Unfit to Print:
'The Article' about Sweden
An enduring ritual of modern journalism

A Swedish professor of history who has spent many years in the United States has told of "the same disparaging article about Sweden that appears on a regular basis-- about once every other year in the New York Times
, for instance. An American colleague who is well-informed about Sweden refers to 'The Article'."

In August of 1998, the New York Times was at it again, with a version of The Article that also appeared in the International Herald-Tribune. Although some details and the name on the by-line may vary, the methods, basic message and general tone are fairly consistent. The most recent version of The Article included the following familiar elements:

Information sources. Of the five Swedes cited in the article, all are more or less representative of the country's political-economic elite. Carl Bildt is leader of the Conservative Party, and Sigfried Leijonhufvud is a political reporter with the conservative newspaper that has long served as Bildt's principal propaganda platform. Also cited is the head of a business consulting firm, and the head of an opinion-polling firm with established ties to the business community.

The one possible exception is a former editor of Sweden's largest newspaper who is highly regarded for his past efforts to broaden public debate. Lately, however, he has adopted the role of moral entrepreneur, and bears a large measure of responsibility for the "racial hygiene" hoax noted in
Something Rotten: Part II.

Sweden's democratic majority seldom gets a hearing in the N.Y. Times. For instance, its reporters seem to have the very devil of a time locating members of the Social Democratic Party to interview, even though its numbers have long been roughly double those of the next largest party. It is characteristic of this latest version of The Article that Carl Bildt is permitted to ridicule Göran Persson, but no response from the Social Democratic leader was included.

Economic decline. The Article relates that Sweden is in the throes of a serious economic decline: "The OECD has reduced Sweden's per capita income standing from fourth to 15th place." This is one of the main themes of the Conservatives' 1998 election campaign, and it is just as misleading in this journalistic context.

The OECD disposable-income rankings are based on a selective index that often yields peculiar results. Ireland, which is a net recipient of European Union funds, was last year ranked higher than Sweden, proportionally the second largest contributor to the EU treasury. Thus, "poor" Sweden subsidises "richer" Ireland. Such anomalies occur because, in keeping with the economic logic which does not or will not comprehend the Nordic model, OECD calculations of per capita
income systematically underestimate the comparatively large resources that the Swedish people invest in the public sector.

When those resources are taken into account-- and why should they not be?-- Sweden ranks ninth in per capita GNP world-wide and third in Europe. That relative standing has recently been confirmed by the U.N. Development Program in its 1998 Annual Report.

Business climate. The Swedish business climate is usually dreary in the N.Y. Times, which this time refers to threats by "the telecommunications giant Ericsson" to move its headquarters to London. But the enormous success of Ericsson and other Swedish transnationals demonstrates rather convincingly that it must be possible to do business in Sweden, after all. Only Switzerland has, proportionally, more companies among the largest 500 in Europe.

Ericsson is something of a special case, for several reasons. It has grown so large that by far the greatest portion of its sales and work force are in other countries. It may or may not be a sound business decision to move the company headquarters and its relatively small staff to London or Peking. But a number of business analysts have warned that it could result in a net loss.

The "threats" to which the Times
refers have emanated primarily from Ericsson's argumentative CEO, on the evidence a somewhat confused curmudgeon who goes around saying things like: "Those who have learned to be 'demand machines'. . . now have to learn that industry has a right to exist."

The "demand machines" he seems to have in mind are the Swedish workers whose talents and energies are largely responsible for Ericsson's extremely, and his, lucrative existence. Another strong contributing factor to the company's success has been Sweden's extensive public sector and industrial policy. But such facts are not available to readers of the N.Y. Times. In this case, the old journalistic adage is entirely appropriate: A newspaper is as good as its sources.

Nostalgia. The Swedes are stuck in the past, the story goes: "Swedes miss being the society that attracted admiration from afar . . . They were the future, a model of rationality, tolerance, cradle-to-grave care of citizens, and generosity to people living in less advantaged countries. . . . The nostalgia arises in every conversation with Swedes about their country."

This excerpt demonstrates conclusively that the Times
' reporter can not have met very many Swedes. The average Swede appears to have no awareness of the country's disproportionate significance abroad. There was general astonishment, for example, when virtually the entire world and its dignitaries converged on Stockholm for the funeral of Olof Palme in 1986.

Most Swedes do, however, exhibit a clear preference for rationality, tolerance and concern for the less advantaged. The reactionary elite has long tried to attach disparaging labels to such tendencies, and "nostalgia" is the currently popular epithet for any attitude or belief that does not conform with the wishes of the establishment. Swedes who question the presumptive blessings of membership in the EU are not infrequently chided for seeking refuge in the nostalgic past.

But what's good enough for the elite is good enough for the New York Times, so "nostalgia" it is. This version of The Article also includes an old favourite, "cradle to grave"-- long one of the standard buzzwords in the repertoire.

Delusions of grandeur. The former newspaper editor turned moral entrepreneur is quoted as saying: "It was absurd, but we thought of ourselves as a kind of superpower. . . . Now that feeling of exceptionalism has been lost, and we are just another normal nation."

The fact is that it is possible to live in Sweden for ten years and never hear a single Swede express anything like the noises of a superpower. On the other hand, one often hears exactly this kind of self-criticism. Requests for examples of the offending behaviour are usually answered with references to Sweden's criticism of the Vietnam War, apartheid
in South Africa or some other crime against humanity.

It has actually been observers from other parts of the world who have been most inclined to refer to Sweden as a positive example. People like Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked The Pentagon Papers to the New York Times during the Nixon administration's ongoing rape of Indochina. "I always thought that our allies and other countries were derelict with their silence," Ellsberg has commented. "Sweden was the one honourable exception."

Bloated public sector. It would take much more space than presently available to correct the N.Y. Times' distorted account of Sweden's public sector and its costs. But to take one example, "overall public spending is 63 percent of gross national product": This alarming figure can only be attained by including transfer payments for pensions, business subsidies, etc. Those funds circulate in the economy and may be counted several times during the course of the fiscal year. If such repetitive effects are eliminated, the public sector's share of GNP becomes thirty percent, which is not all that different from the N.Y. Times' homeland-- except that, in Sweden, public services tend to be more efficient, and apply to all citizens equally. For instance, a health care system that partially or wholly excluded somewhat under half of the population, as in the United States, would be unthinkable in Sweden.

The Times' discussion of Sweden's taxation rates and policy demonstrates the same level of knowledge and insight. The only question is, as always, whether these gross misrepresentations stem from ignorance, animosity or some combination of both.

Lack of initiative. The Article refers to ". . . study charts which held out little hope that the country's leaders would take any decisive action. Measuring the dispositions of major countries, the document placed Sweden in the corner representing the pursuit of stability instead of innovation and dependence on collectivist action as opposed to individual initiative."

It turns out that the study charts in question are part of a theoretical system developed by an opinion research institute to assist business clients in their marketing campaigns. Contacted by telephone, the project manager cited in The Article acknowledged that, even within that limited context, the theory was not entirely foolproof. "It's better than nothing," he explained. From that somewhat doubtful theoretical platform, the Times
leaps to impressive heights of speculation about Swedish leaders' propensity to "take any decisive action".

The opinion researcher also noted that, in terms of actual behaviour, Swedish workers exhibit a comparatively high level of individual initiative and responsibility. The OECD, which can hardly be described as a great supporter of the Nordic model, has recently identified Sweden as the most innovative country in Europe, and the third in the world after the U.S. and Japan.

But what does the OECD know, anyway? The Times notes that, according to the opinion institute's typology of cultures, "Sweden's only companion in the forlorn bottom spot was Japan". To borrow a notion from Abraham Lincoln, perhaps it is time for the New York Times to find out what kind of whiskey the Swedes and Japanese drink, and send a few million cases to all the other countries.

-- Al Burke, September 1998