Friday, July 18, 2003

Looks like the Prague Post picked up, in an editorial, the MfD story about politician's perks I mention below. Like I said, the cover-up was far greater than the crime. And it seems a shame they (both MfD in the final copy, and the Post, which only ripped off MfD's work without citing it) only picked on Mlynar, since it's such a common practice. I suppose Mlynar, having long painted himself as the "clean" politician, is the easiest target.

Thursday, July 17, 2003

From the Washington Post's "The Reliable Source," Lloyd Grove's Beltway gossip column:

• Ours [sic] spies at the Mendocino Grill & Wine Bar spotted Laura Bush lunching yesterday with Craig Stapleton, U.S. ambassador to Czechoslovakia...
Sic sic sic! How long can this last? You can write to Lloyd Grove here, as I did.

Dear Mr. Grove:

With regard to your item today about Laura Bush's lunch, I have my own spies in the former Czechoslovakia who tell me the country ceased to exist at the end of 1992. It divided into two countries, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Craig Stapleton is the U.S. ambassador to the Czech Republic.

Best regards,

Scott MacMillan
It's well worth exploring Storm Petrel, the web site of Economist correspondent Jonathan Ledgard. I became friends with Jonathan when he was living in Prague, covering Central and Eastern Europe for the Economist; now he's in Kabul, covering Central Asia.

Jonathan described his web site to me as a sort of "anti-blog" that will be updated about once a month or so. But since he's an incredibly well traveled person and knows lots of really weird stuff, there's plenty of material here to keep you satisfied for a while.

Wednesday, July 16, 2003

Sorry if you've come to my little web site in the last few days and found nothing you hadn't already read. As you might know, I'm coming off two weeks working on the little daily freebie they give out at the Karlovy Vary Int'l Film Festival. For a wrap of how that ended, see here, and for a brief look at the increasing amount of deal-making going on at the KV fest, see here.

Ferzan Ozpetek's Facing Window, which I think has been the biggest money-maker in Italy so far this year (including American blockbusters), was the winner of the festival's main prize. Assuming the director would speak English with a Czech interpreter, I sat in on an interview with Ozpetek with one of my colleagues from the Czech section of the daily, only to find out Ozpetek had an Italian-to-Czech interpreter. I understood very little of the Czech and almost none of the Italian, but enough overall to understand that the interview did not go so well. At the end I stepped in and tried to ask a few questions of Ozpetek myself, in English. He was completely dismissive when he found out I hadn't seen any of his movies, which on the one hand is understandable, but on the other hand a bit unreasonable since to my knowledge, none of his films have ever screened in the Czech Republic. I mean really, you may be famous in Italy, but guess what -- you're not in Italy. Get over yourself.

One of the most interesting people I met was Joseph Strick, a gentlemanly 80-year-old who was arguably the first truly "independent" director. He made a two-hour adaptation of Ulysses in 1967 which I watched at the fest, and I found it surprisingly good. Another was Alejandro Chomski, a much-hyped 35-year-old Argentine director who's spent most of his adult life trotting around the world being mentored by such filmmaking greats as Emil Kusturica and Jim Jarmusch. Today and Tomorrow is his first feature, and I recommend it.

Highly recommended, if it comes to a theatre or video store near you, is the gruesome autobiographical tale of gang warfare in the slums of Rio called City of God. I'm not really prepared to tell you why I found this movie so great, but here's Roger Ebert's glowing review. (I was pleasantly surprised by Ebert's usage of the word "Dickensian.")

Czech media watchers, take note. Just about the only drama to speak of at Karlovy Vary had zilch to do with films. There has been hell to pay in the Mlada fronta Dnes newsroom over an intervention on the part of the paper's publisher with regards to an article calling attention to all the free perks (such as luxury hotel suites) that the festival's sponsors lavish on politicians. The paper decided to hold the article until Monday, after the festival was over, and it was played down big time when it was finally published.

The outrage in the newsroom was severe enough to prompt the resignation of one of the paper's most famous reporters. I don't want to write this person's name, since I'm not sure he/she wants the information publicized, but the fact seems to be known within the newsroom, I know it via a reliable source within MFD who has spoken about it with the person, and it's bound to get out sooner or later. Safe to say we're talking about the most famous investigative journalist in the country -- and a real killer of an asset for Mlada fronta -- and if you've followed politics in the Czech Republic for the last 12 months or so, you already know who it is.

So what basically happened was this: A few reporters, one of whom is a close friend of mine, collaborated on a story that simply reported on a few of the people the sponsors of the festival (Telecom, CEZ, Eurotel, and others) put on their VIP guests lists, namely the politicians with whom these companies are doing business. It's not a huge scandal, and as another friend who read the article told me, it wasn't reported in a scurrilious or sensationalist manner. But these things should be out in the open. Alas, when the festival found out -- they're really sensitive about this sort of thing -- the shit hit the fan. It was a classic case of the cover-up being worse than the crime itself.

MfD is a "media sponsor" of the festival, which generally means they support the event with free or reduced-rate advertising. MfD also publishes the daily on which I worked, which is based in the festival's administrative center at the Hotel Thermal, although most of the staffers on the daily are not actually employees of MfD.

The festival organizers took this "media sponsorship" to mean that the newspaper's journalists shouldn't be writing anything that might reflect badly on the festival, period. And they impressed this point rather fervently upon the newspaper's publisher, the scion of a German regional publisher called Rheinisch-Bergische Druckerei- und Verlagsgesellschaft GmbH. (The company is the publisher of Rheinische Post.)

The article eventually ran on Monday, after the festival ended, but seems to have been toned down, and a commentary that was to go alongside it was killed. Regardless of the fact that some version of the article eventually ran, I find this to be an egregious crossing of the purported "Chinese wall" between editorial and advertising, as did many in the newsroom. The publisher has no business intervening just because MFD has some sort of commercial agreement with the festival, any more than he should step in to kill an article about an advertiser. This sets a very, very bad precedent.

Here's my two-cents interpretation: Rheinische is a regional newspaper publisher in its homeland, not a publisher of a national newspaper -- think Springfield News-Leader vs. Washington Post, writ small. As such, they have zero appreciation of the reputation MfD has earned for its investigative work in the Czech Repubilc. To them, it's just another regional paper in the Tschechische Bundesland. MfD is arguably the journalistic standard bearer for the country, and the owner (which also owns Lidove noviny, by the way, another of the top 5 national newspapers) should be working to keep that position secure and capitalizing on it. Instead, it's trying to use MFD to chip away at the dominant market share of the tabloid Blesk (which Arellanes has been reading with zeal). This is bad for journalism, bad for public policy, and as a business strategy, just completely insane.