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December 5, 2003

Special to PressThink: Interview With Rodney Benson on Journalism, French and American Style

"After looking at how the French talk about their press, what stands out for me is how so much seems off limits for debate here." A scholar immersed in a comparative study of the French and American press unfolds some of the key differences.

Rodney Benson teaches in the Department of Culture and Communication at NYU. He received his PhD in sociology from the University of California at Berkeley. From 1999 to 2002, he taught at the American University of Paris and was a research associate with the Centre de sociologie européenne at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales. He is the author of numerous articles on the French and American press, also co-editor with Erik Neveu of the forthcoming Bourdieu and the Journalistic Field (Polity Press). He is currently writing a book comparing the French and American public spheres; and that is the theme of our interview.

PressThink: You are currently immersed in a comparative study of the French and American press, which to me means two different forms of press think, as well as two different media systems. But we know there is no way to understand the press in a given country outside its political culture and public institutions— as well as its history, inner struggles, social tensions, status system and so on.

A simple example from the United States would be how the use of experts (authorized knowers) in our journalism reflects deeply rooted ideas about knowledge, authority, and “value free”—technical, scientific—expertise, which may be seen in the American university system as well as our press system. There probably are some universals in journalism; and that’s an interesting puzzle in itself— to figure out what they might be. But the greater puzzle is: what’s especially French about the French press? And how is this related to public culture and the way they do politics there? Or to put it another way: What things strike you, an American observer, as significantly different in the way the Frogs have with journalism?

Rodney Benson: American journalists who work in Paris have told me they see the French press as much more openly opinionated. And for the most part, that’s true. Of course, journalistic viewpoints, especially those arising from newsroom routines and professional assumptions rather than personal prejudices, always enter news stories via the selection and emphasis that goes into the writing of any story, at The New York Times just as much as at Le Monde.

What’s different then is that the journalistic voice in the French press is more overt. This difference was obvious in my comparison of immigration news coverage between the mid-1970s and mid-1990s at The New York Times and Los Angeles Times versus the three major French dailies, Le Monde, Le Figaro, and Libération. And it was also confirmed in a subsequent study (with Dan Hallin of the University of California, San Diego) of a large random sample of political news stories, this time comparing just The New York Times, Le Monde and Le Figaro during the 1960s and 1990s. In this second study, we found that French news stories contained about three times as much interpretation and opinion as the American stories.

But the French stories offered more than just opinions, they also provided more background or contextual information than one generally finds in the American press. This mixing of context, interpretation and judgment within stories goes hand in hand with a more eclectic mixing of genres on any given page in a French national newspaper: not just breaking events, analyses and features, but humorous essays, word-for-word transcripts of interviews with intellectuals and activists (as well as the usual politicians), editorials and guest commentaries starting on the front page, even excerpts from editorials from other French and international newspapers.

One could say that we have this in America, too, with our opinion magazines like The New Republic, The Nation, The Weekly Standard, etc. But I think there is something to be said for these French dailies, which are neither simply information nor opinion, but a creative, lively mix of the two – and which, because they are more reasonably priced and widely distributed than small political magazines, do more to facilitate a truly national public debate of ideas.

PressThink: So the French press is more opinionated, the American press less so. In the French press the news is more likely to be contextualized, in the American press that is less likely. And in the French press there is a lively mix of genres and styles, while the American press is more segmented and “sectionalized.”

One conclusion you drew intrigues me. The French press does more to create “a truly national public debate of ideas.” There are lots of ways I can imagine that working. It could that there are just more ideas in the pages of the big newspapers—more debate, more “think” pieces, more philosophy woven into the news. It could be that the French press, more diverse ideologically, represents a range of views wider than an equivalent sampling of American news sources. So you get a richer debate. It could be that the role the press plays in Franco culture and politics is different, (maybe movers and shakers look to journalists for different things) and this is what allows it to facilitate a “truly national debate of ideas.”

On the other hand, it could be that the French press connects itself differently to the French public, and the tightness of that connection means a better debate. It also could be that “ideas” have a different standing in French society and politics, and the press reflects this feature of national life. Or maybe French journalists operate more like intellectuals themselves, leaning more to the engaged writer than the “straight” reporter side of things, and this greatly facilitates debate. Or maybe it’s the owners themselves and the way the press is financed, which allows for all this.

How do you explain your observation that the French press does more to support a serious national debate?

Rodney Benson: It is complex. France is different from the United States in a whole host of ways, and their respective press systems share in these differences. For one thing, the ideological spectrum of parties and voters is wider in France, and this diversity is reflected in a range of openly partisan (but no longer party-owned) newspapers. American journalists would say, well, the problem with this type of system is that given these open biases, you’d have to read all the newspapers to even have an approximation of the “truth” – the implication being that a good American newspaper would give all of it to you in one single sitting, which we know is not true.

In fact, each of these “biased” French newspapers, at least the most prominent of them, include within their pages virtually the full range of French political opinion. Sure, the socialists might be referred to with a sneer in the conservative columns of Le Figaro, but they are certainly not shut out entirely. Likewise, the center-left Le Monde has often presented the program of the far right, anti-immigrant Front National party in great detail – certainly, largely to smear the party as extremist, and probably even to stimulate sales (it’s the party that people love to hate) – but there it is in Le Monde, with its ideas introduced into the national public discourse.

Sociologist Herbert Gans, who wrote the classic newsroom organizational study Deciding What’s News, has said that the American press could do more to promote democracy if it were less concerned with objectivity, and more concerned with presenting multiple viewpoints. Well, the French press, both individual media outlets as well as the system as a whole, does seem to me to approach more closely this kind of a “multiperspectival” ideal.

Over the past year, Le Monde has suffered a barrage of criticisms from a variety of directions. But one criticism that I found curious came from the editor of a business magazine (Bernard Poulet, Le Pouvoir du Monde) who felt that too many articles in Le Monde were authored by intellectuals and other non-journalists. Yet from my American perspective, it is precisely this presence of voices other than journalists in the French press that seems valuable and worth emulating. We need good journalism, but we also need more than that, we need other ways of writing and thinking.

PressThink: One of the curious things about mainstream American journalists is the theory of politics they carry around in their heads. Now there is no one more instinctively hostile to a “theory” discussion than the hardboiled newsroom pro, often for good reason. But this can mean that his theory is latent, sitting there, undiscussed, under many layers of craft wisdom and routine.

Anyway, the standard theory goes like this. A self-governing people need reliable, factual information about what’s going on, especially within their government. News provides that. The citizen at home absorbs the news, and maybe an editorial or column, and then forms her opinions. On election day she carries the information she got from the press, plus opinions formed on her own, into the voting booth, where she operates the levers of democracy. And that’s how the system works. Perhaps the most concise statement of this theory is, “get both sides and decide for yourself.” What you decide is your opinion. Later on, you vote based on that. For both activities one needs to be informed.

Among other oddities, this theory says nothing about the most distinctive feature of American democracy, which is civil society, voluntary associations, and a participatory tradition that involves far more than voting once a year. Political parties are sometimes included in that too. Americans, with their life of “associations,” as De Tocqueville put it, have many other ways of being political. And maybe it’s those—not the annual ritual of voting—that connects the public to the press. But that would be a different theory. “People need information to participate effectively,” the standard view, vs. “people need to participate effectively; then they will seek information.” How does it work in France?

Rodney Benson: I don’t know that the public is more closely linked to the newspaper press in France than in the United States. In fact, newspaper readership, per capita, is much lower in France. French citizens seem both more and less engaged than Americans. Street protests and strikes are without a doubt more common in France. Voting turnout is generally higher. But actual membership in political parties or active involvement in associations in France is quite low.

I have to say I think the “supply-side” is important in itself. It’s important to make available quality information, analysis and debate, because that sets the tone for the rest of the media and political culture. In the U.S., does everyone read the New York Times? No, but almost all journalists do, and for better or worse, that shapes the kind of public debate in places where no one reads the Times. In France, the visibility of the elite national press is even more overt. The morning radio shows and the mid-day television news usually feature a quick summary of the lead stories and editorials in the national dailies.

Now where does this different emphasis come from? Absolutely, literature, philosophy, theory of all sorts, is much more prestigious in France than in the United States. President Mitterrand’s official photograph featured him with open book in hand (see Priscilla Parkhurst Clark’s Literary France). Can you imagine George W. Bush, or even Bill Clinton, presented in such a way? Prominent French journalists, including television anchors, often publish essays and fiction, rather than the non-fiction or memoirs more common among American journalists. So there are cultural differences, which really are differences in the history of institutions.

PressThink: So if differences in public culture come down to different national histories, what are the key markers in French history?

Rodney Benson: French journalism as a political force emerged much at the same time and in the same manner as its American counterpart, as the engaged activity of politician-printers during the late eighteenth century seeking to form a new kind of nation. But whereas the American press’s autonomy and conception of its mission grew in tandem with a democratic republic whose basic tenets were never in serious dispute, the French press was suppressed under monarchical or military rule — as were most other expressions of political and intellectual freedom — for most of the next century.

When it was finally granted a measure of autonomy from the state during the 1880s, the French press emerged in the context of a tenuous republican political consensus still very much threatened by anti-democratic currents on both the right (monarchists, and later fascists) and to a lesser extent on the left (communists, after 1920). Among these factions, there was very little mutual trust, and the press continued to be seen as an appropriate means, in which lies, bribes, and scandal were acceptable, to attain mutually exclusive political ends.

Because the parties themselves differed so fundamentally, the press was not allowed to avoid choosing sides and thus remained politicized even as it became more commercialized. This process repeated itself after World War II, when most of the major French newspapers were not allowed to reopen because of their collaboration with the pro-Nazi Vichy regime. In fact, the whole notion of a commercial press was discredited because of this collaboration, and this re-opened a new era for a partisan press, a press of opinion, and of non-conventional means of funding the press.

So this particular historical constitution of what the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu calls the journalistic “field” explains a great deal about the French press (as would a similar analysis of American journalism), and the way this field is shaped by both positive subsidies and negative sanctions by the state. These two factors – taken-for-granted ways of practicing journalism and the relation of the journalistic field to political power, both formal and informal – seem to me the most essential explanation, even more important than commercial pressures, which U.S. media critics especially emphasize.

PressThink: Well, they are not the only ones who do that. The French have been quite vocal in denouncing the hyper-commercialized culture they see coming from America. Indeed, this has been a major theme in Franco-American relations in recent years. Is journalism in France more insulated from the market, and is that a good thing?

Rodney Benson: Yes, the French press is less commercialized than the American press in many ways. Advertising makes up about 30 to 40 percent of revenues for French newspapers, versus twice that much for American dailies. Very few French media companies are traded on the stock market – and thus, they don’t face the same kind of pressures to maximize profit as their American counterparts. And while we celebrate the virtues of family-controlled newspapers such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the French daily Le Monde is effectively owned by the journalists who work there.

In recent years, Le Monde, in particular, has sought to become a more conventional commercial enterprise. Yet, the way that Le Monde has done so, only demonstrates again the powerful shaping power of the institutional and cultural environment in which it operates. Even while its editors (including a managing editor who is a well-known former Trotskyite activist) tip their hat to American-style “objective” reporting, they have actually increased the prominence of commentary and analysis in the newspaper. In other words, commercial pressures have not fundamentally transformed French journalism, but rather, have tended to intensify, or perhaps slightly distort, the pre-existing practices.

There is one long-standing way, though, that French commercial pressures are perhaps greater than in the United States, and that is in the realm of direct competition for readers. In the United States, the readership of the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and the New York Times, arguably the three most important U.S. general news dailies, hardly overlap at all. Moreover, most of their sales come from subscriptions. In France, the major national dailies (in addition to Le Monde and Le Figaro, most notably, Libération, La Croix, Le Parisien, L’Humanité and France-Soir) all compete directly, especially in the all-important Paris region. The majority of their sales are hard-won, every day, on the street. With our single-newspaper monopoly markets in the United States, we often assume that more competition would make a better press. This certainly isn’t always the case, as one can see from local television.

Likewise, in France, this intense competition leads to sometimes sensationalistic coverage of politics. There is possibly an even greater emphasis on uncovering political scandal (though not of politicians’ private lives, which remains off-limits there) in France today than in the United States. Many French elites, certainly government officials, are upset by these developments, since they have had such an easy ride for so long. So the public debate in France is often far from genteel and high-minded, and journalists are not above focusing on personalities.

Yet from a comparative perspective, there remains a passionate concern and an interest in ideas, that is altogether striking and different from what we generally find in the United States. The French case also shows that Habermas’s notion of the “public sphere”—in which cool, critical reason is supposed to replace emotion—sets up an impossible, perhaps even a negative ideal. In France, the public debate is substantive (as opposed to say, the British tabloids), but it is also charged with emotion. If you want public participation and interest, as well as idea-oriented debate, this is exactly the kind of press system you would want.

PressThink: Comparing both press practice and pressthink (the way journalists imagine their role, describe their work, define and discuss what they do) in the United States to the situation in France, what is the one thing American journalists would be wisest to learn from their French counterparts?

Rodney Benson: The French show that a journalism of ideas doesn’t have to be boring, in fact, the opposite! To my mind, tabloid-format newspapers like Le Monde and Libération mix genres that for too long have been kept distinct in the United States – the elite daily papers like the New York Times versus the best of the alternative weeklies like the Village Voice or the LA Weekly. Efforts by the Tribune Co. and Gannett to launch their own urban weeklies suggest an interest in new formats, but it’s unlikely that these ventures will break down this traditional separation between general news dailies and cultural news weeklies.

What I’m suggesting is that the U.S. mainstream press be more open to radically transforming its approach to design and story format. Why not publish more interview transcripts? Or run a guest commentary right alongside the related news article? Times editor Abe Rosenthal once said of Le Monde, “It’s the best something in the world, but whatever it is, it’s not a real newspaper.” That’s absurd. French journalists are very open to learning what they can from their American counterparts. American journalists ought to be able to open their minds as well to completely different ways of writing and presenting the news.

PressThink: The virtue of comparative study is that it should shed light on both cases. So… after immersing yourself in French journalism, what stands out for you—what seems strange, remarkable, even more crucial—in the American press?

Rodney Benson: After looking at how the French talk about their press, what stands out for me about the American situation is how so much seems off limits for debate here – starting, most importantly, with the organizational and regulatory framework within which the press operates. To the extent that state involvement is on the table at all, it is in the context of anti-trust: How can we assure that there is unfettered commercial competition?

Left completely aside is the fundamental question of whether the commercial marketplace alone can guarantee a truly diverse marketplace of ideas. In fact, the problem is with this exclusive reliance on the metaphor of the marketplace. Some ideas need nurturing outside of the marketplace. The French seem to understand this. Again, if you look at the recent criticisms of Le Monde, what is striking from an American perspective, is how open for discussion are such things as reliance on advertising, or the virtues of listing the company on the stock market, or the structure of ownership. It’s much more widely understood in France that capitalism and democracy are necessarily in tension, and that what’s good for business is not always good for the press.

The irony, I suppose, is that the current management of Le Monde is doing its best to move the paper in a more American business direction (except, notably, in ceding direct journalistic control). But not without opposition. French journalists, and their attentive readers (judging by comments on Le Monde’s website), understand that diversity has to be institutionally guaranteed – either by state subsidies (such as support for newspapers with low advertising revenues, regardless of ideological leaning) or by diverse forms of commercial and non-commercial ownership (as with the Catholic association-owned La Croix, the communist party-associated L’Humanité, or the mixed journalist/reader/outside investor-owned Le Monde).

And I certainly don’t think it’s insignificant for the quality of news that there is no advertising allowed during French television newscasts, either on private or public television. Does this seem amazing? But France is fairly typical of Europe in this sense. What’s amazing is that these kinds of fundamental questions about the organization of the press are not on the table in the United States!

The Guardian has an interesting piece on the habit in the German press of allowing officials to revise and approve the text of an interview. “Call them deferential, polite or excessively consensual, German journalists tend to deal differently with those in power.” Thanks to Lance Knobel for the link.

Posted by Jay Rosen at December 5, 2003 6:26 PM