Four years and 50 states later it is hard to say what has been the most striking, stunning, depressing, wonderful or uplifting experience I’ve had while covering the United States. But I can say that my bosses at Helsingin Sanomat, the largest daily newspaper in Finland, got their money’s worth Given my readers’ perceptions about America, which I learned from their e-mails and online comments, I often found myself bringing forth countering evidence …
when I flew to Chicago in November of 2007 for a two-day reporting trip. The result: three revealing stories, each very different from the other, each offering a glimpse of America.

There was my interview with Tony Lagouranis, who’d written the book, “Fear Up Harsh: An Army Interrogator’s Dark Journey Through Iraq.” He told me that he had tortured prisoners in Iraq while working there as a U.S. Army interrogator. That was when President George W. Bush and his inner circle were still insisting that “the United States does not torture.”

I then met William Spielberger, who was helping poor, mostly black, often old, and sometimes nearly illiterate people sue some of the nation’s biggest investment banks because of complex products they had been sold. In time, Americans would become quite familiar with the consequences of subprime loans.

Rachel Felson worked in a campaign headquarters located in a office building and was getting ready to devote herself fully to what then looked like the long-shot campaign of a local politician with an exotic name: Barack Hussein Obama.

Those two days in Chicago paint a portrait of the good, the bad, and the ugly that I shared with my Finnish readers as I told them about America. Anywhere I went, it seemed, I would stumble on this variety of stories in this wild, fascinating, mad and lovable land. For a foreign journalist the United States is a gold mine and a nightmare. Ever think you finally understand her, and something happens to bulldoze that feeling.

In my four years as our paper’s correspondent based in Washington, D.C., I witnessed the election of the first black U.S. president, reported on the worst economic crisis since the 1930’s, chronicled the fall of the auto industry and the rise of health care reform, and conveyed the horrible effects of oil spilling into the Gulf of Mexico. I spent time talking with heartbroken fishermen from Louisiana, and in Florida I walked through neighborhoods that went belly up when the mortgage crisis hit. Long-suffering families in Flint, Michigan shared the pride they felt in being the birthplace of General Motors, and then they expressed anger and sorrow as they watched their livelihoods from the American automobile industry vanish.

I traveled to a coal mining area of eastern Kentucky where the life expectancy of residents is 10 years less than those who live nearby in northern Virginia. Too much Mountain Dew, beer and OxyContin and too many potato chips and cigarettes are the culprits. Countless businesspeople and ordinary Americans I talked with expressed concern about China’s rising power, and people everywhere let me know their fears about the future and their feelings about the unkept promise of the American Dream; it didn’t matter whether they were making steel pipes, paper, gravestones or solar panels.

I also discovered in the state of Washington a private university called DigiPen with a degree-granting curriculum that teaches students how to make entertaining, addicting and sometimes even educational video games. Back on the East Coast, I went to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and met an artist who was studying the relationship between a researcher and a humanoid robot. And I read about some other researchers at MIT who invented a flying car: “Simply land at the airport, fold your wings up and drive home,” their commercial instructs.

In politics, I discovered a land of overlapping realities. In Oregon, a state known for its progressive politics, where euthanasia is legal, two members of the state Supreme Court are openly gay, and green practices and policies are common, I wrote about the fact that the state is also the home of America’s most conservative Republican voters, as measured in exit polls. With its ongoing battle between the country’s most liberal voters and its most conservative, Oregon turns out to be America’s most polarized state.

In Tennessee, I interviewed Tea Party activists and gun owners who told me they were afraid of Obama’s “socialism” and its destructive impact on their beloved country and its fiscal strength. “It’s only a matter of time when this house of cards will collapse,” said Stacie Burke, cofounder of the Tennessee Tea Party and a mother of three. “People are afraid and absolutely convinced that it is only a question of time when the federal government will come and take away our freedoms,” explained Terry Holmes who worked at a gun store in Nashville. Holmes lost his right hand in Vietnam. He told me that guns and ammunition sold like hotcakes after Obama won the presidential election.

When I visited Arizona to report on the passage of its strict immigration law, I remembered words from an essay by Richard Hofstadter entitled “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” which I first read during my Nieman year at Harvard. Here’s why:

American politics has often been an arena for angry minds … behind this I believe there is a style of mind that is far from new and that is not necessarily right-wing. I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind.

Hofstadter wrote those words in the 1960’s, though he could have written them today, or in the 1830’s, as he acknowledged in his book when he referred to Lyman Beecher, a Presbyterian minister (and the father of Harriet Beecher Stowe). In 1835, Beecher was worried about the great tide of Catholic immigrants from Europe: They would fill the jails and crowd the poorhouses, multiply tumult and violence, quadruple taxation, and mess up the elections. “Whatever we do, it must be done quickly,” he wrote in “Plea for the West.”

Something must be done—quickly—or the sky will fall. This story line is a common thread running through American politics. It’s certainly one that I relayed to my Finnish audience as I tried to explain these times. Despite this sense of urgency, back in Washington, D.C. partisanship has often crippled any action, slow or fast.

Storytelling for a Finnish Audience

As a foreign correspondent, my challenge was to tell stories about America in ways that would connect with my Finnish audience—both in print and through my multimedia presentations, blog postings, videos and radio pieces. After all, if they wanted news about America, they could go to the Web and find (in English) an abundant supply of U.S. publications. Yet, because I am Finnish, grew up there, still have family living there, and therefore understand and appreciate the cultural and political sensibilities of my audience, the stories I decided to tell and how I told them were closely tied to our shared experiences.

I came to this U.S. posting, for example, with the knowledge that Finns are very suspicious of American foreign policy: Only about 5 percent of Finns felt their country should join the invasion of Iraq. And Finns’ stereotypical views of Americans have largely been shaped by the TV shows and movies they’ve seen, holidays some have spent here, and individual encounters with Americans. They are curious, however, and digest bits of information that they come across. For example, many of my readers assumed that Americans are ignorant. Why? Because a well-publicized survey revealed that nearly a third of Americans could not name their vice president. Others believe that Americans don’t care about the environment because they account for a disproportionate share of the world’s carbon emissions. Here are a few other beliefs that many Finns hold: Americans invade faraway countries for oil; they are fundamentalist Christians who trust in the Old Testament’s “an eye for an eye” philosophy. As evidence, they point to the fact that Utah’s attorney general thought that the execution by firing squad of Ronnie Lee Gardner was something people would like to read about on Twitter. (“I just gave the go ahead to Corrections Director to proceed with Gardner’s execution. May God grant him the mercy he denied his victims.”)

Given my readers’ perceptions about America, which I learned about from their e-mails and online comments, I often found myself bringing forth countering evidence as I wrote about some of these issues:

  • Listen up folks: Michigan abolished the death penalty in 1846, more than 100 years before the high-minded folks in Finland.
  • Yellowstone was the first national park in the world and the U.S. Congress established it in 1872 when one would think that they might have been busy with other things.
  • All voting in Oregon is done by mail, and we have a lot to learn from their experiences and electoral innovations.

Two of Mykkänen’s pieces from Helsingin Sanomat, available in English:
EYEWITNESS: Sauna, schmoozing, and the four-inch rule
U.S. military gives Helsingin Sanomat tour of Guantánamo facility

I’d also remind readers that whenever a mistake is made in or by America or power is abused, forces surface to remedy the problems and get the country back on track. For every Hummer that an American owns, there are long waiting lists of people eager to buy an environmentally friendly Prius. In the aftermath of a hurricane at home or an earthquake or tsunami in other countries, the American people volunteer to help. Former President Bill Clinton expressed this best at the Democratic National Convention in 2008: “People the world over have always been more impressed by the power of our example than by the example of our power.”

At times it was hard to tell whether Americans truly understood how much their policies and actions during the past decade—concerning the military, the environment, and the economic crisis—have harmed their international standing. When the pictures from Abu Ghraib surfaced in the spring of 2004, the U.S. State Department postponed the release of its global report called “Supporting Human Rights and Democracy: The U.S. Record 2003-2004.” When it was released two weeks late, I recall how one Chinese official mocked the U.S., saying the report had become the laughingstock of the world and it exposed America’s hypocrisy about human rights.

In heading back to Finland I take with me an understanding I didn’t have when I arrived four years ago: A person can tell stories about America but never quite explain her.

Pekka Mykkänen, a 2004 Nieman Fellow, was the Washington, D.C. correspondent for Helsingin Sanomat, the largest daily in Finland, from 2006 to 2010. He reported for the newspaper from China as its Asia correspondent from 1998 to 2003.

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