Washington Post returns to Romania, fails

Kevin Sullivan of the Washington Post returned to Romania for a second story in one month. His first, about the American air force base built in my homeland, was enjoyable if only because it carefully dealt with a cultural cliche: the endless wait for the Americans.


His second fails because Sullivan embarks on a journey of stereotyping and cliche-dropping. The story, as a much angrier Luiza pointed out, is valid as news (Luiza actually sent me an e-mail about the story with the subject “wtf? wp?”). Romania is hoping to join the E.U. in 2007 and there is great anticipation and nervousness about this prospect. But from reading Sullivan you’d think the slaughtering of pigs is the biggest change facing Romania as the E.U. rolls in. It’s one of them, sure — but is the lead of a Washington Post story? For the record: I think the 10-minute video version of the story from which the stills are taken is better.

Can a reader learn anything about Romania’s efforts to join the E.U. if the killing of pigs is the catch-all metaphor? I don’t think so. I do give Sullivan the benefit of the doubt — reporting on foreign countries is hard and it’s even harder not to fall into the trap of telling the same story of the forgotten savage country hoping to be rescued.

Still in the darkness

What is even more frustrating is that the piece was initially uploaded with the following headline: “The E.U.’s Reshaping of Romania.” The sub-head said: “In preparation for entry, nation tackles rampant corruption, ingrained discrimination.” Four hours later, the headline online said: “Out of the darkness.” And the sub-head: “Romania tried to shed its traditional past for entry in the E.U.”

I can just image the copy editors scrambling about the newsroom asking for a juicier, punchier headline on Romania. Hey, it’s Romania y’all! Why the neutral lead? They are f-ed up enough to warrant “darkness” slapped next to the name.
I am posting this before seeing the actual newspaper (it should be here in three hours) and I’m doing it soon after having sent an e-mail to both the paper and the reporter. The text of the letter is below:

Dear Mr. Sullivan,

I appreciate the interest you took in my native country of Romania and the willingness of the Washington Post to print two stories from there in a month. Both as a subscriber, and as a Romanian journalist living in Washington, D.C., I have come to know these stories are rare.

Your piece on the opening of the American military base was a great read. It’s an important issue to the country and probably a strategic move in the region. I also enjoyed the theme – it was about time the Americans came to Romania.

I am disappointed though with your second piece. I am writing this the night before the paper arrives, having only read the story online. Already I see the headline has been changed from a neutral “The E.U.’s reshaping of Romania” to a pathetic “Out of the darkness,” which is an unfortunate stereotype to kick off with. Even more unfortunate is that you choose another stereotype as your lead. I would not have led a piece about America with an image of a mega-church, nor a piece about Kazakhstan with horse slaying (the Post did).

Yes, pig slaughtering happens and it is common, but is it really a catch-all metaphor for Romania joining the EU? I understand the practice along with the “spouting blood” must fascinate foreigners, but it’s a cheap gimmick to lure readers in. It is there simply for its oddity and tinge of savageness.

I wish you wouldn’t have taken the easy way out. You constructed the story opposing the confused, the disenfranchised and the poor to the very powerful, thus perpetuating the narrative of a hopeless and cruel Romania. While you were in Targu Mures – my hometown – why didn’t you stop to talk to my father, a doctor, who has refused to give up on the country despite the corruption and rampant pig slaughtering. For the past 15 years he has built an NGO to help kids with special needs and just recently the foundation won a huge award for having the best projects in the country. People like him have plenty to say about the coming year and they will be, to some degree, the ones having to translate the impact of joining the EU to the rest of us.

Certainly I was not the intended audience for this piece and it’s what saddens me most. You have told nothing to your readers about what it actually means to be in the E.U. or to have Romania join the group. Nothing about what Romania has struggled with in closing some of the chapters. No context on the process, the delays, the push and pull. And I refuse to believe you didn’t have some of that in your notes.

I am sorry you decided to use the slaughtering of pigs and the discrimination of Roma to define Romania. Add that to the orphans, the selling of children, the wild dogs and Dracula. I have tried my best to paint America as complex as possible in my dispatches to Romanian media. I guess I should stop and take the easy way out — referring to President Bush as a former failed businessman while filing dispatches from catch-all locations like Boulder.

I appreciate the chance to read about my country in the Washington Post, but it’s time the paper took some time to shake-up the master narrative it’s perpetuating on the subject.



* Click here to read about my first six months as a subscriber to the Washington Post.

* And click here to see me stereotype my country in a Christian Science Monitor op-ed. We’ve discussed the piece on this blog here.

7 Responses to “Washington Post returns to Romania, fails”

  1. Popa Serban Says:

    Dear Mr. Sullivan,
    I was amazed of the limited opinion that you have about my native country Romania. I do not like to underestimate your opinion, because you are right that we still have problems, problems related to open market implementation in real life, problems related to human rights or ethnic restrictions, but I would like to suggest trying to make a realistic compare of my actual country situation with the situation of European countries years ago.
    Also it is true that corruption is one of the major problems, but also the same phenomena is still existing in countries with a longer experience of fighting against such “disease” and you should recognize at least that improvements can not appear over the night.
    Also the analysis if Romania is ready to “enter in Europe” or not should not be let on your shoulders, but on some other more competent analysts. Romania is already in Europe as was for the last hundreds of years and the only question is if Romania will be able to sustain the conditions and regulations of European Union from now on.
    I will really like to see an opinion from your side regarding the major contribution of all European countries and not only (USA or UK nearby for sure) to the actual situation over the communistic period in which you let us to survive and seems that you are willing to leave us from now on as well!
    Anyhow at the end, I would like to appreciate your efforts and to recommend a further analysis on all relevant aspects, positive or negative, of my country.
    Best regards,
    Serban Popa

  2. I was under the impression that I really was not that aggressive in my post 🙂 I mean, considering how angry I was over the Post’s story when I wrote my comment, I was damned nearly polite. I only used the F word once.

    Seriously, this is a touchy subject for me; has been, for a long time. When I was in the US, I was terrified of giving US stories a wrong feel, because I knew what international reporting has done to my country imagewise.

    Now how do I explain to my foreign friends that although some of us kill pigs, we ARE NOT a land of backwards primitives? It is going to be very hard to erase the Post article from their memories. So unfair.

  3. Once again, proud of you.

  4. You criticism is valid, to me. I tried to reflect on it a bit before posting a comment.

    I suppose it is terribly easy to immediatley focus on the negative differences of another culture. Look how quickly the French are relegated to being arrogant or Iranians being wild-eyed jihadists. So, too, Romania is given the gloss-over.

    It sounds as though Mr. Sullivan knows his audience. Washington DC elitists who are completely out of touch with humanity and like to fancy themselves as heroes of the third world. Now, if he were to paint Romania as tantamount to being a peer, he might lose his job as the audience perceived him to be incompetent. But show some kindly villagers practicing a long tradition of eating (killing a pig) as this savage imagery is gobbled up. That kind of writing may be one way to keep your job.

    I sometimes find myself engaging in some sharing negative glimpses of Romania with friends and family, but normally remember (albeit, at the end) to remind them I think it is a wonderful country with an amazing culture/people. I generally recognize that my negative insights are merely a reaction to my norms and not an indictment of Romania as such. Sometimes, after a spell, I even end up enjoying the differences.

    Take the pig slaughtering and blood spurting. In a way, it is almost sad that this aspect of rural Romanian culture is scheduled for termination. Granted, the overwhelming vast majority of people I know here do not kill pigs. Some of them have never even witnessed it. But a handful of folks in the countryside have and it’s just a part of their way of life. They won’t immediately stop the practice because the EU demands it. No, I suspect it will die out, of course, but slowly. In fact, it is my hope to attend such an event around Christmas 2006 (since I foolishly squandered an opportunity a few months ago).

    People are often fascinated by how others live differently. Especially when you can deride them and feel superior in some way.

    Like how Romanians love to Americans are all fat. Of course, we are… but that’s beside the point.

  5. you didn’t like the butchered pig and spurting blood? yeah, who would? it is gross. but really – none of you come from villages? none of you visit your grandparents in their village? isn’t it interesting that all the comments seem to be addressed to the fact the author chose to write about pig butchering, not to the fact that maybe there is something wrong with the way pigs are slaughtered in romania?


    ok. it’s an image that was meant to keep people reading. it’s meant to keep people reading. it’s pathetic and cheap.

    or is it? maybe it’s indicative of the huge divides – between romania and much of europe and between romanians themselves.

    so, for those who did read this article, what did they read?

    mr. sullivan says joining the eu will change things – big and small – in romania. yep. it sure will.

    you read more to hear oana gatu complain, “we’re too poor.” fair enough. besides, it’s the mantra of romania – “we’re too poor.” along with – “we got left behind after world war II.” “our government is corrupt.” “the roma are screwing up our town.” get over it. seriously.

    what else?

    mr. sullivan comments that romania has an almost eerie obsession with joining the eu. how many eu flags can one country possibly have? how many stores have to be called euro-ceva?

    the digital clock in bucuresti. i was pleased to see in the video clip that the clock appears to be working. well, at least the two visible faces are telling the same time. whether it was the correct time is anyone’s guess. the countdown timer has always, strangely, worked. one can’t help but wonder – romania knows what time it is for joining europe but it can’t figure out what is going on within its own borders. talk about eerie.

    no one mentioned “ulita spre europa.” if i’m not mistaken, this is produced by romanian state television. ok. this is going to be a poor argument now that i’ve said that but still… you want to complain about stereotypes, look no further than this monstrosity.

    mr. ghemes and his family in tg. mures. his life isn’t an example of a pretty ordinary romanian? we’re not talking village here. this is a town of 160,000 or so people. his life is so ordinary and so typical, my eyes almost rolled back in my head reading about him.

    aunt tamara? hello? i will say no more than – that scandal has been going on too long.

    interesting that mr. basescu gets out of this article entirely unscathed. interesting indeed.

    oh yes. mr. sullivan points out that romania is having a hard time figuring out how to deal with roma. the video clip – the primar in targu frumos blames all the pandele family’s problems on ALL roma. yep. sure. because everyone in the country – from president to primar to ordinary profesor – teaches and lives such tolerance. right. ms. macovei even says it, “In the real life, the majority, the Romanians, do still treat the Roma people as different and not their equals.”

    and luiza – is romania not under pressure from the eu? is the country not trying to get past its half century of communism? i’m just asking.

    i can only conclude that maybe not everyone read this article in its entirety. mr. sullivan didn’t play on every stereotype – he gave a pretty straightforward, maybe a little shallow, view of the situation. what? you want him to explain every nuance that is romania? come on, this is the washington post – not an academic journal. it seems he gave a fair assessment of a country that so many of the post’s readers likely know nothing about. well, nothing beyond dracula and orphans. (he didn’t mention either!)

    romania, despite every possibly horrible and hard and mean thing i have said, is an amazing country with an amazing heart and unbelievable people. it is a country overloaded with warmth and passion and brains and desire – but it reminds one of a promising teenager. it is full of power but completely unsure where to go or what to do or how to do it and it is full of bluster. it refuses to admit its mistakes and would rather die a thousand deaths than ask for help. i love you romania, but please grow up!

  6. I am surprised to see that you have understood the basis of the fear of the Romanian concerning the integration of their country into the EEU
    Beside the fact that their fear consists in the fact that they won’t be able to kill the pigs before Christmas, the people of Romania have some other phobiae.
    For instance, the Romanian people have other fears like sending Dracula for the second time to England or being forced to export dragons.
    As you perhaps know, some Americans believe that we have farms where dragons are grown in our mountains.
    I am no more surprised that only in the year 2005, almost 2000 American journalists packed their desks into boxes and came out of their offices
    maybe for the last time,
    according to the annual report “The State of the News Media” published by Project for Excellence in Journalism’s

  7. I enjoyed your thoughtful post. And, speaking as an American, I sympathize strongly with your objection to the way Romania is often portrayed in the English-language press. Keep up the good work!