Tag Archives: stereotypes

The Wall Came Tumblin’ Down

9 Nov

Today is the 20th anniversary of the breaking down of the Berlin Wall.  It also marks my 20th year in Minnesota…and there is a connection.

Twenty years ago September, I stuffed all the worldly possessions I could fit into a poorly air-conditioned 1982 Ford Escort and drove from Rhode Island to Minneapolis.  My goal: go to graduate school, get a couple degrees from the School of Journalism and maybe become a professor (I didn’t become a professor, but that’s a story for another time).

People constantly asked me what I wanted to study, I had the germ of an idea.  It grew straight out of the Cold War and its aftermath, and was, essentially this: How was everything we’d ever learned about the world so completely wrong? And what was the media’s role?

You have to understand that growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, there was no doubt about how the world worked. The Russians were evil, inscrutable and powerful.  Half of Europe was in thrall to the Soviets, and always would be.  War was unthinkable and inevitable.  These were incontrovertible facts and always would be.  Until Mikhail Gorbachev started talking about glasnost and perestroika and the United States didn’t get in the way, and in a few years, the Wall came down.  And those incontrovertible facts…weren’t.

When people heard my thesis topic, they often assumed I had an interest in Russia and Russian history. I didn’t, not specifically anyway.  My interest was in how a society – and the media in particular – perpetuated this inflexible worldview…in the ways we get trapped by stereotypes and stories, and ignore what doesn’t fit so that nothing changes.

So when I think of how the Wall came down, I feel the joy of the people of Europe embracing freedom.  And I also think about change – about how the people of Europe began to believe that things could be different.  About the need to look past “what is” and toward “what could be” in my own life and work.  Because today, as individuals and as organizations, we are the media … we can help people see the world in new ways.  When the story should change — or simply could be better, or fresher, or more meaningful — it’s not just in our power to embrace change – it’s our responsibility.

Big Bad Russia: Back in the News

13 Aug

Are we witnessing the return of the “big bad Russians”?

The other day on Twitter, a public radio journalist I follow wrote, “It’s like the ’80s again. Russia’s soldiers are invading countries and its judges are jobbing us at the Olympics.”

Back at the end of the 1980s, I was sliding seamlessly from graduation to graduate school.  As I cast about for a master’s thesis topic suitable for journalism school, I kept coming back to one issue:  how is it that everything we knew as ‘eternal’ about the Soviet Union could be wrong.  I wanted to see how this played out in the media.  I analyzed Associated Press stories from 1983-84 — when movies like “The Day After” and “Red Dawn” seemed plausible — to 1988 — across the years of glasnost and perestroika when our whole worldview was turned upside down.  What I studied was how the state of relationship and conflict between countries has an impact on the use of stereotypes in the media about Russia and its people.  The hypothesis: that when our countries were opposed, there would be an emphasis on differences in culture and values between us and them; in times when our interests were more aligned, the emphasis would be on similarities.

The thesis was, perhaps, a bit obvious.  But the AP was supposed to deliver the news; it wasn’t supposed to be portraying Russians as evil, violent, bearlike, ruthless, drunken and foolish with an evil government that every last Russian would flee if they could. But they were, subtly.  And as our conflict with the Soviets thawed, so did the use of these kinds of stereotypes.

And now, as Russia continues to rise as a US competitor and as a potential threat to US interests in Georgia … and perhaps Ukraine, the Middle East and South Asia?  Well, if you believe a callow graduate student from the early 1990s, watch for more stories in the media that make you see the Russians not just acting against our interests, but as different. And in international relations and journalism, different is not good.

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