Of Fruit, Farmers, and a Free Press

A few years ago, I came across this gem of a headline in the Arab News:

2017-02-18

So…it turns out that not all fertilizers are equal. Human waste makes your lettuce smell and taste like doo-doo. Noted. And when it comes to irrigation, best just stick to water.

As much as I appreciated the gardening tips (you can read the whole thing yourself here), the reason I saved the article was because of the reporting. I couldn’t help but remember an outbreak of listeria traced to a cantaloupe farm in Colorado a few years earlier. Newspapers and television reporters scrambled over each other for weeks talking to victims. The source farm and the individuals involved were named. Reporters dug through the entire food delivery chain and made it public, and you could check any media outlet to find which stores had ever carried melons from that farm. Good thing, because listeria is pretty terrible. In the end, the problem turned out to be dirty water and equipment in the packing facility.

But a vegetable farm in Saudi Arabia irrigating with sewage? The article mentions “one farm,” with no location or name. There is a “farm owner,” also unnamed. And “local consumers had complained of vegetables sold in one of the well known grocery shops smelling foul.” Did anybody actually become sick? No idea.

That’s as close as you’ll get to any details. “One of the well known grocery shops.” But–which one? Well known according to whom? I don’t know! Is this one well known enough? Too much? Or do I just have to decide for myself whether my radishes smell as if they were fished out of the toilet?

Saad Al-Khatib, one of the shoppers, said that his wife was troubled by the foul smell emanating from the vegetables as they were being cooked. “My wife and I stopped buying fruits and vegetables from street vendors and stalls because we noticed they were selling poor quality vegetables. However, the produce we bought from the well-known grocery shop turned out to be the same; they tasted foul and had a sewage taste to them,” he said.

flushed-face

But, don’t worry. According to the article “a committee was being formed to monitor the irrigation of crops.” Who’s on it? (“Officials.”) How do I find out what they learn? (You don’t. Trust us.) How often are they monitoring? (Not stated, but they have “field trips.”)

Oh, for heaven’s sake, WHAT’S IN MY SALAD?!?

This is the kind of reporting you get with government-approved media. “We’ve got this,” is the consistent message. “Don’t you worry your pretty little head about anything.” Where details are uncomfortable or embarrassing, they’re omitted. Where stories are uncomfortable or embarrassing, they’re omitted. As state subsidies for Saudi citizens dwindle, no one knows what the GNP is. No one knows where the money from the state oil company goes. Exactly how much flows into the royal palaces? Inside Saudi Arabia, you get really familiar with this screen:

screenshot-2014-08-08-11-29-35

Royal spending is not your business. In 2014, according to this article, a reporter traveling with President Obama started tweeting pictures from inside King Abdullah’s household. In just a few days, her Twitter followers jumped from 3500 to 17,000. Citizens were that starved for information about what the spending and lifestyle habits of their rulers were.

But now I’m back in the U.S. If I’m curious about what kind of money is being spent on the leader of my country, all I have to do is ask:

Google search results on cost of Trump travel

We can argue until our faces turn blue about what it means, but the information isn’t secret. The amounts vary–$10 million for one, $11.3 million for another, $3 million for a single trip from another–but I can check the reports myself and expect that the truth is pretty darn close to wherever the stories intersect.

Very early in my Middle East I made this conclusion: the role of the press marks the difference between countries where the people are ruled and countries where the people are governed.

I’m not fond of being ruled. I had my tiny taste of what it’s like to run afoul of rulers, and it was enough, thank you very much. So I like free speech, and a free press. I mean, I like it a lot. And that’s not saying they’re perfect. Honestly, whenever I see a news report on something I actually know something about–a group I know, an event where I was involved–I always see something wrong in the reporting. Always. But it’s not because anybody is lying. It’s not because the stories are fake. It’s because reporters are people, telling somebody else’s story. As my friends will tell you, I do a pretty patchy job of telling their stories, too.

So let’s clarify:

  • Real news = things that really happened, that really are, even though the telling might be shy of 100% crystal perfection
  • Fake news = things that do not exist, that did not happen, that are reported as if they were. Examples include “Donkey-boy” and “The king is in good health” when he is, in fact, already dead.
  • All news = probably unflattering because, come on. Nobody is beautiful, lovable, brilliant, and graceful all the time.

No, if you’re a public figure, the news about you is bound to include things you don’t like. Kim Kardashian doesn’t waste time railing at reports or pictures she doesn’t like, even the ones that are straight-up false. She doesn’t waste time calling them fake. She decided a long time ago that living in the public eye and reaping the benefits meant ignoring whatever she didn’t like.

I can’t believe I’m saying it, but, dear leaders of America: take a note from Kim Kardashian.

And people of America, we need the press for more than Kardashian updates. We need to know that no one is irrigating our food with sewage. We have jobs and families and don’t have time or means to check the farm ourselves, especially if the farmer is being secretive about his methods. The farmer who says his produce is great but won’t let you walk the farm, the kid who says he did his homework but won’t show you, the employee who said the job is done but won’t let you see–those are the ones that most need to be checked. Thank goodness a free press is there to do it for me. And when the press says someone really is irrigating with sewage, it’s not fake news, no matter how much the farmer doesn’t like it. If the report is wrong, the facts will sort themselves out. If it’s not, well, my diarrhea-free gut thanks you.

So let’s be clear: the guy who waters the vegetables with sewage is the enemy of the people, not the folks who tell us about it.

10 thoughts on “Of Fruit, Farmers, and a Free Press

  1. nowellblog says:

    Hello MarcoGood article,  I have experienced this first hand in Riyadh and in Lebanon, the capcican and the cucumbers were horrid…. straight in the bin. On another note I think I have mentioned the Charity work I have been doing since 2012 from Riyadh for refugees in Lebanon and Jordan… FB: Nowell’s Mission. Am crowdfunding for Blankets $20 buys a good quality Blanket do you think you could share this Link PLEASE 

    $20 will buy a Blanket. PLEASE share

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    Like

  2. mozemet says:

    Yes. Yes. Yes. Same story in Turkey too and much of the news that does come through is celebrity centered. Keep the people stupid and they will follow is the motto. Great piece but I will be sniffing all my vegetables today…just to be safe…

    Like

  3. maryandmartha10 says:

    Margo, please, please, pretty please send this opinion piece to the NY Times, Washington Post, LA Times, Denver Post and any other major newspapers you can think of. I think it is a very important point to make right now when our press is under attack for reporting facts. People tend to believe those who shout the loudest-and we know who that is at the moment-and ignore or dismiss the information they find uncomfortable and doesn’t fit their personal set of beliefs. Most people will not search beyond the noise to find the quiet truth. You are not one of “most people”.

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      • JoeR says:

        I can only speak for Qatar circa 2005-06. Gulf Times and Al Jazeera seemed to dish up good and bad news with all the necessary details and labor grievances were openly published. The country had a great balance between traditional culture and expatriate communities. Fruits and veggies from souks or Carrefour were fresh and delicious. Women in burkas socialized with international friends in casual western wear while their children played together or shopped in the souks and mall. Locals were gracious and welcoming. I enjoyed my time in Qatar and hope it is still a friendly and non-polarized society.

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      • margocatts says:

        I only visited Qatar once, and loved it there. It’s heartening to be in in Doha, Dubai, Manama, Muscat, Abu Dhabi and see an Arab culture that maintains its identity while mingling freely with the Western world. Saudi Arabia is changing rapidly, but yes, it’s still a different creature than its neighbors. That said, to my knowledge there’s still no speaking against royalty allowed in any Arabian Peninsula states right now, and journalists were arrested in Qatar less than two years ago for reporting on the conditions of migrant workers. I appreciate what a tightrope Arab leaders are on, and how they see it as necessary to exercise control over the press. It takes a really vigorous democracy to live with a free press, which is what makes me so freaking anxious to hear anybody push back against it.

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      • bellwriter says:

        Notice that he suggested you send it to all the left leaning papers. You talk about a free press, however, it only supports one side. To me that’s not free, that’s biased.

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      • margocatts says:

        I disagree. WashPo & NYT occupy the center spot for news and information. LA Times is the local paper for a liberal city, so it leans somewhat left. Denver Post has a purple readership and stays center. To get publications that are distinctly left, I say you have to reach for HuffPo, Alternet, Mother Jones. My great sorrow right now is the “liberal media” label that gets slapped everywhere to discredit any challenge to conservative messaging. As I suggested in the piece, I think the best solution is to read a lot and find what emerges as the consistent narrative. A free press includes the biased ones, but as a people we must reject the overtly manipulative and false ones.

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