Friday, June 6, 2008

Villepin Attacks the Media

Dominique de Villepin has compared the French press to "cat food." He also likens its abjection during the presidential campaign to the abjection of the American media in the run-up to the war in Iraq. Finally, he claims that the press between the two World Wars was "infinitely more venomous, infinitely more courageous" than the press today.

That odd paratactic construction leaves it unclear whether Villepin considers venom to be the cause of courage, the consequence, or simply the accompaniment, the sauce to lend piquancy to the main dish. I wouldn't have thought the interwar French press could be held up as a model of anything other than corruption, venality, and vituperation. Think of the Stavisky Affair and its attendant revelations of journalists bought and paid for. Think of Albert Camus's wartime editorials lambasting the wretched newspapers for which he wrote before WW II.

That said, there is cause for concern about the state of the French press today. Many people would argue that it is biased. I think, rather, that the problem is superficiality. As far as one can judge from his own superficial critique, Villepin agrees: "After five minutes, there's nothing to read." If there were a culture of more thorough exploration and critique, bias could not thrive as readily as it does. I'm not sure that the financial crisis of the media is the whole story. The decline of the daily press seems to me to have deeper roots. As government became more technocratic and less literary, the technical competence of the press as of the public failed to keep up. The advent of television altered the affective relationship between political leaders and their constituents. The Internet provides space for more ample development at relatively low cost, but it also allows readers to tailor what they read to their tastes and therefore never to confront opposing views.

4 comments:

MYOS said...

I may be mistaken but I understood Villepin's sentence to mean "sure in the 30s the press sunk to lows we have not reached nowadays, but even back then it could also show guts that we can't find anymore when it comes to denouncing scandals".
Then again, Villepin tends to go for the long flourish and errr... I might thus have missed his point entirely. :)
I agree with you re: superficiality of the French press.
One other thing has struck me: all these journalists who "discovered" Sarkozy to be "unstable" (for lack of a better term - "aggressive", "unprepared", "impulsive" "teenageresque" wouldn't quite cover it...) could not miss his flaws while following him around thus they KNEW and said nothing, as if it were uncouth to mention some personality traits that might have been worth raising before the election. Not to dispute his undeniable qualities.
Another issue: it seems all journalists share the same sources and live in the same house, so rumors can be floated easily, people are convinced because they only hear the same thing all around them... This is a mere impression, I don't know whether it is objectively true.
An example: the ruckus around Delanoë as next opposition leader is confounding to me since here (in the provinces) he's really nothing more than a good guy over in Paris Whereas when I am in Paris I understand he's da-man for what he's done there. So it's as if the journalists think that what they hear in Paris is objective, as opposed to regional -- and this may help explain the bias that you're mentioning.

Alex Price said...

You don’t mention Villepin’s main point/charge, which is that there is an “esprit de cour,” due in part to the concentration of ownership in the hands of industrialists with their own political and economic agendas. I don’t have much of a sense of how true that is, though Sarkozy’s ability to pick up the phone and in a very public way get the editor of Paris Match fired because of a cover photo he doesn’t like doesn’t seem to have particularly disturbed the French, which seems extraordinary to me. As an American living in the US, I am more sensitive to the American media’s relationship with the Bush administration, to which the expression “esprit de cour” seems to apply perfectly. That the most effective popular critics of the administration are comedians (Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert) is a sign that something has gone wrong. I share Al Gore’s take (yes, Al Gore) on the anti-democratic effect of television. Perhaps the Internet’s splintering effect is to blame, I don’t know. But the economic threat it poses to print media does seem a likely factor: it’s hard to be brave when every day brings evidence of greater commercial fragility. To me the superficiality you speak of is a symptom of this fragility and timidity.

Unknown said...

Yes, good points.

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