A personal, opinionated, thoughtful and slightly sarcastic view from the “under reported” and seemingly less media interesting parts of America by an American who lives in Finland. Two days after the election, I traveled back to my home town outside Cleveland, Ohio in the heart of the midwest to give you this … slightly different, very human and fairly comprehensive opinion of my observations. So, get a hot cup of tea, curl up on the couch and enjoy.
It was November 11th, 2016, two days after a historic election day, and I was getting off the plane in Cleveland, Ohio. Worried. Concerned. I was back in my hometown. But now it was Trump’s America. As I headed to the baggage claim, I came to the realization that I was a brown guy in a place that had just seen one of the most vicious political campaigns of my life time. In a state that Donald Trump had won in a campaign that probably brought out some of the worst sides of my home country. On TV I saw reporting about a candidate who had no shame or experience now elected to the highest office in the land. I saw an election lost by the candidate who ran on a progressive, social and inclusive platform and actually had a majority of votes but was seen as the ultimate corrupt insider by many people.
There were reports of incidents of racial violence and hate speech against Muslims, African Americans and Latinos that seemed to now have a new license. Was I walking into a land where political correctness had been given the boot and the appalling lynchings of the old south would again be accepted? Were we going to have Muslim registrations and internment camps like we had for the Japanese during World War II “…until someone figures out what the hell is going on”? There were protests in the streets of “Not my president” and claims by some that people protesting did not vote. Pundits made huge worst case / best case speculations about the choice the country had made as Trump began appointing and nominating his Alt Right loyalists and GOP heavyweights to posts in the government. And a lot of media professionals were asking themselves questions about how their millions of dollars in polling, political machinery and data got it all wrong.
Since the election, I had been hearing and reading countless interviews with people on the streets. There were extremely afraid people they knew or their families were now going to be removed from the country. That now the US would stop all climate change efforts and start burning more coal when we were so close to renewable energy opportunities. Others felt like finally they had a champion who would set the problems of a broken Washington elite on the right path. A “Law and order” leader that could give the good police force their voice back and #blacklivesmatter would be put into perspective. There was no reason to doubt either side. This stuff was really happening and almost every story and opinion from credible sources had its validity. This was my picture of the America I was flying into. Who wouldn’t be afraid? The impending clash of both polarized sides alone was something to be concerned about.
Over the week that I spent with my family in a quiet suburb of Cleveland (except for the excessive use of leaf blowing machines), I found something extraordinary: If you were not watching TV or burying your head in Facebook, it seemed things were pretty much the way I had left them a year and a half ago. People cutting their lawns, kids going to school, work being done at the office, friendly people at the store greeting one another with, “Hi, how are you doing?” even though you don’t know who they are and my parents going about their daily business of senior activities.
Shockingly, it seemed daily life had not taken the instant catastrophic turn that was being reported! What the hell was going on? I was expecting broken windows, Molotov cocktails, and plenty of drama on the street I grew up on just like I saw on TV. Were they living in a bubble?
Being an American who lives abroad gives me a very special perspective into the stories that are not being told on the news. There have been so many times that I have been shocked and confused by the things I have seen on my social media feeds and on TV from the comfort of my home in Espoo, Finland. Then I visit my parents only to find out that the media has “cried wolf”. And it’s not that they did not see an actual event worth reporting (a “wolf). To me it just seems the media and people watching see ONLY “wolves” and do not observe all the other parts of the situation and environment that might put that event into perspective. It does not help that the “wolves” are undeniable a source of interesting stories and reporting on them, of course, brings in lots of viewers, clicks and subsequently, money.
So it appears that for obvious reasons, Trump’s America is worth reporting on, but my parents’ America, boring and normal as it may seem, is not. My parents are part of the 99.9% of people who live their daily lives and have to make their way with daily issues not worth CNN’s or Fox News’s time. It’s not even worth tweeting about. The stories of the majority of the 350 million people in this country simply do not quality for nor fit within the 24/7 news cycle. In addition, the racists and loud liberals are getting all the attention because the real economic and daily problems of the people I know are not interesting enough to talk about. Furthermore, the media, driven by those who consume and click, is only interested in topics that will provide a good soundbite. The details that add perspective are left out. Sometimes even key facts are left out. We only want to know about “the wolf”. And the “wolf” confirms our own, previously established beliefs, determining who we trust.
When you go out into our town and observe and listen to how people feel, you see and hear a lot of different views. My parents took me to their favorite restaurant. I saw a bunch of guys at the restaurant eating burgers and wearing, with complete disregard for dining etiquette, ”Make America Great Again” hats. At the same time, our brown family was happily co-existing in the same space eating our meals and catching up. No drama.
Even though life seems to be going along its usual course, people seem very concerned and disheartened. My friend, the fire chief from our town, is concerned about the potential devastation the Trump administration might have to the core values of equality and the environment. Lots of people don’t want to talk about it at all out of either fatigue or embarrassment (of either victory or loss). My friend noted that many public service employees have been told not to make public comments about the election on any public forums or while in uniform.
I kept seeing two worlds. One from TV and one from daily life. I tried to find direct, immediate changes based on the election of Trump (in line with what people were speaking about) but I noticed that their life is going ok in our neighborhood. Their kids are safe. They seem to have food on the table and a big screen TV. But depending on the radio station they listen to, the TV coverage they follow and the social media platforms they use, they believe, fear and celebrate one point of view or another. Few people are listening to balanced reporting from all sides. Sides with any popularity are very extreme in presentation. During the election, all you heard about on Fox News was emails and on CNN it seemed like talk of people’s genitals was going on 24/7. So rarely was the reporting about the issues and things that change people’s daily lives. In short, there seems to be very one sided media trust; completely polar conversations based on what you choose to listen to and based on what people shared on social media. It’s not that the things reported were not factual (of course there was a lot of fake news out there), but the bigger problem I saw was just that so often only certain facts were given the majority of airtime.
And I think this is because telling people what they want to hear, sells.
One way I see Americans are different from Finns is in how they market and sell. As an American, I want to be sold to. I want to be told a product is the best! I want lots of exclamation points and to feel guilty for walking away from a GREAT DEAL! I insanely want to be told that if I go any other way, I am doomed. It’s part of the American greatness. In Finland, people feel the exact opposite. If you tell a Finn something you have is the best, they immediately don’t trust you. For some reason that is really comforting.
It’s not surprising that although having its own problems now and then, Finland has the number one press freedom in the world. This is surely due to the natural skepticism and risk averse nature of the Finnish citizen. The US is ranked 41st. Finns appreciate facts. Of course, people in every country are busy and focused on their own things in the world but I find Americans unfortunately have slowly fallen deeper in to the need to be entertained to pay attention. Through hearing what we want to hear we build trust in a media that tells us that. The Trump circus is pure entertainment that we can’t take our eyes off in fear we will miss some spectacular feat of dodging, yet again, something that would surely guarantee pure failure to any normal mortal. It is amazing to watch. Sometimes the world dips into our wonderful drug of choice also. But because they don’t see reporting about our normal daily lives they have even less context to see our alternative perspective.
And at the same time, the average people, like my family and friends, are sidelined and ignored in this reporting, consequently narrowing the width of perspective. People are simply much more bound to click on more dangerous and exciting things going on in the country and in the world. I have to admit that the election reporting was addictive for me as well. As an example, we know the Facebook algorithm gives more of the type of content we engage with. The digital cookies on our computers are gathering our opinions. It feels like when we move outside the virtual world, we not only have “cookies” on our devices following us but also in our heads and this is making us give higher credit to the media we consume than to the reality we are experiencing. Combine this with a population fully consumed by media 24/7 with the tragic stories of disturbing actions towards people based on their background, and it can make people view Trump as either the Antichrist, the 2nd coming of Jesus or both.
Shouldn’t we be rationally mixing those facts and opinions found in media sources with trust in the tangible things around us? One step is diversifying one’s media consumption but what about mixing that with one’s own daily reality?
I spoke a lot with my mom while I was visiting. She comes from an era where black people did not have the same rights as white people in America. The right to vote was in the law but people were profiled and blocked from exercising that right in many places. In some places, people of different colors could not use the same bathrooms or water fountains, get normal services, sit on the bus in the same place or even marry the person that they loved if they were of another race.
When my Mom follows reports on TV and on the radio, she is scared that we are going back to those days. Despite, from what I can see, the environment around her is undoubtedly safe and secure. She goes into public with new caution, not knowing if the things she has seen on TV are now in her neighborhood too. Like many, she has seen it all before and can’t shake those experiences from her mind.
And that idea brings me to the biggest question of my trip: Where is our interest in the boring stuff that gives us faith that things are going to be ok or at least a balance based in fact? I am talking about the combination of the reality of the environment around us mixed with and nerdy fact based media source and rational, unemotional yet widely differentiated discussion around the agreed facts. I think we need it. It just does not seem to be psychologically possible any more, if it ever was.
I never thought I would say this, but in my view, I hope that Finland never stops having its non-tabloid news media be boring, cautious, skeptical and lacking most entertainment value. I dream that the best journalists in America would not be the ones with the craziest opinions on their prime-time TV show but rather the cold quiet ones who asked the best fact based questions and made us question our own opinions, think, discuss and make us so passionate that we actively participate in the political process to bring about the changes we desire. Maybe someday every American could have at least one Finnish friend on Facebook or Twitter to keep them aware of boring, trusted and cold the facts from translated Finnish media. Maybe Finland is the future of trusted media in the world. After all they do have the track record and credibility to be the leader in this area. Seriously! It could happen! At least it would be worth a try.
It seems we have been living in the ultimate American experiment in blurring the lines of entertainment and news. In my observation, the American point of view has evolved into a case of fear and false hope because we as a society don’t seem to be interested in the boring facts that help make solid rational thoughts and decisions. If we were interested in facts, we click on them, read them and share them. They would get a higher Google ranking and be spread across Facebook like the latest funny cat video you shared yesterday. In our current state, we have not diversified our portfolio of media opinions (like a good stock portfolio) and few of us have the desire to listen to fact based boring journalism that takes as long to read as this article (if you actually got this far) (tl;dr). And whether you are happy or sad about it, this has possibly lead to Brexit and to our surprise at being Trumped.
But in the meantime, I am happy to report that there are no broken windows, Molotov cocktails, or drama on my parents’ street. Just the happy noise of that damn leaf blower. So stay vigilant and alert but in perspective.
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Below is a list of personal favorite articles from these turbulent media times and podcasts from several different sides of the spectrum (Liberal opinions, Conservative opinions and a few pure facts).
Stephen Lee is a Digital and Social Media Specialist at Miltton with a slight addiction to politics. He works with clients on the development and implementation of digital strategies for better communication based on data analysis.