Saturday, July 23, 2005

Plame yogurt

The big news story here over the past week has been a story that is not yet a story: PepsiCo is about to launch a takeover bid on Danone.

Have they? Where have you seen that story, Steve? I haven’t, because it isn’t a story. It’s a rumor. About two weeks ago it was mentioned in Challenges, a French business magazine somewhat akin to Fortune, that PepsiCo had bought up around 3% of Danone’s stock. Since then, the rumor mill has been working more than 35 hours a week. The specter of an American company taking over one of France’s sacred cows – literally – has been raised and it won’t go away. On TV, the news programs have been interviewing dairy farmers who earn up to half their income selling milk to Danone. They’re sure that an American behemoth like PepsiCo will decide to source all of Danone’s milk for yogurt production in Poland or Morocco or China. They’re already talking of their current business in the past tense. Soon they’ll be nothing but numbers … in the unemployment line. In the meantime, the CEO of Danone gave an interview to Les Echos (subscription required, I think) in which he said no contact of any kind has been made with PepsiCo.

Act II: politicians of all stripes, from tie-dyes to pin-stripes are now up in arms. The hodgepodge, shuffle-and-deal government cobbled together after the no-vote fiasco have finally found something they can all agree on. Nicolas Sarkozy, back in the government as interior minister, after being forced to leave the government as economy minister to take on the position of president of the UMP political party, a post he still holds, said the government should “do everything it can” (“tout mettre en oeuvre”) to prevent a hostile takeover of Danone in an interview in Le Monde. Thierry Breton, the economy minister, said the government “will make very sure” (“veillera très scrupuleusement”) that Danone’s rights are protected. Dominique de Villepin, the prime minister, said the government plans to “defend the interests of France” (“défendre les intérêts de la France”). Last and some would say least (Sarkozy), President Jacques Chirac, while on a State visit to Madagascar, said that he was “particularly vigilant and ready to act” (“particulièrement vigilant et mobilisé”). One journalist I read said that as market interference goes, it’s been no worse that the current uproar in the US about a Chinese company wanting to take over Unocal. Not sure I agree with putting the USA and China on the same footing, but I’m digressing again.

Act III: If PepsiCo does try something, it’ll be fun to watch, especially as France has a nasty habit of getting what it wants in the EU.

One story that has not received much coverage here is the Valerie Plame outing. Who knows, after seeing pictures of her in this week’s Time magazine, Paris Match might someday write a story about “an outing with Valerie Plame”, but I doubt the news media will publish any pithy analysis of the situation unless it leads to an impeachment of the president (I’d be rubbing my hands together if I weren’t typing), in which case they wouldn’t be able to avoid it.

You see, I wonder how many people really understand it. Or could explain it to the French public in fewer words than it would take to explain the reasoning behind the infield fly rule to a non-baseball fan. But when you look into it, you can see that it has given rise to some of the most bizarre twists of fate in recent memory. Firstly, you have three journalists involved. The seat of the one who originally published the story “outing” CIA agent Valerie Plame, Robert Novak, is not the least bit warm (see Frank Rich’s recent column in the New York Times for some scathing comments about him). Conversely, the one who never published anything after having a conversation with her confidential source is the one now in prison.

Ego, I think, has got the better of the New York Times and its journalistic brethren. When you read the Times' reporting on the subject, you get the feeling that Judith Miller and Matthew Cooper are defending some noble, timeless cause, an immutable, inalienable right, that they're some sort of latter-day Nathan Hale or Patrick Henry.

The Times has institutionalized civil disobedience. The Supreme Court of the United States, the highest court in the land, refused to hear the case, meaning that the judges preferred to let the lower court’s ruling, that the journalists must reveal their sources, stand. But still the Times didn’t budge. It apparently answers to a higher authority.

Now does this apply to all journalists? For instance, let’s suppose I became privy to some "confidential" information, and that I published it here on my blog, keeping my source anonymous. Then some (smart!) news organization picked it up and syndicated it across the country (yeah, dream on!). Would the New York Times then be claiming that the whole Constitution of the United States would be in tatters were I forced to reveal my source?

Many professions have enshrined secrecy in their principles: banking, law and medicine to name a few. Let's take banking. Banks have a responsibility to protect the privacy of their clients. But if a court of law, say, the Supreme Court, requests information in connection with a money-laundering operation or terrorist organization, for example, the bank hands over the information. End of case. I don't recall any recent cases of bank civil disobedience. I think the same is true of medicine and law. As industries, surely these are as important as the press, no? Correct me if I’m wrong. Yell at me. ‘Splain to me!

A faithful reader of this blog sent me a link to the brief the news organizations filed with the DC Court of Appeals. Before it gets to the heart of the matter, it waxes poetic about the historical role of the press in American democracy. Quoting former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, it suggests that the press is an unofficial fourth-branch check on the federal government. Un-elected and self-appointed, but they forgot to mention that. Last time I checked, which was five minutes ago, the First Amendment to the US Constitution did not go quite so far. It said:

“Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Fourth branch of government? A bit over the top. In fact, down the rabbit hole and through the looking-glass, too. You can’t take those Supreme Court justices too seriously, especially when they’re speaking at a law school sesquicentennial.

The brief then claims that a hearing should be held to determine whether a crime had been committed under the Intelligence Identities Protection Act, the reasoning being that this Act intended to carve out an exception to the press’ right to keep sources confidential, but only under very narrowly defined circumstances.

Now maybe I’m oversimplifying, but it seems there’s a Catch-22 here. It must first be proven that a crime was committed under this Act before a news organization should be required to turn over its confidential sources, yet logic would seem to dictate that the news organizations must first turn over their confidential sources before it can be proven whether or not a crime was committed.

But here’s the most ironic part: to prove their case, all the news media, liberal and conservative alike, must take the side of the conservative media, who of course maintain that no crime was committed! That’s their whole point! The brief even quotes, as supporting evidence, an article from the pages of the Washington Times, that beacon of independent reporting, to the effect that Plame’s identity had already been revealed to the Russians and the Cubans, ergo Karl Rove did nothing wrong, get it? So if the media get their way and win the right to keep their sources secret, then the case disappears, which is just what the conservatives want. If sources weren’t an issue, the Times and other liberal media would be having a Rove-bashing party. But in their brief to the court, they have to protect him and disparage his critics to further their case.

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