Foreigners at Table

     My parents were always internationalists. One of my early memories is of a Russian guest at our dinner table in Pasadena. She was an academic on a visit to the United States.
     To my youthful argument that her nation did not enjoy freedom of the press, her answer was that when there was criticism of the government in the Soviet Union, it was taken seriously. Unlike the daily blather in the United States.
     I didn’t quite buy the argument then and I still don’t. But I did not cast it aside as false or frivolous, either.
     So now we read the coverage of the Olympics in China, which as it builds up, is politically nuanced. While the Chinese have much more personal freedom than in the past, the various reports tell us, it is clear that the Chinese are still exerting a great deal of control over the flow of information.
     As for the competition, I am back into the Olympics this time around. Can’t explain why. I had gotten so tired of the coverage in the past – focused entirely on U.S. athletes and full of “up close and personal” fluff – that I tuned out of the last couple Games.
     But the opening ceremony in Beijing got me kick-started and the gymnastics and swimming got me hooked.
     I remain frustrated, however, as in the past, by NBC’s control of the coverage. But I have no choice. I had assumed that in the age of the Internet, I could hook on to an English or German feed and watch online.
     But no. NBC’s property lawyers have been very busy on that front, shutting down any other source of coverage.
     So the question I ask is: Isn’t that control of the flow of information. (Yes.) Isn’t it pervasive.(Yes.) Isn’t it done with a clear editorial selection of what is presented to the American viewer. (Yes.) Do I have a choice. (No.)
     The only difference between NBC’s control of Olympic coverage, and China’s control of Olympic coverage, is that one is motivated by money and the other by political will.
     One could certainly argue that political freedom is more important than sports viewing freedom. (Although there are plenty of sports fans to whom sports clearly means a whole lot more than politics.)
     But let us step back a bit and look at the big trends in political information and in economics.
     Our web page editor sent me part of ESPN column today, comparing three stories in the Washington Post.
     On a typical day last month, the paper devoted 1,002 words to the fact that Redskins draft choice Fred Davis overslept and missed a practice; 696 words to warnings that many hospitals no longer have sufficient emergency room capacity to respond to a terrorist attack, and 601 words for a story about congressional negotiators cutting funds for school lunches for the poor.
     As newspapers crumble, as education declines, as wages decline, political discourse is lowered. Sports stories become more important and control of the biggest sports story of all represents a great deal of media control.
     And when a media company can control the biggest sports story of all on the world-wide-web, that represents a counter-revolution in information.
     As our freedom of choice on information comes into some doubt, so our economic outlook – and thus the freedom supported by economic prosperity grows more clouded.
     In the most recent raft of U.S. statistics, inflation is at a 17-year high, producer prices are rising at annual rate not seen in 27 years, while wages continue their decades-long decline as mass layoffs reach a five-year high.
     But it was in the cup of statistics coming out of Europe that economic tea leaves left a grim sign.
     Since the beginning of the year, even though the dollar has dropped enormously against the euro, trade in both directions between the U.S. and Europe declined. While you can guess what happened regarding a certain set of economic tigers.
     Trade between Europe and Russia: up 26%. Brazil: up 21%. China: up 17%.
     The economic world order is shifting. While we lose thousands of soldiers and blow billions of dollars on old-fashioned wars in far-off lands, the emerging powers are using their money and their strength to win the competition for world trade.
     So while I still don’t buy that Russian lady’s argument, it is certainly true that information going through our free press does increasingly seem to be a bunch of blather that nobody pays attention to anyway. And that the choices we have today in information and in our economic future are slowly constricting, while those same choices outside our nation are slowly expanding.

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