French deception on American journalism
Bévues de presse is an essay on the lack of professionalism in – and not “of” - French newspapers (its title translates roughly into "Press blunders"). The texts below provide some “misjournalism” examples as described in the book. Version en français (Media-Ratings)
US news seen from Paris
Faults, lies and stereotypes at a top French magazine
American media are instruments of «massive disinformation» according to France’s most influential cultural magazine (*). There is a big problem, however, with these three pages published by weekly Télérama on the eve of Iraq war’s first anniversary: they are unprofessional, often childish and always one-sided. This piece tells more about the low quality standards in French journalism than it reveals media misrepresentations on the other side of the Atlantic.
The article – presented as a report and not as an editorial - is based on some truths, mixed with several inventions and a huge amount of lies by omission. The 800,000 circulation magazine (in a just 60 million people country) stresses how some American journalists changed their minds on the Iraqi conflict, one year too late. Bill O’Reilly’s acts of contrition on Fox News Channel, after having atomised Jacques Chirac’s government and all war opponents at the time of the invasion, are mocked. This is acceptable since too many American journalists can be very narrow-minded and xenophobic. But Télérama is globally wrong because it puts them all in the same nutshell. Disinformation is an excessive word, too, because it implies all the American media deliberately misled their audience or readers.
Respected newsrooms from The Washington Post to CNN and from USA Today to Time, are also accused of not checking facts provided by the Bush administration. They blindly followed the White House with the weapons of mass destruction issue, Télérama’s reporter insists, as when The Wall Street Journal sneered «If you believe Iraq [and Saddam on WMDs], you are probably a Swedish weapons inspector [like Hans Blix]». Shame on The New York Times, too, whose national security and Middle East correspondent, Judith Miller, relied excessively on one-sided sources like Ahmed Chalabi.
These recriminations are right but outrageous and not fair. They are not based on rigorous reporting. Journalist Olivier Pascal-Moussellard or his supervisors at Télérama made numerous mistakes which would not have passed the editing process of most American newspapers he blames. Generalisation and simplification are too often mere substitutes to real investigation, as shown by ten facts (to limit ourselves to a round figure).
First, in one way, Télérama’s criticisms of the American press are single sourced. They come from… the American press itself. In other words, the magazine based its indictment on articles already published by high profile newspapers like The Columbia Journalism Review or The New York Review of Books. France’s top cultural magazine cannot afford to find easy examples of its own to substantiate some justified accusations against «les médias américains»…
Second, Télérama quotes several named sources with a blurred distinction between first account and copied comments. They include Karen Kwiatkowski, a former military intelligence officer who quit for reasons not specified. Her testimony has been widely publicised, actually, as a simple Google search shows. Third, in Télérama’s word, Kwiatkowski accuses the Bush administration, not the press. Two other (apparently interviewed) sources are high profile political experts who do not provide precise data on journalism faults, too.
Fourth, Télérama scorns US media for not admitting their mistakes… but ignores a major fact: the CJR and the NYRB have no equivalent in France.(**) American journalists have the honesty to inform about their malpractices in long articles… which helps newspapers from less introspective cultures to criticize them. Télérama behaves like communists from the 70s and 80s who blamed the American democratic system, bouncing on the Watergate scandal. They feigned to ignore that Richard Nixon resigned thanks to Carl Bernstein’s and Bob Woodward’s investigations for The Washington Post.
Fifth, Télérama does not balance its article with other facts on French mainstream media. On many occasions, the weekly and its colleagues blindly followed the French government’s position against the war, conversely to patriotic journalism in the United States. But afterwards, French printed journalism did not make a real self-examination on this «massive submission» to Chirac’s point (to talk in Télérama lingua). Alain Hertoghe was the only reporter who undertook this type of work, through a book, and he was immediately fired by his employer, daily paper La Croix. His essay La guerre à outrances may be too one-sided but it exists, and Télérama should have referred to it in the article. By giving no clue on the French press «massive silence» on its own mistakes, in this article and in many others, Télérama behaved like a North Korean newspaper hiding and misinforming on the train station accident. Exactly the same pattern.
Sixth, Télérama does not give any indication on how representative of American media are Judith Miller’s poor reporting or the WSJ’s arrogant scorning of Hans Blix. Seventh, Pascal-Moussellard’s also omits to tell his readers that before and during the Iraq invasion, major newspapers like The New York Times also published some editorials and op-ed pieces against the war. They did not wait one year to criticize Bush, even if too many columnists were too supportive of his policy.
Eighth, the CJR piece, which documents a significant part of his accusations, is exclusively devoted to editorials published in American newspapers. It does not deal with articles that needed to be balanced and based on facts collected on the field. Télérama’s correspondent should have specified the differences between biased information provided by a columnist (which is expected) or by a reporter (which is not acceptable, as in Judith Miller’s case). Still, he mocks American journalism for pretending to build firewalls between facts and opinions…
Ninth, the article starts with a lead paragraph telling one of the zillions jokes on Bush and Bin Laden. It is attributed to «Eddie», a homeless with no family name, said to live on Manhattan’s Fourth Street. Everybody has read these jokes in an e-mail, or heard them from Jay Leno or David Letterman’s mouth. The journalistic trick, here, is simple: to look more like a reporter on the field, you quote an unidentifiable source from the street. They can be a taxi driver or even better, to put more flavour when in the United States, an anonymous poor. Just to remind there are more homeless people there than in France (to which extent is that true, by the way?).
Tenth, many short-cuts, exaggerations or stereotypes. Karen Kwiatkowski, for instance, is presented as a non-Democrat because she has been a military officer, forcibly... Bush is presented as an extremely secretive President, who in his first three years, only accepted to give 11 press conferences (versus 71 for his father). Chirac, however, is well below this low record: only four press conferences in nine years of presidency.
To be fair, Télérama also publishes balanced, better substantiated articles on all kinds of topics, including foreign media. One month later, another staff reporter, Antoine Perraud, wrote four pages on how the British press is turning yellow and tabloid.(***) The charge is better focused (on the coverage of the royal family), more precise, and the quotes are more informative and compelling. It is a very good article, as we often read in French newspapers. Nonetheless, Pascal-Moussellard’s piece reveals one reality: the weakness of some reports, often hidden behind good writing, is not questioned in any media in France. Television news is the only one being more or less scrutinized in some TV-programs or in newspapers like… Télérama. Though the printed press is the platform of information in any democracy, its quality is only covered by alternative media (which are far from having the visibility of the CJR or Editor & Publisher) and by rare websites like this one.
In France, the gap between articles like Télérama's two on American and British journalism, is kept silent, even in journalism schools. Conferences on ethics in reporting, on information and democracy, rarely assess the poorness of investigative journalism in some central newspapers. When they are politically correct like Télérama, questioning these reporting habits becomes even less possible.
French journalists have to inform more and better on their professional standards, and fantasize less on disinformation in other countries (****).
(*) Télérama, March 10th, 2004, by Olivier Pascal-Moussellard. The article is titled «Un an de désinformation massive» with huge characters.
(**) American journalists, like Russ Baker in The Nation, criticized the American media's coverage of the Iraq conflict from the beginning, and not after one year as misstated in the article.
(***) Télérama, April 7th, 2004.
(***) The same happens with the Spanish public television, scorned for being José María Aznar’s voice when it blamed ETA-terrorists for the March 11th killings in Madrid. A bigger issue should worry French media experts: Spanish local newspapers are more professional and informative than their counterparts across the Pyrenees, as Bévues de presse shows.
The following paper was published in Slovenian by the Media Watch journal (Mirovni Institute, Slovenia). A French version also appeared on Bordeaux-based daily paper Sud Ouest (March 2003):
French press and the Iraqi conflict
General fairness blended with spots of misinformation
In a very chic Paris conference hall, on the last evening of January 2003, close to the French National Assembly, there was a summit meeting between foreign minister Dominique de Villepin and Edwy Plenel, the chief editor of daily paper Le Monde. They were surrounded by Jorge Semprun, a well-praised writer and former Spanish Minister of Culture, and by the worldwide known philosopher Edgar Morin, who in older times would have been the real stars of the night.
Though in the midst of the Ivory Coast and Iraq conflicts, Villepin took two hours from his heavy schedule to expose off the record, “as a citizen and not as a minister”, on the war, on globalisation, on the French revolution... That was two weeks before getting recognition among millions of people around the world, for leading the protest against the Bush administration’s tough stand against Iraq. That Friday evening, however, it seemed important for Jacques Chirac’s close aide to tell to an audience of about 200 persons, that Plenel’s last essay was great. "The writing of a real writer» and “a wonderful title of the book” said Villepin. Both co-stars of that evening also shared the same view against the war in Iraq.
Was that a proof of allegiance by France’s reference newspaper to the French government? Well, it was at least an illustration of the mood prevailing in a country where most papers have been supporting President Chirac’s and Villepin’s efforts to give peace a maximum chance. This despite the fact that a huge part of the Parisian press is affiliated to two armament groups, Dassault (war planes) and Lagardère (missiles). As a matter of fact a major promoter of the Paris pacifist demonstrations in mid-February was independent newsmagazine Marianne, known for its rhetorical style of journalism. Major papers’ coverage has been fair and balanced, however, also giving the United States’ point of view.
The French press tried to avoid some errors from the first Gulf War, which have become journalistic school cases: in 1990-91, many war correspondent were accused of just working within the reporting field assigned by the American army. There have therefore been real efforts, in the past months, to report from Baghdad and to prepare the terrain out of military pressure when the bombing starts. Le Monde pointed out through a reader’s note (February 8, 2003), that French media and public opinion so far did not yield to anti-Iraq discourse. More and more, however, some journalists express their understanding of America’s aggressiveness towards Saddam Hussein’s regime, though timidly, wrote Le Monde’s reader.
Among the papers somewhat more supportive of the United States’ point of view, there is Le Figaro, the other major daily, or weekly L’Express, traditionally closer to Chirac’s policies than Le Monde. In some columns, Le Figaro criticized antiglobalisation movements for misunderstanding the American motivations after the September 11th attacks. L’Express’ chief editor Denis Jeambar even blamed Europe (and the French government) for straddling between submission and resentment towards the Atlantic ally (20 February).
When the anti-war marches were organised all over the world, on February 15th, some media from both sides crossed the yellow line, however. Right wing weekly Valeurs Actuelles (21 February) described Paris demonstrators, in an article supposed to be a reporting, as «tribe» members of different leftist groups: communists, Trotskyites, suburban islamists or even “environment militants with flower beard”. There was no acknowledgement that pacifists could also mainly be against the war, without necessarily being instrumented by a “left taking its revenge” after losing the presidential elections in 2002.
Newspapers more in the antiwar front also misinformed their readers in some occasions. Satirical weekly Le Canard enchaîné, wrongly considered as an investigative paper, announced on his cover page an article titled in red ink “Iraq: Powell presented pictures from before 1993” (February 12th); it was referring to the Secretary of State’s exposé on the Iraqi threats at the United Nations. The article, written by a chief editor and seasoned journalist, did not tell much about Colin Powell’s alleged lies: it was one-sided and just aimed at mocking America.
France’s leading cultural weekly, Télérama, which is read by more than two millions persons, published a high profile 9-pages dossier titled “No to the war against Iraq”, in large characters on a green, battledress style background (February 1st). It was only composed of interviews of intellectuals, from a former President of Doctors without frontiers, Rony Brauman, to philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy. The argumentation was one-sided, not grasping the complexity of the Iraq conflict.
This unbalanced journalism in favour of peace was not condemnable, anyway, as readers could tell it was more a compound of opinions than a digest of facts. The lies published in many newspapers on their American counterparts were more worrying, however. Le Canard enchaîné, for instance, gave a very biased and simplistic presentation of American media, along with the article on Powell’s propaganda. The “investigative” weekly blamed them for describing the French as “pygmies” or “stupid”, without mentioning when and which paper at published those insults (The New York Times or a third class tabloid?).
Le Monde also misinformed its readers in an article titled “French bashing, a new sport on American TV” (February 15th). Its examples were only taken from the pro-Bush Fox News channel, or from some limited, out of context comments heard on CNN. Le Monde also referred to a famous network television comedy show, Saturday Night Live, who had committed the crime of imitating Villepin’s emphatic gestures, and presenting the French with some stereotypes [like their cowardness or their love for gastronomy]. The article was balanced with a CNN commentator quote reminding that Chirac was the first chief of State visiting America after September 11th. But it missed the most important: what about mainstream US network news?
Many French papers misinformed because they failed to admit that some mainstream American media are more willing to understand the French point of view. They also feigned to ignore that some French media are more abrasive with the Bush administration. VSD, a people and newsmagazine, put George W. Bush on a very graphic cover, treating him as a “Guignol” (a marionette). On television, practically every night, a famous show called “Les Guignols” show the Americans and their President as dumb, overweight or extremely cynical.
Surprisingly, Le Monde publishes every week an 8-page supplement composed of untranslated New York Times articles. On the January 26th issue, for instance, it showed a long and balanced cover page article on “ ‘Old Europe’ alienated by Bush’s personal style”. The mispresentation of all the Americans as violently anti-Iraq and anti-French seems therefore unreasoned, like the mutual attraction showed one winter evening between Villepin and Plenel. But it has been corrected by fair reporting, too, on many occasions.