etc, you can be pretty sure that next day some German newspapers will carry similar stories.

    (I have experienced this first-hand for a few years when I was a subscriber of both Economist and Sueddeutsche Zeitung; the SZ’s economics columnist would pretty much every week steal at least one idea from the Economist).

  3. Similar things happen domestically, too. That’s why there’s so much to be gained by mau-mauing the NY Times. Their stories are syndicated nationwide, so they appear verbatim in lots of papers. Then there’s the imitation effect, where editors ask their reporters why they didn’t get the story that the Times had. So they go out and get one very much like the Times.

    One of the things that makes the FAZ case so interesting is the contrast. Rueb (Rüb, if your browser doesn’t choke on umlauts) is so very good. He explains America to a German audience; the US that he portrays is one that I recognize, even as I see it described in a German newspaper.

    Gelinsky is quite different, and I would agree with the parallel about the eXile’s complaints. She writes about the US as if it was supposed to be Germany, and for some incomprehensible reason isn’t. It’s as if the reporter for the Washington Post were constantly writing wondering why German politics don’t revolve around gun control, abortion, tax cuts and fear of teh gay.

    I’d agree with David, too (is all this agreeing going to kill the thread?), that the bias is not organized. In this case, it’s both a product of widespread views among west Germans and a powerful megaphone reinforcing those views. I don’t imagine that holding it up to ridicule will produce much change, but it still pleases me to do so.

    Today’s story, btw, is about how few people interred at Guantanamo were actually fighters. It’s an important story, but as it joins the long line of Guantanamo stories she has written (a category I admit I forgot), it misses getting linked to either 1) overall GWB administration incompetence or 2) executive power grab by same, and thus simply comes across as “nyah nyah, we were right all along about Guantanamo.” Thus both playing on and building stereotypes.

  4. He explains America to a German audience; the US that he portrays is one that I recognize, even as I see it described in a German newspaper.

    Gelinsky is quite different, and I would agree with the parallel about the eXile’s complaints. She writes about the US as if it was supposed to be Germany, and for some incomprehensible reason isn’t.

    Yes, absolutely right. (Very sorry to agree so much). The point of much of foreign reporting is not really to tell your audience at home about what the other place “really” is like, it is rather to compare it to home and to put the “foreign” place into a domestic perspective.

    This is also why some foreign reporters are actually much better at writing about their home countries from abroad than they are at writing about abroad for their home audience.

    Of course, the problem is that the vast majority will never know this. I think you have to have lived abroad for a couple of years to appreciate this and actually read different newspapers from different countries.

  5. Interesting argument, which I just discussed it with my wife. Background: we have subscribed to the FAZ for years, and my wife is busy finishing her Habilitation in American cultural history at the moment (she teaches american literature at the local uni here). She was very sceptical, and she is sensitive to anti-americanism. She pointed out that Frau Gelinsky writes for the Feuilltion and, in particular, the ‘Deutschland und die Welt’ section, or as she put it, the Bildzeitung bit. She doubts that anyone takes Katja Gelinsky very seriously, and I see her point: I take the ‘Deutschland und die Welt’ section so unseriously that I gave up reading it long ago. On the other hand, maybe we just underestimate how stupid/gullible the average FAZ reader is.

    Sean

  6. Sean, thanks for taking the argument seriously. “Deutschland und die Welt” appears in the first section of the FAZ, rather than the feuilliton, which signals news to me, rather than essays and opinions. We both know that the conventions of journalism are different in the US and Germany; many of the news articles I read in the FAZ would be firing offenses at US papers.

    Anyway, I am using a bit of a blunt instrument to get at something a little more subtle: a demonstration of the cliches that western Germans tend to hold about the US, and an example of how they are both formed and confirmed.

    It’s not even really necessary for FAZ readers to be foolish or gullible (on which point I am agnostic) or to take Gelisky seriously, but if their mental catalog of America already runs along lines of fat, gun-wielding, Jesus-besotted, money-grubbing, niekulturalny, death-penalty-supporting, environment-destroying dummies, then the stream of Gelinsky headlines gets slotted into that picture pretty readily. And I’m sure those readers would swear to not holding anti-American views.

    Finally, if Gelinsky is not taken seriously, why is she there? Surely Washington is a bit of a plum posting and any number of German journalists would be thrilled to write about America for the FAZ. I mean, it’s a bigger audience than, say, the Oberarschheim Kurier-Anzeiger, no? If Gelinsky’s serving the readers poorly and taking up space, that’s a problem easily solved.

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