Wednesday, 24 January 2018

The Amazing Race 30, Episode 4

Tangiers (Morocco) - Nice (France) - St. Tropez (France) - Les Baux (France) - Arles (France) - Les Baux (France)

[Looking back toward the Mediterranean coast from the Isles du Frioul, near Marseilles, Provence.]

The Amazing Race 30 spent this double episode exploring Provence, in the south of France. The racers saw some of the expensive glitz of the Côte d'Azure ("Blue Coast"), the part of this area best known to tourists. But Provence isn't entirely taken over by the beautiful people and the jet set, even in the summer. The racers also saw (although not the extremes) of its geographic and economic diversity and down-home diversions including pétanque, a lawn game similar to its better-known (in the USA) Italian cousin "bocce" or to English lawn bowling, and more distantly but conceptually related to shuffleboard and curling.

What we see on "reality" television is entertainment, but sometimes it's more "real" than what we read in the New York Times.

I spent much of this week writing letters to the editor and requests for corrections in response to the latest disinformation campaign by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security about the REAL-ID Act of 2005 (which is real, although it doesn't mean what the DHS says it means) and supposed new requirements for drivers licenses and ID to fly (which are fake news made up by the DHS). Some of you may have seen a sound-bite from me about this on ABC7 News in San Francisco.

If you just want to know whether you need to get a new drivers licesne or ID if you want to continue to travel by air (you don't), or which of the things you may have seen in the news about this to believe, I have some debunkinhg of the fake news and answers to frequently-asked questions about the REAl-ID Act on the Identity Project Web site. If you want more of the political and journalistic back story, and its implications, read on.

Officials and spokespeople of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security have lied to me in almost every meeting I've had with them since the DHS was created in 2002. For what it's worth, I got another dose of straight-faced lies in a face-to-face meeting yesterday in San Francisco between senior national officials of U.S Customs and Border Protection and civil liberties, human rights, and privacy advocates over CBP plans to take digital mug shots of all international travellers entering or leaving the U.S., including U.S. citizens. [Follow-up: More on this meeting.]

It should come as no surprise to anyone, including the American public and supposedly cynical journalists, that government lying isn't limited to low-level "bad apples". Leadership in government lying comes from the top. Richard Nixon wasn't the first liar in the Oval Office, even if he's the first one I can remember watching on TV. Donald Trump isn't likely to be the last. ""Eternal vigilance" is about truth as well as freedom.

So how is it that, in the middle of a national debate about "fake news", the DHS and its state collaborators could put out press releases and propaganda videos full of nonsense about nonexistent legal requirements, and have them reprinted unquestioningly, without even a pretense of fact-checking or balance, by reputable mainstream news organizations including the New York Times and the San Francisco Chronicle among many others?

It would be easy to blame the cuts in staffing and pay and demands for ever-greater output that make it ever harder for journalists to take the time to do due diligence, or the equally severe cuts imposed by owners of news organizations on the amount of time that support staff are allowed to spend on editing and fact-checking each article before it is published. These are real, and part of the problem, but only part.

How to recognize and assess the credibility of government propaganda is an issue for all travellers, not just for travel journalists. Much of the information we receive, and that we seek out, as travellers -- perhaps especially as international travellers -- is overt government propaganda: literature from government ministries for the promotion of tourism, inscriptions on government monuments, markers at places deemed significant by governments, interpretative materials at government-sponsored museums. The informational imbalance in favor of the government's point of view, and the risk of being taken in by it, can be especially great in a place where only the government point of view is readily available in English or a language we understand.

At the same time, government propaganda -- taken with an appropriate balance of empathy and skepticism -- can be highly educational. I remember practicing my French as a teenager on the signs for tourists at the Fortress of Louisbourg in Nova Scotia, comparing the quite different ways that the history of fighting between England, France, and their local allies and proxies was being presented to Anglophone and Francophone visitors.

The challenge for travellers is the same one journalists often face with their sources. How can we listen enough to truly hear what someone is saying and understand their point of view, without becoming too credulous? How can we suspend our instinctive disbelief in novel ideas or ones that are contrary to our own, without opening ourselves to manipulation and deception? There are no easy answers, but awareness of the problem is essential. Travellers and journalists have much to learn from each other about this aspect of the practice of journalism.

One of the most valuable lessons to bring back home from our travels is the ability to see, hear, and judge our own country by the same standards we apply to any other -- including recognition of the tendency of all governments (including democratic ones) to propagandize, and recognition that there are probably other points of view that we haven't heard (especially if we haven't sought them out). Experienced travellers, like good journalists, learn to take everything they are told with critical curiousity. I try but often fail -- as I think we all do, if we are honest with ourselves -- sometimes rejecting what I hear, sometimes accpting it, too quickly or too completely.

But there's another reason mainstream media were so easily taken in by these "fake news" stories about the REAL-ID Act and ID to fly.

Too often, the travel section isn't thought of as real news. Too few travel writers think of themselves as journalists. Too many good journalists take a vacation from their normal journalistic practices and standards when they write about travel or other "light" topics. Too few readers seek out hard news that asks hard questions about travel topics, and that questions the answers given by government or industry spokespeople.

There are commendable exceptions, but this pattern is pervasive. Travel journalists get little respect as journalists. That won't change unless we take ourselves seriously as journalists and hold ourselves and our work to the standards of serious journalism.

I've talked about whether travel bloggers think of themselves, or are thought of by others, as journalists. But this isn't just about bloggers. It's about much of the travel "news" in all media, and many of those who produce it.

Newspapers have travel sections to attract readers' eyeballs to travel ads. How-to articles and criticism of the travel industry doesn't sell ads. At most newspapers, whether the travel editor keeps her job, or has any budget to pay freelance travel writers, depends on how many pages of travel advertising the newspaper sells each week, and how much revenue is generated from ads on the travel section of its Web site. The most profitable ads on a travel news Web site are typically commission-paying "affiliate" links from the names of specific hotels that are mentioned in destination articles, or frestanding ads for hotels or destinations placed on the same pages as favorable editorial mentions.

Money has as corrosive an effect on journalism as it does on electoral politics. Travel journalism is no exception. The bigger problem, though, is the disrespect for travel journalism, both from the outside and as it is internalized by many of those working in the genre.

If media organizations think of travel as entertainment, not "real news", and assign travel coverage to travel editors and writers who don't think of themselves as real journalists when they are working in this niche, they invite having their travel reporting exploited by both government and industry propagandists as a vehicle for the dissemination of "fake news".

That's especially dangerous today, when travel issues are at the very center of national and international political debates. Political campaigns to build a border wall and to control cross-border movement affect all travellers, especially international travellers, regardless of whether you are travelling for business or pleasure, for education, to visit friends or family, for a better life, for freedom, or to flee for your life from persecution.

Travellers are sometimes advised (including, sadly but significantly, by the U.S. government) not to get involved in politics. That's not possible. "You can't be neutral on a moving train." International travel in the face of isolationism, like learning in the face of no-nothingism, is per se political.

As my fellow Avalon Travel Publishing author Rick Steves says, "travel is a political act" wherever you go, the more so the more genuinely you immerse yourself in the places and engage with the people you visit. But that political act won't remain possible, even for the privileged few of the world's people with U.S. passports, if we don't speak up for freedom of movement as a human right for everyone, including especially those less privileged.

The Amazing Race could have gone off the air after 11 September 2001, when only the first episode had been broadcast. CBS persevered with the broadcasts, partly for commercial reasons -- the entire first season had already been produced and paid for -- but also as a commendable statement of commitment not to let fear stop us from travelling around the world. Fans of The Amazing Race have continued to do likewise, in the face of continuing challenges to the idea that there is any value in travel.

We need to travel, we need to learn about the world, and we need real travel journalism -- now more than ever.

Link | Posted by Edward on Wednesday, 24 January 2018, 23:59 (11:59 PM) | TrackBack (0)
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