The feuilletons of French media’s past present a cautionary tale to today’s American press.
As Donald Trump visits France on this Bastille Day, I find myself asking whether journalism in America is repeating a dangerous mistake the French made centuries ago.
Before American fake news, there were French feuilletons—leaflet-sized newspapers that pushed one political agenda over the other. The precursor to press as we know it, feuilletons emerged during the Revolution, written by politicians and intellectuals. From 1789 to 1799, France gave birth to 2,000 of them. Feuilletons made today’s fake news look like the JV squad.
“If you go back to that period of the French Revolution with the pamphlets and all those feuilles,” says Dr Matthieu Dalle, “it was impossible to distinguish between fact and opinion.” Dalle is French media expert and professor for the University of Louisville. He also used to be a reporter at Le Parisien and Paris Normandie, two papers in France.
“Your typical revolutionary publication would actually be very militant,” he continues. “The articles were more like speeches, trying to incite the population to rebel against the monarchy. But fact—in terms of what is fact and what is opinion and what is commentary—that was all mixed together. It was all about trying to convince your side that you were in the right.”
Today’s press evolved from these tabloid-like publications and, as such, French journalism now has a natural, almost organic approach to bias: Libération is known to openly lean left; La Croix is both left and Catholic. “If you look at the mastheads of most [French] newspapers, obviously La Croix [“the cross”]—just the title has Catholic, Christian connotations, so that’s fairly easy to figure out,” Dalle says. “Libération [‘freedom’] was created in the 1970s: It was all about liberation from colonialism, sexual liberation.”
When bias is transparent—or so the thinking goes—the public can better interpret what they read. We all have biases and when reporters hide them, it becomes harder for readers to separate the truth. So why not be clear about what those biases are, so that everyone knows where you—and your (alternative) facts—are coming from?
Problem is, American journalists have long been taught to keep personal opinions out. We are as neutral as the machines we write on, reporting only the facts. That’s why, after the election, I was amazed at the significant number of editors asking me to turn straight news into op-ed.
I tell Dalle about the style editor who asked I alter an article on Ivanka Trump’s fashion line to reflect how Donald “is a fascist and a misogynist with the worst anti-woman platform, anti-human platform we’ve ever seen in this country.”
“She basically was asking me to change an article about clothes to reflect her political opinion,” I say.
He thinks about it, then says, “Presumably she knows what her readers want to read. The readership element there is important too. She’s probably thinking, ‘90% of my readers are anti-Trump people so I need to feed them that, I need to give them that.’”
Pragmatism is essential in any media era—be it Revolutionary France or present-day US. As a colleague told me early in my career, news is a cash cow, not a golden one. Regardless of any story’s value, you’ll never write anything if you can’t pay the light bill.
Unfortunately for the electric company, the bottom line isn’t what separates today’s press from feuilletons: Ethics do. We are not PR, we are not sales. We are journalists. It is not our job to label anyone good or bad. Our job is to present validated facts in context, then let the public decide for itself. “Be accountable and transparent,” the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics reads, “Seek truth and report it.”
Not only is this an ethical obligation, but for journalists in television or radio, it’s the law. Since 1929, the Federal Communications Commission has required that reporting be “in the public interest” or it is not fit for air. Not our interest: Theirs.
“In the Revolution, until the mid 19th century, being a journalist or being a reporter—it wasn’t really a profession. You had things to say, you had political opinion you wanted to express, and then you would print a newspaper,” Dalle says. “In the second half of the 19th century and then in the 20th century, journalism—the newspaper business—it became a profession with professional people. That’s when you had people editing articles, fact checkers… It’s as the profession developed that it established some basic rules of what is good journalism and what is not good journalism.”
So aux laptops, citoyens. Let’s keeping moving forward, never back.