Sunday, May 18, 2008

Journalism

A friend from Paris brought me a copy of Philippe Ridet's Le Président et moi, which I mentioned here a while back. I said then that the book might be worth reading. It isn't--not really, but it does stimulate one's thinking about why so much reporting on politics seems to miss the essence of the matter.

I should say first that if I criticize journalism, I am not simply returning Ridet's uncomplimentary remarks about bloggers. He calls us (p. 63) "the new ayatollahs of journalism, who imagine that journalists always write less than they know." This is something of an obsession with Ridet, who argues that of course journalists know many things about the people they cover that they don't write about, not because they're complicit with their subjects, subservient to their bosses, or tools of power but because some matters are publicly relevant and others not. He's certainly right about that, although he seems eager to undermine his own principles by revealing ex post in his book what he asserts it would have been unscrupulous to expose ex ante in his articles for Le Monde. So we have his eyewitness account of Sarkozy, while still interior minister and during the period of Cécilia's fugue, caressing the not unwilling hands of a female journalist from Le Figaro. The scene takes place in public, in a café frequented by the political class. It is an odd tryst, since Sarko is surrounded by his fawning staff and frequently absents himself to take cell phone calls regarding child care arrangements for little Louis; he has, moreover, invited Ridet, apparently to witness the fact that, despite his wife's having decamped, he is not deprived of female companionship.

Fine. Ayatollah or not, I can readily agree that none of this needed to be part of the public record at the time. Indeed, I would go farther than Ridet and say that none of it needs to be part of the public record now. That he chooses to make it so reflects, I think, a certain bitterness on his part at having allowed Sarkozy to exploit his, Ridet's, sense of professional duty to turn him into an involuntary voyeur. "I had indeed become a specialist in Sarkozy," he writes (p. 127). He is able, he says, to anticipate Sarko's reactions to events, to judge his responses, to predict his thoughts. He had come, in the course of ten years of covering the man, to know him better than he knew many of his own friends. He was an expert in Sarkozyan psychology, he claims, but it takes another journalist to ask him the key question that he seems never to have posed to himself: "Why, with Sarkozy, does everything come down to psychology?" His answers are not very persuasive: because Sarko links everything to himself; because he is not good at masking his emotions; because he mixes public and private; because he incites those who follow him to become close observers of his personality.

What is curious about these answers is that they transform journalistic objectivity into intellectual passivity. Ridet never asks himself why Sarko is allowed to define the way in which Le Monde covers him. He never asks himself why the subject of his coverage is "the minister of the interior" or "the head of the UMP" rather than, say, police policy in troubled suburbs or the social base of the French Center-Right. Having been assigned to cover Sarkozy apparently because Sarkozy is clearly a man to watch, Ridet, being a scrupulous reporter, naturally learns a great deal about his man, but there is little evidence in his book that he learned about anything else. He can judge how Sarkozy will react to events, but his understanding of his mission has given him no independent base of knowledge to judge whether those reactions are well-founded or not. It is as if his notion of journalistic objectivity itself precluded even an interest in such knowledge; he must not presume to know better than, or differently from, his subject but must confine himself simply to reporting what his subject does and says. In this he argues--rightly--that there is no complicity with power but only transparency. His job is to give us an undistorted window onto what power does.

Yet through his writing there creeps a certain bitterness and, even worse, an overpowering sense of boredom. The intellectual passivity to which his understanding of his job and its ethical requirements condemned him leaves him feeling underemployed. He has loitered in too many airport lounges and hotel bars (his descriptions of these places, intended to lend verisimilitude to his tale, convey a lassitude bordering on self-loathing). He applies to himself a version of the famous formula of Swann, that he has devoted the best years of his life to a politician who wasn't really his type, but he seems not to recognize that Swann's tragedy becomes in his case farce: Swann was at least the dupe of a passion, whereas Ridet has been a dupe of his lack of passion. Sarkozy's trop-plein has become his scribe's weary vide. Reading him, I feel not like an ayatollah bent on excommunication and damnation but like a bartender obliged to listen to the wan maunderings of a burnt-out hack.

Ridet is no longer covering Sarkozy. I hope he finds rejuvenation in his new assignment.

Ads

A reader informs me that one of the Google ads on the site recently offered "francophone girls" as "escorts." I have no control over the ads that appear, which are selected by Google on the basis of an analysis of the site's content, the location of the reader, and other unspecified factors. In fact, the ads you see are not always the same as the ads I see when I view the site, nor are they the same as the ads seen by any other reader. The ads do generate a modest (very modest) amount of revenue, which is some compensation for the time I invest in keeping things going, so I'm reluctant to remove them, but if I hear enough reports of offensive advertising, I will be forced to. In any case, I apologize for Google's apparent lapses.