Author sees anti-U.S. reporting

Posted in Iraq | 29-Dec-03 | Author: John Vinocur| Source: International Herald Tribune

Journalist fired for book critical of French newspapers

PARIS - Alain Hertoghe believes that in covering the Iraq conflict, French newspapers recreated "the war they would have liked to have seen." That meant concentration on the Vietnams and Stalingrads that didn't take place, he said, and so many more accounts of U.S. difficulties rather than advances that it was "impossible to understand how the Americans won."

For making assertions like these in a book called "La Guerre à Outrances," subtitled "How the press disinformed us on Iraq" and published by Calmann Lévy, Hertoghe was fired this month from his post as deputy editor at the Web site of La Croix, a respected Roman Catholic daily newspaper.

The newspaper's management justified the dismissal, Hertoghe said in an interview, by contending that the book demonstrated his opposition to La Croix's editorial line, damaged the reputation of the newspaper and the authority of its chief editors and questioned the professional ethics of some of the paper's staff members.

Hertoghe's book covers the performance of four national newspapers and France's largest regional daily over a three-week period in March and April. It contends that the coverage was ideological, in line with the French government's position opposing the United States, and that it was desirous of portraying a great catastrophe for the Americans.

Largely ignored in the newspapers that it finds at fault, the book fits into an emerging series of critical analyses in Europe of the European news media's treatment of the war. In Britain, attention has focused on what has been described as the British Broadcasting Company's biased position against British participation.

In Germany, an independent media watchdog group, Medien Tenor, has produced a report, to be released next month, on the performance of television reporting of the conflict in Germany, Britain, the United States and other countries. It focuses notably on Germany's two main state-financed channels, finding that the United States was treated negatively.

A draft of the report, underwritten in part by the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, says of the state networks: "After assuming a position of sharp criticism of American military actions, abandoned only after their increasing success, and after fixating on the Iraqis as suffering victims, they created a representation of the war in line with the position" of the German government. It continues, "Critical questions concerning the extent to which the unrelenting German position contributed to the escalation of the conflict were thus kept from public scrutiny."

Criticism by Iraqis and Americans of the war "dominated the coverage" of the ZDF state channel's main newscasts, the group said. America's decision to go to war, it said, was juxtaposed by German television, "with the supposedly unanimous opposition of the rest of the world."

But the dismissal of Hertoghe, 44, for making essentially the same characterization of the leading French newspapers, was unique.

A telephone call to the editor of La Croix, Bruno Frappat, requesting a comment on the firing was not returned.

"I was fired because I wrote a book they didn't like," Hertoghe said. "They think I hurt the paper, that I criticized it and hurt it - that's their position."

"I did not want to hurt La Croix's image and I don't think I did. I think La Croix participated in what was a collective slide, but the other papers were much greater disinformers."

Hertoghe's examination includes Le Monde, Le Figaro, Libération and Ouest-France as well as his own newspaper.

As an example, he compares headlines involving Saddam Hussein, President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain during the period. He said there were 29 clearly negative ones concerning Saddam, and 135 for Bush and Blair. The coalition leaders were routinely described, he says, as violent, imperialist, fundamentalist and unreasonable.

In the book, Hertoghe explains what he considers the press's unanimity not as the result of some kind of explicit understanding but coming from a combination of factors. He regards the single most cohesive element as French anti-Americanism.

The two other central motors, in Hertoghe's view, were France's nostalgia for its lost status as a great power and what he described as "the Arabophilia that reigns among France's deciders and in particular among the journalists specializing in this part of the world."

Hertoghe writes of these French journalists, "As a result of being permanently confronted with dictatorial, or at least authoritarian, states and abusive or even terrorist means, a kind of tolerance develops, which sometimes drifts into open complaisance."

Last week Hertoghe said that his "problem" was not "anyone's opinion on the war, but that there were no diverse and opposing views on its legitimacy. Readers were not offered a debate."

"What bothered me more," he continued, "was that reporting, when it was uncertain what was going on, fell into predictions of disaster because there were so many who wanted for everything to go wrong. As soon as there were problems on the ground for the United States, it was Vietnam."

Hertoghe said newspapers ignored reports from journalists traveling with U.S. forces, including those from Agence France-Presse, when they did not indicate insurmountable difficulties.

"The papers wanted disaster, and when the reporting didn't reflect it, they predicted it," he said.

"Le Monde went the furthest," he added. "I wrote that Le Monde became 'Saddam's Gazette.' It gave a picture from Baghdad of Saddam's units perfectly controlling the situation. The difference between Le Monde and Le Figaro was that Le Figaro insisted that American tanks would operate easily on Baghdad's wide streets."

"Then when the Americans made their move, we read how they were massacring the Iraqis. The explanation for the collapse was that Saddam's fedayeen had so much compassion for the population that they stopped fighting."

Despite the book's appearance under the imprimatur of a leading publisher, Hertoghe said he was invited to discuss it on only one radio and one television broadcast.

The only extensive review in print of the book, he said, appeared in a free newspaper available to commuters in Paris.

"I tried to be totally fair in writing this," Hertoghe said. "I thought that a journalist's conscience was more important to his newspaper than any other consideration it might have. I admit to having read my contract before the book appeared. But I never thought I would be fired."