By Denis Boyles
Springtime in Paris, 2003. Pretend you're a French journalist during the opening weeks of the war in Iraq. Every day, your paper, like all the papers in France, blossoms with the grim news of American and British defeats, sorry stories of a quagmire the size of Vietnam, rising hatred of Americans by the Iraqis, the heroic struggle of the Arab leader — who, after all, is an old friend and business partner of France. But then, suddenly, Baghdad falls, no armies are lost in the sand, the war has been fought, leaving only the peace to be won. Could it be a miracle?
Well, France is a secular state, so no. But it's not a scoop, either, since most people — other than the French, the Germans, and those who relied on the BBC — understood with clarity exactly what was happening in Iraq. If you're Alain Hertoghe, a French-educated Belgian and a 17-year veteran of La Croix, France's prestigious Catholic daily, and you spend your days reading the AP and AFP wires and comparing the news there with the news you see in print, you realize the story isn't the victory of the Coalition in Iraq, but the defeat of the press in Paris. The war the French press had been fighting was lost, ambushed by reality.
Hertoghe suddenly realized a serious wrong was being done by his paper and others. He told me one particular news item pushed him over the line — an editorial cartoon in Le Monde, claiming Bush's actions in Iraq had racist motivations. "It was very wrong. To us in France, it reminded us of Le Pen." It had been preceded by many others, including this one from the day before showing America's murderous arrogance. "I had already seen this happen in Afghanistan," he said. "It was the same then. I couldn't believe it was happening again the same way." Hertoghe saw his story, so he wrote a book about it. And that's when his problems started.
Hertoghe, 44, is the former deputy editor of the online version of La Croix. His book, La guerre à outrances: Comment la presse nous a désinformés sur l'Irak (roughly, and more pointedly, "All-out war: How the press lied to us about Iraq"), was published by Calmann Levy, France's oldest publishing house, with impeccable timing last October, just as several other introspective books critical of France were flourishing on the best-seller lists and stimulating debate among the yakking-classes. But there was one little thing different about Hertoghe's book. It wasn't critical of France. It was critical of the French press.
Specifically, it was critical of the misleading and incompetent reporting that appeared not only in his own paper, but also in Le Figaro, Le Monde, Libération, and Ouest-France, the largest regional newspaper, during the first few weeks of the war in Iraq. Hertoghe's book appeared in bookstores around the country and he waited for the debate to begin.
It never started. Instead, Hertoghe told me, "I experienced collective and spontaneous silence." Other than a paragraph in a column in Le Figaro and an item in a free paper distributed to commuters, no major French newspaper has reviewed the book, or even mentioned it. The closest Hertoghe has gotten to a media breakout was a radio interview, an appearance on TV, and a book of his own. (Schneidermann's sacking was covered by the BBC, among others.)
The icy treatment has surprised Hertoghe. "I was excited that I would be challenged on whether my book was fair," he said, "because I knew I had been fair. I hoped for a debate. But instead...." Instead, just before Christmas, Hertoghe was confronted by his editor, Bruno Frappat. He was told by Frappat that he had "committed an act of treason" and fired.
So a veteran journalist, a chap who had covered the first Gulf war, who had crisscrossed America covering the 2000 election, and who wrote refreshing, somewhat iconoclastic pieces, such as this one, on a regular basis for a newspaper that prided itself on what Hertoghe called "the kind of tradition of freedom of thought that exists among Catholics" had been first silenced for pointing out incompetency in his own profession and then fired.
Now normally, in French journalism, that sequence of events would open the door for the country's only interesting paper, the semi-satirical Canard Enchainé. As Stanley Hertzberg, a retired director of Wall Street Journal Europe, pointed out, Canard breaks most of the good, political stories, then the next day, they come out in Le Monde or someplace else, once it's safe to report them. "They [mainstream journalists] know that if they break the story, they might get in trouble."
But on Hertoghe, Canard wouldn't quack — even though Canard's editor-in-chief, Claude Angeli, described Hertoghe's sacking as "stupide de la part de La Croix."
And stupide on the part of other French dailies. Because Hertoghe's firing so clearly demonstrates not only the ideological, anti-American corruption of the French media, but also (and more importantly to journalists) the more pervasive self-interest of the media generally, the story has been told around the world, one paper at a time, like a platformed movie allowed to grow its own buzz. The Wall Street Journal ran a Boxing Day editorial (subscribers only) titled "Muzzled in Paris" (attention, Suzy Menkes!), followed, a few days later, by a John Vinocur piece in the IHT, which did not appear in the New York Times, but which nevertheless sparked an AP report that ran in U.S. newspapers elsewhere. Political Euro-blogs, such as EURSOC, got hold of the story. A few days after that, the Guardian ran a piece on the affair, followed 24 hours later by a Daily Telegraph report. In each of these and others, the message was clear: The elite French press had lied to their readers, and when somebody called them on it and blew the whistle, they buried him in silence and private ridicule.
The reaction to the belated attention this story is receiving is interesting. There may be silence on the part of the French press, but Hertoghe is big news in his native Belgium ("ironic," he told me, "since their press did the same as the French") and in America, where he turned down a request to appear on Bill O'Reilly's Fox News program ("I thought it would just be to bash France," explained Hertoghe).
In France, publishing insiders are enjoying the story as it drifts back to them via the Internet — if only because it gives everyone a chance to expound on the frailties of the national press, a much despised, notoriously vain, self-protecting institution. Theories sprout like Kansas wheat about why newspapers have remained silent on a subject that so deeply reveals their own failures. Yet, no one is terribly shocked. After all, the idea of one newspaper turning on another is unthinkable in France. Schneidermann's very occasional anti-Le Monde pieces in Libération, such as one blasting the paper's relationship with a Chirac pal and one of the richest men in France, are rare exceptions.
Hertoghe's explanation for the silence is based on his own experiences. "Print journalists consider themselves to be an aristocracy," he explained. They look down upon their colleagues in radio and television — "the print journalists are paid less than the TV journalists and this makes them feel superior" — and of course on most of their countrymen.
Others think the explanation is more practical. "The press in this country is in terrible financial shape," said Calmann Levy's editorial director, Ronald Blundel. "One well-aimed attack could result in one of [the national dailies] disappearing. They share a common vulnerability, so their response is to cover each other's back. If one large newspaper really went after another, there would be blood on the walls."
The impulse to protect their own infects other journalists, even those with no particular association with the French media other than geographical, and perhaps ideological, proximity. One television correspondent pointed out that Hertoghe would have been fired by any American network if he had done something similar. Just ask Bernard Goldberg or Bob Zelnick. Another American correspondent denied there was any conspiracy of self-protection in the French media. He was with French journalists in Iraq, he said, and he noticed they were "very fair in reporting civilian deaths." According to him, the reason there was silence surrounding Hertoghe's book is that the idea behind it is "sh**."
Hertzberg, among others, isn't buying that. "The problem is, French journalists are afraid. Look at what happened to Hertoghe. That pretty much says it. Journalists here are afraid to do good journalism because they could lose their jobs, their credentials, their contacts. It's hard to get a good job in the French press."
The close relationship between the French press and the government certainly isn't new. In the Seventies, when Harry Stein, author of How I Accidentally Joined the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy, was a young co-editor of the Paris Métro, a weekly English-language paper in Paris, he commissioned a piece examining why the French press had played dead after an important political figure, Jean de Broglie, had been murdered. "It should have been the Watergate of France," Stein said. Instead, the story was suppressed.
Stein's reporters found that journalists routinely were helped by the government to find cheap apartments, fix traffic tickets, get free transportation, gain entrance for their kids into prestigious schools. That relationship hasn't changed. Hertzberg was at the Métro in those days and remembers the story well. "Sometimes we had reporters from the French newspapers bring us stories they were afraid to show their editors," he said. He is so incensed over the treatment of Hertoghe that he has taken his complaint to Reporters sans Frontières, ostensibly a group dedicated to protecting journalistic freedom. He's received no reply.
Finally, not to be cruel, but perhaps the explanation is cultural. "Look, France is a country of compromise," one media executive told me. "It's the basis of this culture. Saying one thing, while doing another is a way of life here. Cynical behavior is seen as chic. To be called a cynic is to be given a compliment."
Blunden agrees. "The media took all their cues from Chirac and forgot the rules of their profession," he said. Chirac wanted the US to lose in Iraq, so "they reported this losing campaign, and even when, after six months, the facts proved them wrong, they did nothing to change their story. They made no effort to report the facts." Consequently, says Blunden, "France has the media it deserves [and] the French are absolutely unanimous on their opposition to the war in Iraq."
Whatever the explanation for the silence surrounding Hertoghe's claims, to Blunden and others, the instinct of the French press for herd protection is rooted in reality. Newspapers are not a big business in France. Nobody reads the things: in a nation with a population of 60 million or so, the largest paper is the liberal Le Monde, with a circulation of just over 400,000. Libération, predictably leftwing, but broadly speaking a better and more interesting paper, circulates less than half that. Most readers of Le Monde, the centrist Le Figaro and Libération are political partisans looking for a daily dose of validation, and the kind of faux-intellectuals who explain away French Muslim anti-semitism by blaming it on Israel. If you're French and you want the news, you turn on the TV. In my little village, the largest-selling paper by far is the daily sports rag. By contrast, Germany's national dailies have huge circulations. In Britain, the daily circulation of the Sun alone is more than twice the combined daily circulation of every major newspaper in France.
French newspapers, Blunden says, are the captives of one of the strongest unions in France, the Communist CGT, which, like an old-fashioned Italian fascist union, simply strongarms the papers for cash — a deal going back to the days following the liberation. "As a result, the press in this country has never had the money, never had the finances to become truly independent, because eating away at the bottom line was the need to write the unions this huge check." In addition, France is one of the few nations in the world where newsstand distribution is controlled by a monopoly, the NMPP. In other words, if French papers made money, Rupert Murdoch would own a few.
Hertoghe remains hopeful. "I did not think La Croix would fire me. But I am not a pessimist," he told me. "I am interested in seeing if this discussion [on French journalistic failures] will begin. And I am interested in knowing whether or not there is room for somebody like me in the French press."
Hertzberg: "This story is shameful, in terms of freedom of the press. If this goes down, then everybody will have learned the lesson: Shut up."
© National Review, January 09, 2004