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All Contents
© 1986-2004







MATT WELCH

Anatomy of a Hype Machine

Hey, Visiting Hacks! Looking for a Story Idea? How About Young Americans in Prague!

By MATT WELCH

Prognosis, January 7, 1994

The last time an American president came to town, Prognosis was all of 10 days old. Our "staff" was agush with the giddiness of creating something new, and we positively blushed at all the attention we received from the juggernaut of journalists, philanthropists, carpetbaggers and limousine chasers who overran Prague before, during and after George Bush's visit.

Some time during this blissful chaos we found ourselves being interviewed for the first time about what then seemed an unlikely topic: Young Americans in Prague.

"So," began the journalist, a very pleasant woman from an alternative Chicago paper, "what is it about America that drove you to come here?"

Well, we all explained one way or another, nothing really drove us here, we just felt like seeing the world a bit, and Prague seemed like a pretty exciting place to be.

"So … how did America fail you?" she asked.

Well, we explained, we weren't really mad at our country, it was more a matter of being young and wanting to see something different.

"But what weren't you seeing in America that perhaps you were missing in your lives?" she pressed us.

It wasn't like that, we said, our teeth beginning to clench. You know, the Velvet Revolution and all that. Playwright-president. Milan Kundera. How could we say it? It wasn't about America.

Finally, she gave up all pretenses of listening. "Let me put words in your mouth," she said, without irony. "You said, 'I'm tired of America, there's nothing for young people, there's some kind of intellectual and moral vacuum,' and you left. And now America is starting to lose all its bright young people because of all this alienation."

We respectfully disagreed and thanked her for the wine. Frustrated by such uncooperative subjects, she decided not to write the story after all.

Lesley Stahl of CBS' 60 Minutes was more persistent. She came to Prague around April or May of 1992, a few months after the landmark Chuck Powers story in the Los Angeles Times gave the YAP phenomenon the stamp of credibility, triggering a media stampede that has yet to cease. Never mind that Powers had trouble spelling people's names correctly or getting their ages right or attributing his quotes to the individuals who spoke them -- this was one of the largest circulation dailies in America identifying a new trend. Every news organization worth its salt had to cough up plane tickets and match the story.

Of course, award-winning journalists know how to hunt for an original angle, and so Stahl decided, well in advance of her visit, that YAPs were basically chasing the Sixties legacy but lacking that generation's moral commitment. She spent most of her session in the Prognosis office trying to goad all of us -- without success -- into bashing America and praising the Sixties.

Then, with a surreal flourish, Stahl turned the tables. "You know, I'm damn proud to be an American," she challenged our bewildered staff. "You know, my generation cared enough about America to do something about it, we didn't just run away!"

After clearly disappointing Stahl with my own inability to articulately criticize America's faults in a one-on-one interview, I invited her to come see the band I was playing with at the time on the Charles Bridge. "Oh yeah!" she said. "You'll have to play me a Sixties song!"

I explained to her that about the only cover we played was the very Seventies "Tie a Yellow Ribbon." Then the conversation shifted to a nostalgic look back at Watergate, that high-water mark of the American free press, when the young Stahl cut her journalistic teeth. As we parted, she vones who write utter nonsense any time they're asked to cover Slovakia -- describing Premier Vladimir Meciar, for instance, as an "apparatchik," even though he was expelled from the Communist Party in 1971.

Thousands of foreign journalists are coming from all over the world for Bill Clinton's visit to Prague. The Washington Post reporter has already called, saying he's going to do a "different take" on the Young Americans in Prague story. In a few hours I'm going to tape for the MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour at the Globe.

And why not? All this silliness has not exactly hurt our paper, my career, or my swelling ego needs. I'm going to enjoy the hell out of the next few weeks; I'll certainly never be this famous again, and I'm morbidly fascinated by what a cretin I always end up looking like in print.

I only hope our visiting Brethren will be aware of the fact that the perpetuation of the Young Americans in Prague story has long since become the story itself.

© 1986-2004; All rights reserved.

tant. Of course, we did that shot for 60 Minutes as well.

One of the funniest things about being a Young American living in Prague is to watch the media circus swarming around what is in essence a very small community. It's practically impossible to live here for any length of time and not be interviewed by some major paper or broadcast network, adding another level of absurdity to what is already a pretty ridiculous existence.

Everybody gets a kick out of watching the estimates for the number of YAPs grow exponentially (the highest I've seen is 50,000, or about 4 percent of Prague's population, in a Canadian magazine).

While a handful of the stories have sparkled with originality -- my favorite was the mean-spirited Sunday Times of London piece of two years ago in which the author savaged YAPs as shallow hedonists pretending to be artists -- the vast majority are largely indistinguishable from one another: The writers interview the same people (the English Teacher, the Journalist, the Party Guy, the Globe Owner, the Laundry Kings Owner, John Allison) trot out the same clichés ("recession refugees," "twentysomethings"), and quote extensively from the great godfather of the YAP hype machine: Alan Levy, and his inaugural column in the first issue of the Prague Post.

Levy, a tireless self-promoter, kicked off the Post in October 1991 with a long PR job on the expat scene, effortlessly tossing out dozens of perfect sound bites: "Prague is the Left Bank of the Nineties," "Future Isherwoods and Hemingways will chart our course," "Prague is Second Chance City," etc.

Never mind that every single American I have ever talked to about it, young or otherwise, viciously mocked the column and all it stood for. And never mind that most of the by-now thousands of interview subjects have pooh-poohed the "Left Bank" tag: It was perfect material, and no self-respecting writer could turn it down, even if it was a load of shit.

Now, it has become a self-fulfilling parody. It's safe to assume that a sizeable minority of YAPs living here now came partly because of some article they read, and that article almost certainly quoted at length from Levy's romantic extrapolations. In 1994, there are an ever-increasing number of Young American-organized publishing houses, poetry readings, writers workshops, cafes, clubs, litmags, theater groups and rock bands. Given this essentially positive trend and the still-wonderful atmosphere here, does it really matter that the hype about Prague was largely the result of conscious exaggeration, pack journalism and lazy reporting?

Ultimately, I think it does. Lack of truth in journalism is like a cancer: Today's exaggeration becomes tomorrow's lie.

Lack of thoroughness and excessive dependence on conventional wisdom (things I am also guilty of) may seem harmless when the subject is something as insignificant as 10,000 expatriate Americans drinking cheap beer in a foreign capital. But that same sloth, applied to much more serious matters, has much darker consequences.

The journalists who call Prague "The Left Bank of the Nineties" are the same ones who write utter nonsense any time they're asked to cover Slovakia -- describing Premier Vladimir Meciar, for instance, as an "apparatchik," even though he was expelled from the Communist Party in 1971.

Thousands of foreign journalists are coming from all over the world for Bill Clinton's visit to Prague. The Washington Post reporter has already called, saying he's going to do a "different take" on the Young Americans in Prague story. In a few hours I'm going to tape for the MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour at the Globe.

And why not? All this silliness has not exactly hurt our paper, my career, or my swelling ego needs. I'm going to enjoy the hell out of the next few weeks; I'll certainly never be this famous again, and I'm morbidly fascinated by what a cretin I always end up looking like in print.

I only hope our visiting Brethren will be aware of the fact that the perpetuation of the Young Americans in Prague story has long since become the story itself.

© 1986-2004; All rights reserved.

© 1986-2004; All rights reserved.

/BODY> E="2" COLOR="Black">© 1986-2004; All rights reserved.

/BODY> "Black">© 1986-2004; All rights reserved.

© 1986-2004; All rights reserved.

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