No 76 May 2007.4
To communicate : truth and media ?
Truth is in the singular while media (in French) is in the plural: this is the title given to today’s meeting. Truth… This singular is beyond me and makes me dizzy. It dominates me, surmounts me. It runs through my fingers. Who can believe that he is the guardian of the truth? The journalist who would affirm that he possesses, knows and spreads it would be pretentious. It is true: truth will make us free, but it will first make us humble.
Media: this word (in the plural in French) encompasses me, it somehow annexes me. I am involved. As a journalist for more than forty years I am a piece of that gigantic puzzle like a part of a Harlequin coat, heavy and uncomfortable. Let us research this word “media”; let us go deeper into this generality. When one often says, as Mr. Francis Balle has pointed out, “it is the media’s fault”, whom do we speak about? What or who do we speak of? It is perhaps necessary to begin by telling if not the truth, at least a truth on the media. There is a media system with its echoes, its fads, its multiple faults. But in this big bag into which one throws the media, there are some particular media. There are different sorts of media with particular functions.
There are dominant media and second rank media. There is the television: it dominates the whole from its height and one could say from its mass. There are television channels different from each other. There is the radio: it can accompany you everywhere. But there are a lot of stations. There is the written press: it involves a silent dialogue between the reader and the paper. But there are hundreds of newspapers, each with its temperament, character and tonalities. Now there is the internet, the latest born: nobody has yet measured all the potentialities and dangers. And there are sites, millions of sites.
Thus within this general concept of media, we find sub-categories that are subdivided into a multitude of distinct elements. Then within each category are found functions different from media: function of distraction, of pure relaxation, of culture, of knowledge, of education, of service, practical function, of information on current affairs, function of uniting people with common interests, commitments, convictions, needs. We are right in talking about media in the plural (for French speaking people). But we are wrong in judging the media globally. Every day we witness the injustice of this indictment that finally accuses the totality of media because of the drift of a few among them. We are constantly smeared by the most dominant scandals. The most powerful instruments of the media orchestra are forcibly those that are most heard of. But think of the triangle or pipe player at the back of the stage… Listen carefully!
We are constantly asked to answer for comportments that have little to do with our activities, with our conception of our profession. We refuse with all our might that the blend of ideas and abusive generalization be applied to media. Often and quite rightly media are accused of presenting a mixture of ideas. Let us not commit the same error towards our accusers. We have enough of our own flaws and mistakes without having to pay for our neighbor’s sins.
I would like to give my testimony of the greatness and limits of this profession of journalist. I mean journalism that gives information and vibrates passionately around current affairs. Journalist… Why does one become a journalist? Is it because one believes that one owns the truth and is called upon to share it with one’s contemporaries? Is it because one believes that one is invested with a very high mission? No, let us be unpretentious: one becomes a journalist because one is curious. The vocation of a journalist is first an aptitude for an interest in what happens and as a result a desire to share with others what one has learnt. Curiosity is not a bad fault for a journalist; it is a necessity, a quality, a sine qua non.
Current affairs… This is a huge issue that deals with everything that is happening. All that is happening on earth on any given day is by definition matter for current affairs. There are millions, billions of events every day that God makes. One must imagine what would happen if hyper powerful antennas from the cosmos were aimed at our planet in order to listen to the constant noise of those current affairs, to hear, read, decipher and narrate everything. Current affairs are the vibration of humanity. It is all that is new in the human community.
“What’s new?” Each day everybody asks this common question from his family circle, friends and colleagues. Can you imagine a society where nobody would ever ask this question? Can you imagine the cold human relations that would ensue? The journalist is the person that tries to give an answer to this question “what’s new?” In this sense we are all journalists. We all have news that we spread around. What makes journalism essential as well as frightening is naturally the way that it selects among what happens and what it retains. The journalist has first to know the facts that he will report before he can describe them; he has to have access to information, to the evidence and to the facts. In a way journalism judges itself at the entrance and at the exit; at the entrance: what does it store up? At the exit: what does it give to its readers, listeners, viewers?
Those two stages of the activity have their difficulties and their nobility. At the entrance you have to avoid the traps of institutionalized communication, an insidious and modern way of propaganda. You have to make your way – in silence- through lies, trends, whims of the moment and the effects of the domination of information networks. At the exit you have to try to report what makes sense: to describe, report, analyze, comment according to the convictions and priorities of the public that you speak to, because you cannot speak about everything to everybody; you have access to the news, but you only transmit in a certain hierarchy what makes sense; for a Christian, despite all, you lay criteria for hope.
As regards the problem of truth in what we see of the dangers in the role of the media to inform, there are two dangers of a different nature, two temptations: the first one is opacity, the second one is transparency. The first temptation does not affect the journalist, but the powers: opacity has proved itself: all totalitarian systems have practiced it. But conversely there is another temptation, totalitarian also and more current in our societies, and it is that of absolute transparency. The pretension of knowing all, of telling all, of refusing the existence of a frontier between that which can be known and that which can remain hidden, this pretension is infernal. Absolute transparency, if it was to be established, would be absolutely totalitarian. It would make life in society unbearable. I have long dreamed about making a work that would go against the trend and would be titled “a eulogy to self-censorship”. It would not apply to journalism; another time perhaps… At any event it seems to me that there is an objective alliance between those contraries: censure and pretension to transparency. The latter is the objective ally of the first with its drifts, pride, incessant crossing of the line of taboo protection, provocations against secrecy and the sacred.
Journalism and truth… It is a vast subject for reflection, a vague anxiety mainly when, after producing for decades thousands of articles in all journalistic types, you start trembling at the idea of a loyal and global evaluation, of an examination against the criterion of truth. This is a vast range for meditation about soul-searching. The most prudent thing to do is never to reread yourself and, so to speak, always to write ahead of yourself, to push your pen forward… If one were to put end to end what one has written, would those sentences following on go around the world or would they stop a little beyond one’s sphere? What dose of the truth have they underlied? What part of the truth have they contributed to enlighten? One remembers moments of intense truth just as every man has known in his lifetime. One remembers strong encounters, transparent faces, hard situations, events that have allowed one to give one’s best at that moment.
You remember having vibrated, felt, been touched, scandalized, shocked, or having been beside yourself with enthusiasm. The journalist remembers living or dead faces, tragedies or wonders, moments of violence or of peace; he remembers having had the privilege of witnessing all these events as a reporter or of having commented them as an editorialist: this leaves deep traces in his heart. What leaves an imprint in us, in the intensity of a lived and shared event, are indelible traces of human truth. The journalist is steeped in immediacy. There is his rhythm, his tempo; it is at the same time his limit and his privilege. He does not have the weight or the documentation of the historian; he is not a scholar, he is not a researcher. But he has the lightness of the moment. Because of this immediacy -the answer to “What’s new?” cannot wait- he is in constant danger to make mistakes or to approximate. The press article is like a piece of conversation. It cannot be taken back, it is written on sand. The fact that it is printed does not change much.
What is said is said, but immediately another word comes completing the preceding one and it gives a music, a partition of words the general tonality of which has or does not have to do with truth; its music is dissonant or harmonious according to what is known of the facts, to what is believed of the interpretations, to what one wants to share with one’s contemporaries. To write is nothing, to have written is frightening, to continue writing is a rare privilege. Constantly the black wing of doubt hides the sun of self-importance or of self-satisfaction. What if I was mistaken more often than I would like? And what if I missed the essential? What if, having been mistaken, I misled others? Not deliberately or by evil calculation, but by haste, by perverse silliness that hurries to conclude, by this weakness of the taste of the formula that comes under your pen, by ignorance, by lack of culture?
There are moments near the end of a professional exercise when you find it strange that you had the right to find yourself, so to speak, on the right side of the page, to be the one who is writing. Then you ask yourself a nagging question: how on earth is it that I have this privilege? What is it that I know better than my reader does? Am I not at the limits of deception? What authorizes me to comment on world current affairs, to give good or bad marks to the mighty, to tell what’s what to the ones and others, to blame and to praise?
What eases this sentiment is the impression of having rendered a service. On the other side of the page there is a face, often anonymous. One guesses it as a watermark. Sometimes the reader will write to you: “Thank you for what you have written. I wasn’t able to express in my own words what I felt; you have done it for me.” I don’t know if to give the service of the pen has something to do with the truth with a capital T, but it has to do with a human truth, the truth of exchange, of sharing. We are far then from the terrible objectivity. I know nothing more illusory than the demand of objectivity. The best definition that I can propose is this: objectivity is the harmonious encounter of two subjectivities. They overlap perfectly. Two consciences get on perfectly well together. One must be calmly subjective and have the loyalty to recognize it and even to herald it. The maximal requirement that you must have towards a newspaper is to herald its color!
I would like as a journalist to know the truth and be able to herald it every day. It would be comfortable. But I think that the nobility of our profession is not in the affirmation of the truth, but in its approach. The truth of events, that we practically decipher live, is like the horizon that a hiker walks towards. He walks slowly, wisely, with fervor, but the horizon always remains the horizon and it always moves away. The truth is at the end, but he will not reach it here below. So the journalistic truth is condemned to be a sequence of approximations, of moments, of parts of the way. They are bits of truth, stages that are scattered on this road. Does this cast doubt on the necessity of exchange of news? Would this justify throwing the baby of journalism with the bath of errors and approximations? No, because nothing would be worse than a silent world where no event would make its resonance heard, where no human activity would be translated into information, where no debate would be sparked off by “what’s happening”. Current affairs are life. Current affairs are a constant dialogue between shadow and light. They are joy, they are tears. They are violence, they are peace makers. They are injustice, they are the just. They are night, they are dawn. They are lies; they are human truths that make their way across the whole situation.
M. Bruno Frappat
Journalist, president of the Directory of Bayard group
(Conferences at Notre-Dame of Paris, 11 March 2007)
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