On Christmas Day 2008, about three minutes before two stern-faced policemen approached to inform me that I would be robbed if I didn’t leave the park for a safer part of town, I took this picture of a man reading about Lance Armstrong. As the man held up his paper (“Miracle” is the headline), and as a man on an adjacent bench made sure I knew Lance had only one testicle, I appreciated how even in a place like Panama City, Panama, people are interested in Armstrong’s phenomenal story.
This week, as Armstrong and others are zigzagging their way through the Tour de France, I suspect the guys I met in December are keeping tabs on their miracle rider. There was a time, however, when instead of Panama reading about France everyone in France would have been reading about Panama. And the subject, instead of bicycling, would have been about an undertaking much more expensive, deadly, and even grand—the construction of the Panama Canal.
Armstrong’s coverage tends to be positive thanks to the sheer feat of his victories. In the late 1800s, however, coverage of the canal's construction, which was a French undertaking, was positive because the construction company had bought off all the French papers. “No less than 2,575 different French newspapers and periodicals had shared in the company’s beneficence,” writes David McCullough in The Path Between the Seas. “Some little fly-by-night publications had even been founded for the sole purpose of getting in on the take. In addition to such giants as Le Temps and Le Petit Journal (which received the largest sums), the full list included such publications as Wines and Alcohols Bulletin, Bee-keeper’s Journal and the Choral Societies Echo.”
France would spend more than ten years sweating and dying on the canal, during which time the French public—many of whom had invested their life savings in canal stocks—was left completely uninformed about the tremendous setbacks plaguing the endeavor. When construction finally had to be abandoned in 1889 (the U.S. would pick it up again several years later) and after an estimated 20,000 workers had lost their lives, French newspapers, embarrassed and no longer in dubious partnership with the canal company, continued to print many a bold headline as newspapers tend to do. “Miracle,” however, surely wouldn't have been one.
So here's to the independence of the press. And, I suppose, to not being robbed in public parks, to retired men sitting on park benches, and to a 21st-century news culture which allows a Panamanian to enthusiastically expound on the testicular status of an American bound for France.