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The Danish Piñata? A TV Correspondent’s View

Did CBS’s “60 Minutes” resort to the same stereotyping it accused Danish catoonists of using?

March 20, 2006

Did CBS's "60 Minutes" resort to the same stereotyping it accused Danish catoonists of using?

Denmark — my home country — has been through a lot in recent months. To be sure, following the cartoon controversy, we Danes certainly have plenty of things to reflect upon.

But one thing that does not advance the cause of better understanding between cultures is resorting to more stereotyping, especially not with the television camera in hand. And yet, that is precisely what CBS News’ venerable “60 Minutes” current affairs program did a few weeks ago.

Veteran correspondent Bob Simon blasted Denmark in a feature charmingly entitled “The State of Denmark.”

The picture of Denmark I saw on “60 Minutes,” a country of aggrandizing, arrogant bigots, blond models and happy-go-lucky fools out of tune and touch with the real world, has nothing in common with the country I call home.

The imagery used certainly made Denmark come off as some latter-day Aryan nation, full of blond-haired, blue-eyed übermenschen, happy to live on their utopian island.

Never mind that Denmark is home to immigrants from all over the world of all faiths and cultures, who have found happiness and a safe haven for themselves and their families taking full advantage of what Denmark has to offer.

To be sure, they are doing much better than one would think after having watched Bob Simon’s story on “60 Minutes.”

I have a confession to make. I am a television journalist myself — and work for Denmark’s leading news program at the national network, TV2 Denmark.

What upsets me is not the deluge of international criticism that came down on Denmark. No, what I find objectionable is the kind of drive-by shooting masquerading as journalism as practiced by Bob Simon.

It certainly does not have much in common with the traditions of Edward R. Murrow — globally memorialized in George Clooney’s impressive “Good Night and Good Luck” movie.

Nor is it in line with the professionalism of his associate and long-time producer, Fred Friendly. I was lucky enough in the late 1970s to have been taught by him at the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University.

Snide remarks, sarcasm and the purveyance of incorrect statements or misrepresentations — the dubious art that permeated the narrative of Mr. Simon’s “The State of Denmark” — does not mix with the high-quality journalism that I learned from Fred Friendly — and have come to expect from “60 Minutes.”

I am sorry to say it, but his presentation was so biased and distorted that it is shameful to the profession to which both Bob Simon and I belong.

For example, Simon said, “…there’s no Muslim cemetery anywhere”. Well, not exactly. Danish Muslims have graveyards all over the country. They have been offered a plot for a cemetery, but so far have not been able to agree among themselves — or to raise the funds to operate it.

Simon also said, “There isn’t a real mosque in the entire country.” Well, not exactly. There are many mosques all over the country, including storefronts of the very same type as exist in Brooklyn and other urban environments in the United States.

To date, the 19 different Muslim communities in Denmark have not been able to agree on building a new mosque — or to raise the necessary capital.

That is not to say that Muslims do not receive ample public funds in Denmark. Many of these communities operate their own schools, with 75% of their budgets covered by public funds.

Then, there are other pesky facts which went unmentioned by Mr. Simon. Both national and international polls show that Danes have some of the least-xenophobic attitudes among European countries, documented in a 1999 survey by the European Values Study of 31 European countries.

Also, a poll by the analysis bureau, Catinét Research, showed that more than two-thirds of all immigrants feel well-integrated into Danish society. As one clear-cut indication, ever more immigrants are seeking entry to Denmark — including from Muslim countries.

To be sure, just as the United States, with its current anti-immigration legislation, and all other countries in Europe and as far away as Australia, we Danes have had our share of problems with minorities and integration.

No real surprises here, what matters is that we are learning and accommodating — and that we realize it takes time. We are looking at what others have done and are trying to avoid their mistakes.

Simon also said that Flemming Rose, the culture editor who had published the cartoons in Jyllandsposten, Denmark’s largest newspaper, was resting in the United States — and staying “at a five-star hotel in Washington, D.C.”

What difference does it make whether Mr. Rose stayed in an EconoLodge, a private home or a hotel? Such cheap shots are commonly practiced, of course, in the pages of supermarket tabloids. No Murrow or Friendly here. Only Simon, who continues to say things that are smug and incorrect.

Even by his own logic, that apparently many Danes are bigots and that Mr. Rose is an irresponsible flame-thrower, Mr. Simon would have a hard time answering this question: In what ways do his own proclivities toward stereotyping differ from those of Mr. Rose?

Too bad that Bob Simon’s own view of reality was so blurred that he lost sight of the larger issues. Not only of the freedom of speech, but fairness and enlightenment.

He certainly has every right to criticize Mr. Rose and his newspaper’s publishing policy, but not at the price of doing so by training his camera to record a fully preconceived — and entirely stereotypical — view.

It is one thing to tell a story about the weak and the strong, the good and the bad. It is quite another to paint a picture of Denmark as, for the most part, a nation of paranoid people inhabiting a fairy tale land.

In the end, there is no room for high-handedness, neither in Denmark or the United States. Most of us today live in societies in transition. We all have to contend with people’s fears, with people victimized, and so on.

To pretend that this is some sort of peculiar Danish disease, innate to our genetic code, is something that I am certain would make Mr. Simon’s spiritual guides, Edward R. Murrow and Fred Friendly, shudder.

Despite the enticing references to Hans Christian Andersen, which Bob Simon offered his viewers, the correspondent seems to have missed the point of his masterpiece fairy tale, The Emperor’s New Clothes.

It actually is one of my favorite stories because it captures something truly crucial about Danes and their mentality. We don’t care much for authorities and speak our mind whether we are faced with dogma, doctrinaire thinking, outright fakery or worse.

Whether we are dealing with royalty, governments or some other hierarchies, we Danes have this disrespectful streak. Sometimes it gets us into trouble.

But quite frankly, when faced with the alternative of always being proper or insincere and doing what we are told by “the Authority,” we don’t give a damn.

In the end, we are quite like the little boy in Andersen’s fairy tale. We will tell anyone that they are naked — if that’s what they are. We don’t care if it is an emperor, an editor or a TV correspondent.