Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Huffington on the DSM

The BBC in a recent article quoted figures from a recent Arianna Huffington column, which "compares the major US news networks' focus on three stories from 1 May to 20 June: Natalee's disappearance, the Michael Jackson trial and the Downing Street Memo." According to Huffington, on ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, Fox News and MSNBC combined, there were 56 segments dealing with the memo, 646 on Natalee and 1,490 on Jackson.

Here are the full figures she cites in her post, for "the number of news segments that mention these stories: (from a search of the main news networks’ transcripts from May 1-June 20)."
  • ABC News: "Downing Street Memo": 0 segments; "Natalee Holloway": 42 segments; "Michael Jackson": 121 segments.
  • CBS News: "Downing Street Memo": 0 segments; "Natalee Holloway": 70 segments; "Michael Jackson": 235 segments.
  • NBC News: "Downing Street Memo": 6 segments; "Natalee Holloway": 62 segments; "Michael Jackson": 109 segments.
  • CNN: "Downing Street Memo": 30 segments; "Natalee Holloway": 294 segments; "Michael Jackson": 633 segments.
  • Fox News: "Downing Street Memo": 10 segments; "Natalee Holloway": 148 segments; Michael Jackson": 286 segments.
  • MSNBC: "Downing Street Memo": 10 segments; "Natalee Holloway": 30 segments; "Michael Jackson": 106 segments.

So it's not as if the network news was doing any better than cable in covering the DSM story - now rapidly fading into history.

Huffington also cites some interesting comments from such media watchdog worthies as Josh Marshall and Jay Rosen. Unfortunately, Rosen's comments - posted on June 20, relating the process by which news items ignored by the MSM get fed back into the news loop by the bloggers - now seem largely irrelevant as far as the DSM is concerned. Yes, a huge blogger-inspired push (based on solid UK-originated news gathering) did seem set to push the DSM story fleetingly into the spotlight (a pretty weak spotlight, as it happens). But that spotlight quickly moved away to other, more interesting stories for the news media - such as Natalee Holloway.

I don't know if Howard Kurtz still thinks of the the DSM case study as a "coming of age" moment for the progressive blogosphere. But if this is what counts as a "bloggers' victory", I really wouldn't want to see a full-fledged defeat!

Dr Media very appropriately compares the DSM story with Greg Palast’s "expose on the disenfranchisement of African American voters in Florida in the 2000 presidential election." In the DSM case, the bloggers have made a difference in propelling what should be a major news story, but - if I can use a football analogy - they've succeeded only in moving the ball down the field. The question is, how far down the field did they move "the story" this time. And how close did they come to scoring (if by "scoring" we mean the story hits some sort of critical mass to became a major defining issue that dominates politics and news coverage in the way that, say, Watergate or Monica Lewinsky dominated)? That's a tough question. Maybe the bloggers got closer to the endzone than we realize, but it's clear that the Bush administration and the MSM have now - at least for the moment - driven the ball way back to the other end of the field.

Monday, June 27, 2005

Return of The Persuaders

While Granada International/Granada America is making loadsamoney with reality show concepts repackaged for the US market (such as Hit Me Baby One More Time, Nanny 911 and Hell's Kitchen), it's not stopping there. The increasingly powerful export/production arm of ITV is trying to horn in on the action in the action-adventure drama realm. And it's doing this by bringing back The Persuaders, a classic UK 1971 drama series produced by Lew Grade's ITC. The Persuaders, starring Roger Moore and Tony Curtis, was an expensive flop in the US (it only lasted one season), but it achieved a sort of kitschy cult status, along with other late 1960s/early 1970s ITC productions such as The Avengers, The Saint, and The Prisoner. (And according to Jeffrey Miller's Something Completely Different, these types of shows, all of which were shown on prime-time US network television, had a significant and lasting impact on the shape of American television.)

So the news that Steve Coogan and Ben Stiller are to star in a remake of The Persuaders has generated some excitement in the film & TV world on both sides of the Atlantic (see also here and here for more information). BBC America has also been doing its best to keep these classic cult shows alive, by showing them regularly as part of its Retro Shows season on Friday evenings.

Granada America is working with DreamWorks to bring the project to life. ITC, the original producer of the series, was bought by PolyGram in the mid-90s. Granada America's ability to feed America's "renewed appetite for shows from its in-house production arm" is becoming increasingly important to ITV, which, the Guardian notes, is suffering from declining audiences in the UK.

Update: Live8

Another component of the entertainment campaign connected to the G8 meeting and Tony Blair’s initiative on Africa is the Live8 concerts to be held Saturday in Berlin, Johannesburg, London, Paris, Philadelphia, Rome, Tokyo, Toronto. The concerts are part of the Global Call to Action Against Poverty campaign which includes the UK's Make Poverty History coalition, the US One Campaign and Germany's Your Voice Against Poverty. (I’m not sure where the latter two names came from but Make Poverty History was the brainchild of a British PR affiliate, Abbott Mead Vickers, of the behemoth Omnicom Group's BBDO agency.)

Interestingly, the German event may be a bust as Berlin’s city government and German businesses apparently are unwilling sponsors (just not into it or a response to Blair’s high profile connection to the cause?) Also worth noting: Der Spiegel says Tony B. isn't getting the kind of support for this initiative out of his buddy Bush that he might expected considering his support for the Bushwars.

As noted earlier, tickets were free but in order to get them one had to send a text message which was then entered into a lottery. The real audience will come via global television. The BBC says the concerts will be broadcast in 140 countries. MTV will carry it in the US.

A quick search on Lexis-Nexis for articles (through June 25) reveals – so far – that this has been primarily a British story. Rough estimates from a search of Major Newspapers:

89 UK stores, dominated by The Independent

28 Australian/ New Zealand, although these were almost all merely blurbs about who was performing

3 Canadian

1 US (NYT)

The extent to which stories triggered discussions of the actual policies were fewer. Random thoughts and observations: From a communications perspective, what exactly are these concerts? Edu-tainment? More evidence of the merging of politics and entertainment ala “The Daily Show” etc.? UK’s The Observer calls the concerts: “Geldofism - mobilisation of pop stars and fans behind a cause – [which] requires simplification of complex issues and, to maintain credibility with a young audience, much anti-establishment rhetoric.” The Independent quotes former International Development Secretary Clare Short’s (who resigned from Blair’s cabinet over the Iraq war) take: “People will enjoy the concerts because there are famous bands but quite how the concerts are going to eliminate poverty in the world is not clear.”

The policy aim is so, well Tony Blair, watered down Third Way – free trade for Africa. This is not to say no one problematized this neo-liberal approach but it seems from this cursory look that few were willing to do so.

Most criticisms of the concerts seemed to centered on issues such as the lack of African performers, the rumored appearance of certain acts (The Telegraph being convinced that Jacko wanted to appear), the controversy over the free tix being hawked on e-Bay.

An exception was Deborah Orr writing for The Independent, who noted “What the Make Poverty History campaign emphasises is just how the political landscape has altered since Live Aid. Back then, British and US politicians were the enemy because of their ruthless pursuit of free market policies. Now, in a dazzling turnaround, politicians are the enemy because of their refusal to extend the free market into Africa, by dropping their own protectionist subsidies, and unleashing upon the more vulnerable of their own voters the reality of competition.”

Sunday, June 26, 2005

Before DSM, another case

It seems to me that an interesting comparison could be made between what’s been happening with the Downing Street Memo and an earlier case in which the British media broke a key story about American politics: American reporter Greg Palast’s expose on the disenfranchisement of African American voters in Florida in the 2000 presidential election.

Palast reported the story for BBC and The Observer but it never really got any traction here. (You can follow the articles via Palast’s own website). Alternative media were interested, and he appeared in a couple of documentaries but that was about it. In part, the questions about the election were dropped in the wake of 911 but even before then, the mainstream media didn’t seem particularly interested.

What are the differences between now and then? People are more willing to challenge Bush, the war no longer enjoys the support of the majority of Americans. But I wonder the extent to which bloggers have played a role. They are now more ubiquitous and more powerful – they seem to be capable of driving a story onto the mainstream agenda or at least keeping it alive. After starting this post, I ran across a Washington Post story that even admits that bloggers have set the agenda on this story. (Another interesting point their story makes is that memo generated some attention in Spanish language media too.)

Reporter Jefferson Morley noted this last Thursday: "The Post's Dana Milbank who portrayed Rep. John Conyers's DSM hearings on Capitol Hill last week as an excursion into the "land of make-believe". But with a click of the mouse they can go to the coverage of the same event in the Guardian of London and see the DSM story described as "tantamount to the first word of tapes in the Nixon White House during the Watergate scandal."

Morley also pointed to a BBC story calling the DSM story a "bloggers' victory."

Friday, June 24, 2005

"Girl in Cafe": Not Quite Bewitching

The LATimes, after contributing quite a bit of buzz to the HBO movie, "The Girl in the Cafe" has finally come out with its official review today. (The Calendar section also includes a full-page ad for the television movie.) Robert Lloyd loves, loves, loves Bill Nighy and in a rather large hunk of the review lets us know this in no uncertain terms. But in the end, Lloyd deems the production, which he calls a "schizophrenic, mostly satisfying romantic comedy," as "propaganda" for the movement to Make Poverty History.

The San Francisco Chronicle is a bit kinder. After noting the plot's not quite realistic, it seriously recommends the movie as a "primer for next month's Group of Eight summit" and ends with the tidbit that Tony B. apparently likes the movie. The Philadelphia Inquirer, also giving a brief overview, decribes the movie serving "up an intriguing brew of passion, politics and pathos while delivering the same strong message that some real-life aging rockers will be trying to send in next week's Live 8 concerts."

LA City Beat gives it a thumbs up for having the guts to use the guise of a seemingly light-hearted tale to consider the "the grim question of whether the wealthy and powerful nations of the G8 will ever seriously address the issues of Third World poverty. Nighy, Curtis, and all concerned have taken their highly commercial track records and courageously used them to do the unthinkable – bait and switch we-the-viewers to exit our TV comfort zone and think." Notably, since we see so few movies much less those on TV focused on real foreign policy issues, the online edition of the The Washington Post features only the earlier mentioned AP review.

The Seattle Times, meanwhile, has a review to warm the cockles of that city's WTO protesters. It begins this way: "Imagine a film called "The Girl in the Java Joint." Set during the WTO riots, it features a Seattle waitress whose tryst with a Treasury official puts heart into U.S. economic policy."

Interestingly, Times critic Kay McFadden points out that American movies tend to follow a plot that elevates a young woman in the "Pretty Woman"/Julia Roberts type story where the "focus is individual triumph, not social awareness. " She then goes on to say this:

"The attitude of British filmmakers is somewhat different: They often like to roll around in high-low class collisions expressly to explore the dynamics of inequality."

After rating the acting (highly) and the story itself (implausible and "propagandistic") McFadden makes some very interesting statements such as"I'd prefer if Gina had stated her cause because it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to dress down the leaders of the world's wealthiest nations for their self-interested neglect of the world's poor."

Interestinglty, McFadden baldly states what other reviewers either don't know or don't bother to say: The movie is about Blair's foreign policy ambitions for Africa which have not been warmly welcomed in Washington. The review ends thusly: "Little wonder the WTO demonstrations — dire consequences and all — may still seem the most effective way to make those in charge pay attention. Protests are expected in Scotland."

Hitchens propels the myth

While Don Rumsfeld & Co. are under attack and in full damage-control mode over the Iraq debacle today, and veteran UK war correspondent Max Hastings resurrects the spectre of Vietnam, the US media are once again doing their best to neglect the issue of how we got into this mess in the first place. Remember the Downing Street Memo?

Congratulations to professional contrarian Christopher Hitchens for propelling the US media's self-serving myth that the DSM is not and never was news because everyone in America supposedly already knew that the Bush administration was going to go to war with Iraq. In a piece in Slate.com, Hitchens argues, "I am now forced to wonder: Who is there who does not know that the Bush administration decided after September 2001 to change the balance of power in the region and to enforce the Iraq Liberation Act, passed unanimously by the Senate in 1998, which made it overt American policy to change the government of Iraq?" The answer is simple: The American people did not know this! Maybe Hitchens and his chattering-class peers "knew" or think they knew what Bush's Iraq policy really was, but the American people - in whose name this probably illegal invasion took place - did not know that Bush wanted a war, and would do anything to make it happen - including, of course, misrepresenting himself to the American people. And just how many Americans in July 2002 knew anything about the Iraq Liberation Act? Most Americans naturally took Bush at face value when he argued that war was a last resort. (In an Op-Ed piece in today's NY Times Paul Krugman quotes veteran White House correspondent Helen Thomas, who apparently told an audience in November 2002, "I have never covered a president who actually wanted to go to war" - an then made it clear that President Bush was the first.)

So Hitchens gets himself an "Officer Barbrady award" - for what it's worth.

Look, it's clear that, following last week's brief spike in coverage commensurate with John Conyers's Capitol basement session - and in spite of the emergence of a whole clutch of incriminating UK memos and minutes - the whole DSM issue is being efficiently buried again (and this time, I'm sure the MSM hope, it'll be for good). So Hitchens is kicking the issue when it's down. Oh well. But he's still wrong, and it's necessary to clearly recognize why he's wrong because that explains so much about what's wrong with the US news media today

So again, I turn to Joe Conason, whose Salon piece (which I discussed here) provides clear contemporary evidence (from 2002) that the media did not know Bush's true intentions:
    Consider Michael Kinsley, the Los Angeles Times editorial page editor and columnist, who recently [in June 2005] derided the memo's importance. According to him, "you don't need a secret memo" to know that "the administration's decision to topple Saddam Hussein by force" had been reached by then. Anybody could tell that war was "inevitable," he wrote. "Just look at what was in the newspapers on July 23, 2002, and the day before," he wrote, citing an opinion column by Robert Scheer and a Times story about Pentagon war planning.

    But let's also look at what Kinsley himself wrote on July 12, 2002, after those war plans were leaked. On the Post's Op-Ed page, he suggested that despite all the logistical planning and bellicose rhetoric, "Bush may be bluffing ... Or he may be lying, and the leak may be part of an official strategy of threatening all-out war in the hope of avoiding it, by encouraging a coup or persuading Hussein to take early retirement or in some other way getting him gone without a massive invasion."

    So Kinsley himself wasn't quite certain whether Bush had decided on war, yet now he says we all knew.

    On that same [Los Angeles Times] Op-Ed page two months later, fervent hawk James Hoagland, whose views on the war closely reflect those of the paper's editorial board, wrote a column about the president's U.N. speech. Hoagland described Bush as "diligent prosecuting attorney, sorrowful statesman and reluctant potential warrior.

    "Bush wisely did not base his appeals for collective action against Iraq on a doctrine of preemption ... Instead he explained how the need for such drastic steps can be avoided by concerted international action." War, that is, could still be avoided, or so Hoagland believed as of Sept. 15, 2002.

    A few days earlier, an editorial in the Times had likewise lauded the president's speech: "While Mr. Bush reserved the right to act independently to restrain Iraq, he expressed a preference for working in concert with other nations and seemed willing to employ measures short of war before turning to the use of force. These are welcome and important statements." So despite what Times reporters and analysts claim today, their newspaper clearly did not consider war inevitable several weeks after July 23, 2002.

    And on Oct. 8, 2002, the Times noted approvingly that in requesting a congressional war resolution, Bush had said: "Approving this resolution does not mean that military action is imminent or unavoidable." The next day, the paper of record reported that around the world, politicians, journalists and ordinary citizens had derived hope from those words.

So what impression did all this leave in the minds of ordinary Americans? Not that war was inevitable or desirable, of that I'm sure. But no matter: A new myth is being carefully constructed by the media, and no amount of Internet or blogosphere criticism seems able to fully deconstruct it. (Btw, here's another excellent piece Joe Conason from June 10, 2005, also in Salon.)

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Live8 and "Girl" Updates

Alternet weighs in today on the upcoming Live8 concerts tied to the G8 summit in Scotland next month.

The online alternative reports that the "nine shows scheduled for July 2 add up to an astounding lineup: the Sex Pistols, Coldplay, Madonna, Scissor Sisters, U2, Green Day, Roxy Music, REM, Stevie Wonder, Brian Wilson, A-ha, The Cure, P. Diddy and Youssou N'Dour" among others.

More importantly, the concerts do not aim to do what Live Aid did for the Ethiopian famine in 1985: They aren't intended to raise money; all shows are free. Instead, they are strictly PR for Tony Blair's Commission on Africa efforts.

A cursory check of US coverage of the companion effort, "The Girl in Cafe" television movie, appears to be turning up some positive US coverage. As was pointed out earlier, despite a core of dedicated activists in the US who have worked on debt relief for some years, this is not an American driven issue.

So it's somewhat suprising that this rather small movie got a page in last week's Newsweek which called it a "poignant, topical, lovely little film" and a "cry for the ignorant to open their eyes and for the powerless to stand up to the powerful." Whew! Meanwhile their over-promoted columnist Fareed Zakaria called it a "pleasure to watch" and suggested that it would surely induce audiences to learn more about Africa debt. He does point out that the movie features a "bad" American official who wants trade not aid.

Associated Press also gives it a thumbs up: "Besides packing a weighty message -- significant reduction in global poverty and infant mortality is now within the grasp of world leaders -- this lovely film can hold its own against any love story as it depicts a mismatched couple struggling to connect." (Read whole review at boston.com)

In the hinterlands, the movie is getting more mixed reviews. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel wanted the story to stay on the romance and not the politics or what it called "a blast of hot air." The Oregonian calls it a "bit of political propaganda" filled with "political polemics."

So, we'll have to see the extent to which British foreign policy can indeed seep into America's consciousness via our entertainment obsessed culture. All of which raises some interesting questions: Is the US entertainment industry more aligned with British popular opinion (where the campaign has lots of both grass-roots and adminstration support)? Or is it a matter of enough Brits working in the US industry to put certain topics on the table that might otherwise be ignored or downplayed? Or are British media in general agenda setting for the US in regards to an issue in which they are clearly more in tune and more knowlegeable about?

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Praising the BBC ... through gritted teeth!

Just to piggy-back on Doctor Media's fine post, if I may: I can't help but notice that the piece she refers to in the (UK-based) Economist is quite happy to describe the BBC in its first reference as "Britain's mammoth public-service broadcaster" and in the third reference as a "Britain's lumbering giant of a public-service broadcaster" [My emphases]. It makes sure to highlight the corporation's "annual £2.8 billion [$5.4 billion] public subsidy." It lauds the very market-oriented former BBC Director-General John Birt - perhaps the most hated D-G of recent times - as having had the vision to take the BBC into the web. You get the impression from reading this piece that The Economist is not exactly Auntie Beeb's best friend! And you'd be right. Make no mistake, when this influential and economically conservative magazine praises the BBC's "excellent" web sites, it's doing so through very gritted teeth! In fact, it's fair to say that The Economist is fundamentally opposed to everything the BBC as a psb stands for, and has on more than one occasion called for the abolition of the license fee and the freeing of the BBC "brand" to do battle in the marketplace. Too bad if you can't afford the product.

The tone of The Economist piece here is a little schizophrenic. Even though it rightly praises the quality of the BBC's web sites, it does not make an explicit connection with the the essential public-service value of these sites. Even though the article recognizes that most British newspapers (apart from the Guardian and maybe the FT) still don't quite "get" the web, the tone is still implicitly critical of the BBC for having had the audacity to figure out the internet first and then make it harder for the poor, suffering, commercial British press to turn it into a "nice little earner." How, you can almost hear them think, can this socialistic, "mammoth," "lumbering giant" of an entity actually do something right? Why isn't the BBC more like British Rail or British Leyland, i.e., just rubbish?

In fact, if I may be so bold, The Economist cares not a whit about public service in this case: all it sees is a market opportunity lost because of that public service. Now it'd be one thing if the BBC was providing a crummy service with all this public money (£15 million, or $27 million pa, apparently) spent on the web. But this has not been and is not the case. The BBC was and is in the best position of any media organization in the country to do what it does, and it's doing precisely what it should be doing - providing a top-quality service that the people really use and really like - and doing it well. If the BBC wasn't doing it, commercial operators (whether from the press or wherever) would step in - but the service would likely be inferior and definitely be more fragmented and would of course cost lots more. Unfortunately, something tells me The Economist would really like that!

BBC dominates online

The Economist reports that the BBC’s early jump into online journalism has paid off handsomely with visitors to their news site increasing from 1.6 million in 2000 to 7.8 in 2005. The magazine attributes the jump to the quality and breadth of what BBC makes available, drawing on the services of more than 5,000 journalists and spending $27 million a year on the news site. (BBC operates 525 sites total!) Of course, as has been much argued here, the problems with American media in the wake of 911 have probably driven at least some of the US traffic their way. And who knows the extent to which the Bush-Blair war has helped the corporation generate more global eyeballs. Good show, Tony.

At any rate, this dominance means that other British sites have a hard time competing – they after all, have to take in advertising, charge a subscription or otherwise come up with a means of supporting their sites.

The most popular newspaper website, run by The Guardian, sees half the number of visitors as the BBC and is hoping to finally make some money this year, joining the ranks of the online Financial Times and the Daily Telegraph, whose sites have been making money since 2002.

Interestingly, the article notes that the BBC is making more efforts to link to other media to send traffic their way.

As for The Guardian, Simon Waldman who honchos Guardian Unlimited, spoke at the Internet World UK meeting last week and called for news websites to recognize that citizens want to interact with the news -- a decision that the BBC appears to have made some time ago -- certainly long before The Guardian or even Rupert made his johnny-come-lately pitch for taking the techie stuff seriously.

Who's getting dumbed down?

Is British telly dumbing down America? Owen Gibson of MediaGuardian seems to think so. Once again the ghost of the Beatles in '64 is evoked as Gibson states, "America is in the grip of a second British invasion. But this time it's not our music that's proving a hit but our light entertainment television shows starring faded celebrities." He's talking about the newly repackaged versions of BBC and ITV formats being bought up by US media "in unprecedented numbers." London Calling has talked about this before (see, e.g., Format programming: UK rules and our take on The Office) but apparently it's getting worse - or better, from a UK balance-of-payments perspective.

Gibson's piece notes the particular success of Granada America, part of Granada International, ITV's export/production arm - that as of last week, "the company provided a fifth of the weekday prime time schedule for Fox and NBC, until recently a proportion that would have been unthinkable to most US TV producers."

Just to keep things straight, he runs through some of the British shows at the trailer-trash end of the spectrum, currently repacakaged for an American audience:
  • Dancing With the Stars (adapted from BBC's Strictly Come Dancing, and pulling in "more than 15 million" viewers on ABC after three weeks on air).
  • Hit Me Baby One More Time (Granada America, ITV's export/production arm, now on NBC)
  • Nanny 911 (Granada America, now on Fox)
  • Hell's Kitchen (Granada America)
  • Fire Me Please (based on BBC3's The Sack Race)

The piece reminds us that for many years "it tended to be mostly one-way traffic" from the US to the UK, "with Anglophiles restricted to watching imports" on cable channels "and the big four US networks selling their best comedies and dramas to the BBC and Channel 4." Of course, "The long list of hit US imports, from Dallas to The Sopranos, and game show formats wasn't matched by a reciprocal flow of programme ideas the other way." (He's actually thinking back to the 1970s in particular, when US programming often dominated UK prime-time schedules; US imports are still huge, but for years even the top US imports to Britain, such as Friends and The Sopranos, have been pushed off to "minority" channels - such as C4 or Sky - and lesser timeslots.)

Anyway, Gibson's piece paraphrases Mike Phillips, deputy chief executive of BBC Worldwide (the Beeb's commercial arm), noting "the success of Who Wants to be a Millionaire and Pop Idol changed the game."
Phillips say he overcame network skepticism and convinced ABC chief Andrea Wong to take a risk with Strictly Come Dancing, drawing on the experience of the show's huge sucess in Britain and Australia (where the link to Baz Luhman's Strictly Ballroom undoubtedly helped).

Paul Jackson, CEO of Granada America, says another reason for the current US opening is the vacuum in American broadcasting as networks cast around desperately for Big Hit replacements for their now-defunct moneyspinners such as Friends and Frasier. Says Jackson: "America is a much more faddish market than over here. While entertainment shows have remained a staple of the British market, that Saturday night type of entertainment show hadn't been seen in America for 20 years. . . . This summer, they've latched onto the British entertainment market and decided to take a risk on it."

So is this a case of the Brits dumbing down American TV? Britain, the land of The Forsyte Saga, Upstairs Downstairs, and David Attenborough's Life on Earth? You betcha. This is the other side of British television, the side that Americans never used to see. It's similar in many ways to Britain's two-tier, high-low class, contrapuntal press system (whose influence is also being felt in the US). Now we're seeing a similar two-tier, high-low class, contrapuntal TV system spreading its influence across the Atlantic.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Update: Girl in Cafe

Here's the pitch:

Charming 50ish British PM elected on a Third Way platform of centrist politics gets hit by a football during a national match, temporarily loses his mind and decides to follow a dangerous and slightly batty American president into a baseless, de-stabilizing and unpopular war against a pathetic Third World dictator addicted to Doritos. PM Smarm, er, Charm, barely survives this political disaster, partially regains his senses, and settles on a last-ditch effort to burnish his tattered legacy: He will join forces with a group of witty, slightly kooky actor-writer types to save every last African child from poverty. I see it as a musical.

Well it turns out Richard Curtis' "The Girl in the Cafe" HBO movie tied to the G8 summit happening July 6 in Scotland is a tad bigger than London Calling first surmised. In fact, this web of do-gooders, Hollywood glory hounds and British politicos may have created the most synergized bit of development-entertainment the world has every known. And please note my friends, this is where British good intentions meets American entertainment, falls head over heels and, well, you know rest.

To be sure, debt relief, now morphed into Make Poverty History has always been a British-driven issue. Sure, a lot of Third World activists were calling for this years ago but they're really only good as extras in the political pagentry necessary to launch a global campaign that anybody actually notices.

So this is where the story begins. With the 25th anniversary of Live Aid coming up, Sir Bob Geldof working with Comic Relief types such as Curtis hatched the idea of this Poverty-polooza with Live8 concerts across nations (the free tix were being scalped on e-Bay!), the "Girl" movie written by Curtis, commercials featuring Brad Pitt and other Hollywood celebrities and also some actors such as Helen Mirren and Emma Thompson. The key motif running through all this is clicking one's fingers -- the click indicates a child dying needless of poverty every few seconds.

Now it also turns out that at the same time British Prime Minister Tony B. has got some fence mending to do with well just about everybody in the world other than W, and some image repair to undertake. Since he just so happens to be the chair of the G8, this is the perfect opporunity for him to take the global stage and proclaim his commitment to helping poor African children who everyone knows are much better behaved than poor Iraqi children.

And the ball just keeps rolling. More than 400 British charities and related agencies have signed on this Poverty-polooza. Media outlets such as the Observer and apparently Marie Clare have decided to be part of it. In what was apparently a serious news story, The Daly Telegraph reports that Penguin will publish a book called How to Defeat Poverty in Seven Easy Steps (#1 Marry Rich, #7 Work for Halliburton) and shared the fact that British school children were being asked to jump up and down instead of clicking so as not to injure themselves. I guess America's overfed kids will be asked to use the remote control three times in a row to indicate their support.

The BBC1 is joining the fun too, airing "Girl" during what has shaped up to be a BBC Africa week. Various shows will feature an African theme and the wildly popular "Strictly Dancing" will be a "Strictly African Dancing." A popular hospital show will have a main character traveling to Africa, a family will leave behind their British comforts to live in a remote village, and other specials will focus on African art and music. Geldof will have a six-part African series. In all, BBC is estimated to have spent some 15 million pounds on the various programs.

At any rate, the entire effort truly is a British extravaganza married to Tony Blair's legacy aspirations. And while we all want to end poverty, it's still not quite clear how this clicking thing works.

A tale of two Curtises

It seems that not all Curtises are treated equally in US media-land.

While Richard Curtis is making his own kind of transAtlantic "New Labour Agitprop"(!) splash with "The Girl in the cafe," another British Curtis - Adam, no relation, I think - is having less success State-side.

Adam Curtis is responsible for a somewhat less Blair-friendly media project on the political scene, thanks to his three-part BBC documentary series, The Power of Nightmares - described by Peter Bergen in The Nation as "arguably the most important film about the 'war on terrorism' since the events of September 11. It is more intellectually engaging, more historically probing and more provocative than any of its rivals, including Fahrenheit 9/11."

Curtis is described by Andy Beckett of The Guardian as "perhaps the most acclaimed maker of serious television programmes in Britain. His trademarks are long research, the revelatory use of archive footage, telling interviews, and smooth, insistent voiceovers concerned with the unnoticed deeper currents of recent history, narrated by Curtis himself in tones that combine traditional BBC authority with something more modern and sceptical: 'I want to try to make people look at things they think they know about in a new way.'"

Perhaps that's why we haven't yet seen it in the States. Although it was aired in the UK (on BBC 2) last October 20, and, as Bergen notes, has been shown "at Cannes and at a few film festivals in the United States, it has yet to find an American distributor, and for understandable reasons." Such as?
    The documentary asserts that Al Qaeda is largely a phantom of the imagination of the US national security apparatus. Indeed, The Power of Nightmares seeks nothing less than to reframe the past several decades of American foreign policy, from the Soviet menace of the 1970s to the Al Qaeda threat of today, to argue that neoconservatives in the American foreign policy establishment have vastly exaggerated those threats in their quest to remake the world in the image of the United States.

There are good reviews of the documentary in the UK press, e.g., at The Times of London and The Guardian. Yet interestingly, Bergen is more skeptical of Curtis than the aforementioned UK reviewers. While Bergen notes that "The fact that the film has not been widely shown here [in the U.S.] is our loss, since it raises important questions about the political manipulation of fear," he also thinks the documentary series is "troubling for reasons other than the ones Curtis supposes. For the thesis he advances--that the war on terrorism is driven by nightmares rather than nightmarish potentialities--is one that merits considerable skepticism." Bergen goes on to pick holes in the narrative - unable, perhaps, to accept the true power of Curtis's thesis (although I'll have to wait to see the film myself to make sure). Yet he still concludes that The Power of Nightmares
    is a richly rewarding film because it treats its audience as adults capable of following complex arguments." This is a vision of the audience that has been almost entirely abandoned in the executive suites of American television networks. It would be refreshing if one of those executives took a chance on The Power of Nightmares. After all, its American counterpart, Fahrenheit 9/11, earned more money than any documentary in history. And what Curtis has to say is a helluva lot more interesting than what Michael Moore had to say.

But is it possible that what Curtis has to say is also more interesting than what the other Curtis (Richard) has to say? And could HBO's resident Brit Colin Callender be "one of those executives" who might take a chance on this other film in America? I'm not so sure. HBO might like to think of itself as a bit edgy, but I don't think it's ready for that kind of heat. What about BBC America, which in May 2003 rebroadcast “War Spin: Saving Private Lynch”, which embarrassed the US in its attempts to mytholigize Private Jessica Lynch. Well, as far as I know, BBC America hasn't taken it up, and I doubt that it will.

So who will show The Power of Nightmares in the US? Will anyone? I'd guess that if anyone could really tackle this subject and get it aired in the US, it's probably the Brits. There's something about doumentaries and authoritative British accents that allows US audiences to negotiate meaning from such texts at a greater cultural distance - just far enough but not too far - than would be the case with a domestic attempt. But even so . . .

Perhaps the trouble is, while Richard Curtis's project has the backing of Blair (and, perhaps covertly, even the Bush administration), Adam Curtis's project is still well beyond the Washington pale. The Power of Nightmares is the sort of project that can still get funding and screening on a (British) public service system that still displays some independence from political and commercial forces. But it deals with a subject that's more sensitive in the US than the UK (which has had a lot longer to deal with terrorism and its impact on the national psyche). In the '70s and '80s British broadcasters were able to tackle the issue of Irish Republicanism and terrorism in ways inconceivable to present-day US MSM. Perhaps the time is just not yet right. And perhaps the "tale of two Curtises" shows the limits of British media's ability to push a new political agenda onto a jaded US audience. And, to be just a little facetious, it's a subject that doesn't have a cute entertainment lead-in! Yes, it will be a long time before we see a two-hour movie about a love affair between a naive Scottish girl and a grizzled senior Al Qaeda veteran who's off to negotiate a lasting peace with the United States.

PS. The Power of Nightmares apparently is not yet available yet on DVD or video.

UK-US critiques of "The Girl"

While on the subject of "The Girl in the Cafe," it might be fun in the coming days and weeks to compare the critical responses to the film on both sides of the Atlantic. Here's a flavor of what might be coming down the pike. Stateside we've got the New York Times quoting Fareed Zakaria, Newsweek's international editor, saying in a recent column, "that a romantic comedy about global poverty might sound 'sleep inducing' but that 'The Girl in the Café' was actually 'a pleasure to watch.'" Kristin Hohenadel in the LAT Kelly Macdonald interview noted by Doctor Media below, calls the film "surprisingly affecting" as it "tries to call attention to the need to end extreme poverty."

Compare this with the initial critical reception to the film - premiering June 25 on BBC and HBO - on BBC's Newsnight Review last week.

Every Friday night on Newsnight three rather pompous cultural critics take up the last third of the show to pontificate on the latest play or movie or TV show or whatever. Last Friday, leftie author John Harris, academic Sarah Churchwell, and (right-wing) Times commentator Michael Gove got a chance to discuss "The Girl in the Cafe." None of them were hugely impressed with the film, it must be said.

Interestingly it was Churchwell (a lecturer at the School of American Studies at the University of East Anglia and the only American in the group) who was the most complimentary of the three - and even she only really liked the first hour of the film, dealing with the "love story" (she thinks the second half, dealing with the polemical side, becomes unbelievable). Michael Gove derided what he described as "the traditional Richard Curtis schtick" and called the film patronising "propaganda," simplistic, and "morally empty." John Harris, easily the most bolshie of the three, totally rips into the film, calling it "West London New Labour Agitprop with a distinct smell of of Princess Diana around it" (I love that imagery), and "garbage". By the end they were all mercilessly slagging off the film. But Churchwell does come back to make perhaps the most astute point that she noticed "as an American": the film's "shameless sucking up to the British government," i.e., that everyone - the French, the Germans, the Americans - is ready to sell out the poor old Africans, and only the noble, self-righteous British ministers are ready to stand up for Africa. (If you've followed the UK news on G8/Live8 you might also have noticed some serious "sucking up" to Blair and Brown by Bono and Bob Geldof.) Anyway, Churchwell's comment gives an opening to John Harris to exclaim, "This is getting dangerously close ... [to] what you'd see if you lived in a benign, Brownite [as in Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown] one-party state." Harris seems to have a knack of sounding like he's talking bollocks but actually making a compelling point!

This could get very interesting indeed.

Monday, June 20, 2005

"Girl in Cafe": Tony B. gets some synergy

It turns out London Calling was not the only one to identify something interesting going on with the Richard Curtis' "The Girl in the Cafe," an HBO romantic comedy set at a G-8 summit meeting and centered around a message of child infant mortality and extreme poverty.

The first signs have been the rather ubiquitous coverage appearing in the LA Times. Since the show was last mentioned on this blog, the LAT editorial page (pre-wiki launch and crash) included an unsigned editorial (with the rather twee title "Chic Flicks to the Rescue") noting the unusual nature of having a movie based on a such a serious and seemingly unentertaining humanitarian message. Um, yes, it's a bit interesting on that front in terms of the movie being focused on a specific issue and not simply having Human Rights Watch or Amnesty insert a message product-placement style into a pre-exisiting show. And one might even argue that's the difference between the US and British media in general (Save the World as product placement versus Save the World as a documentary). And there's the fact that show is about helping people in the Third World (Naomi Klein says otherwise about the overall campaign) instead of focusing on some narrow innocuous issue -- wear a seatbelt, say.

Then the paper ran a Q & A interview with the actor who plays the "girl" of the title, Scotland's Kelly Macdonald. The first three questions were about the politics of the movie to which Macdonald didn't have much intelligent to say, eg., Q: Were you as shocked as your character to find out that 30,000 African children die because of poverty every day? Yeah, because you know the horror in the news - you kind of let things wash over you."

Whatever. She does say that Curtis took a year off from movie-making to work on the issue. The paper has also promoted the Bob Geldof managed Live8 concert on a couple of occasions, including today's paper.

London Calling suggested earlier that there was something more to this blending of British politics with Hollywood and that perhaps Tony Blair would get more from promoting his politics via an entertainment platform than one shared with George Bush. And today the New York Times reports that's exactly what's happening here. In a remarkable bit of synergy, on July 2 CNN will air 25 minutes of the film followed by a sit-down between reporter Christiane Amanpour and Tony B. himself!

The Times also notes that HBO is partnering with the Council on Foreign Relations to help roll-out some premieres of "Girl" this week in Washington. IMF and World Bank policy wonks will join Congressional staffers and MM journalists to preview the flick.

Sunday, June 19, 2005

An Oz view of UK TV

Media Guardian provides a fascinating insight into the British TV from an Australian perspective. Former BSkyB chief Sam Chisholm - actually a New Zealander - has returned Down Under, and it seems he's missing the Old Country.

    Half a world away in Australia, Sam Chisholm is missing London. He misses his Hyde Park apartment, his local boozer, the Enterprise, and Langan's Brasserie. He misses Tottenham Hotspur football club, of which he was a director. The TV executive misses English humour and manners. Not least, he misses the broadcasting. "British broadcasting is amazing," he sighs.

Chisholm has returned to Oz to run Kerry Packer's Nine Network in Australia. The last time he was in charge of Nine he created a winning culture at Nine - making it Australia's leading network - and then, in 1990, moved to the UK to turn BSkyB into a money-spinner for Murdoch.

Chisholm is described as "an admirer of the 'brilliant' branding of British channels" - he had a major role to play in successfully "branding" Sky - and on that basis is "scrutinising Nine's promos and marketing."

Interestingly, Chisholm is also an archetype of the international media-cultural axis linking Britain and the Antipodes (and, by extension, the US). He has close links with Australia's two best-known media magnates: Rupert Murdoch - at Britain's BSkyB and its Ausralian equivalent, Foxtel - and Kerry Packer, who owns the Nine Network in Australia. Although he doesn't have much direct experience in the United States, Chisholm does exemplify the type of player prominent in the new, post-colonial, global network in English-language news and entertainment media - a network that clearly includes the US, especially through the links provided by Murdoch's News Corporation.

Friday, June 17, 2005

More from the alternative, er, British press

London Calling has previously commented on how mainstream reporting in Britain now passes for alternative, aggressive watchdog journalism in the United States. A particularly good example of this is the Independent's fine reporter LA-based Andrew Gumbel, who on the side pens a column for the Los Angeles City Beat. Gumbel, who just picked up an award from the Los Angeles Press Club for his on-going column, titled American Babylon, has an excellent piece in the print version of the most recent issue of the alt weekly on how the Bush administration has so effectively turned news media revelations of the administration's own misdeeds into a springboard for attacking reporters' ethics.

Gumbel argues that if the public does not trust the media it is not because of anonymous sources - as the Bushies would have you believe -- but because "they do not challenge the official line enough." Interestingly, Gumbel also points out that the Thatcher government tried a similar strategy of attacking the British media's ethics in the 1980s, citing in particular the case of BBC reporter Kate Adie whom the administration took aim at when she reported on the civilian casualities from a US bombing run into Libya.

Unlike today's scenario, Gumbel notes that Adie became a "national heroine" in the case.

Unfortunately for the US, no one -- not even the news media itself -- seems willing to take up the cause of today's journalists. Indeed, journalists high and low join in their own abuse, self-flagellating with abandon. My sense is the British media appear more willing to fight back -- or at least some elements do.

Another part of the problem seems to be that Americans do not have the same sense of connection with our media that Brits appear to have with the BBC. (Maybe I'm wrong here -- there is a move to save Public Broadcasting but Bush's attack seems more vicious than the usual jabs.) Journalists here also seem unwilling to recognize who their true allies may well be -- groups like the Media Reform Movement -- which don't want to destroy the media in this country but do want some control of the corporate conglomerates mucking up our democracy.

US press's new self-serving myth

Hats off to Joe Conason in Salon for once again bursting the US mainstream news media's self-inflated myth about the Iraq war. Conason's target is the media myth that "The memo wasn't news because Americans already knew that the Bush administration was 'fixing the intelligence and facts around the policy,' rather than making policy that reflected the intelligence and the facts about Iraq [Emphasis added]." (I heard this myth expressed again even by USA Today's Mark Memmott - who finally reported on the DSM for his paper - on last week's On the Media, and then again by Susan Page, USA Today's Washington bureau chief on today's Diane Rehm Friday roundup). The myth is as pervasive as it is instant. And it's wrong, argues Conason, whose piece (reprinted in Truthout) argues for clear duplicity on the part of the MSM.

Of the journalists at the Times and even the Post, Conason states:
    Only a very special brand of arrogance would permit any employee of the New York Times, which brought us the mythmaking of Judith Miller, to insist that new documentary evidence of "intelligence fixing" about Saddam's arsenal is no longer news. The same goes for the Washington Post, which featured phony administration claims about Iraq's weapons on Page 1 while burying the skeptical stories that proved correct.

This refers - quite correctly - to these papers' mea culpas about their desultory performance reporting fully on the run-up to the war. This brings Conason to the new media myth. Conason notes comments by the Times's and the Post's - as well as by Michael Kinsley - that show that what they're saying now about the inevitability of war is not what they were saying in 2002. He concludes, "Instead of pretending that we all knew what we know now, the Washington press corps should stop spinning excuses, stop redefining what constitutes news and start doing its job."

Thursday, June 16, 2005

WP and Kurtz on the DSM

Some more recent coverage of the DSM in the Washington Post - from Terry M. Neal ("Democrats Looking for a Road Map to Downing Street"); Jefferson Morley ("World Opinion Roundup: Britain's Deep Throat", a weekly discussion); and, from today Howard Kurtz ("News Media Give Overlooked Memo on Iraq Second Glance"). Of even more interest, also from Kurtz, is a piece from yesterday's paper: "Backlash on the left", which kicks off: "It's official: The Democrats are fed up with the press."

The two Kurtz articles in particular are interesting. Today's piece gives another useful timeine and overview of the US MSM's stilted coverage of the issue. Both suggest, significantly, that the "left" in this country are now as "fed up" and disillusioned with the mainstream news media as the right. But I have to comment on something Kurtz says in his "News Media Give Overlooked Memo on Iraq Second Glance" from today. Focusing on the efforts by "liberal" groups such as FAIR and Moveon.org to push the memo onto the MSM agenda, he states:
    For the past 15 years, conservatives have used their outlets -- in talk radio, right-leaning news operations, editorial pages and, more recently, blogs -- to pressure mainstream journalists into covering stories that might otherwise be ignored. And they have had striking success, from allegations about President Bill Clinton's personal life to CBS's questionable documents on President Bush's National Guard service to the Swift Boat Veterans' attacks on Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) in last year's presidential campaign. Now the left can claim a similar success.

Kurtz might be suggesting that the left-wing pressure groups have "come of age" and are now ready to challenge the right's highly-organized media "echo chamber." But he neglects to mention a crucial difference, one that suggests that the "left" is far from ready. The right-wing examples he suggests all concern domestic issues, created out of whole cloth, or researched independently by bloggers, and pushed domestically onto the MSM agenda by the partisan domestic right-wing media echo chamber. But the DSM story did not originate domestically with the left-wing in this country. It came out of a foreign story - broken, in fact, by a right-wing (Murdoch-owned) British newspaper, and was propelled into the UK and international MSM spotlight by all UK media, left and right. Without that crucial foreign-based newsgathering and reporting - as well as seemingly rock-solid documentary evidence - the story could never have gotten even the minimal traction it is now receiving. If Kurtz is suggesting that some sort of left-right "level playing field" has been acheived, he's wrong!

So at this point, I would suggest four things:
  • 1.) Like Howard Kurtz, I agree that liberals are now just as fed up with the MSM as conservatives, and rightly so;
  • 2.) The circumstances around the US coverage of the DSM show again just how far right the country's MSM have moved - even in comparison with the UK.
  • 3.) Unlike Kurtz, I think that the left are still far, far away from being able to match the right in independently pushing a domestic story onto the MSM agenda; the scales are still tipped decidely in favor of the right; and
  • 4.) for the time being, the only way the "left" will be able to successfully leverage anything onto the MSM agenda will be through strong backing by extensive foreign-based (probably UK) newsgathering and reporting, plus rock-solid documentary evidence.

Kaplan on the memo(s)

Fred Kaplan of Slate asks, "What's really in the Downing Street memos?" Actually, he notes not one memo, or two, but seven, including the "famous" memo/minutes of the UK ministers' meeting; the secret Cabinet Office briefing paper written two days before that meeting (see here and here for London Calling's take); and "five eyes-only memos, written around the same time, about various official British meetings with President Bush, then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, and then-Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz." These new documents, described by John Daniszewski in yesterday's Los Angeles Times, have, notes Kaplan, been available in full for a while on the Think Progress Web site. These newly revealed documents "help flesh out" the background to the DSM, notes Daniszewski.

The additional materials provide more evidence for duplicity by both Blair and Bush - but Kaplan questions whether it's an open-and-shut case. He's staying skeptical, and draws on Michael Kinsley's "Officer Barbardy" skepticism ("what's New Here?") in a Sunday Washington Post article. In fact, Kaplan suggests the new memos' emergence "weakens" the anti-Bush case. He contends that the "memos do not show, for instance, that Bush simply invented the notion that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction or that Saddam posed a threat to the region. In fact, the memos reveal quite clearly that the top leaders in the U.S. and British governments genuinely believed their claims." He's pushing it to say the Brits "quite clearly" bought the WMD argument. But worse, Kaplan does not address the legality issue; he does not use the term "legal" or "illegal" in his article. (American commentators just seem not to want to deal with the fundamental issue that the war was almost certainly illegal in international law!)

Kaplan then seems to get caught up in some tortured reasoning over the supposed meaning of "policy" being "fixed" versus "fixed around" the intelligence. He asks, "Does this distinction [between the two terms] matter? If all you want to know is whether Bush was deceptive, no; he was deceptive. If you want to know how government works, how officials make bad mistakes, yes; it matters a lot." (So does it matter, Fred? Make a clear decision.)

Anyway, my prime concern is over the MSM's conspiracy of silence up to now. And at least on this point, Kaplan makes a concession:
    When the scholars write the big tomes on this sordid saga, they'll want to base their findings on primary-source documents—and here is one, flashing right before us. The Downing Street Memo will be a key footnote in the history books; it should have made front-page headlines in the daily broadsheets of history's first draft.

I should be clear on this. My prime concern is not over a right-left spin war over the memos (which are finally getting some media attention, thanks as well to the unstinting efforts of John Conyers in the House). My concern is that most of the apologist spin is coming from major news media figures - "Officer Barbradys" such as Kinsley and David Sanger - who didn't do their job. These are serious journalists. I expect Hannity, O'Reilly, Hume and John Gibson to underplay or dismiss the issue, but not Kinsley and Ifill and Matthews. Instead of engaging with this UK-originated issue, they try instead to cover their tracks. I don't put Kaplan in this camp - not quite - but he's not helping much to clarify the issue either.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Murdoch reads Fleet Street's last rites

As Reuters becomes the last news agency to leave Fleet Street, in rolls Rupert Murdoch to give the last rites. According to Media Guardian, "The News International boss is to read the lesson at the journalists' church St Bride's at an afternoon service [today] commemorating the departure of Reuters, the last major British news organisation based in Fleet Street." Both the Guardian and The Independent offer interesting overviews of what was long the functional and spiritual home of the British press. The Independent includes a fascinating section on "The drinking, the socialising... and the stories."

Subversive C-SPAN

Gore Vidal, writing a commentary in this week's The Nation, praises C-SPAN as "the one truly, if unconsciously, subversive media outlet in these United States." Why? Because its weekly broadcast of the Westminster Parliament's Question Time allows Americans "to observe British politics in full cry." He describes Question Time - when the Prime Minister is required to take hard-hitting questions from an always-raucous House of Commons, as "the only glimpse that most Americans will ever get of how democracy is supposed to work."

Vidal also notes that C-SPAN shows other UK-originated political programs, especially around UK election time. The example he gives is of a special broadcast of the three main party leaders being interrogated about the Iraq War by a UK studio audience (he's talking about a special presentation of BBC's Q&A program, itself called "Question Time" - I talked about it in London Calling back on May 1 - though C-SPAN also regularly showed episodes of BBC 2's flagship political affairs program, "Newsnight" throughout the recent UK election campaign). He notes, as many have, how wonderful it is to see a head of government have to face his skeptical people to explain why the country had to go to war. "Blair, for just going along, had to deal with savage, informed questions of a sort that Bush would never answer even if he were competent to do so."

The rest of Vidal's commentary focuses on Rep. John Conyers' efforts to uncover presidential election irregularities in Ohio, but Vidal's use of the British example to shine a harsh light on America's creaking democracy is interesting, especially because he recognizes the power of C-SPAN to provide that light. (And just for the record, I think Britain's own democracy is pretty creaky in places - but it is far more lively, and that's crucial, I believe.) In fact, C-SPAN is one of the - very few - hidden wonders of the American media, providing wonderful insights into American government and democracy for those willing to still seek out televised information rather than mindless entertainment. C-SPAN also provides insights into other countries' political systems, including those of Canada (which has its own version of Question Time, called "Question Period") and France (e.g., during its recent referendum over the EU constitution). But undoubtedly the bulk of C-SPAN's foreign coverage goes to Britain. The crown jewel in this coverage is of course Question Time, broadcast live on Wednesday mornings and repeated on Sunday evenings. But as mentioned before, other UK political programs get aired as well (albeit infrequently). C-SPAN also regularly covers professional forums for journalists and other media professionals, and many of the participants in these forums, I've noticed, have British accents and work for British organizations.

So C-SPAN comes under a significant amount of influence from the Brits. And yes, I think this influence truly is "subversive," even as these public service channels (C-SPAN 1 and 2) continue to fly under the radar of the rest of the U.S. media system.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

BBC takes top prize in Canada

We don't often talk about British media's impact north of the U.S. border on London Calling, but maybe we should. Canada continues to be an important market for UK media products. And the British product is highly regarded up there too - as was shown once again at the annual Banff World Television Festival - Canada's top international media event, currently underway in Banff, Alberta (click here for the festival site). According to the Canadian Press (published in the Globe & Mail), the BBC has just taken the top prize at the festival's awards ceremony; and, among the international awards, British shows bagged no less than nine trophies compared to just three each for the U.S., Japan, and Canada. The BBC alone captured six awards. The CP article calls it a "British invasion."

The BBC's series "Blackpool" (described as "A stylish British miniseries synthesizing music, gambling and drama" - though I haven't seen it) picked up the C$50,000 Global television grand prize.

The CBC notes that "more than 100 programmers and decision-makers are in Banff for the 26th annual event to represent broadcasters from around the world, including the CBC, the BBC, National Geographic Television, the Disney Channel, the Comedy Network, Germany's ZDF and Japan's NHK."

Of course, the BBC and other UK TV producers have a long history of involvement in Canada. In spite of Canada's strict domestic programming quotas and stiff competition from the United States, British producers have continued to export their products to Canada - not only on the public CBC, but also on commercial networks and now on BBC Canada - a "a general entertainment channel available on cable and satellite TV" and "a joint venture between BBC Worldwide and Canadian broadcaster, Alliance Atlantis." BBC Canada, in other words, is similar in function to BBC America in the U.S., except that because of "Canada's broadcasting regulations, BBC Canada must carry a quota of Canadian programming."

NYT looks really stupid - and complicit

Both Salon and Slate take a shot at the New York Times over how ridiculous the paper looks over its UK briefing paper story, written by David Sanger.

Slate's Today's Papers from June 13 awards the New York Times headline the No. 1 prize for "worst headline of the day." Notes Slate:
    A day after the Post broke word of another prewar British memo, the NYT hops onboard. Presumably not content to simply repeat the WP's angle—"MEMO: U.S. LACKED FULL POSTWAR IRAQ PLAN"— the Times gets creative: "PREWAR BRITISH MEMO SAYS WAR DECISION WASN'T MADE." That headline hangs on a single clause of a single sentence in the 2,300-word memo:

      Although no political decisions have been taken, US military planners have drafted options for the US Government to undertake an invasion of Iraq.

    As it happens, the memo was first obtained by the Rupert Murdoch-owned Sunday Times (U.K.). Its headline: "MINISTERS WERE TOLD OF NEED FOR GULF WAR 'EXCUSE.' "

Salon's War Room section, titled "New York Times' Downing Street shuffle", notes that, "Scrambling to play catch-up on the unfolding Downing Street memo story, [yesterday's] New York Times latches onto a single phrase from a newly leaked eight-page briefing document in order to produce the Bush-friendly headline, 'Prewar British Memo Says War Decision Wasn't Made.'" Just to make sure we're clear, Salon reminds us that "The truth is, the briefing document in question, dated July 21, as well as the previously leaked memo, dated July 23, both stress repeatedly how the Bush administration, despite its public rhetoric, appeared committed to war with Iraq. But thanks to today's Bush-friendly spin, New York Times readers are getting a very different story." Here's how War Roominterprets (quite accurately, I believe) the NY Times's government-friendly spin:

    What the [New York] Times is saying is that despite the controversy surrounding the original Downing Street memo and its implication that the U.S. had decided on war -- contrary to numerous Bush statements -- eight months prior to the invasion, the newly leaked briefing document throws all of that into question because British officials noted Washington had made "no political decisions" to invade. In other words, according to the [New York] Times, Tony Blair might be right in his public insistence, given with Bush at his side, that the two governments misled nobody during the run-up to war.

The [New York] Times report "completely ignores the portion of the briefing document that raises questions about the legality of going to war." It ignores the part of the memo that clearly states, "Regime change per se is not a proper basis for military action under international law." To make the contrast clearer, War Room also draws us back to the portion of the new report by the Sunday Times of London that states quite clearly: "The briefing paper, for participants at a meeting of Blair's inner circle on July 23, 2002, said that since regime change was illegal it was 'necessary to create the conditions' which would make it legal." No reference to that in the NYT. Continues War Room:
    Apparently the New York Times did not consider that to be newsworthy. Instead it focused on the notion that "no political decisions" had been made to invade Iraq. The problem here is that the briefing containing the phrase "no political decision" was written July 21, 2002, and the memo containing minutes from a senior meeting of British officials was written July 23, in which it was reported that Washington appeared bent on war. That is, the July 21 briefing paper was distributed to participants in preparation for the meeting two days later with Bush's closest intelligence advisors, where the updated details of war planning were then discussed -- and from which one conclusion reached by the Brits was: "Military action was now seen as inevitable."

The right-wing blogosphere had already latched onto the phrase in the original memo about "the intelligence were being fixed round the policy", arguing that the term could be interpreted in more benign ways (I don't agree, but the conservatives only need to muddy the waters on this, to provide just enough ambiguity to the situation in the eyes of the electorate.) Now the New York Times, in its first pronouncement on the issue, instantly tries to discredit the whole issue by focusing on the "no political decision" term - "a single clause of a single sentence in the 2,300-word memo". That's the conservative side's Talking Point right there. So much for the liberal New York Times. And David Sanger follows Gwen Ifill (and, I think Chris Matthews) and gets one of my silly "Officer Barbrady" awards! There'll be more to come, I'm sure.

Monday, June 13, 2005

Two different predictions for the FinTimes

About to be placed on the auction block, perhaps to fall into the hands of Dow Jones, the company that owns her arch-rival the Wall Street Journal, or -- worse yet, perhaps, the clutches of Rupert Murdoch? Or is the Financial Times, now back into the profit column, doing just fine, thank you very much?

The Independent suggests the paper has lost its footing from the go-go '90s when it was the go-to girl. In article with the sub-head, "Demise of Ancien Régime makes Pink Paper sale a cert," Stephen Glover writes that its UK sales have fallen to 80,000 -- about half of what they were a decade ago. Yes, there have been increases in US and Asian circulation numbers, but the elite paper has lost sight of the UK financial scene as it focused too much on international growth. And that's not all, Glower reports criticisms range from dumbing down content (US influence, perhaps?) to being too pro-EU and pro Tony Blair. (Is there a paper left in Britain that hasn't spent the last few years sucking up to Blair? I guess that's one way he is a lot like Bush.)

In a different version of the pink paper's future, The Observer's James Robinson's article which appears in the Guardian Unlimited says the paper broke even in the last quarter of last year and has the WSJ European version on the ropes. Global expansion (now available in 140 countries) isn't hurting the FT, but is saving it "[T]he paper's future rests on global expansion . . . Most of its 426,803 circulation is split neatly between the UK, continental Europe and the US (about 130,000 in each), with about 35,000 sales in Asia, its newest market."

Robinson does note the FT has been accused of shoddy reporting of late but quotes editor Andrew Gowers dismissing the sale rumors as rubbish. Gowers does say that the FT may turn to a tabloid format (WSJ tried this in Europe to no avail) and other gimmicks such as the FT- PM distributed in London as a single sheet of A4 paper with a preview of the next day's contents.

And I suppose this is a central question for all the British media with grand plans of global, and in particular US expansion, do you end up dumbed down? with lower reporting standards? dropping your UK audience's needs for others? Or do those problems arising from the desperation that drives a media company to seek global markets already exist and are merely exacerbated by the moves?

Gwen Ifill: Defensive much?

While on the subject of journalists' "strikingly defensive" tones, that reminded me of a moment on the ususally-quite-good Washington Week in Review, hosted by Gwen Ifill on PBS. Last Friday night's show brought up the issue of the DSM, albeit fleetingly. Strangely, even though Tony Blair's visit to the US was one of the main points of discussion, none of the respected group of senior inside-the-beltway journos thought to bring up the subject of the DSM until the dying seconds of the show. Interestingly, it was David Sanger of the NYT (the same David Sanger who wrote the "strikingly defensive" piece on the new briefing paper in today's paper) who brought up the issue in a last-minute question to Alexis Simendinger of the National Journal. He instantly downplayed the significance of the question as follows: "Alexis, you know, one of the sideshows of [Bush and Blair's] appearance together was they were actually asked in public together for the first time about this Downing Street memo" [my emphasis].

So now that "this Downing Street memo" thing was just a "sideshow", Sanger asked what it was about (you can read the original transcript here). Simendinger began to answer Sanger's question with the words, "Precook the intelligence" -- which was all she said before Sanger jumped back in: "That's right. There are other readings of that memo as well . . ." Simendinger apparently took the hint, because she then moved off the "precooking" part and focused her answer on how Blair and Bush were in lockstep on their answers ("No daylight" was her phrase -- "no s**t, Sherlock!" was my response: what about the substance of the charges?)

But then Ifill stepped in, and this was the most disillusioning aspect of the show, since I normally regard Ifill quite highly. After acknowledging that she had actually asked Blair about the memo in a News Hour interview earlier that week (incredibly, though, she did not ask a follow-up question on the matter!), she happily agreed with Simendinger that "they stayed lockstep on their answer." Then she put the matter to rest by paraprasing Blair's response, safely minimalizing it, and editorializing in her "we're wrapping up now" tone:
    IFILL: It was just "This did not happen. I don't know what this memo is. You can just ignore it. We did what we did. We took it to the UN." We've been hearing that answer for a couple years. So I don't know how many different ways you can ask the same question.

    Thank you all very much. This was a very good conversation. We'll leave it there for this week.

So that's that then: "I don't know how many different ways you can ask the same question." But when she had the chance, she did not ask Blair even one follow-up question on the matter! Safe to say my mouth was gaping open at this point. Defensive much, Gwen? Couldn't you possibly be thinking "I had a gaping opportunity to press Blair on this, and I blew it? Possibly? Here's a good question for Ifill: "What would Jeremy do?" (Jeremy Paxman, that is.)

Another clear example of the mainstream media's "It's Old News Now/We've Covered That/Everybody Knows About it/It's not That Big a Deal/Let’s Move On" tactic. Ho hum. I think I have to start dishing out "Officer Barbrady" awards to American journalists. Gwen Ifill gets one!

The Times acknowledges the blogosphere

Here's something interesting I noticed all by myself :-) about Michael Smith's report on the second leaked British cabinet document in The Times of London; and since Juan Cole brings it up today (and since I first noticed the story on Cole's site), I'd better note it here and credit Cole accordingly. The interesting thing is Smith's crediting of the Internet in his story. He writes:
    There has been a growing storm of protest in America, created by last month’s publication of the minutes in The Sunday Times. A host of citizens, including many internet bloggers, have demanded to know why the Downing Street memo (often shortened to “the DSM” on websites) has been largely ignored by the US mainstream media." [Emphasis added by Cole.]

Cole notes (quite correctly, I think): "If this story had broken in the 1970s, it probably would just have been buried by the mainstream US press and remained an oddity of UK's Fleet Street. But here you have the Times of London actually acknowledging the wind under its sails from the blogging world!"

Cole goes on to note Rep. John Conyers' www.downingstreetmemo.com web site and petition demanding answers on this issue from Bush. So, argues Cole, "Smith not only acknowledges the pressure put on the US corporate media by the bloggers, but he also points to a virtual social movement around the DSM, with emails and petitions circulating in the hundreds of thousands and giving the Democrats in Congress their first high-profile investigatory opportunity of the Bush presidency." He continues:
    The seeping of blogistan[?] into the pages of the Times of London with regard to its own scoops seems to me a bellwether of the kinds of changes that are being produced in our information environment by the blogging phenomenon. The gatekeepers at the New York Times and the Washington Post can no longer decide whether a leak is a story or a non-story. The public decides what a story is.

As Cole also notes, in contrast to the almost complete US media silence on the original memo, at least some mainstream media are paying attention to the new cabinet paper -- including the Washington Post, which even put it on page A1 yesterday!

From my reading of this article, by Walter Pincus, it looks as if the Post is playing down the importance of the new document -- Pincus's piece focuses a lot of attention on the "lack of post-war planning" angle, and downplays the much more contentious issues of Bush's duplicity and the likely illegality of the invasion. Also, while it gives due recognition to Smith of the Times, it neglects to mention the role of the Internet. Instead it merely says that the DSM "has been the subject of debate since the London Sunday Times first published it May 1." (Debate? Where? Not in the pages of the Post. Is Pincus trying to sneak in an "Officer Barbrady" ruse?) Pincus then shows how gun-shy the Post still is on this issue, when he writes: "Opponents of the war say [the memo] proved the Bush administration was determined to invade months before the president said he made that decision". Is it not now possible to state clearly and unambiguously that, if you accept them as genuine, the memo and now the briefing paper, taken together, make it unambiguously clear that the Bush administration was determined to invade months before the president said he made that decision? Especially as Pincus then acknowledges that "neither Bush nor Blair has publicly challenged the authenticity of the July 23 memo"?

Anyway, Cole argues that the page 1 treatment by the WP "is clearly in part a result of the enormous pressure the bloggers and the public have put on the Post on this issue. Indeed, it is probably the case that having "ombudsmen" at the papers of record, who discuss and explain editorial decisions, is itself a response to the interactivity of contemporary culture, exemplified by the internet." The New York Times also has a story on the new document by David Sanger (in today's paper), but it is "deeply buried" in the paper (don't have a page number yet) and is, according to a contributer to Cole's site (Stanford linguist Jean-Philippe Marcotte), "strikingly defensive" in tone. Now why would the New York Times be defensive on this issue?

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Another UK document surfaces

Juan Cole reports on his blog that The Times of London "has dropped another bombshell document concerning the planning of the Iraq war in Washington and London." This time the document -- apparently leaked to the Times -- is the Cabinet Office briefing paper for the minutes of the meeting, now immortalized as the DSM. Says Cole:

    The leaked Cabinet office briefing paper for the July 23, 2002, meeting of principals in London, the minutes of which have become notorious as the Downing Street Memo, contains key context for that memo. The briefing paper warns the British cabinet in essence that they are facing jail time because Blair promised Bush at Crawford in April, 2002, that he would go to war against Iraq with the Americans.

The Times report is here, and the contents of the briefing paper are reproduced here.

Is this is for real it is indeed a "bombshell".

The Secret to HBO's Success?

An earlier post noted that HBO would be showing "The Girl in the Cafe," a politically oriented movie about reducing Third World poverty, later this month. Earlier this year, the cable company showed "Dirty War,"a fictional account of a dirty bomb dropped in the middle of London -- just the kind of production the networks would be way too frightened to run. Wouldn't want Condi making a phone call now would we? Of course it's well known that HBO pretty much has been the best thing on American television in recent years.

What might be less known but of interest on this blog is that the president of HBO films is a Brit, Colin Callender, who got his start with the Royal Court theater in London. Callender made his name in the 1980s as producer of Channel 4's "Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickelby." After working for HBO NYC, Callender was tapped to head the company's film division in 1999 leading Variety to dub him that "dashing Brit."

Under Callender's tutelage, HBO films has created not only some of the best television of recent memory, but productions that are often alternative or out-right risky ranging from Mira Nair's "Hysterical Blindness," to the quintessential LA-movie, Patricia Cardosa's "Real Women Have Curves." Unlike many Americans, he sees great possibilities in adapting plays to the television screen, witness Mike Nicol's amazing "Angels in America" and the heart-breaking "Wit" with Emma Thompson, both of which were award--winning HBO shows.

In a rather interesting David Gritten interview with Callender done last year, the Daily Telegraph reported that part of HBO's success seems to be their adoption of British television practices such as limiting shows (such as "The Sopranos") to a shorter season instead of the usual 22-show season found here. "That was taking a leaf out of British television's book," Callender said. "In America, there was bewilderment when Fawlty Towers ended after only 12 episodes. We looked at the success of a series with a limited run like I Claudius. That was in the back of everyone's mind." Limiting the season is said to keep the writing and acting fresh.

Likewise, the newspaper reports that the HBO practice of releasing movies in cinemas as well is on television is a practice started in the 1980s by Channel 4 with hits such as
the made-for-TV "My Beautiful Laundrette."

The article continues:

So it's no accident Callender is British? "No accident at all," he said, smiling. "Remember, some of the best movies about America were by British filmmakers - John Schlesinger's Midnight Cowboy, Michael Apted with Coal Miner's Daughter, Sam Mendes with American Beauty.

"Being from elsewhere does give you a slightly different perspective. In America, you're something of an outsider. But, in TV and films, HBO as a company feels it's an outsider. The fact I'm a Brit is part and parcel of that."