Tuesday, July 31, 2007

News Corp. Extends Its Reach

The Wall Street Journal is now in the hands of the same man who owns millions of MySpace profiles, not to mention is taking a sizable cut of the profits from this week's #1 movie, and, of course, one of any dozen of his other worldwide media holdings.

Yes, according to The New York Times, Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. has reportedly succeeded in its acquisition of the Dow Jones Company from the Bancroft Family, which owns the venerable Wall Street Journal.

While it's too early to say for certain how the move under the News Corp. banner will impact the editorial direction of the Journal, history provides an instructive lesson of how past, often storied papers, have fared once put beneath Murdoch's rabidly conservative thumb. In particular, this article from The New Yorker, by Ken Auletta (who has studied Murdoch's maneuvering as much as anyone) is a must read.

Auletta identifies that Murdoch distinguishes himself from other modern-day media barons is the manner with which he diversifies News Corp.'s holdings beyond "old media," (such as television stations and newspapers), taking major gambles on "new media," such as MySpace.com. This short video clip has Auletta's explaining the challenges that the MySpace acquisition represents for News Corp.

I won't hide the fact that I'm no fan of Rupert Murdoch. In fact, I see him as a bully and a villain, who uses his media control in the same manner as old newspaper tycoons, Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst, but with a much wider (and therefore more dangerous) reach. In short, he's a propagandist in the most negative sense of the word, who has turned every media outlet he has owned (from the once-respected The Times, to the never respected Fox News) into quasi-personal mouthpieces with sensationalist headlines, stubbornly conservative agendas, and a dearth of hard reporting that do little to inform, but much to entertain.

Speaking of propaganda, I just finished a very interesting book, Age of Propaganda (a short excerpt is available here) that delves into the quesiton of propaganda in the news. Despite the book being written almost a decade before the advent of Fox News, it correctly predicts today's cable news environment. Here's an excerpt I found especially prescient:
[In regards to the minute-by-minute coverage of a 1985 hostage crisis:] TV cameras offered viewers back home around-the-clock coverage of all aspects of the crisis, important and trivial alike. There were press conferences held by the terrorists, press conferences held by the hostages, intimate shots of anguished families, demands, counterdemands, pistol-wavings, outrageous statements, luncheon menus. The TV cameras did everything but follow the hostages into the restrooms. The drama was spellbinding.

The result is sound-bite news—a montage of brief visual images that play to the crowds. Each event and every idea must be part of a dramatic story amply illustrated with visual displays. Stories that are easily dramatized and visualized, such as a child trapped in an abandon well, are readily covered. More complex issues, such as the economy or regulatory policy, receive little attention unless they can be made concrete and visual. [...] In the long run, our seemingly insatiable desire for entertainment may succeed where Hitler and Pravda failed.
The authors explain that entertainment-as-news—a total lack of reporting and focus on the trivial—is also a form of propaganda. With the sale of The Wall Street Journal to Murdoch's News Corp. (which has made this entertainment-as-news their trade), there's good reason to believe that one of the last bastion's of objective mainstream news has been dealt a deadly blow.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Conakry: Then and Now

If there's ever any doubt about the quality of life in Conakry (and in Guinea, in general), this article published last week from the Associated Press should serve as a reminder of the desperation gripping the country. The report describes how chronic power shortages in the capital have driven students to airports and gas stations off the unreliable power grid to review their lessons before their end-of-year exams. In so doing, they routinely must travel long distances in packs to avoid gangs prowling the streets. Many often return to their homes late and stinking of gasoline.

While the news out of Africa is often of despair, this story is different in that it at least focuses on those who are finding ways to surmount the daunting odds stacked against them, all in order to improve their lives and the lives of their families. Anecdotally, I can confirm many of my own students possessed a similar resilience, some walking over 5 kilometers every day to school and back each day, and many more returning to the school in the evening hours to meet with other students to review their lessons together. Guinean perseverance always amazed me, as visible in the rural countryside as it appears to be in the big city.

Coincidentally, around the same time as I came across the above article chronicling Conakry's despair, I was browsing for images of Conakry during its colonial era (an obscure moment of history with little photographic account), and I stumbled upon Images du passé en Afrique de l'Ouest, featuring a treasure trove of colonial-era images of important French towns. Click here to see a large catalog of pictures of Conakry—a town that has undergone a remarkable transformation in less than a hundred years from tranquil port village to overcrowded modern-day slum.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Reuters Shocked Young Nigerians Use Laptops for Porn

Recently 300 laptop computers were donated to students in Nigeria through the One Laptop Per Child program—despite many students lacking the electricity to recharge them. But never mind that myopic oversight, we've got Reuters with this sensationalistic follow-up trying to pass for news:
The News Agency of Nigeria said its reporter had seen pornographic images stored on several of the children's laptops.
Heavens to Betsy! Excuse me while I smooth out my rumpled bloomers.
"Efforts to promote learning with laptops in a primary school in Abuja have gone awry as the pupils freely browse adult sites with explicit sexual materials," NAN said.
"Gone awry?" I would say a project to donate laptops "went awry" when you gave them out to a town without electricity. Of course, Reuters doesn't want to bother with such details; rather, its focus is on young Nigerians' apparent unnatural interest in sex.

A representative of the One Laptop Per Child aid group was quoted as saying that the computers, part of a pilot scheme, would now be fitted with filters.

Filters are all well and good (despite the fact they are easy to circumvent), but I just don't know what unrealistic standards Reuters or the Nigerian News Agency are holding Nigerian students to, given that perhaps 90% of children using the Internet between the ages of 8-16 have been exposed to pornography, and more than 40% of all Internet users admit to regularly looking up porn (according to this website); so, is it any surprise to discover the practice might go on among young adults in Nigeria, too?

My guess is that the "news" for Reuters is that an apparently altruistic computer donation has somehow been sullied by Nigerian students' baser instincts. Rather than call into question the wisdom of OLPC's plan to pass out free laptops without thought to sustainability, practicality, or supervision, the focus of the article seems to be underlining and subtly criticizing young Nigerians' sexual curiosity.

So now that Reuters has confirmed that, gasp, given the opportunity, some young Africans will seek out pornography, (just like their Western peers), perhaps the news agency can shift their coverage back to the real issues of the day, such as confirming the Earth still orbits the sun and humans require oxygen to breathe.

Meanwhile journalistic double standards are alive and well, and that's something that we'll continue hearing little about.

The Hidden Value of Data

Swedish Professor Hans Rosling may not be the most compelling speaker you'll ever hear, but he sure knows how to use data and statistics to reveal surprising trends in human development, and the disparity in health and economy between the western world and developing countries.

In the video clip below, presented during the Technology, Entertainment, Design (TED) Conference held this week in Monterey, California (an interesting event in its own right), Rosling's demonstrates how "boring" data can be used to define and contextualize highly complex problems facing development.

While I wish he would have delved into more detail with some of the phenomenon he cites, I realize his real purpose is to espouse the power of data and to encourage disparate groups studying developing countries (especially the UN) to make their data available to all researches so that it can be compiled, shared, and used by all.

If you're interested in learning more about Rosling (including other video presentations), check out his blog here.

Thanks to Ton Oncle for cluing me into the TED video clip.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

A Room With a View at the Zoo

Organizers of this year's Festival of Pan-African Music (FESPAM) in the Republic of Congo drew criticism from human rights activists after housing a group of Baka pygmy performers in tents at the Brazzaville Zoo. While national Forestry Ministry officials claimed that the 20 musicians, including 10 women and a baby, were placed in the high profile and rustic accomodations so that they would not be removed from their "natural environment," human rights activists blame the maltreatment on a long-held perception of pygmies being less than human. Zoo patrons reportedly found it a noteworthy spectacle, video-recording the musicians as they collected firewood on the park grounds.

According to Roy Richard Grinker's In the Arms of Africa, the attention is not all negative, as "The Pygmies have long been called the premiers citoyens (first citizens) in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a title that not only assumes their primordial existence in the forest but also accords them the privilege of not paying taxes."

Nonetheless, the U.S. Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor has denounced the Congolese government for permitting pygmies to be "excluded from employment opportunities, social programs, and the political process, in part due to their isolation in remote forested areas of the country, their culture, and their stigmatization by the majority Bantu population.

Also, in a 2002 United Nations inquiry, rebels of the Congolese Liberation Movement were found to have "killed, raped, and robbed civilians, sprayed livestock with automatic fire, raided fresh graves to look for treasure, and eaten human flesh." Victims of these crimes were primarily Ituri pygmies who were accused of being forest scouts for rival forces. Although the accusations of the rebels' cannibalism were eventually rescinded, the inhumane treatment of pygmies was again brought to light and even the most atrocious stories are believable.

You can find the BBC story on FESPAM here.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Good Wine Turns Gunpoint Robbery to Group Hug

The calmative powers of a good wine cannot be overstated.

An impromptu wine-tasting broke out at a dinner party in Washington DC (not far from the old haunts of two
Mafé Tiga contributors) when a robber slipped into the outdoor soirée and held guests up at gunpoint.

Disaster was averted when a quick-thinking attendee offered the excited man a taste of a Chateau Malescot St Exupery. One sip of the
rouge so calmed the rogue's troubled heart, the corsair could only exclaim, "I think I must've come to the wrong house." Holstering his his weapon, he asked for another glass.

Soon after, what began as a robbery at gunpoint ended with apologies and a group hug—
and a memorable quote from the erstwhile brigand before he let himself out: "Damn, that's really good wine."

Read all about it here.

And, in a related story, Google really can help with anything.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Last Train to Nowhere

Mauritania is renowned for its extreme heat, sprawling geography of sand, and utter desolation. The three qualities are at their most inescapable as you ride atop the iron ore train that rumbles from the depths of the country's interior to the coastal town of Nouadhibou.

The train is a modern-day version of a Saharan caravan; at each stop, its ore-filled cars are assaulted by travelers too poor to afford the cost of more sensible forms of transport. No one pays them any mind as they leap aboard, tucking themselves into corners of the cars with their baggage and livestock, braving hours beneath the sun and extreme desert temperatures in order to peddle their wears on the coast. The train is only another example of how a project ostensibly dedicated to the extraction of natural resources simultaneously sustains a small shadow economy of merchants and their families.

I'll never forget the night my friends and I spent on top of the train, riding it fourteen hours to the coast. Huddled beneath a UNHCR blanket, pressed tight to each other for warmth. I passed the hours tracking the constellations moving in a slow arc across the sky. The Saharan winds incessantly tousled the frayed edges of my turban, and I was forever readjusting it. The chunks of iron ore dug into my back while the train tossed and buckled under its heavy load; at any moment, it seemed, the cars would overturn, the train derail, and that would be the end of our Saharan adventure. Of course it didn't.

Why the sudden nostalgia more than a year later? Ton Oncle clued me in to a New York Times article about the iron ore train, its perilous voyage, and the unique assortment of characters that rely on this unlikely lifeline. The article is short, but certainly worth reading. Check it out here.

Watch the train passing in all its glory (it's purportedly the longest in the world):