Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Same world, different news?

Despite the ease and economy of reading news on line, I often find that I read it better, or at least more thoroughly, when I read it on paper. So yesterday I bought the print edition of Le Monde.

Pages 1 and 2 had a series of headlines and articles about Iraq. The headlines included the following (all translations are mine):

1. “L’Irak au bord de la guerre civile entre chiites et sunnites” (“Iraq on the verge of civil war between Shiites and Sunnis”). This article explains that several members of the Iraqi parliament have these fears, and one, a Shiite MP, said that if the principal Sunni party “refuses to form a common front with the Shiites, I am sorry to say that a civil war is fast approaching. I solemnly ask all Sunni organizations to be in the same trench as we are. Those who keep quiet are accomplices to the crimes, and we cannot limit ourselves to simply issuing press releases denouncing them.” Indeed, them’s fightin’ words.

2. “Le retrait annoncé des troupes britanniques” (“Britain planning for troop withdrawal”) In this article, which contains lots of verbs in the conditional, a French tool for introducing doubt or uncertainty into the statement, even when there is no clear “condition”, the UK Minister of Defence is quoted as saying that his government is eagerly awaiting the day when Iraqi forces can take control of the country and UK forces can leave, but this cannot happen overnight and will begin only over the next 12 months. The article also cites a confidential ministry memo that allegedly says UK forces could be reduced by more than half between now and mid-2006. (Note that a “retrait annoncé” does not necessarily mean that Great Britain “announced a withdrawal”, which would be a much stronger statement.)

3. “Plus de 5 000 soldats américains accusés de désertion depuis 2003” (“More than 5,000 American soldiers accused of desertion since 2003”). When you click on the link, you’ll see that this provocative page-1 headline was actually not the title of the article itself on page 2. Anyway, the article recounts the misadventures of American soldiers, focusing especially on extreme cases, who, on leave in the States, do not want to return to Iraq. Apparently, some have gone so far as to mutilate or wound themselves so as to be unfit for service.

4. “Les manoeuvres de George Bush” (“George Bush’s maneuvers”). This article refers to the latest helping from Seymour Hersh over at the New Yorker and makes for fascinating reading in its own right. It’s about how the Bush administration tried – at least to influence, at worst to rig – the January 30 Iraqi election.

I didn’t see headlines with similar titles anywhere in the New York Times online edition of the same day (or today). Maybe it was buried somewhere, or maybe the stories appeared in other publications.

If not, this would be an example of why French people think the US media are cowed into a government-supporting position. Of course, it could also be an example of how French media are cowed into an anti-American position. Or it could be an isolated example taken from two isolated newspapers on a single, isolated day.

However, I think there’s more to it than that. I think there is a tendency in many of us to take a news report emanating from another country and generalize the point of view implicit in it to the point of view of all news reports emanating from that country. On the other hand I also think the range of public opinion that is evident when you are inside a given country appears to contract as you recede from it. Like the features of the Earth blurring into something relatively homogeneous when viewed from a spaceship receding from it, American journalism, in the mainstream media anyway, appears to have a common thread, if not a common base, when viewed from over here. There is a common set of assumptions and taboos. There is a common way of reporting an event. Again, the same is true of French media viewed from the USA.



At 6:55 PM, Anonymous Jeff Z said...

Your take on the differnces between French and the US news is dead right, although I actually have come to a different conclusion: I find the French mass media to be rather more narrow and confomrist than the US. I will be the first to admit, though, that since I barely speak French and read it with difficulty, my data is limited to reading mainly in translation and watching an English-subtitled French newscast for a half-hour most nights. So, I'll stay off comparing to anything besides what you have mentioned, though I have to say that the ability of French television to report any US story in the most cartoonish and caricatured manner is really pretty funny and has helped me understand French opinion better. It has certainly made me a feel a bit less ridiculous about "Freedom Fries."

To deal with your new stories in order.

1)There is a tremendous amount of news in the US about the Shiite-Sunni problem, but it is, frankly, more penetrating and complex. The average American who follows this story (many don't, of course) would know that:

a) This "civil war" is centuries old, and continued non-stop under Sadaam, who had simply won it for the Suuni side.

b) The current stage of the civil war is not really Sunni-Shiite, but Sunni-Sunni, the majority of whom wish to cooperate with Shiites and the Kurds (remember them?). This is where I think the French media really seems uninterested. The last few days NYT has had stories about the assasination of two Sunnis who were working on the new constitution and the (quite understandable) withdrawal of the other Sunnis working on it unless they were guaranteed protection from their Sunni brethren.

c) There is a tremendous amount of reporting in numerous newspapers about local soldiers returning from Iraq, whose stories differ greatly from the official didacticpessimism of the mass media. They are linked to all over the web. Also, many soldiers in Iraq and Iraqis themselves keep weblogs. Even those Americans who only read the local paper have a perspective that those who rely only on large media outlets do not get.

2)The British withdrawal story is older news here, and broke on July 11th ( The US and UK confirmed that the memo was authenitc, but claim that it was was only one of several options being considered depending on local conditions.

3)The spectacular aspects of the desertion story have been reported, i.e. the dramatic ones you referred to, such as self-wounding, particularly on several big "60 MInutes" segments, but the number of desertions has not, simply because they are not at a much higher rate than before 2001. (Interestingly, the big increase (300%!) in the desertion rate came between 1995 and 2000, and was attributed to the exploding economy being such a more lucrative alternative. (Except in a combat situation, desertion is usually punished by an immediate general (meaning less than honorable) discharge.)) The desertion rate increase since 9/11 is actually quite small. Then, of course, there was the 7/17 story on how the Army's re-enlistment goals are far above goal (, but you probably already knew that, since it was front page news in Le Monde, right?

4)This is a new story, and Hersh is such an erratic reporter, that I look forward to seeing informed commentary about it. I don't see that there's much to it, however. The first half deals with something that was considered, but in the end not acted upon. There is a short second part that says that the US did seem to spend some covert money,but that there were numerous parties and at least one foreign country also working to, er, extralegally influence the election in far more profound ways than the US ws doing; that the US candidate didn't get much of a vote regardless; and that the Shiites were going to win anyway. Finally comes a long third part, a summary of wire and other news reports from the last year and a half. Aside from the short and vague report that there seems to have been some covert US funding of Allawi, which is completely unsurprising and seems to have had little influence, and that much less than the activities of the Kurds and Iranians, there does not seem, to me, to be a lot of there there.

The thing that most surprises me about the French media that I have access to (which may be why I believe this) is how pro-government, or at least, pro-French they are.

Anyway, you probably got a lot more than you bargained for here, but I'm having one of my endless phone conferences today, which I have to attend, but really have nothing to contribute to more than once every forty-five minutes or so.

Have a great summer!

At 12:38 AM, Blogger Steve said...

For the first year so after I moved to France, I was regularly amazed at how distorted any reporting about the United States was. Since then, I have either a) become inured to it, b) moved closer to a middle-of-the-road French point of view (i.e. radical leftist fanatic by US standards), c) forgotten what things are really like back in the US or d) all of the above. Now I find myself reacting to US mainstream media, especially TV news – sometimes, not always – the way I did to its French counterpart in 1989.

I would have to agree that there is probably less of a range of opinion in French media. Historically so much of the country has been State-run or heavily State-influenced that it was hard to depart from the norm. Despite recent diversity, it still is. But the US media are not immune to government-aping either, the most recent example being WMD. They were so mesmerized by the relentless drumbeat the Bush Administration kept up on the topic in 2002-03 that they lost perspective on the whole issue, which major newspapers like the NYT and Washington Post later admitted.

As to your comment about Freedom Fries, maybe I’m extrapolating too far, but it seems you’re saying that seeing distortion abroad makes you more comfortable about it at home.

I recognize that many of the stories I cited were not “news” in the sense that they hadn’t broken that day, specifically the “civil war” and the “desertion” stories. What struck me most was the confluence of them on the same page of the same day’s edition of the newspaper. In the US, Le Monde would be so far out in left field as to be shinnying up the foul pole, but here it is a mainstream publication. It seemed like provocation, although I doubt the average French reader saw it that way.

Thanks for the link to the article about Army recruitment and re-enlistment. It says that re-enlistments are about 6% ahead of target for the moment. Apparently, this is at least partly due to bonuses that are offered, some tax free. I’m not sure I’d call that “far ahead” of goals. Also, according to the article, this success has not erased the overall shortfall in recruiting, which is expected to be 15% behind target. So it’s a little like saying that we expected General Motors to lose $100 million this quarter. They only lost $70 million, so it was a good quarter.

The Hersh story, as with many that appear in the New Yorker, doesn’t have a clear indictment to it. I see it more as a survey of the various methods, legal and illegal, the Bush administration use to influence the election. He says they had such tunnel vision they didn’t admit their candidate was going to lose badly, so their efforts were not very effective. But that doesn’t make them any less reprehensible. True, in the scheme of things, none of these machinations were that terrible. They didn’t lead to the deaths of tens of thousands of Iraqis.

Thanks for your comment, and by the way, I admire your double-tasking ability. I always end up doing this at midnight, when I should be sleeping. Good night!

At 5:53 PM, Anonymous Jeff Z said...

You are certainly right about the US media; I bow to no man in my contempt for the US media. It's opened up a whole new expanse of cheer that I can now be contemptuous of another country's media as well!

My favorite current media delight has to do with the Karl Rove revealing Valerie Plame's covert identity story, which is huge news here. The NYT has run a front page story almost every day, including today. Well, one aspect of this story has been forcing journalists to testify to learn the source of the leak. In fighting this, the NYT and every other major news organization has submitted a brief to the court. If you have five minutes, you should read it. The link is: (You may have to Copy and Paste this link into your internet address line.) While it is a 40 page PDF file, the first 23 pages (in roman numerals i-xxiii) can be skipped; it's just a list of the media organizations, including the NYT, submitting it. The next 15 pages,arab numerals 1-15 (pages 24-38 in the PDF file), are where the meat is. Don't let the 15 pages intimidate you. They are triple- spaced and in big print (I guess lawyers charge by the page, not the word). One page is equal to a normal paragraph. If you're really busy, just go to page 8 and read footnote 7 at the bottom of the page. It's only a few sentences long, but if you have been depending on the regular media coverage, your eyes will fall out (figuratively).

None of this really bothers me. I feel like I'm living in a Henry Fielding novel!

Other matters:

1) Re: Freedom fries. I don't feel more comfortable with distorted reporting in the sense that I'm more accepting of it; rather, that we're no worse than anyone else, i.e., we're all bozos on this bus.

2) I'm not saying that there aren't personnel problems in the military right now, just that it is a complicated picture and that the desertion story, without context, seems more alarming that it is.

3)I agree with you that that the US activity in the Iraq election is wrong, but in the context of all kinds of interference from numerous parties, in which the US's was modest and ineffective compared to most of the rest, such as the Baathists threatening to kill any Sunni who voted, I don't think its that big of a story.

4) Actually, I don't blame the media for the WMD stuff. Everybody, including Clinton, Gore, and the Democrats,plus all the major intelligence agencies, US and foreign, believed it. I don't see any dishonesty involved here. In the War Powers resolution, Bush and the Congress (both parties) made it clear that there were many reasons for going to war besides the WMD. (You know, ever since "Team America: World Police" I can't say or write "WMD" seriously without feeling ridiculous.)

Have a bon fin de semaine!


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