Rating Facts far below Reputation: Insights into the French Intellectual Scene and the al Durah Affair

Anne-Elisabeth Moutet is one of the people I have consulted with often in the course of working on al Durah. I cite her a number of times anonymously in my essays in France, including one of the most striking comments: “In France no one apologizes publicly for a mistake. It’s considered a sign of weakness.” Now she brings her formidable capacities to bear on the al Durah affair. Knowing two thirds of the people who signed the Nouvel Obs petition, she called them up and asked why they had done it. The result… a pathetic and hilarious insight into the corporatist mentality of the French intellectual elite — Jewish and non-Jewish. This may be the best piece on the French cultural context of the al Durah affair.

L’Affaire Enderlin
Being a French journalist means never having to say you’re sorry.

by Anne-Elisabeth Moutet
07/07/2008, Volume 013, Issue 41
Paris

To understand the al-Dura affair, it helps to keep one thing in mind: In France, you can’t own up to a mistake. This is a country where the law of the Circus Maximus still applies: Vae victis, Woe to the vanquished. Slip, and it’s thumbs-down. Not for nothing was Brennus a Gaul. His modern French heirs don’t do apologies well, or at all if they can possibly help it. Why should they? That would be an admission of weakness. Blink, and you become the fall guy.

So, in the case of Muhammad al-Dura-a 12-year-old Palestinian boy allegedly killed by Israeli fire during a skirmish in the Gaza strip on September 30, 2000-it was not really to be expected that the journalist who released the 59-second news report, Charles Enderlin, longtime Jerusalem correspondent for France 2 TV, would immediately admit having hastily slapped together sensational footage supplied by the channel’s regular Palestinian stringer, and not checked whose bullets had, in fact, killed, or perhaps even not killed, the boy.

[snip]

Meanwhile, Enderlin and his bosses at the state-run France 2, who had distributed their news item free worldwide, were refusing to answer questions. They flatly declined to provide the complete 27 minutes of footage taken that afternoon by the cameraman, or to concede any possible error, ping-ponging in the classical obfuscating pattern of bureaucracies everywhere. (“It’s not the crime, it’s the cover-up” hasn’t yet made it to France.) It took two years for Enderlin to give his first interview, to a friendly colleague, Elisabeth Schemla, the respected editor of the Proche-Orient.info website and a former L’Express associate editor, in the course of which he confused “protecting one’s sources” with not providing the tape. (Personal disclosure: I was at the time deputy editor of Proche-Orient.info.)

Even an hour-long documentary produced in 2002 by the award-winning German broadcaster Esther Schapira, who works for German state television’s First Channel, failed to make a dent in the stance of France 2. While purposely keeping away from more controversial theories, Schapira’s work comprehensively put paid to the “Israeli bullets killed Muhammad al-Dura” theory. Asked by Schemla why French television would not broadcast Schapira’s film, Enderlin stonewalled: “I don’t decide what the channel runs. I have bosses, there are people above me in charge  .  .  .  a professional hierarchy.”

This is the universe that I ran into when dealing with this issue. And then I’d come back to BU and be informed by my colleagues that the European press was far superior to the American. Why? Because it’s not so parochial.

[snip]

The Figaro piece [by Jeambar and Leconte] had little impact when it was published, but it turned out to be one of the crucial elements in Karsenty’s challenge to France 2′s version of events. He won his appeal. The ruling, handed down on May 21, stated that he had acted in good faith as a media commentator and that he had presented a “coherent body of evidence,” although the hoax could not be definitively proven. The judge also noted “inexplicable inconsistencies and contradictions in the explanations by Charles Enderlin,” whose appearance in court was his first sworn testimony in the matter.

You might think Enderlin’s professional standing would have been damaged by all this. You would be wrong. In less than a week, a petition was whipped up by his friends at Le Nouvel Observateur, France’s premier left-wing newsweekly. The petition conceded no gray areas, no hint of doubt. It called Karsenty’s vehemently argued but exhaustively documented stance a “seven-year hate-filled smear campaign” aimed at destroying Enderlin’s “professional dignity.” It flatly stated in the opening paragraph that Muhammad al-Dura was killed “by shots coming from the Israeli position.” It expressed rank astonishment at a legal ruling “granting equal credibility to a journalist renowned for his rigorous work, and to willful deniers ignorant of the local realities and with no journalistic experience.” It professed concern about a jurisprudence that would — shock! horror! — allow “anyone, in the name of good faith and of a supposed right to criticize and so-called freedom of speech, to smear with impunity the honor and the reputation of news professionals.”

There followed the names of over 300 journalists — sorry, “news professionals” — and hundreds more miscellaneous celebrity intellectuals (under the heading “Personalités“), as well as a vast slew of mere web surfers (“Internautes“). Note, here again, that while the journalists were listed in apparently neutral alphabetical order, the managing editor of a provincial news conglomerate cheek by jowl with a lowly travel magazine stringer — the key distinction between pros and outsiders was maintained. It was as if the eight-year controversy had been irrelevant. From “news professionals,” who were viewed as right by definition, no accountability could possibly be required. The guild was closing ranks.

Scanning the long list (to which new signatures are added daily at the Nouvel Obs website), I experienced a kind of life-flashing-before-my-eyes moment. There were the names of people from every magazine or newspaper I’d ever worked at; people I’d trained with; people I’d been great pals with before life packed us off in different directions; and people I’d last seen only the week before. It was, to tell the truth, Stepford-like scary.

I resolved to call as many of the familiar names as I could. I knew, or thought I knew, where these people came from. Why had they signed? It might be awkward to ask, I reasoned, but wasn’t it our business to ask questions?

As it turned out, it was plenty awkward. I came to recognize the moment when, after the “voice-from-your-past” greetings and the “where-are-you-now” fat-chewing and the nostalgic memories of past editors, colleagues, competitors, copy-takers (“all done by computer now, nobody to tell you you’re not making sense!”), I got around to the subject at hand. As I started explaining that I was writing a piece on the al-Dura affair and was wondering why they had signed the petition, I learned to recognize the telltale pause, the “Good Lord, she’s caught Scientology! She’s gone over to the crazies!” moment, after which the whole object of the exercise would become to hang up on me as fast as possible.

[snip]

There was the noted Paris-based former Washington Post foreign correspondent, 75-year-old Jon Randal, a Middle East expert I’d looked up to for years as a cub reporter, who trenchantly explained that he was seeing in all this a dangerous American trend of “vindictive pressure groups interfering with news organizations,” now unfortunately crossing the Atlantic. (Having lived in Paris for over 40 years, Jon had become alarmingly French.)

“Americans have been under the gun of such people for some time, but France used to be free of this kind of thing. [These groups] are paranoid, they’re persistent, they never give up, they sap the energy of good reporters. I can’t imagine how much money France 2 has spent defending this case. Charles Enderlin is an excellent journalist! I don’t care if it’s the Virgin Birth affair, I would tend to believe him. Someone like Charles simply doesn’t make a story up.”

But, I tried to interject, the absence of the boy’s “agony” from the tape?-

“Nonsense! Televisions don’t show extreme violence. You know that. Look, I don’t know what side you’re on in this?”

“I’m trying to make sense of it all.”

[snip]

Similarly, there was the seasoned reporter from Le Figaro who thought Charles Enderlin, quite simply, was the best reporter operating in the Near East today. “These people, the ones attacking him, they’re extreme rightists, yes? You can’t take anything they say seriously.” I conceded that the hoax wasn’t proven, but that the shots had in all likelihood come from the Palestinian side. Esther Schapira  . . .  There was a sniff. “Pas très sérieuse, non?”

“Well, actually,” I said, Schapira had just received the 2007 Europa Prize for her documentary on the murder of Theo van Gogh and been nominated for the 2008 Banff Television Awards. There was a small noise of well-bred surprise. All the same, nothing he’d heard until now had remotely convinced him or was likely to change his mind.

Then there was someone who insisted so vehemently on not being quoted or described in any way that I won’t even reveal this person’s sex. “Look, this whole thing has been a nightmare for Charles. He’s received hate mail, his wife has been threatened, he’s about to have a nervous breakdown. You want the truth? I don’t give a flying monkey about the case. I signed for Charles. In all honesty, I think he edited his film on deadline and was careless, and afterwards he didn’t want to admit he’d screwed up. A one-minute film, and it snowballed from there. Don’t put in anything that might identify me, I don’t want him to think I don’t believe 100 percent in what he says, he’d be devastated.”

This, at least, was bluntly honest. Jean-Yves Camus, the political scientist and expert on radical Islam, with whom I’d worked at Proche-Orient.info, was another unrepentant signatory, one who didn’t mind being quoted. “Do I think Charles Enderlin lost a good opportunity to own up to a mistake early in the day, and spare himself this anguish? Of course. You know how we work in a hurry? Guy sends him pictures from Gaza, tells him the Israelis shot the kid, he believes him — I mean, even the Israeli Defense Forces spokesman believed it! But you can’t own up one, two years after the fact. It’s too late, it would mean you abdicate. It’s a nice job Charles has, he’s nearing retirement age. I don’t think he wanted to rock the boat. You know Charles, he’s always been status-conscious; he likes being the France 2 man in Israel. Plus, these people behind their computers, they’re not real journalists, are they? You can’t come from your day job and blog at night and imagine you’ve become a reporter. It doesn’t don’t work like that. There are standards.”

Still, I asked, why sign a text adamantly asserting the dangerous notion that Muhammad al-Dura had been shot by the Israelis if you don’t believe it?

“I was asked to. It was to support Charles. Did you know his wife is Danielle Kriegel? Daughter of Annie Kriegel [a great anti-Communist academic, now dead], sister of Blandine [a philosopher and a former Chirac aide at the Elysée palace], sister-in-law of Alexandre Adler [Blandine's husband, who writes about geostrategy and politics in most French quality newspapers, perennial guest on highbrow talk-shows].”

With all those credentials, the cloud of respectability surrounding Charles Enderlin was reaching pea-soup opacity. I tried one last time.

“Couldn’t you have asked for the wording of the petition to be amended? Or started your own petition?” It would have been, Camus told me in the tone of someone who had too much on his plate to busy himself with ancillary details, “too complicated.” We made a date for lunch two weeks hence and hung up.

At the other end of the scale, there was the rather intimidating star lawyer Theo Klein, getting on in years, who 20 years ago had been the president of CRIF, the official umbrella representative body of French Jews. I called him and reminded him that he’d been kind enough to invite me to his 1989 French Revolution Bicentennial party. (His office was on the Champs-Elysées, and it was the dream vantage point from which to watch the Jean-Paul Goude-designed parade and listen to Jessye Norman, draped in a giant French flag, belting out the “Marseillaise.”) Theo Klein took my call pleasantly and dove into the thick of the matter.

“Well, perhaps the bullets were not Israeli after all, but if something was set up, I’m sure Charles had nothing to do with it. He is a remarkable journalist. I respect him, and I’m sure this matters more than whether a bullet came from the right or from the left. After all, many Palestinian children have been killed in the Intifada. You know, the Israelis haven’t made half the noise about this that some French Jews have.” He was outraged, outraged by the court ruling.

The daughter and granddaughter of lawyers myself, I gently reminded him that it wasn’t done in France to criticize a court ruling. He changed the subject as if stung. “Really, I find deplorable that people are hounding Charles Enderlin like that. He has suffered, really suffered. And his poor wife.  .  .  .  They wanted to emigrate to America at one stage, do you realize?”

Well, I suggested, Americans were actually rather big on correcting reporters’ mistakes.

“Surely not after so much time?”

Even after a long time. Corrections were duly appended to stories on the websites of newspapers, to prevent the eternal metastasizing of factual errors. Maître Klein marvelled for a moment at such thoroughness. It seemed, I could tell, a little pointless to him: He, like almost everyone else I’d spoken to, rated facts far below reputation. Still, I decided to go over that ground one last time. Wasn’t there some doubt about the actual fatal shot? Why sign this text?

“My dear,” Theo Klein said, in an infinitely weary voice, “I’m not a journalist. I haven’t read this petition. I have macular retina degeneration. I can no longer read.”

And he can no longer look at evidence either.

Read the whole article: every word counts.

30 Responses to Rating Facts far below Reputation: Insights into the French Intellectual Scene and the al Durah Affair

  1. rl says:

    anonymous email to me:

    Being French means never having to say you’re sorry. Or ever having to be grateful. This is a terrific article and deserves reprinting again and again. A lesson in ethics. And a warning to the journalistic profession. Why should anyone believe anything they write? The Palestinians and Arabs know better.

    Only the smart Jews think that credulity equals credibility and that gullibility is proof of virtue. Or that Palestinians want to live in peace with their Jewish brothers.

  2. expat says:

    This is a fantastic, extremely interesting (and extremely well-written) article. Thank you Anne-Elisabeth Moutet.

  3. Cynic says:

    “In France no one apologizes publicly for a mistake. It’s considered a sign of weakness.”

    Does that explain the rapport they have with the other “Honour – Shame” culture? :-)

  4. oao says:

    cynic,

    you just took the words out of my mouth

  5. Richard Landes says:

    oao you just took the words out of my mouth. i think French culture may rank the highest in “honor-shame” terms of all democratic cultures. but then again, i may be wrong.

    ultimately, with its origins in moral Schadenfreude, i think most of the unhinged anti-Zionism on the left is a sign of wounded pride.

  6. oao says:

    my, oh, my, how affected are these caviar leftists by the suffering of enderlin. it never occurs to them to consider the fate of the israelis and jews who were killed because of what he did.

    again, utter lack of intellect and real notion of morality. and they want to be taken seriously. some of them signed without a clue as to the issues.

  7. lgude says:

    Cynic’s question raises a smile, but I see a lot of similarity between Dan Rather’s response to getting caught out and Enderlin’s. Both, I think it is fair to say, knew they had a scoop that could change history and failed to exercise due diligence. In part, I believe, because the story fit their preconceived notions and in part because they felt they had the right to mold public perceptions. I am not sure that either of them knew fully they were publishing highly questionable material. What they have in common in my mind is the sense of outraged entitlement when questioned which, I believe, is a product of the monopoly control of the narrative enjoyed by press elites in the 20th century. That monopoly is conferred by the technological structure – one to many – of mass media whether print, radio or TV. The Internet breaks that monopoly, even though regular journalists played an important role in both cases. I believe the blogosphere makes a decisive difference because it makes an expose much harder to suppress. For one thing it makes the material needed to research the story ridiculously easy to get hold of. CBS put the memos on their website. Augean stables and Second Draft make the source footage available 24/7. For another it gives anyone with the knowledge and expertise to contribute to the debate the ability to publish. Typographical experts in Rathergate, RL and others in the al Durah affair. Still, Moutet’s article exposes very real differences between the French and American intelligencia. Rather didn’t sue his critics; he sued his bosses. And America’s elite journalists didn’t close ranks behind Rather either.

  8. abu yussif says:

    quote:

    “Really, I find deplorable that people are hounding Charles Enderlin like that. He has suffered, really suffered. And his poor wife….”

    so it’s all about charles enderlin, and not the suffering he has personally caused all over the planet. bless his heart.

  9. Richard Landes says:

    response to lgude:

    excellent compare and contrast. i think that it shows that individual journalists (in this case Rather and Enderlin) respond similarly to public humiliation (we all do), but that in American culture, that’s not an acceptable response, whereas in France, the in-crowd quickly closes ranks.

    one of the striking things about Thierry Meyssan’s 9-11 conspiracy theory is that he imagines that bush could in a matter of 9 months, plan a massive conspiracy that called for the cooperation and/or silence of tens of thousands both inside and outside the govt. i think the “believability” of that theory was high in france where such a conspiracy of silence is actually something of a norm.

  10. Cynic says:

    it never occurs to them to consider the fate of the israelis and jews who were killed because of what he did.

    oao,
    They are just so insincere and hypocritical that they cannot even consider the collateral damage and deaths among the Palestinians over whom they cry rivers of crocodile tears when it suits them.

  11. Barry Meislin says:

    Oh please.

    The broadcast achieved what it was meant to. Beyond Enderlin’s wildest expectations….

    Case closed.

  12. Joanne, says:

    I think it’s very bad form to defend Enderlin by insulting those who have challenged him. Those doubting Enderlin were not fringe right-wing nuts, yet that’s how the signatories paint them. Even if you’re inclined to believe someone at first, your ultimate conclusion should be based on the evidence, not on who’s presenting the evidence.

    After reading Moutet’s article, I’m also amazed about the ignorance of the signatories she interviewed. They didn’t know much, and they didn’t care to know much. Some didn’t even feel comfortable explaining their signatures; they just avoided Moutet. That makes me wonder how many of those who signed did so because of peer pressure, i.e., to maintain their reputation among their colleagues.

  13. oao says:

    i think French culture may rank the highest in “honor-shame” terms of all democratic cultures. but then again, i may be wrong.

    no, you’re not.

    ultimately, with its origins in moral Schadenfreude, i think most of the unhinged anti-Zionism on the left is a sign of wounded pride.

    yes, but they don’t have the intellect to overcome their pride. and that’s because they at some level realize that if they admit it they lose their main asset: their moral high ground. and without that they are nothing.

  14. oao says:

    lgude,

    true, but the blogosphere is a two edge sword: it also CAUSES some of the problems faster than the MSM.

  15. oao says:

    They are just so insincere and hypocritical that they cannot even consider the collateral damage

    methinks it has also something to do with lack of intellect.

  16. oao says:

    Even if you’re inclined to believe someone at first, your ultimate conclusion should be based on the evidence, not on who’s presenting the evidence.

    hence my comment that nowadays output is judged on reputation instead of the correct other way around.

    why nowadays? that’s been the norm throughout history, rarely defied by civil societies. it’s the gravitational pull of any culture — go with the opinion of those you trust. if we defy it even once a decade, but when it’s impt, then we can consider ourselves lucky. -rl

  17. Zeph says:

    It professed concern about a jurisprudence that would — shock! horror! — allow “anyone, in the name of good faith and of a supposed right to criticize and so-called freedom of speech, to smear with impunity the honor and the reputation of news professionals.”

    Does this equally apply to Jacques LeFranc and the editors of Charlie Hebdo or simply to “news professionals”? After all, the same argument is used by Islamists in Eurpoe against the Mohammed Cartoons! If I were French, I would certainly start making emergency exit plans to escape from the utopia where such thoughts receive commendations from the ‘elite’!

  18. Zeph says:

    Correction!
    The second paragraph in the above comment should be read
    as:

    Does this equally apply to Jacques LeFranc and the editors of Charlie Hebdo or simply to “non-news professionals”?

  19. E.G. says:

    It’s the accountability, Wise! ;-)

  20. oao says:

    why nowadays? that’s been the norm throughout history, rarely defied by civil societies. it’s the gravitational pull of any culture — go with the opinion of those you trust. if we defy it even once a decade, but when it’s impt, then we can consider ourselves lucky. -rl

    true. what i meant to say is that with the collapse of education this is nowadays the almost EXCLUSIVE approach.

    If I were French, I would certainly start making emergency exit plans to escape from the utopia where such thoughts receive commendations from the ‘elite’!

    ah, but because you’re not you don’t realize perhaps is that being french means exactly they can do anything to you and you still think there is no other place like france. that’s what the elite exploits.

  21. E.G. says:

    it never occurs to them to consider the fate of the israelis and jews

    In their mindset, Israelis and Jews are strong, while all others are weaker (on whatever aspect but the moral one). Their fate is thus appropriate – if considered at all. For if the strong don’t give up their strength – they’re automatically responsible for the consequences.

  22. lgude says:

    Yes oao I agree, both good and bad things happen faster on the Internet. Like conspiracy theories metastasizing. Or ‘The Protocols’ finding a whole new audience longing to believe bad things about Jews. It is a very different playing field than one to many mass media – it’s many to many and we don’t fully understand the new rules. I think Israel is playing by 20th century mass media rules when it takes the position that the less said about al Durah the better. Karsenty, RL, et al making an issue of it on their blogs is angering our minders like Enederlin as well as confusing the onlookers by disturbing their perception of who is the villain in the great drama we call the news. It would be funny if it were not so deadly serious.

  23. andrew says:

    Honor-shame, as one of the essential components of the
    French political and media mentality ? By all means.
    Only thinking of the Middle East, one may remember the number of times we have heard that ”la paix ne se fera
    pas sans la France” (no need to translate, I assume).
    Probably originally meant as the simple obvious affirmation that nothing of consequence could happen in the world without the French being at the origin of it (for the benefit of French-reading onlookers, let us
    quote Cocteau: ”ces choses-la nous depassent, feignons d’en etre les organisateurs !”), this concept soon evolved into a ferocious, often successful, attack against any American-inspired progress: after peace with Egypt had been obtained, the only reaction of the then president Giscard d’Estaing was that this did not help in any way towards the solution of the genuine question, which
    was the Paestinian one. When (an event concomittant with the al-Durra report), Ms Albright, in Paris, had almost, with considerable difficulty, obtained from Arafat the signature which might have helped prevent the start of the new intifada, Chirac convinced Arafat not to sign.

  24. old thumbs says:

    [...] essays in France, including one of the most striking comments: ???In France no one apologizes publhttp://www.theaugeanstables.com/2008/06/28/rating-facts-far-below-reputation-insights-into-the-frenc…Romania allows 11-yr-old rape victim to have abortion Express IndiaA Romanian government committee [...]

  25. newspaper delivery in District of Columbia…

    [...] a big, hungry country which cannot grow enough to feed itself, could be in trouble. The front pages of Manila’s newspapers scream about a “rice crisis”, as politicians float drastic solutions, such as forcing the country’s [...]…

  26. [...] Some (how many?) of the journalists who signed are guilty of the same shoddy work; and many (most?) never saw the evidence before signing. Indeed, an Italian journalist who’s preparing a piece on this affair told me recently that [...]

  27. [...] Having spoken with many journalists who agree Enderlin’s wrong, but that it’s not worth saying it publicly, I’d venture to say that there’s a double piece of self-interest at work here: On the one hand, protecting a colleague should, in principle, mean that one will be protected in a similar situation. The whole idea behind guild or corporatism is that it’s my side right or wrong, which explains why so many people signed the petition for Charles without even looking at the eviden…. [...]

  28. [...] evidence as conspiracy, without looking at the evidence. This was certainly true for a number of foolish “friends of Charles” who signed his petition of support after his loss to Karsenty in appeals court, who just assumed they could trust [...]

  29. […] Some (how many?) of the journalists who signed are guilty of the same shoddy work; and many (most?) never saw the evidence before signing. Indeed, an Italian journalist who’s preparing a piece on this affair told me recently that […]

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