Wednesday, April 27, 2005

“Corrections”: The NYTimes on Jacques Chirac and the EU “Constitution”

(Note: The "'Corrections'" feature of Trans-Int treats errors in the traditional, "mainstream" media. On the origins of the "Corrections" feature, see here. When I need to correct myself, the heading will read "Correction" without the quotes.)

I know that it is not necessarily informative to consider the NYTimes. But since it is still apparently read by some millions of people and is said to have influence in high places, it is perhaps, nonetheless, not without some interest to pause to enumerate the errors and confusions with which the Time’s recent article on Jacques Chirac’s televised appearance on behalf of the EU “constitution” is strewn. I will not count the fact that, as I indicated in my previous post, the Times article managed somehow to miss the main thrust of Chirac’s pro-“constitution” argument - i.e. that a strong, “organized” Europe is necessary to “fight” American power and the "Anglo-Saxon" menace more generally - while foregrounding trivial details (“‘There was an error in the casting,’ said Jacques Seguela, a media strategist, arguing that Mr. Chirac's choice of popular television personalities to moderate the show alienated the serious political journalists”). I will only count sins of commission - and veritable howlers at that. Of the latter, I find no less than three in an article of just over 1000 words – which for the Times reporting on European matters is, I would guess, about the average rate.

Howler #1 (from the article’s first sentence):
Hoping to avert a European crisis, President Jacques Chirac appeared on state television on Thursday urging voters to approve the draft constitution of the European Union in a national referendum on May 29.

Chirac appeared on TF1, which is a private commercial broadcaster, not on “state television”. Apart from M6, which does not carry political programming, all the other “national” television channels in France (France2, France3 and Arte) are state owned (with Arte being a joint Franco-German public corporation). So, let’s say this was a good guess on the part of the Times man in Paris, Craig Smith, and that the odds were in his favor. Bad luck. Incidentally, this first sentence also contains a second error, which however I will not consider sufficiently flagrant to count as a howler: the “constitution” on which the French public will be voting is in fact a signed treaty awaiting ratification. It is thus not a “draft”. States do not ratify treaty drafts.

Howler #2 (from the article’s second sentence)

Mr. Chirac, fielding questions from 80 young French citizens, struggled to make the 850-plus-page constitution and its annexes relevant to his audience amid mounting evidence that it might not pass the referendum.

The “850-plus-page” comes from a question posed by one of the “80 young French citizens”. Perhaps the most insightful point made by Chirac during the entire evening was when he interrupted his questioner to say: “That depends on the edition”. Indeed. When the Commission gets around to publishing the “constitution” in roughly this format,

(click on photo for life-size version)

I imagine it will run to at least some tens of thousands of pages. (BTW, I remember seeing little editions of the works of Marx and Engels published in the German Democratic Republic that served much the same propagandistic functions as this little edition of the EU's Charter of Fundamental Rights. One was not supposed to read them, needless to say. But something so cute could not be all bad.) The version of the text published in The Official Journal of The European Union, incidentally, tops out at some 474 pages (and this in all languages). (See here for the English version.) I will not count as an error the odd syntax – quite unrelated to any grammatical rules hitherto known to be connected to the words in question – that has the “constitution” possibly “not passing the referendum”.

Howler #3

“Europe is like a bicycle,” said Philippe Moreau Defarges, the author of a best-selling book on the constitution, “it can only remain stable if it moves forward.”

Well, Philippe Moreau Defarges no doubt uttered this gem in conversation with the NYTimes. But he could hardly have claimed any originality in doing so. The bicycle routine might be the most overworked trope in the Europeists’ not particularly ample rhetorical arsenal. It is most often attributed to former European Commission President, and reputed “architect” of the Treaty of Maastricht, Jacques Delors.