Monday, April 23, 2007

And they call this the news?

This piece was published on Monday, April 23, 2007 by


My cousin thought I must be having anger management issues.

She and her husband Paul had flipped through the satellite dials and settled on the McLaughlin Group on the European edition of CNBC. And there on screen sat four weighty U.S. news commentators, two on the right, two on the left, screaming at each other over the underlying social causes of the tragic, but largely inexplicable Virginia Tech slaughter. In the middle sat the wrinkled and ever-earnest John McLaughlin, the “moderator,” interjecting occasionally to throw another log on the fire.

After four months in the tranquility of Provence, France, where passionate discourse virtually never crosses the line into vitriol, this TV food fight, billed as “public affairs” journalism, ratcheted up my blood pressure.

“How can you watch this crap?” I snapped at my cousin Stephanie. “It’s made-for-TV muck — soap opera, not news.” And with that I stormed out to separate the trash from the recyclables.

By the next morning, we could both laugh about my meltdown. But I was left to wonder just what had pushed my button so hard. It isn’t Steph that I was mad at; it is how far my profession, the news business, has fallen in this era of all-noise, all-the-time. Because no one should mistake 24-7 television with all-news, all-the-time. The McLaughlin Group, after all, is considered relatively refined as food fight journalism goes. It takes on serious issues. Most of its regular and guest commentators are well-established journalists.

Yet it’s format — you scream at me and I’ll scream back — wouldn’t be carried on European news channels, not on the BBC, not on France’s TV5 or even, from what I can tell, on local commercial French television. Television news in Europe may be a bit dull, but content still seems to count. From what I can tell through the barrier of language, political talk shows — and there’s a presidential election going on here — are lively, but still leave the speaker time to finish a sentence. Stories on the news tell not just about France, Iraq and the United States, but also about such places as Albania, Nigeria and Vietnam.

As it turns out, a lot is happening in those places. But I doubt that half of my students in Boston could find them on a map, let alone discuss developments there. And with good reason. The U.S. media spends so much time examining America’s navel that it neither has the time nor inclination to look at the global body politic. (Nor, of course, in this era of profits and consolidation, does it want to spend the money to do so.)

Ironically, in fact, all-news, all-the-time seems to have brought Americans less content and less knowledge of all serious topics, American and foreign, not more. It fills the airwaves and print websites with endless redundancy of information and endless opinion with little context. Consider the findings of a recent report from the Pew Center for the People and the Press. Released in mid-April, it found that, “on average, today’s citizens are about as able to name their leaders, and are about as aware of major news events, as was the public nearly 20 years ago.”

Before, that is, the advent of the Internet and all-noise, all-the-time. A second look suggests that the words “about as able” paper over hints of a decline in knowledge. In 1989, the report notes, 74 percent of Americans were able to identify Dan Quayle, as lightweight a vice-president as has held the office in modern times. Today, just 69 percent of those polled could name Dick Cheney, arguably the most powerful vice-president in American history and a man, civil libertarians would argue, who has consistently consolidated power in the executive branch, often at the expense of constitutionally guaranteed checks and balances. In 1989, some 47 percent could identify the president of Russia. Today 36 percent can.

Are Americans, faced with an unending assault of screaming pundits, simply checking out?

Or are they so consumed by wall-to-wall news coverage of exploitative stories such as the death of Anna Nicole Smith that they haven’t looked up from their screens long enough to notice the rights of our democracy eroding around them?

In either case, the news media must shoulder a significant portion of the blame: The evidence suggests to me that all-noise, all-the-time helps undermine America’s security and democracy.

* When cable and network news ignore most of the world and sanitize much of the death and mayhem in Iraq, Americans lose the capacity to understand why and how deeply the rest of the world, including our allies, doesn’t like us. And that’s dangerous. (The topic was explored this morning here as part of a documentary — on the BBC.)

* When the cable and broadcast networks salivate endlessly over the sensational, whether it is the sad but trivial such as Smith’s death or the serious, devastating but ultimately distracting, such as the Virginia Tech mayhem, Americans lose sight of the myriad ways the Bush administration has eroded civil liberties, from the politicized firings of its own appointees to the Justice Department to the elimination of habeas corpus for foreign nationals picked up under the Military Commissions Act. (Or, as Jonathan Evans, a conservative British member of parliament, said on that same BBC special, it is essential in hunting terrorists that we “maintain our belief in democracy and human rights.”)

* And when journalists compensate for lack of original reporting by simply putting on loud-talking representatives of opposing viewpoints, they obscure the facts and blur the truth.
There is considerable evidence that Karl Rove and the Bush Administration have long known how to exploit this. One of my favorite examples, reported by Ron Susskind in the October 2004 New York Times magazine, is of an exchange he had with a “senior adviser” to the president. That adviser sneered at what he called the “reality-based community” represented by Susskind and his questions.

”That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he reportedly told Susskind. ”We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.”

Yet instead of pointing out just how illusory this “reality” continues to be, the media even today give the administration and its representatives ample and equal time to voice it. One repeated example is the platform that Dick Cheney still gets with regularity to assert that Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda had close ties before the Iraq War. Never mind that top-level government reports, from that of the 9/11 Commission to leaked CIA documents, have consistently discredited this repeated assertion.

We live in a world of point-counterpoint, shout-countershout. It’s the format in which all-noise, all-the-time feels most comfortable. And like the Bush Administration, it creates its own reality, a world of talking heads and wagging fingers, too often, I fear, to quote the great bard, “Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury. Signifying nothing.”

Sunday, April 15, 2007

One day at a time

April 11, 2007

This morning, like nearly every other, we walked to town -- past the puffy white buds of the apple trees, beneath the sweet vines of fragrant, purple wisteria, through the throaty coos of the mourning doves. It was supposed to be cloudy, maybe even rain. But as usual, the sky broke blue, the breeze blew gently. Il fait du soleil.

Today, I tried to record our daily walk, stopping to take pictures of the gated estate with stepped stone walls beyond; the burning brush, smelling like a campfire, at the orange house on the corner, where a young family has moved in and is clearing the yard; the two yellow labs, collarless, who tracked us balefully as we walked past; the boys at Lycee Paul Cezanne, smoking out front, two playing hacky sack, a third twirling a spool on a string.

We walked past the signs, advertising concerts and cars and lingerie. (My favorite for its Frenchness, of a saucy blonde in skimpy pink underwear, leaning back in a provocative pose with the words, “avec moi, pas d’abstention,” had been replaced.) Past the Red Cross, where men and women milled around, possibly waiting for the gates to open to give blood. Past the city park and IS, the language school where we gained a foothold in French, and into Place des Precheurs, where the International Herald Tribune had sold out by 11 a.m., a sure sign the tourists are arriving now in growing numbers.

Our goal this morning was modest -- to mail a package to our two friends, the Lewis sisters in Switzerland. But a hand-lettered sign on a flip chart at the post office announced greve – strike – and a man, representing management said with an apologetic shrug, “perhaps tomorrow.” (An angry young woman, her black hair aswirl, remained unconvinced, muttering something like foues les facteurs, which I’m reasonably sure was “fuck the mailmen,” as she stalked away.)

We were less miffed, stuffing our packages back in the Sierra Club day pack that has come in so handy, and wandering off on our favorite daily task: poking around. We stopped in a leather purse shop – vent sauvage (wild wind) – where we picked out, but left behind for now, a likely graduation present for our niece. We stopped by the fabric store, where the sales woman reminded me that rond is round, not circulaire – a word I may have made up, and that nappe, not serviette de table is the right name for a table cloth. Whatever the name, we bought one for our outside picnic table at home, a rich Provencal blue with orange dots (bees? carrots?) and two fringed strips, one of daisies and lavender, and a second of olives, hanging below the table.

As we walked on, a pair of deep red, spiked high heels with ankle straps caught our eye; our older daughter’s birthday is only weeks away. And so Kathy squeezed into them because, as we explained to the seemingly bored, slinky blonde sales girl, her shoe size is presque to Betsy’s. A pres de, the sales girl corrected politely. (“She may be bored, but she’s OK,” I thought to myself. I love the way the French correct our many mistakes).

While Saturday is the grand market day and markets spread over three squares on Tuesday and Thursday as well, the market takes place every day at Place Richelme near city hall. And so on this day, a Wednesday, we couldn’t resist buying one of the season’s first Provencal melons. Nor could we simply ignore the nose-crinkling allure of the spice table, where a delightful young woman with a wide smile sold us 40 grams each of spices mixed specially for fish and omelets (they were two of about 20 choices there). And then, in French and English, she struck up a conversation of sorts, asking where we were from. She had visited New York, which, she marveled, had streets better organized than even Paris, streets on which she had walked and walked for miles. She had read about Boston, she said, but never been.

We told her that her spices smelled wonderful and she shrugged as if to say she hadn’t noticed, “I never lose the smell,” she said. “I go home and it’s my hair, in my clothes.”

We’ll seek her out again on market days: Another Provencal gem, like the man who earlier sold us an indoor table cloth and, when we tried to fold it, told us “c’est mon travail” and then, in English, “it’s my job.”

After the spices, we bought an International Herald Tribune at another stand, made one last stop to buy a baguette, and caught the 12:47 No. 4 bus up the hill to our apartment among the trees and songbirds. We ate a lunch of melted chevre on toast, fresh pears and white wine. And Kathy, her book folded open on her chest, fell asleep on the terrace as I sat down to write.

Just one more morning in this city of light and outdoor life, sun and grace, and – am I supposed to be too old to notice? – unending sensuality.


The first round of the French election is just 12 days away and ennui – boredom – seems the watchword, at least in accounts in the English language Tribune. Nicolas Sarkozy, for the last four years the country’s interior minister, has emerged as a clear front runner in a campaign of many faux pas (an expression, by the way, that does not appear in my French dictionary) and little sustained substance. But 42 percent of the French remain uncertain who they will vote for, pollsters say, and the number rises to 56 percent among young adults. Sarkozy has steadfastly refused to appear in the poor and largely muslim suburbs outside of Paris, places in which he branded young militants as thugs when violence broke out in fall 2005. What’s interesting is that voter registration in those areas is up sharply. Still, he has led all along in the polls and seems likely to win.

The Tribune also ran the second day of a two-part series on the unquestioned dominance of English as the world’s second language today. This is bad news for the French, who both have enormous pride in their language and, at times, can struggle just as much with English as Kathy and I sometimes do with French.

We learned that not only in a series of conversations over our cousins' lost luggage but also in flipping through the pages of an upscale hotel directory: Chateaux et demeures de tradition.

This, word for word, is the entry for an Aix hotel in the directory. (It offers me hope of a return to France; I’m thinking of writing to the CEO and offering my services. )

Ideally located on the Cours Mirabeau our historic mansion reserves to you a marvelous framework of relaxation and userfriendly. The rooms, decorated by Roland Le Vevillon and Maurice Savinel will charm the lovers of the city. Our rooms offer to you sure cofort and rest with a complete bathroom jaccuzy or Turkish baths. You will appreciate air conditioned and soundproof. Our chef incites you to escape … His cooking inspires of savours. Of the world and married to the singing and scented accepts of Provence.

Bien sur. When I sell my services, the first question will be whether the chef incites you to escape before or after the meal.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Is this America, 2007?

This article initially was published at


AIX-EN-PROVENCE, France – A few months ago, while visiting French acquaintances, I was surprised at how strenuously I had to defend the United States against their belief that we remain a thoroughly racist society.

“We have plenty of problems,” I told my hosts. “No question racism has been high on the list. But I sense that things are genuinely changing. My state – Massachusetts – elected its first black governor. My city – Boston – elected a black woman as sheriff. And Barak Obama is one of the top candidates for president. These are just a few signs of change.”

I felt pretty good about my defense, even in stilted French. You see, I believed it. Now I’m not so sure.

That Don Imus gets all of a two-week suspension – and not an immediate one at that -- for calling a championship-level, largely black, college women’s basketball team “a bunch of nappy-headed hos” is disgusting.

That the likes of CNN’s political commentator Jeff Greenfield, comedian Bill Maher and former Jimmy Carter aide Hamilton Jordan all apparently just shrugged off Imus' remark and kept scheduled appearances on his show, as the New York Times reports they did, is incomprehensible.

The same article reported that Sen. John McCain, whom Imus supports, was quick to come to Imus’ defense, saying he’d appear on the shock jock’s show again because he “believes in redemption.” Are there any limits, senator, to simply saying, “I’m sorry?"

Just what does all this say about America today?

Perhaps you don’t have to be French to realize that racism remains unvanquished in the United States, at least if the racist is white, male and making lots of money for major corporations as Don Imus is. Stop and consider for a moment. Can you imagine what would happen if any black man, a sportscaster, a radio jock, were to offhandedly refer to an all-white, college cheerleading squad – please forgive my language here; it’s to make a point – as a bunch of “dumb blonde cunts?” He’d likely be physically assaulted. He’d certainly lose his job, not get a two-week vacation.

We can’t begin to be a truly egalitarian society when crass, vulgar shock jocks are allowed to hide behind their crassness, behind their vulgarity, to issue overtly racist, sexist remarks with impunity against a team of young women who had done nothing more than play superb basketball and defy the oddsmakers by making their way to the NCAA Women’s finals.

I don’t care if Imus is making CBS radio and MSNBC oodles of money. Let him find another line of work.

“These young ladies before you are valedictorians, future doctors, musical prodigies,” the team’s coach, C. Vivian Stringer, said at a nationally televised press conference decrying Imus utterly gratuitous character assassination. She continued, “(these) racist and sexist remarks … are deplorable, despicable .. and unconscionable.”

If the likes of McCain, Jordan, Greenfield and Maher – white males across the political spectrum – can’t see that, if they don’t see enough problem in Imus’ words to end their association with him, and if the corporations that put on Imus’ show don’t feel enough pressure to end it, then in America, in the year 2007, Imus’ words, for many Americans, are not unconscionable. They are acceptable.

And for that, we can all share some part of the blame.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Where special things happen

PARIS, April 1, 2007

There was no program. We shivered in the unheated church. The soloist never appeared. And the string quartet simply left out one of the major works advertised in advance.

But this was Paris, so it didn’t matter.

The setting was Ste. Chapelle. The evening light poured through its magnificent, rich-blue, 13th century, stain-glassed windows. The first violinist proved a virtuoso. And who can complain when Barber’s Adagio, one of the most beautiful pieces ever written, replaces Pachabel’s Canon?

The day we had arrived in town, the temperatures had plunged. It rained our first 36 hours. Coffee cost $4 and up. But this was Paris, so it didn’t matter.

We ignored the rain and walked through gilded rooms of the Louvre we’d never tried to push through before, the usual crowds thinned by the wintry weather and early spring date. The Egyptian wing. The Louis XVI room with its gilded ceiling painted by Delacroix.

We visited old friends – Renoir, Manet, Gaughin, Cezanne, Degas -- in the Musee D’Orsay and marveled at the eight panels of water lilies painted by Monet himself in two rooms of the Orangerie.

And then the rain stopped and the sun broke through as we strolled past the stately apartments of the Ile Saint-Louis, past the booksellers along the Seine and the narrow and newly restored streets of the Marais district , where on the Rue Du Point, we found a shop selling instruments of ancient music (1650 on), next to Melodies Graphiques, with its collection of quill pens, and across the street from Monastica, selling products made by French monks.

Behind St. Sulpice, of Da Vinci Code notoriety, we squeezed into a restaurant so cozy that the waitress moved the coat rack, not once but twice, to squeeze in a few more diners. We stumbled upon a Brazilian jazz quartet on Arbucci in the 6th arrondisement that had us pulsing in our place for two glorious sets for no more than the price of a glass of wine. We caught the boat trip, unplanned, around Notre Dame and past the Eiffel Tower by night just because the concert in the cold church happened to end when it did and because our footsteps led us onto the Pont Neuf, and we remembered reveling on the same night boat ride four years ago.


But this is Paris, where, it seems, good things always happen. Like the desk clerk who let me practice French although she could easily have insisted on English. Like the street performer who enlisted Kathy as his sidekick, leaving us in stitches and Kathy with a red heart balloon (“Bravo, Kathrin,” a mother said out of the blue as we left the bridge of his act. We presented her daughter with the heart.) Like a spontaneous late lunch amidst the gargoyles on Notre Dame’s tower, again with time to dawdle because no summer crowds pushed us through.

We left Paris at the midpoint of this most remarkable five-month sojourn in France. We left with a smile, and the memory that in that cold church, on the day the soloist didn’t show up and the string quartet played whatever it wished, the audience jumped to its feet as one in a standing ovation.

Yes, it was Paris.