Tag Archives: media

Look Back in Laughter / Обърни се със смях на зад

I need to read more in Bulgarian. I have been saying this since the mid-1990s. Had I been reading in Bulgarian steadily since, my vocabulary would be far richer. Thus just before our summer vacation in Bulgaria ended, I marched into Booktrading, my favorite bookstore in Sofia, and asked the lovely young woman there for help. “What do you recommend that’s not a translation from the English [my usual go-to], that’s modern and light, but not too frivolous or a love story, something not too long, something humorous without too much slang, something I could possibly enjoy truly reading without it being instead an exercise in dictionary use?”

It was a tall order and she was not only unfazed but enthusiastic. She seemed delighted by the challenge, excitedly pulling books off the shelves. In the end, I bought two. One is called Обърни се със смях на зад, Turn Back in Laughter by Mihail Veshim. Veshim in his introduction notes that his title is inspired by John Osborne’s famous 1956 play, Look Back in Anger.

I had never heard of Mihail Veshim so I can’t say if he is universally loved or reviled, critically respected or a bestseller in Bulgaria. What I can say is that the lovely young saleswoman at Booktrading succeeded marvelously in filling my tall order. I am reading this book of short essays with pleasure, with understanding, and yes, with laughter.

The essays are satirical and pointed, specifically Bulgarian with enough observations about general human nature and modern life to be broadly understood. So I thought I would give you my translation of one of Veshim’s essays entitled “Реклама-Мама” (“Reklama-Mama,” the English translation “Advertising-Mama” doesn’t have the same satisfying rhyme).

Let’s reduce the volume of the advertisements, they decided in CEM [Съвет за електронни медии, Center for Electronic Media].

I remember a French caricature twenty years or more ago—the speaker on the screen announces to the listeners: “And now for those of you who were in the bathroom during the advertisements, we will repeat them.”

At that time for us the advertisements weren’t such a scourge—we had two programs on television, and in the stores there were no goods. Whatever they released—on television, and in the stores—sold…on account of the absence of anything else.

For this reason the French caricature didn’t seem to me especially witty. Only now in Bulgaria has its time come.

Its time didn’t come all at once, but gradually. Gradually the advertising replaced journalism—in print and in electronic media. First one of the owners of a foreign newspaper group, which used to lead the newspaper market in Bulgaria, admitted “the role of journalism,” said the foreigner, “is to fill in the empty spaces between the advertisements…”

The same symbolic doctrine started to hold as well in television, old and new—the task of their nimble anchors, reporters, and team was to fill the spaces between the advertising blocks.

Thus journalists—sometimes obviously, sometimes secretly, sometimes paid, sometimes as a friendly gesture—turned themselves into advertisers—not only for food and everyday goods. But as well for political goods—parties, coalitions, and leaders. Which afterwards did not give out the goods, but the people chose them and that’s mostly because of their beautiful media images and high ratings created on the screen.

After which the advertising obliterated the journalism like white correction fluid. Already there is no literary criticism to tell you which book to choose and which not. There is advertising—the raising of noise from the publisher, from the author’s friends, or from the author himself. The writer pats his own back—this is something ordinary, we see it everyday and it passes for normalcy. It passes for normalcy when from his own pocket the writer pays the critic in order to praise him in public and afterwards to print a review in some publication. And one literary publisher directly gives out its rates—50 leva for a review for a newly published book. Laudatory, of course.

The same situation as well in the cinema—the praises for successes are greater than the successes. But the television series have thought up even an even more successful formula for the acquisition of resources—product placement. The hero lights his cigarette with a lighter showing a definite brand, drinks a carbonated drink showing a definite brand, eats a sandwich from one chain of snack bars, fills the gas tank from only one chain of gas stations.

In this way the producers of the series positioned themselves like the proletariat at one time*—they stand to lose nothing except their chains. Their chains of snack bars and gas stations. For the listeners they could care less.

Recently a PR woman from a large and rich firm told me that a producer of a new television series came to her with a few suggestions for a product placement—in the episodes only the firm’s logo will be seen, their firm’s brand products will be included in the dialogue of the leading characters, and—most enticing—the screenwriters will write a special episode on the activities of the firm… A question of a little contract and of accounting.

So in all the arts in Bulgaria the most important is the accounting. And the product placement. Therefore the inscription before the series should read: “Within the product placement there is a little film”

What do we do meantime? Prime time…

… Let’s reduce the volume of the advertisements, they decided in CEM [Съвет за електронни медии, Center for Electronic Media].

The regulatory agency finally succeeded in regulating something…at least it turned the “volume” to “min.”

For many years I have expected from CEM different regulations—to turn down the level of the stupidity on the screen. And not just once have I written about this. But from the agency they have answered—not to me personally but to the viewers, indignant about the obscenity in the shows—that it’s none of our business.

It’s none of their business to sanction the obscenity, the vulgarity, and the stupidity. They could not impose censorship, restrict this particular kind of humorous and free display. And besides the showmen comply with regulations—they use obscenity, but with a red dot [warning viewers]…

If I had power, I would place a red dot on CEM. But be still my heart…

But my heart is not still when I call to mind one quiet Christmas Eve night when we were at home decorating the tree in a celebratory mood, when all at once a voice from the screen startled us: “Only Jaro could produce such shit!…”

The public television spoke to us, that’s how it chose to advertise its series. That television supported by our taxes.

“Not just Jaro,” I said to my children, “and others can produce it.”

* The proletariat was said to have nothing to lose except its chains.




I Don’t Believe It

The tie between journalism and democracy is longstanding, profound, complex, and confounding. If people are to have the right to vote, they must have sufficient knowledge on the issues that concern them in order to have a viewpoint. They must equally have sufficient knowledge of the politicians vying for office to know which of these represent those viewpoints and thus their interests as citizens.

Recognizing the power of the media, those who are able try to harness that power to their own ends. Recognizing the power of the media, those on all sides and all levels of power distrust it with a level of cynicism that waxes and wanes but has always been present.

media cartoon2

In December 2013, a representative opinion poll on trust in the media was conducted with 1200 adult citizens and showed that only 14 percent of Bulgarians believe in the independence of the media. 60 percent doubt that the media in Bulgaria are free. In the Bulgarian capital Sofia this trust is even lower – only 7 percent think the media are independent.—Foundation Media Democracy (FMD) and Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung (KAS) 2013 survey and annual report on Bulgarian media


In 1790, Edmund Burke (no democrat, but a brilliant thinker) wrote about decidedly undemocratic pre-revolution France in his Reflections on the Revolution in France. He noted the organization of society into three estates: clergy, nobility, and commoners. A half-century later, Thomas Carlyle famously wrote:

“Burke said there were Three Estates in Parliament; but, in the Reporters’ Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important far than they all.”


“A Fourth Estate, of Able Editors, springs up, increases and multiplies; irrepressible, incalculable.”

media cartoon3

The representative survey among 1100 Bulgarians revealed that only every sixth Bulgarian (17 percent) believes in the independence of media in the country.— Foundation Media Democracy (FMD) and Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung (KAS) 2014 survey and annual report on Bulgarian media


Since then, we have referred to the necessity of that fourth estate—media or journalism—to the functioning of a healthy democracy. The media reports on the government and those aspiring to be in government so that the citizenry can be informed. Just as important, the media reports on the issues that concern the citizenry so that their government can be informed.

media cartoon4

Only 12 percent of Bulgarians believe in the independence of media. According to a representative survey commissioned by the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung, trust in the media has further decreased.— Foundation Media Democracy (FMD) and Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung (KAS) 2015 survey and annual report on Bulgarian media


Gallup has for decades surveyed Americans’ trust in the media. Understanding that Bulgarians were surveyed on the independence of their media while Gallup has surveyed Americans on their trust in the media, Americans have here little to crow about. The U.S. has had a democratic system and free media since 1776 while Bulgaria has been dipping its toes in these waters since 1989. The United States’ nearly 2½ centuries at fostering both a democracy and a critical, independent and investigative press should have the healthy support of the American public.

media cartoonIn general, how much trust and confidence do you have in the mass media when it comes to reporting the news fully, accurately, and fairly—a great deal, a fair amount, not very much, or none at all?

In 2014, there was a substantial gap between negative (60%) and positive views (40%). In the 1970s, the percentage of those with positive views was high as 72%.—Gallup September 17, 2014


“What is it we all seek for in an election?” asked Edmund Burke. “To answer its real purposes, you must first possess the means of knowing the fitness of your man…”

Elections, of course, are not necessarily a sign of democracy. After all, the People’s Republic of Bulgaria regularly held elections. Everyone who was not comatose voted and the Communist Party candidates (and those closely allied with them) won virtually 100% of the vote. The newspaper Rabotnichesko Delo (Worker’s Cause)—with “Proletarians of the World, Unite!” just above the masthead—was the “organ of the Central Committee of the Bulgarian Communist Party.” Rabotnichesko Delo, of course, did not at all serve the “worker’s cause,” but only the cause of the Bulgarian Communist Party. It was the essence of propaganda, disseminating information and ideas to reinforce the institution that was at one the Party, the government, and the nation.

media cartoon6It’s not surprising that the recent polls in Bulgaria asked participants about the independence of their media. It’s neither surprising that the powerful are reluctant to give up their control of various media outlets nor that citizens are cynical about that control. It’s not surprising that media dependent on or fearful of the powerful is not media that can play its role as the Fourth Estate. And if Bulgarian media does not cultivate “Able Editors,” is not “irrepressible, incalculable,” Bulgaria cannot hope to have the informed civil society necessary to know the fitness of their leaders, their institutions, and the policies and programs appropriate to address their most pressing concerns.