Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Self-Censorship : The French-American Disease.

Yesterday, the NYTimes published an article (first published in the IHT a few days before) on how French newly elected President Sarkozy's ties to almost all major French media owners just might have influenced the elections.

To put things into perspective, the situation in France is nothing like, say Italy where former Prime Minister Berlusconi personally owned a major media corporation which included newspapers and three national TV channels and exerted direct influence on control almost all TV sources of information, while in power. President Sarkozy owns no media and can only exert indirect influence.

Besides, the collusion between big business, the press, and politics is nothing new, either in France or in the U.S.

What is new and strikingly similar in both France and the US, however, is that whereas political pressure used to be exerted directly, it is now much more subtle.
As we have seen in the recent past, the disease of this day and age is not so much censorship as it is SELF-CENSORSHIP.

(...) the issue of self-censorship has come into sharp relief of late because of declining circulation in the print media and the concentration of media ownership among the new president’s close allies. (NYTimes)

Self-censorship is the most pernicious threat to freedom of information because it is so much harder to pinpoint and thus to fight. Besides, it can take many forms and shapes:

In the aftermath of 9/11 and in the run-up to the war in Iraq, it took the form of patriotism in the U.S. (also see this program)

Christiane Amanpour, says that the press muzzled itself during the Iraq war. And, she says CNN "was intimidated" by the Bush administration and Fox News, which "put a climate of fear and self-censorship." (USAToday)

It can also take the form of demagogy and populism when self-censorship is exerted to satisfy any pressure group or just to please the market which can easily lead to excessive political correctness to the detriment of truth.

Real meaning is replaced by tasteless platitudes through hypocritical euphemism on just about anything. You then live under the constant fear that you may have offended whomever. (J2T)
As the NYTimes reminds us, even in a country where the market is more regulated, self-censorship exists just the same:

The temptation of self-censorship is amplified by the economic vulnerability of the print media and its dependence on government subsidies. (NYTimes)

Then, it can be the result of the fear of simply displeasing your boss without his making any move. Here’s a good illustration of the subtlety of the process:

Philippe Ridet, who covered Mr. Sarkozy’s presidential campaign for Le Monde, said he never faced direct pressure. But he recalled how after one of his first campaign rallies, Mr. Sarkozy remarked to a select group of reporters, “It’s funny, I know all your bosses.” (NYTimes)

Who is to say this is not just an innocent remark? Who is naive enough to think it is? Who has enough guts to ignore it?

The problem is that self-censorship is the most successful and efficient form of censorship and it comes cheap for any society but the result is conformity of speech and language which leads to poverty of thought.

Thank God for the Internet… and thank God we don’t live in China or North Korea. That's where I find some comfort...

NOTE: Interestingly, the original title of the (more extensive) IHT article "Fears of self-censorship at French news outlets" was changed to "Free Press in France: the Right to Say What Politicians Want" when it was published in the NYTimes the following day.


Sunday, June 24, 2007

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Confuses Reality with Fiction.

It could be argued that America has invented show-business, to the point that fiction is often mixed with politics:

The old Star Trek offered the vision of an integrated society, M*A*S*H was a social commentary on the Vietnam war and more recently many fictions have dealt with extremely sensitive political issues of this day and age such as political corruption (The West Wing, 24, Galactica, Law & Order, The Shield, Commander in Chief); the war in Iraq (Over There but also ER or Lost); Hispanic immigration (The Shield, Law & Order – the last season of The West Wing even had the election of a Hispanic democrat to the presidency) or abortion (Desperate Housewives, Galactica, Law & Order). (here)

That is remarkable in many ways.

It also works the other way around: this is after all the country where a Hollywood actor was elected president, where a president staged a victory show that had no basis in reality (Remember “Mission Accomplished”?) and where a TV actor (former U.S. Sen. Fred Thompson of Law & Order) whose popularity is partly due to his image of a fictional District Attorney is now considering a run for presidency. Apparently, the line between reality and fiction is blurred to a lot of people.

So what about Jack Bauer ("24") for President?

It is one thing that average Joe can sometimes get confused between fiction and reality, it is yet another when a U.S. Supreme Court Justice uses fiction to shape reality:

Senior judges from North America and Europe were in the midst of a panel discussion about torture and terrorism law, when a Canadian judge’s passing remark - “Thankfully, security agencies in all our countries do not subscribe to the mantra ‘What would Jack Bauer do?’ ” - got the legal bulldog in Judge Scalia barking.

The conservative jurist stuck up for Agent Bauer, arguing that fictional or not, federal agents require latitude in times of great crisis. “Jack Bauer saved Los Angeles. … He saved hundreds of thousands of lives,” Judge Scalia said. Then, recalling Season 2, where the agent’s rough interrogation tactics saved California from a terrorist nuke, the Supreme Court judge etched a line in the sand.

“Are you going to convict Jack Bauer?” Judge Scalia challenged his fellow judges. “Say that criminal law is against him? ‘You have the right to a jury trial?’ Is any jury going to convict Jack Bauer? I don’t think so. (Source: Globe and Mail)

In other words, Justice Scalia, the second most senior Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, is is using fiction to rationalize torture from a legal standpoint.

Now even apart from the moral question, there is obviously an intellectual flaw in Scalia's point - first because torture doesn’t provide useful information, and second because relying on fictional characters to justify real-life crimes has no legal basis. If only Scalia watched better shows, like "That 70s Show", he would do less harm and only advocate for the legalization of marijuana.

And I thought the whole idea of having conservative judges was that they were “strict constructionist”!


Friday, June 22, 2007

France has the economy of California.

Today, I found this interesting blog on all sorts of strange maps (via Inside the USA). Here's an interesting example - a map of U.S. states renamed for countries with similar GDPs (Gross Domestic Products).
As the 8th largest economy, France would be the equivalent of the state of California if California were a separate country (with a GDP of $2,15 trillion).

Here's the list of the first 10 countries according to their GDPs:

European Union$13,620,000,000,000
United States$13,220,000,000,000
United Kingdom$2,341,000,000,000

(more here)

GDP is a convenient way of measuring and comparing the size of national economies. Annual GDP represents the market value of all goods and services produced within a country in a year so GDP = consumption + investment + government spending + (exports - imports)


Monday, June 18, 2007

Tell me what you eat and....

Time magazine online has a series of pictures on “What the World Eats” – on 'family dinner tables in fifteen different homes around the globe'. The photographs were taken from the book "Hungry Planet". There is little information: just what part of the world each family is from, their favorite food, and how much each family (of 4 people) spends on food per week. Expenditure per week ranges from $500 (Germany) to $1.23 (Chad).

There is no French family in the listbut there are two American families. I’d like to focus of the picture of one of the American families. The Revis family of North Carolina. Look at it and see if anything strikes you (to be honest, if nothing does, you’re a lost cause):

Personally, even though this is something to expect anyway, I am still puzzled by the quantity of food (compared to most other families in the list of pictures) and even more so by the fact that it is almost all processed food. It may be cliché but it illustrates what you find in many American homes: all sorts of junk-food and hardly any fruit and veggies. (and the picture may not even include all the dressings, and other condiments you usually find in the American fridge.)

In this day and age, when information on health is available to just about everyone (thanks to the internet) when everybody’s been complaining about the obesity rate for years (granted the Revis family does not fit the cliché there… not yet anyway), why do people continue to eat so poorly? Do they really like that sort of food or is it some death wish by proxy?

Bill Bryson says it best:

I longed for artificial bacon bits, melted cheese in a shade of yellow unknown to nature, and creamy chocolate fillings, sometimes all in the same product. I wanted food that squirts when you bite into it or plops onto your shirt front in such gross quantities that you have to rise very, very carefully from the table and sort of limbo over to the sink to clean yourself up.


Everywhere I turned I was confronted with foods guaranteed to make you waddle -- moon pies, pecan spinwheels, peach mellos, root beer buttons, chocolate fudge devil dogs, and a whipped marshmallow sandwich spread called Fluff, which came in a tub large enough to bathe a baby in. You really cannot believe the bounteous variety of nonnutritious foods available to the supermarket shopper these days or the quantities in which they are consumed.

So what’s in YOUR fridge?


Thursday, June 14, 2007

Baccalauréat Anglais LV1 2007...

This week is the return of this part of the season when the French high-school seniors (about 517,000 of them) take their big graduation exam that students must pass in order to go to college and university – it is called le bacclauréat /bakalore'a/ or le bac in colloquial French (More details in our post here).

NOTE: by the way, the name is derived from the latin bacca laurea which means "laurel berry", from the time when ancient Greeks and Romans honored scholars and poets with garlands from the bay laurel tree.

To give you an idea, here’s what some of the students had for their English exam today, read what follows. (This is a written exam of English after 7 years of learning it as a foreign language in French schools.). They had 3 hours to answer the questions on the text and for the essay.

The text chosen for the exam is an extract from a novel (March) by Geraldine Brooks (a Pulitzer Prize-winning, Australian-American journalist and author).

To read the following items, click on each page.