It’s the weekend, and we have an extra moment here, so what I’d like you to do is close your eyes and imagine a country where the strange case of Michael Jackson is not on the front page of your newspaper. We call that faraway place “Italy” and for Americans, believe me, Michael Jackson on the front page would be good news.
The shooting of Nicola Calipari, the Italian intelligence agent who was shot at a U.S. military checkpoint in Iraq was more than a tragedy. It was also high drama, even higher than Jackson in PJs. The story’s sadly familiar by now: Calipari was escorting newly released hostage Giuliana Sgrena to the airport where a jet was waiting to fly her home, a fact that apparently all of Italy knew, but one that hadn’t reached the U.S. military in Baghdad. When the car carrying Calipari and Sgrena approached the checkpoint, something went south and Calipari was killed.
Quite naturally, the story was big news in the EuroPress, instantly dwarfing the rest of the news from the Middle East. The conspiratorial assumptions were by now familiar: The U.S. had screwed up again and was covering up a crime. In France and Germany, stories like this one in Le Monde and this one in the Berliner Morgenpost were everywhere. But in Italy, the coverage seemed to create an emotional thrill ride that took a nation of very excitable people through the inside-out loop of celebration and shocked dismay. The story is still dominating the front pages of the Italian press, as one .pdf-loaded look at the front page of today’s l’Unita demonstrates.
One of the interesting aspects of the war on terror is the concurrent war that isn’t being waged against propaganda. Despite the begrudging acknowledgement in a few European newspapers that Bush’s policies may actually be working, the EuroPress is a bored and angry bunch–exemplified this week by the Guardian’s Simon Tisdall who sees the U.S. as an outlaw state and the rest of the world as “a sheriff with a posse of deputies…slowly catching up with the Bush administration.” These kinds of goofy, crank stories will be around long after the first Wal-Mart opens in Baghdad. America is an outlaw nation only in the eyes of Tisdall and his ilk because George W. Bush failed to follow very clear instructions to not topple Saddam without their permission. But as a result of this kind of self-inflated, romanticized, and persistent bias, public opinion is massively against the U.S., something that ultimately costs money and lives. In the face of all this, one of America’s best friends in Europe is Silvio Berlusconi, the colorful, clever prime minister of Italy, who has more or less faced down an electorate opposed to the war, stood by us, and sent a sizable contingent of soldiers to Iraq to demonstrate his loyalty.
The killing of Calipari came and went in the U.S. media, apparently. After only a few days, the few follow-ups stories adding details to the sketchy information so far released appear mostly on inside pages. But in Italy, as this item in the Corriere della Sera suggests, the checkpoint-shooting story is the lead story every day, showing up on the front pages like a crazy man in his pajamas. Instead, they get Sgrena, who suffered a minor injury in the incident, amusing reporters from RAI from her gurney as politicians and journalists demand to know why the US can’t offer an explanation of what happened.
This has left the Italian government no choice but to lay out the facts as they see them–the car wasn’t speeding, it stopped when ordered, the communication with the U.S. military was clear and so on. So far Berlusconi–as reported in the Guardian–and his foreign minister have both told the story this way, based on the information they have on hand. The daily sidebar of course is Sgrena’s campaign to portray herself as a target of the U.S. soldiers because of her hateful pamphleteering in Il Manifesto.
I knew a man once who was editing a magazine brilliantly–but had an almost total inability to explain himself to anyone, including, unfortunately, his boss, who had to defend the editor’s eccentric style to the ad and circ suits. Because the boss didn’t know what to say, he grew increasingly uncomfortable until he finally fired the guy, despite the fact that he was doing swell. The editor’s first question was, of course, “Why?” The answer: “Because he couldn’t provide his boss with a good story to tell.”
So it is with Berlusconi and the U.S. As long as we delay giving poor Silvio a good story, he’s going to be made more and more uncomfortable. It seems extremely unlikely that U.S. soldiers would open fire on a stopped civilian automobile just for drill. Yet this lie has had a chance to not only go around the world, but take root and flourish while the U.S. military looks for its boots. The latest report says the results of an investigation will be released in three or four weeks.
That’s a long time for fruit flies and the press. We all assume that the U.S. military is correct–that the car was in fact speeding, that it didn’t stop, that soldiers did in fact follow their rules of engagement. Why the soldiers on duty can’t just tell their tale is a matter for the military to decide. But the Italian press will take advantage of what they will continue to report as an American failure to respond to their non-stop demands by making our best ally sweat more bullets than he can possibly bite–while he silently wonders why he ever decided to pay that ransom.
Maynard G. Krebs Day. Is anyone still alive who can remember the way Dobie Gillis’s pal Maynard shuddered every time he said the word, “Work?!” Who knew he was speaking French? Thursday, the semi-employed population of France decided to go on strike because the government wants then to go back to work. Protesting a threat to lengthen the 35-hour week and to introduce laws that would allow employers to actually fire employees for cause–something obviously impossible now, or Chirac wouldn’t have a job–the streets of French cities filled with bureaucrats and others, including the shiftless folks at Coca Cola and L’Oréal, answering a strike call by the Communist-led CGT and other trade unions. According to Le Monde, the day off drew 1,040,000 strikers. That 40,000 is just weird, no? Meanwhile, the unemployment rate in France continues to climb past 10 percent, its highest level in five years, except on Krebs days when it’s higher. Note: I tried to work into this item a gratuitous link to my new book, Vile France, but I just couldn’t. It made me feel cheap.
Green Death. Someday maybe history will hold environmentalists to account for the genocide their wholly sentimental, hardly scientific campaign to ban DDT has inflicted on the world’s poorest people. The latest count of those at risk of dying from malaria: 2.2 billion, according to a report on the BBC. That’s one out of three people on the planet, and, as the Times points out, that number puts AIDS in the shade. Of course, almost none of these suffering souls are from Europe or North America, where Greenpeace, the World Wildlife Fund/ World Wide Fund for Nature, the Environmental Defense Fund, Physicians for Social Responsibility, and more than 200 other green groups who have campaigned against DDT raise money for their cockamamie enviro-frights. On the other hand, we saved some birds. Now on to Kyoto–and let’s save some whales on the way!
Scoop! Johnny Halliday, who has sold more newspapers and magazines than all the tabacs in France, is launching his own rag. According to France 2, every page will be a Halliday page, with the solid-vinyl singer’s wife, Laeticia, covering the cultural trends and cooking beats.
Year of the Chicken. Franco Alemán, the brilliant blogger at Barcepundit, covers the commemoration of March 11 one year on: “Immediately after the March 11 massacre, most Spaniards saw the attack as al-Qaida’s revenge for sending Spanish troops to Iraq. Today there’s a realization al-Qaida’s footprint in Spain is much older and deeper: the country had long been a haven or transit point for Islamic militants.” Franco also laterals a report on Little Green Footballs explaining that the rest of world is safe from George Soros, since the bizarro billionaire has been cornered at an antiterrorism conference in Madrid.
John Humphrys, stat! Finally, Brits finally get a television channel to go with all that beer they binge-drink: According to the Guardian, “Two hundred straight-to-video stinkers, TV movie turkeys and high-profile flops have been rescued from the vaults for the launch of Bad Movies in the spring.” Included on the line-up: Revenge of the Cheerleaders, White Cargo, and, of course, Plan 9 from Outer Space. Said one of the new channel’s investors: “We’ll take great pride in showing complete crap.” Just like the BBC!
–Denis Boyles is author of Vile France: Fear, Duplicity, Cowardice and Cheese.