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.
Being a French journalist means never having to say you’re sorry.
by Anne-Elisabeth Moutet
07/07/2008, Volume 013, Issue 41
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.