(upbeat music) (camera beeping) (dramatic music) - "Eye on Education," I'm Fred Martino.
WSIU regularly hosts journalists from Germany as part of the RIAS Berlin Exchange Program.
Each year, journalists from the United States travel to Germany and German journalists come here.
And there's also a program for students and recent graduates.
My guest today recently completed a master's program in Germany and writes for a newspaper and online publication in Berlin.
We welcome RIAS Fellow Wiebke Bolle.
- Wiebke, thank you for being here.
- Thanks for having me.
- It is great to have you with us today.
And you know, I wanna start with kind of a general question for you, but I always find this interesting.
Tell me about your decision to apply for this program and what the highlights have been for you.
- Yeah, I guess my main goal to apply for this program was to meet other journalists, especially US journalists and just build international relations with them.
And my highlights, in New York City, I got access to people and places I normally haven't to, for example, the UN.
But I also met, we met, the whole group met Phil Murphy, the governor of New Jersey, but also a woman who left the Jewish Orthodox community in Williamsburg, or Juda Engelmayer.
He is the crisis communication manager of Harvey Weinstein so that was really impressive and interesting to meet all of those different people.
- Incredible diversity.
And you were with a group of a little more than a dozen, I believe, journalists, right, from Germany?
- Yeah, we were 15.
- 15 overall.
- I think 15 young... - And this incredible diversity of meeting people in New York City for a week, and then you fan out all over the United States.
You got to come to Southern Illinois, but folks were all over the United States with hosts, many of whom had been to Germany as part of the exchange program.
Disclosure that I went to Germany about 20 years ago now, almost, and have been doing this ever since.
And it's a real passion of mine to get to meet journalists from Germany because I really believe in this idea of meeting other journalists from other countries, getting to learn more about other countries.
We really are, you know, world affairs is so important today and we're gonna get to that discussion, but I have another basic question for you to get people to know you before we begin some of that more detailed information.
Tell me about your decision to pursue journalism as a career.
- Yeah, I think I always wanted to write.
It's the typical thing you always hear, but I also wanted to tell stories of other people, especially of those who aren't heard that much from the public.
- Voice to the voiceless.
- Yeah, exactly.
- Very interesting.
From your time here, and I realize it's a short amount of time in the scheme of things, what has stood out most to you about the United States?
- I guess how different every state is.
I mean, I have seen New York and then went to Missouri, St. Louis and now being here in Southern Illinois, every state is so different with different people, different laws, different problems.
For example, in St. Louis, I heard first of my, or first in my life I heard about white flight.
So I think that's the most outstanding for me is that it's such a big country, and every place is so different.
- Okay, very interesting.
So those social issues are very interesting to you.
I want to talk about some issues related to the image of the United States in Germany through major news events because this is something that a lot of people are talking about right now as we approach next year's presidential election.
It's hard to believe that we're already there to the next one, 2024.
- Yeah, it is.
- And the campaigning has already started.
Tell us how the US image in Germany changed after, in your view, after the attack on the US Capitol.
And also tell me your reflections on that.
- Mm-hmm, yeah, I mean, after Jan 6th, we had a picture of how Trump supporters look like, or all the Germans had it.
So there was really, I mean, most of us were shocked, really just shocked about this happening.
And I guess it was really unbelievable or really surprising for us.
How could something like this happen?
And how could someone really vote for this guy, for Trump?
There was a big apprehension about that too.
So now after this, after Jan 6th, we had those pictures, and I mean, they went around the world, and we have them still in our heads and was such a, this was a huge event.
- As you're saying that, you know, I should say that of course I would think it's fair to say that most people in the United States never thought that this could happen either.
That this was something that happened in other countries, was the idea.
It would not happen here, an attempt to overthrow the transfer of power to actually attack our US Capitol.
Of course, the attack, though, followed an extraordinary four years during the Trump administration where a lot of things were occurring that normally did not happen in Washington, D.C. even before the insurrection.
Tell me about former President Trump's impact on the US, you know, image in Germany and your own reflections on some of the things that you were seeing in Germany because there's a lot of US news in Germany.
The US is covered a lot.
Yeah, I mean, Trump splits the society in two parts, and we could see that.
On the one side, we had the Democrats, on the other side the Republicans.
And the different sides can't speak with each other anymore.
They fight against each other, and it was unbelievable before.
He was the president who polarized the political sides.
- So even though there always have been divisions in the United States, you felt that it was extraordinary, it sounds like, that the President kind of focused, in your view, on that division.
Highlighted it, if you will.
- Yeah, I mean, Trump was really the first president I could ever mention who showed this visible crack in society.
I mean, I guess it was there before, but he was the president who made this all visible so it was really interesting for us to see.
And on the other hand, of course, also unbelievable, and we were surprised about that.
And I mean, the US, it's so close to us.
We are allies, we have so much in common.
So it was really scary for us, too, because we thought, "Oh my God, can something like this happen in Germany too?"
- Okay, that's fascinating.
Yeah, I mean, wondering, what does this mean for Germany?
What does it mean even internally?
And we're gonna talk more about that, too, coming up because there are some things that have happened in Germany I wanna get your thoughts on.
But before we do that, I should say that while you were in New York City as part of this exchange program, you had a chance to meet some young supporters of former President Trump.
Tell me about that meeting and what you learned and what it was like to hear from them and what they said.
- Yeah, that was really interesting.
I met two girls in their twenties in the Trump Tower, and I just asked them, "Hey, why do you vote for him?
Why do you really like him?
Why do you think he's a good president?"
And one of the girls told me that she is the only one in her family who votes for the Republican Party and that her family just follows the mainstream, are not well-informed about politics, don't know what's going on in the country, and she's the only one who's really interested in this.
And she doesn't wanna be biased so she watches CNN and also Fox News, both sides.
And she comes really to the conclusion that Trump is the best president for the USA because she thinks he could, yeah, run a country like a businessman in contrast to Joe Biden, who is a real politician and has no clue about the real life.
So yeah, she thinks Trump is down to Earth, close to the people, a real leader, knows what he did was thus.
So it was really interesting for me that she came up with this.
- Yeah, well, and of course that was something that we heard during the campaign last time, that former President Trump would talk about the fact that he had worked in business and used that as a way to advocate for his election.
- Yeah, yeah, yeah.
- Apparently that was effective with some folks.
- Yeah, and she also said it's Biden's fault that everything or the cost of livings are much more expensive nowadays.
She really made it on him and not on inflation or something, yeah.
- Yeah, very interesting.
This is a time, as you know, when some might argue that both journalism and international relations are more important than ever.
You know, we have Russia's attack on Ukraine, climate change, dramatic inflation, as you just noted, all on top of a COVID pandemic that is not over.
I mean, it's gotten better, but it's not over.
How do you see efforts like this exchange program being a catalyst for progress?
- Yeah, I mean, I really think that journalism and international relations are more important than ever because we need to face those big problems like climate change, as you said, war, and we need to talk to each other.
We need to communicate, we need to speak, we need to learn, we need to learn more about each other and just find solutions for the big world problems now.
- Yeah, I think that's absolutely true.
And as I revealed to you, just in personal conversations getting to know you, that when I had the chance to go to Germany for several weeks, it was really the highlight, in terms of professional development, it was the highlight of my career being able to do that, and you see the world and your role in it, especially as a journalist, in a different way when you had that wider perspective by going to another country.
As part of this exchange program, you're gonna be meeting students here at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.
You've also met some high school students, got to speak to some high school students about what you do and about Germany.
What are some other ways that you think the educational system in the United States could encourage interest in world affairs?
- Yeah, I mean, or you could just teach it in school.
I mean, for Germany for example there's much more to learn about besides the Holocaust after feeling that US students just learn about the Holocaust and that's it.
And it's the same for other countries so just teach it in school.
I don't know, create a subject like around the world or call it whatever, but just generate knowledge about other countries.
- That's a very basic idea, but one that I think many people would agree that it needs more focus in our schools.
Another area is language.
In Germany, young people learn English and often another language in addition to German.
Learning a language, as you know from experience, is a real cultural immersion.
Tell me your thoughts on the impact of language proficiency and what that could mean.
- Yeah, in Germany, we learn English in fifth grade or even earlier nowadays, and a lot of people speak French, Dutch because it's close, Swedish, so many different languages because we believe that it's important to communicate with other countries, other nations to solve problems.
As I said before, I mean, language, it's a communication tool and how could you communicate if you don't speak the same language?
So it's a basic first step to communicate.
- Do you think that immersion in learning another language also makes Germans in general more curious and knowledgeable about other countries too?
- Yeah, I think so.
I mean, Germans travel a lot, and it always helps then to speak the language.
And I mean, with the language you will learn so much more about the culture, or if you speak the language, you will learn so much more about the culture.
You can go to the people, talk to them, learn from them.
And I think, yeah, it definitely helps to, or even for the interest.
- Yeah, I agree.
You know, I found that German students are very curious about the United States and often know as much or more about the political system here as US students do.
Give me a sense of that level of interest and why it is so strong.
- Mm-hmm, yeah, I think that of course one about the US is one of the most powerful country in the world and it even affects our economy so I think that's why we are so interested in it.
And all the trends from here come to us, or most of the time they come.
So yeah, we are just really interested in the political situation and the economy here.
- Yeah, and when you've been here on our streets in America, you've probably seen a lot of Mercedes-Benz and BMW, a lot of German cars.
- Yeah, (laughs) yeah.
- There's also a lot of German industry here.
- Yeah, yeah.
- Not just products that are sold here but German companies that have locations here and people.
- Yeah, yeah, for sure.
We have this really close connection.
I mean, we share the same values like freedom of speech, but we also wanna have a free Western world.
Democracy is another big part.
So yeah, it's just this cultural closeness as well.
- Yeah, so important to emphasize.
And again, part of the reason to be interested and learn more about world affairs.
Well, during your trip, as you mentioned earlier, you met with New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy, who is a Democrat.
He won a very tight race for reelection.
He is also a former ambassador to Germany.
Tell me about that meeting and what you learned and your impressions.
- Yeah, I mean, he's a real politician, so he knows exactly what to say and what not to say, and that makes it, can make it hard to talk to him because if he don't, or if he doesn't like a question, he just skips to another one.
He's really, he's a media pro, but I think at the end, he's a really, he's a good guy and advocates justice so.
- Mm-hmm, it must have been interesting also hearing from him as different maybe from some other politicians that you may have met or you may have seen in this trip or before the trip because he was a US ambassador to Germany so he knew something about Germany.
He had been to Germany quite a bit.
- Yeah, he was quite related.
Just started with Olaf Scholz and "What do you think about him?"
And it was really interesting to meet a guy like him.
- I bet it was.
- Governor Murphy spoke about some issues that are opposed by some in the US, as you know, including efforts to fight climate change.
He talks about that openly.
Germany has been a leader in reducing carbon emissions.
This has been a major goal for the country.
Tell me about that, and do you think that support will continue as we transition away from fossil fuels?
Because that is something that's a challenge.
There's no doubt about it.
- Yeah, what is important to say, our nuclear power plants need to be shut down this year, and our coal-fired power plants need to be shut down in the next 15 years, I think.
So turning away from coal, oil, and gas is very important to stop climate change.
And I really believe that people see the need, but green energy needs to be affordable.
That's the most important thing.
- And that is a struggle.
And of course it's gotten even more difficult recently because of the war in Ukraine.
But Germans, it seems, have come together on this.
- Yeah, most of them do, or most are really are on the same page about that topic.
But of course, like in every society when the cost of living getting higher and higher and really people struggling with that, and that can be a problem.
- So it's putting stress on the system.
- Yeah, of course.
So in the United States, I should say that you also met with Black Lives Matter co-founder Chivona Newsome in New York City.
Tell me your impressions about that and any commonalities that you saw with human rights issues in Germany.
- Yeah, again, it was really interesting to talk to her.
A really strong, really loud woman.
We met her in the Bronx and yeah, one topic we talked about, and I think it's a problem in Germany as well, for Black people, it's even harder or they need to work twice as hard to reach their goal.
I mean, we have it in, well, we see it in journalism, we see it in politics.
If Black people wanna be there, they often need to change their language, their hairstyle, their clothes, everything.
And yeah, just create a new personality, try to be more white.
She said that, really interesting for me, and I think it's true.
- Hmm, interesting.
And this was a highlight of the trip for you.
I know that you were really impressed with that visit.
- Yeah, because normally I'm sure I would never go to the Bronx, I guess, because it, yeah, if you are in Manhattan, you go to Brooklyn but normally you don't go to the Bronx.
And it was a really nice experience to meet her there.
- I bet it was.
And again, the RIAS program does such an amazing job because there's such diversity in the people you meet, the topics that are covered.
This was the case for me when I went to Germany as well.
I know in Germany, and I want to talk about another social issue here.
This is really interesting to me and I'm sure will be to many of the viewers.
There was some pushback against a large influx of immigrants, including hundreds of thousands of people who fled Syria and came into to Germany.
Tell me about that and how the situation has evolved in Germany.
- Yeah, that was in 2015, and we call it refugee crisis.
- The refugee crisis.
- Yeah, yeah.
Though, as you said, over a million people came to Germany and seek to, for protection, a lot of them from Syria.
And there was a big social debate about how we should deal with immigration policy.
There was the welcome culture on the one side, and on the other side the anger, or I don't wanna say hate, but it was a bit like that, hate to people who come from other countries.
So we had this two sides.
- And how did it evolve?
- Mm, I think now it isn't that big problem anymore because the Balkan route just closed and yeah, the people...
Need to think what to say now.
- People see the fact that this was a human rights issue, for one thing.
I mean, giving people the ability to be safe, but also I would imagine seeing the benefit to the country in the terms of the, something we're struggling with in the United States, even more so after the pandemic which is having a labor force as well, increasing the number of folks who help build the country.
- Yeah, I mean, some Germans really were afraid that we can't handle the situation and all of the people are coming and how could we do it with our social system?
Would it maybe collapse?
- But it didn't.
- Yeah, it didn't, yeah.
But it was just really different opinions about this topic, about immigration policy.
And it's still, it's there.
- It's still there.
- It's not gone yet.
- But it has evolved.
One final question, you cover science issues in Germany, including COVID, and another one here that I want to hear more about.
In Germany, there was wide acceptance of the vaccine in Germany, but I understand there was some opposition, which is a commonality with the United States.
- Yeah, yeah.
We had the Querdenken movement or Querdenker, we call 'em like this.
They were against the vaccination, and we had a lot of protests on the street.
Politicians but also the media, the press, we felt their hatred.
One time I can remember or can tell you about that where there was a big protest in front of our office building in Berlin, and they, really hundreds of people of this Querdenker movement people and they had shields in their hands say, "The press is lying."
And you could really feel the anger of those people.
And we weren't allowed to go out because it was really just too dangerous.
They are aggressive, and we have those problems too, for sure.
- So not just opposition, but very vocal and protests.
- And that's scary, I mean- - It was scary.
- You were scared I'm sure because usually you don't feel, we don't feel threatened in our jobs.
- Yeah, that was really new, this kind of aggression and hate against the press.
- Yeah, more important than ever before to get the information out there.
And this international exchange, in my view, more important than ever.
Wiebke, thank you so much for sharing a slice of this trip with us.
I really appreciate it.
- Thank you so much for having me.
- Great to have you with us.
That is "Eye on Education."
My guest was RIAS Fellow Wiebke Bolle.
For all of us at WSIU, I'm Fred Martino.
Thanks for being here.
Have a great week.