A book censored in most French media
This is an adaptation of JP Tailleur’s second book, Maljournalisme à la française, on the difficulty to criticise French newspapers with hard facts. In Paris, American media bashing, political discussions or radical attacks on well-known editors are substituted to the necessary debate on the Fourth Estate’s malpractices.
Journalism and self-criticism in France
During the winter of 2003, exactly one year after the release of Bévues de presse - my essay on the insufficient self-criticism and the not high enough professional standards in French journalism (“press blunders”) - our country was seized by a media storm. It started with the publication of a testimony on the incestuous links between our journalists and politicians, followed by an attack against conformity in Paris’ first journalism school.(1) A few weeks later, a pamphlet on France’s reference newspaper turned the storm into a hurricane. The noise made by The hidden face of Le Monde, written by veteran reporter Pierre Péan and columnist Philippe Cohen, was also heard all over the world.(2)
Then during the spring, a book on censorship in America Into the buzzsaw, written by a score of authors and coordinated by Kristina Borjesson, was loudly promoted in mainstream Gallic media. The former CBS producer’s capacity to speak French and her congeniality were efficient selling tools in major talk shows. The essay had been re-titled Black List, in English words, by her Paris-based publisher, who could surf on the Iraq invasion and the subsequent American media bashing. Opinion leaders like sociologist Dominique Wolton or Reporters without frontiers’ director Robert Ménard imposed the thought that all the US press was behaving like Fox News, and was embedded with the Bush administration not only in the battle field.
At the end of 2003, another one-sided essay appeared in bookstores, this time on how French newspapers disinformed because of an excessively negative coverage of the coalition troops in Iraq. La Guerre à outrances (“The War of outrages”) did not get the same support as Black List by far, however, though it concerned much more the French population. Its author Alain Hertoghe was even fired from daily paper La Croix, for criticizing some of his colleagues, and still, this act of censorship aroused much less compassion than Kristina Borjesson’s complaints against the American democracy.
It is assumed, now, that given the flow of books scrutinizing journalistic misbehaviors, one of the last French taboos is falling down. But the assumption is wrong. Bévues de presse and La Guerre à outrances were as much boycotted as the other essays were publicized. Probably because they assess the quality of the information published in respected newspapers through the analysis of their content and through an international comparison. At the end of the day, during this period of “media introspection”, the specific shortcomings of French journalistic culture have been minimized or totally ignored.
Bien entendu c’est off, the first of the essays getting high profile in 2003, was publicised thanks to a soap opera trick. In a few allusive lines, its author Daniel Carton discloses that Valéry Giscard d’Estaing is said to have a hidden son with a member of the European Parliament. The leak remained a rumour because no media investigated on this case of blurred line between private and public life. It created turmoil, however, because the mother may have been elected thanks to her affair with the former President.
Daniel Carton was already known as a former political editor for Le Monde, but without the paragraph on “VGE’s son”, his book would have hardly got so much attention. The content of his testimony is much richer and instructive than a list of gossip news, however, for reasons which do not get the attention of Paris media circles. The veteran journalist makes for instance a fascinating description of his career switches, after starting as a local reporter in a Northern France daily. Though his personal account was presented as a criticism of French journalists, most reviewers only covered it like tabloid news.
The book on Paris main journalism school - the “Centre de formation des journalistes (CFJ) - located near Le Figaro and Agence France Presse head offices, has some similarities with Bien entendu c’est off. It is also a compelling, well-written testimony by a young journalist, this time, illustrated with funny cartoons. CFJ’s alumnus François Ruffin recalls for instance that he was practically never asked to write long articles during the two years he spent in this institution. His Little soldiers of journalism leaves an impression of boredom at CFJ, hardly felt by students at Columbia graduate school of journalism, for instance (its counterpart on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean). This and other points, more central for a true criticism of the French journalistic culture, were not discussed, however.
Like Carton’s, Ruffin’s disillusion with France’s regional press is another interesting aspect of his professional experience, and mainstream media ignored it too. His personal and partial assault on CFJ, a school from where only tens of would-be reporters graduate every year, does not directly concern mainstream France. But The little soldiers of journalism was presented as a general criticism of the French press, because it scorns one of its landmark institutions. It also lies on the assumption that financial pressure - capitalism and conservatism in other words – is the predominant gene of bad behaviour in our editorial rooms. Many politically correct and anti-globalization voices - dominant in French media studies - praised it only for this aspect of the essay, like monthly Le Monde diplomatique which published long extracts. However, this description of one of the two top French journalism schools is so radical and excessive, that it was relatively harmless for the industry.
The same occurred with The hidden face of Le Monde. Its authors Pierre Péan and Philippe Cohen concentrated their attack on the management of France’s reference paper, but there was no debate on what it tells on French reporting imperfections in general. This pamphlet, based on hard facts, has a disgusting dimension too, with its darts full of hatred and factual errors (conversely, some editors of Le Monde, who misbehaved professionally in the past, are curiously spared by Péan-Cohen). The duet strikes intensively against the paper’s two top editors and its board chairman, Alain Minc. This articulate businessman and writer is one of the symbols of French free market ideology, and his opponents are numerous. Péan-Cohen got automatic sympathy for their radical opposition to the powerful trio, but the debate launched by their book was more a battle between ideologues than a discussion on the professionalism in a top newspaper.
Bévues de presse approaches the question of “maljournalisme” - a word which should be as popular as “malbouffe” (“bad-food”) - through the simple quality assessment of articles written by reporters. It shows how, independently from their ideological standpoint, many respected journalists are not serious and reliable enough. It asks why some American - and even Spanish - newspapers can be more credible, respectful of their readers, and it wonders why the French intellectuals ignore those questions. Most criticisms directed to Le Monde concern other publications, indeed, especially those speciously spared in Péan-Cohen’s pamphlet, from daily Le Figaro to weeklies L’Express and Le Canard enchaîné (the co-authors hit toughly on Le Monde for its negative coverage of a former Finance minister, for instance, hiding the fact that their ally L’Express behaved even worse with the same person).
So why so much noise on one side and such a silence on the other? Why was I censored in newspapers where journalists have interviewed me, reviewed my essay? Probably because Bévues de presse’s scope is not limited to an institution or to Paris’ crony journalism. Because it scrutinizes the mediocrity of the content published by over-respected newspapers, with no hedge and no false excuses. I share the idea, promoted by sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, that ideological bias or financial pressure often explain why some articles are bad. But I do not take for granted this is the main cause of our “press blunders”. There are journalists who behave unprofessionally whether left-wing or right-wing, and whether “independent” or working for media owned by other shareholders.
During the years I spent observing the French journalistic production, I did not find intolerable “blunders” all the time, of course, and I often appreciated what I read. But in many editorial rooms, I noticed there are bad journalism habits which are not discussed publicly in France, not even in journalism schools. The so-called independent Le Canard enchaîné often – too much often! – fails to respect professional and accountability standards. Yet this satirical weekly is considered as THE investigative paper because for the French journalism culture, political gossip news tends to be identified too easily with investigation. In the same way, I show that the “Prix Albert Londres”, which is the French equivalent of the Pulitzer price, has been given to journalists who do not respect minimum journalism rules.
This theme is still a taboo in France, as the reaction to the Jayson Blair scandal showed it. Though the French press covered The New York Times‘s accident, there have been no reference to similar cases on this side of the Ocean. A deceptive journalist was fired a few years ago from a top Paris newspaper, for instance, but we are still waiting for an article, an explanation… at the level of the same paper’s coverage of Blair’s deception, at least.
For the same lack of courage and honesty, Bévues de presse has been boycotted by most media, and it could illustrate a book titled French black list. Only two general news papers reviewed it when it was launched, discretely, like the non-mainstream radios and televisions which mentioned its publication. The host of a public radio program, which exposes a radical criticism of our society every day, censored any reference to it. My approach is inaudible for those who consider that bad journalists are just victims of “the system” and of low wages. In October 2003, an editor of Le Nouvel Observateur, the other top weekly with L’Express, interviewed me during one hour as she was preparing a long dossier on “why the French press is so much criticized?”. But any reference to my work was erased, though it is the only one focused on the lack of professionalism in reporting the news. She proposed me to publish “a letter to the editor” two weeks later, so that I could mention one of Bévues de presse’s conclusions: France’s regional press is too poor in reporting local news. I just did ersatz journalism for a very renowned French magazine…
The same happened with interviews by reporters of AFP, of catholic daily La Croix, of political weekly Marianne. More amazing, not to say ridiculous and dishonest, was the attitude of the media specialised on communication and journalism. Bévues de presse was launched at the same moment as Médias, for instance, a short-lived magazine pretending to be the French equivalent of the Columbia Journalism Review or Brill's Content. Though my book was at the centre of its reporting field, its editors censored any reference to it…
When Into the buzzsaw was released in France, the boycott of Bévues de presse could have been illustrative of media censorship here. As a matter of fact, my work has been exposed to embargos from the beginning and not just when present in bookstores. One of France’s top publishing houses, Le Seuil, wanted it initially, in 2001, considering it was the most documented criticism of French journalism so far. We signed a contract but they suddenly gave up after four months of collaboration, just before going to print. They decided to lose the down payment I had received, officially because their lawyer saw my essay as a dangerous libel. This is false, however, considering the comparatively higher violence of many other non fiction books. More simply, Le Seuil decided not to publish my work by fear of an industry which is not open to actual criticism, still.
It was easy to find another publisher, but only among houses with a lower profile. The one which launched L'Effroyable Imposture (“The Dreadful Imposture”) - Thierry Meyssan’s ludicrous allegation that there was no plane crash on the Pentagon on September 11 – pressed me to sign up. It could have been a good choice from a marketing stand point, but I did not want my essay to be identified with books of that category. I opted for another publisher, Le Félin, who did a good job during the editing process.
I leave the last words to the shrewd – and optimist - thoughts of Nicolas Santolaria, an editor at cultural monthly Technikart. I know him because he published my first non censored interview in a French national paper, 18 months after the release of Bévues de presse. "The publishing industry makes you wrongly believe that it is the catastrophe if a book is not covered by the press. What is more interesting, however, is the real career of intellectual works like yours. The rejection of which it was a victim is a rather good sign, because it corroborates your analysis. You can find other circuits to make the information flow."
This is probably true, thanks to Google and to some bookstores, including “Amazon.fr”. Ten years ago, the relative censorship I have been experiencing would have been tougher… Jean-Pierre Tailleur
(1) Bien entendu c’est off («Of course this is off the record») by Daniel Carton (January 2003) and Les petits soldats du journalisme («The little soldiers of journalism») by François Ruffin (February 2003).
(2) La face cachée du Monde («The hidden face of Le Monde») by Pierre Péan and Philippe Cohen (February 2003).