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July 20 2019
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Braking News


Some reporters are driven to get a story.

And then there is the reporter who will, well, drive to get a story.

As an NPR reporter trying to interview average citizens in China, one of the world’s most repressive societies, Frank Langfitt kept hitting, well, dead ends.

“An American journalist asking a Chinese stranger about politics is just a total loser,” he said.

On a hunch that most passengers will talk to a cabdriver, Langfitt started hacking in Shanghai, with one extra: free rides. Locals, pleased—and disarmed—by the price, were also intrigued to encounter a non-Chinese driving.

“They would start interviewing me,” said Langfitt. “I rarely brought up a sensitive topic. I just waited till they did.”

All of this lead to stories that covered a lot of, well, ground. Langfitt’s passengers—most of them well traveled and educated—often acknowledged the limitations on their freedoms, but they also told him about their efforts to make the best of their constrained situations. The government’s policies may have spawned a culture of contradictions and suspicions, but many of his riders still believed in the Chinese Communist Party.

Langfitt says that, for a lot of Chinese, “the economic growth of the past 30 years has been unbelievable. Often a conversation would begin: ‘Well, I grew up in a mud hut …’ This would be someone who now had a penthouse overlooking Shanghai.”

Many of the people whose stories he featured on NPR became friends, including, as he told The Times of London, a human-rights lawyer and a pajama salesman who ran an illegal Christian “house church.” And then there was the fan who was not profiled but was a very devoted listener. Turns out he was a spy who was tasked with listening to his broadcasts.

Jesus Spotted on Red Sea


Ever since it sold for a record-crushing $450 million at auction in 2017, and then was whisked away, the whereabouts of the da Vinci masterpiece Salvator Mundi have been a mystery. Now it is reported to have turned up in a rather unexpected location—the Serene, a super-yacht owned by Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman. (Yes, the very same M.B.S. who earlier this year, according to the C.I.A., ordered the murder and dismemberment of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi.)

The painting, whose authenticity has been a source of controversy, “was whisked away in the middle of the night on M.B.S.’s plane and relocated to his yacht,” according to Artnet, citing two unidentified people involved in the transaction. Another Saudi prince was said to have bought the artwork on M.B.S.’s behalf at a Christie’s auction, The New York Times reported previously.

M.B.S.’s plan for now, according to Artnet, is to keep the painting on the 440-foot, $560 million Serene until the Saudis create a cultural hub in the kingdom’s Al-Ula region.

But there appears to be one more wrinkle.

Earlier this year, the Louvre asked to borrow the work for an exhibition. When experts examined the painting, they decided it was not created by Leonardo but by artists in his workshop. Displaying it as a “workshop” painting would decimate its value and leave its Saudi owners humiliated, according to Ben Lewis, an art historian whose book The Last Leonardo charts the painting’s extraordinary story.

“It is very unlikely it will be shown, because the owner of this picture cannot possibly … see it exhibited as ’Leonardo workshop,’” Lewis said. “Its value will go down to somewhere north of $1.5 million. If a picture cannot show its face, that is really damning for the art world. It is almost like it has become the Saudi’s latest political prisoner.”

Bottom-Feeders


When the Galeries Lafayette department store in Paris hung a four-stories-tall billboard on its façade, it was, in many ways, selling something that France has profited off of for centuries: sex. Specifically, an extreme close-up of a woman’s derrière, nominally clad in the lace panties of the lingerie brand, Aubade.

The reaction, however, proved less than French. Hélène Bidard, deputy mayor of Paris, instantly took to Twitter: “Seriously? In the wave of #MeToo … you have nothing better to show than the buttocks of a faceless woman?”

Her tweet sparked a conversation that was overdue in France and prompted fashion labels to rethink imagery and beauty standards in a post-#MeToo era—images and standards that have been created by men to appeal to men. “Today,” says Matthieu Pinet, creative director of the International Salon of Lingerie’s avant-garde “Exposed” exhibition, “brands seek to address women.”

One brand that has emerged is Ysé, which employs diversity in its casting. As the founder says, it’s about showing “a new vision of sensuality and femininity, more natural, more assumed, neither standardized nor sexualized.”

Oddly enough, Ysé’s vision of easy yet sexy lingerie is similar to the effortlessly chic French-girl fashions worn outside of the bedroom that so many American women seek to imitate.

Aubade has no plans to adjust to life in the #MeToo era. The company’s deputy managing director told Agence France-Presse that, while some brands highlight everyday women, “it’s a choice that is not ours. We prefer to dream.”

Burial Plots


In Russia, even death provides no reprieve from a shakedown. Moscow cemeteries are overcrowded, and gravediggers, hospital morgues, crematoria, and funeral homes conspire with corrupt officials to prey on the families of the deceased.

At least, that’s what Meduza, an independent Russian online news organization reported last year. Mobsters and shady businessmen in Southern Russia, Meduza explained, routinely work with corrupt officers of the F.S.B., formerly known as the K.G.B., to monopolize the funeral business and control Moscow cemeteries.

Ivan Golunov, the investigative reporter who wrote the piece, was soon after arrested on attempted-drug-distribution charges. Fifty-eight journalists have been killed in Russia since 1992, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, and many have been harassed or arrested, so it’s not surprising that many people assumed the charges were trumped up.

Russia’s media, normally stifled and submissive, sprang to Golunov’s defense. Protests were staged outside Moscow’s police headquarters, and three major Russian publications, Vedomosti, RBK, and Kommersant, each ran headlines reading: “We Are/I Am Ivan Golunov.” Meduza defiantly re-released Golunov’s exposé on the Russian Way of Death—this time in English.

What was less expected was Vladimir Putin’s about-face. On June 11, the charges against Ivan Golunov were dropped. President Putin fired two of his top law-enforcement officials. A Kremlin-friendly news anchor, Dmitry Kiselyov, conceded that the police “were not blameless and had acted quite roughly.”

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