Nidra Poller interviews Alain Hertoghe, author of Guerre à outrances / Comment la presse nous a désinformés sur l’Irak / War of Wor[l]ds: how the [French] press lied about Iraq.
Poller: Welcome Alain Hertoghe, and thank you for taking time to give us your point of view on an issue that has sharply divided France and the United States: the military campaign in Iraq. Hoping that our readers will soon have the pleasure of reading your book in English, I’d like you to give a brief rundown on your approach, and the period covered by your book.
AH: My book is based on articles published in 5 major French newspapers--Le Monde, La Croix, Le Figaro, Libération, Ouest-France—during the three week period from the beginning of the war on March 20th to the fall of Baghdad on April 9th. I studied the way these papers covered the war and I concluded that they misinformed their readers. As a result, readers couldn’t understand how the Iraqi regime fell in three weeks. I think this misinformation can be explained by an extraordinary atmosphere of nationalism in France at that time, following on the diplomatic crisis in which France and Germany stood against the US and Great Britain. French people were unanimous on three points: they demonized the Bush and Blair administrations, approved the diplomatic line of Jacques Chirac and Dominique de Villepin, and communed with the pacifist movement. And journalists reported the war they would like to see rather than the war that was.
Two or three days after the operation began a few Americans were captured, wounded, or killed in action, and five days into the campaign the press was already talking about a quagmire, then about Vietnam. They said the Pentagon’s plan was wrong, there weren’t enough soldiers, the military equipment was too sophisticated for this kind of campaign and the Americans were stuck 80 km from Baghdad. Some said it would take weeks, months, some said they wouldn’t start moving toward Baghdad before the summer. Of course what happened is that the Americans were at the gates of Baghdad by the 2nd or 3rd of April. The French press didn’t explain why this happened; they began to announce that the battle of Baghdad would be a new Stalingrad. And of course that didn’t happen either. After a few little raids in the city Saddam Hussein’s regime fell. Journalists didn’t explain why they had made those prophecies and announcements, and why it happened another way. They said the worst is ahead.
I think the reason why the press didn’t report the war the way it was is due to this extraordinary atmosphere--there was no plot, no conspiracy, no collective or individual will to misinform readers. Journalists didn’t keep a decent professional distance from what was happening. They were more excited by bad news about the offensive than good news. I think they themselves were totally surprised by the outcome, as were the readers. I see three reasons for this. One is the extraordinary anti-Americanism at that time. I think this has a lot to do with the personality of G. W. Bush and his administration. G. W. Bush is the kind of American the French love to hate. Then there is some kind of nostalgia for a time when France was an important player on the international scene. Jacques Chirac and Dominique De Villepin were able to inflame the French nostalgia for that time. And also there is Arabophilia…in a very bad sense of the term. Arabophilia is not a problem in itself but here it is in a bad sense.
It’s nothing new, it’s not just in connection with Iraq; t has to do with the history of France in Algeria. There is more compassion…we see this in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, sometimes there is more compassion for the Palestinian victims than for the Israelis. There was a lot of compassion for the Iraqi people. This was the second war, there had been a very long embargo. I think the French, like any Western power, feel a little bit guilty that this embargo lasted so long, and that they didn’t go all the way to Baghdad 12 years ago, in the first war, and solve the problem. All of these factors led to compassion for the Iraqi side. I don’t think anyone in France liked Saddam Hussein, I think people were clear about the kind of dictatorship it was; but if he could give a good lesson to the arrogant American and English powers I think the French, who were against the war from the beginning, would have been happy to have Bush and Blair taking a lesson in that sense in Iraq. It’s not that they wanted it to be a Vietnam…but I think that is the reason for what I call the dérapage médiatique, the media slip up
Poller: Speaking of taking lessons… You wrote this book in which you defend your position very well. It’s perfectly documented, it’s very clear, straightforward. Everything you say is backed up with quotations from the press…I don’t see how anyone could question its validity. This week the head of the BBC had to take responsibility for mismanagement of a similar question, and resign. Jayson Blair was fired by the New York Times, after getting away with slipshod falsified journalism for years. You just tell the truth about how the newspapers misinformed, and you get fired [NB. Alain Hertoghe was assistant editor in chief of La Croix’s website]. Can you explain this?
AH: The reason management gave for firing me is that I damaged the newspaper’s reputation. A clause in the French journalist’s convention grants us freedom of expression except if we harm our employer’s image. This clause doesn’t say you have to fire the journalist; you can find some other way to reprimand or castigate him. What’s funny about my case is that there is greater damage to the paper’s image after they fired me than when the book was published. French media reaction to my book was spontaneous collective silence. I was invited to one good TV show and one radio show, there were a few lines in two or three newspapers, but that’s about all. For a book that was very aggressive with the five leading French newspapers and the way they covered a very important event, there was no reaction. They didn’t defend themselves, they didn’t criticize my book, they said nothing.
Even in my newspaper, I wasn’t criticized for what I wrote, but simply for writing the book and publishing it under my name while I was associated with the paper. I don’t think the reason they give--damaging the newspaper--is very serious. I think what bothered them is that I used my freedom of expression, I wrote something that disturbed them. I would have been happy to be told that some parts of my book were weak, that my choice of articles here or there was questionable…but they didn’t do it. I have to assume that my book is accurate, that I did a professional job, and they cannot criticize what I wrote so they prefer silence. And they fired me. I think it’s a case of killing the messenger who brings a bad message. They didn’t kill me but I think they chose to silence the messenger rather than discuss and debate the message.
Poller: If you take a step out of the huis clos and look at this from a distance, didn’t they damage the image of the newspaper by the way they covered the war?
A.H.: That’s my first argument: you damage the image of a newspaper if you don’t give serious, fair, accurate information. Readers are not foolish. They were reading the newspapers…I guess in France because it was unanimous, everybody was against the war, people were happy to get news that the war was going badly, as the French president had predicted. Then at the end they realized that maybe the story they were told was not true: it wasn’t Vietnam, it wasn’t Stalingrad, it was a blitzkrieg, it took 3 weeks just like the German campaign in Poland in ‘39. I guess many realized that they loved the music they heard but the music was wrong and it wasn’t telling the true story. I think that misreporting did more damage to the newspapers than I did by saying they did it.
Poller: Has there been any sign from public opinion or fellow journalists saying that their coverage of the war was inaccurate, or have they just slipped back into the same kind of attitude for this phase, since the first of May and up to today?
A.H.: I think the Iraqi story is not finished. There was extraordinary unanimity during those 3 weeks. It changed afterward, though I’m not saying that the earlier attitude doesn’t persist. But there is more diversity in the newspapers today. I was invited for a debate on a talk show and a lot of callers said, “he is right we were misinformed.” Of course others said it’s the Americans who were misinformed. But I received a few letters, I had phone calls from other reporters…I think it’s still a minority but there are a lot of people who realize that the war didn’t happen the way they were told. I don’t have the means to take a poll but I have that impression.
Poller: We know that your case provoked many articles in English. You were invited to appear on the O’Reilly Factor! Can you give us an update on reactions or rather lack of reaction in France? Essentially no press, no reviews. Any signs of support from fellow journalists?
A.H.: I told you about the reviews before I was fired. Afterward there was an AFP release, a big op-ed by Daniel Schneiderman in Libération. Schneiderman himself was fired by Le Monde at the end of September or October for writing a book critical of his newspaper. Aside from that, it was more the foreign press that was interested in the story that I was fired because I wrote a book criticizing French press coverage of the Iraq war. There were so many articles that finally Courier International, a very successful French weekly that only publishes stories from the foreign press, did a piece summarizing some of the articles about me. This is interesting because Courier International belongs to the Monde conglomerate, and I was particularly critical of Le Monde in my book. They never reacted. So I interpreted this Courier International article as a sign of some debate within Le Monde group
Poller: La Croix is not in that conglomerate?
A.H.: No. La Croix belongs to another group, Bayard Presse.
Poller: And Le Monde bought into Bayard?
A.H: No they bought another Catholic group, a competitor of Bayard.
Poller: Despite the absence of reviews, your book is selling well?
A.H.: The funny thing is that before Christmas we were getting orders from bookstores for 5 to 10 copies a day. After the articles in Libération, the International Herald Tribune, the Times and so on, they are ordering 80 copies a day. My publisher is thinking about doing a second printing. So, again, this shows that firing me did more damage to the papers than the book itself.
Poller: I understand you have an American agent actively looking for a U.S. publisher. To your knowledge are there any other international contracts under discussion?
A.H.: Not that I know of.
Poller: Let’s go into the details of “War of Wor[l]ds” (that’s my latest translation of the title). I chose so many quotes…I don’t know where to begin. You mentioned the peace marches. The French public, and the outside world, were given a very positive image of a huge peace movement. You mention some of the negative aspects like Hashomer Hazair members beaten with iron bars on 22 March, an Iraqi poet beaten up, Iraqi and Palestinian flags, Saddam Hussein posters, calls for jihad, anti-Semitic slogans, Maguen David = Swastika banners… With one notable exception this did not discredit the peace movement in the eyes of French media and public opinion?
A.H.: I think the reason is quite simple: it was the passion, the antiwar passion that affected everyone, including the media. The major anti-war demonstrations took place before the war. There were two after the war started, including the one where the young Jews were attacked and the other where the poet was beaten up. This was mentioned in newspaper articles but what surprised me was that there were no editorials. Usually in France when there was a racist aggression you had big headlines, a lot of indignation, many editorials. I think the reason we didn’t have it this time is that it was difficult for the press to give a bad image of the pacifist movement because of this strong unanimous anti-war sentiment; they were not receptive to the negative aspects of the movement. It was surprising because there was a huge mobilization in the press and in the streets when Chirac faced the extreme right wing candidate in the runoff of the last presidential elections; Le Pen is a racist, he has made very nasty anti-Semitic comments in the past even if he has been more careful lately. I think there was no indignation over these incidents in the peace marches because they didn’t want to disturb the national unanimity. But I don’t think that is the best way to give fair information to readers.
Poller: So they made the war look worse than it was and made the peace movement look better than it was. Do you agree?
Poller: There is something bloodthirsty about the fantasies embroidered by these journalists despite their pacifist predisposition. In the blitzkrieg phase they mock a Pentagon strategy that sought to minimize civilian deaths and advise the US military to go in for massive bombing. In the quagmire phase they ghoulishly predict bloodbaths for all parties concerned. In the Saddamgrad phase Le Monde’s Patrice Claude and Rémy Ourdan invent atrocities, give “eyewitness” accounts of things they didn’t see. How do you explain this desire for death and blood and horror from these pacifists? There was a kind of holy atmosphere at that time.
A.H.: I think there are two different factors. There were journalists and editorialists saying the war was going wrong, and there were comments from anonymous Pentagon sources and the American press. There is a tradition in France…there is so much material in the American press, you pick what pleases you. From American press reports it seemed that people in the Pentagon were criticizing Donald Rumsfeld because his war wasn’t heavy enough. You had this puzzling situation where people who were against the war because war is terrible, especially for the Iraqi civilians, were suddenly saying it wasn’t being fought the right way, there was not enough bombing, they don’t have enough firepower on the ground… Of course there was a contradiction here, because so many more civilians would have been wounded, maimed, and killed in Iraq if the war was fought the “right” way. I think the other factor is a kind of frustration. That is the only way I can understand the two journalists from Le Monde; they had reported that the Iraqi regime had a terrific strategy, Baghdad would be the American’s Stalingrad. Then it happened so quickly. Of course there were too many casualties on all sides, but not so many for an urban war, it could have been much worse.
The American strategy of very quick efficient raids made the regime collapse. I think those journalists were so astonished, the only explanation they gave was that the GIs were brutal, they had no consideration for civilians. The best example of this is what Rémy Ourdan wrote about Saddam’s fedayeen. These were the dictator’s most oppressive guards, they were like his SS. Ourdan said the fedayeen didn’t fight because they were so frightened by the way the GI’s were killing everybody, and a lot of civilians, so the fedayeen didn’t want to defend them so the Americans wouldn’t kill so many civilians. It’s a joke. I guess he’s very sorry to have written that in the heat of reporting. Reporting is not something easy…it’s public writing… I think it’s a shame…Rémy Ourdan is a good journalist. I don’t say that all his work is the same. People make mistakes. What I can’t accept is not telling your readers at one point, okay, I did write that, it was in the heat of reporting, the heat of passion. As journalists we feel those things too, it’s not professional, so we apologize. I think the main problem was their attitude of not telling readers why they misinformed them, and not apologizing. It was just “read us and shut up.”
Poller: Whereas a normal intelligent human being is constantly making mistakes. How often you have to say to people that you made a mistake…you have to tell yourself you made mistakes.
A.H: That’s what journalists are asking of all other institutions in our society.
Poller: Yes, they’re asking everyone to be accountable, to be on a high moral plane. They criticize their government, they criticize the United States….
A.H.: …to be able to recognize mistakes and apologize for it. But this is not the tendency of the media, especially the print media in France. And that’s one of the reasons why I wanted to write this book.
Poller: I would like to ask you a tough question. Do you think that French opposition to the war was really based on the question of legality? Which, if you speak to anyone who knows about international law, it’s very hard to say what’s legal. Or was it motivated by rivalry with the United States: they are trying to be the big guys and we’re going to knock them off and we’ll be the biggest.
A.H.: I don’t think they believed that we could be the leading power. French people aren’t out of touch with reality to that point. No, I think there was a sincere feeling that the Bush and Blair administrations were acting like bullies, not taking into account the opinion of others, and France had explained so well how bad this war would be for the world and for the Middle East. I think we also had the sincere belief that we know best, we are older countries, we had colonized those people, we know our world best, we know best about the aftermath of war. I think it was a sincere belief that France was right, the US and the British were totally wrong, what they were doing was very dangerous for everyone and yet they dared to ignore us.
Poller: So it wasn’t rivalry, it was the idea we’re the adults, we know how adults should behave, they are not behaving right?
A.H.: And the frustration. At a time when France had more power on the international stage we could have kept the United States and Great Britain from going ahead. So it’s also frustration at not being strong enough to prevent a catastrophic initiative.
Poller: But now that we know so much about what Saddam Hussein was doing to his own people, how do the French reconcile their sense of conscience? Take a recent example, the state visit of the Chinese president this week: half the Assemblée Nationale walked out to protest China’s poor record on human rights. Iraq must be the worst example of torture since the Second World War. Do the French people know about that, have they been informed about the kind of torture that was practiced, the number of people killed?
A.H.: It was reported.
Poller: How do they reconcile with that? If the French solution, which was to keep on with inspections, had been followed there would have been no way to get rid of Saddam Hussein.
A.H.: I think there is bad conscience about the fact that our diplomatic line would have meant leaving the Iraqis to suffer under the dictatorship. But the easy answer was that there are so many dictatorships in the world and so many people suffering; it would be nice to liberate the Iraqis but the consequences for the stability of the region and the world would be terrible, so it’s better to do nothing. That was the easy opinion in France.
Poller: But in the Israeli-Arab conflict they are ready to risk the disappearance of Israel because they feel that the Palestinians are suffering. We won’t go into the details, but compared to the way the Iraqi people were suffering… How about the current situation? Is the French press covering the changes in the Arab world, the free press in Iraq, testimonials of people who appreciate their new freedom?
A.H.: I think that public opinion about international situations is difficult to understand. People in Central America suffer a lot from regimes that are totally approved, armed, and backed by the United States. I think American public opinion approved because the United States was defending the free world against communism. But the consequence of that policy was tens of thousands of people killed or maimed. It is still a region that is suffering economically and socially, it was a battleground of east-west confrontation and I don’t think the American population in general is really aware of what happened there. There are always minorities who know, but the perception of public opinion about frustration in distant countries may be difficult to translate. We have a lot of situations in the west where distant populations are suffering from decisions made in the west, and I don’t think the people were always very conscious of the situation and the reasons. It’s difficult…we specialize in understanding and informing the public about complex situations in distant places. But the majority of people just go about their daily lives, watch TV, sometimes read a book or a few articles… I am sure that the French people never felt that they were supporting a position that meant the Iraqis would suffer more and that’s great. I don’t think that was the French opinion. I don’t think that’s what the journalists were thinking.
Poller: I would say that our policy in South and Central America has always been a subject of controversy in the United States, our relationship with those countries has always been an issue disputed in the U.S. Getting back to your book, when you see what was written in the papers--and I must say again it is a very fair selection of quotes--it’s quite shocking to see the vocabulary that was used against the US, words like Blitzkreig, Occupation and résistance, images that come close to identifying the US with Nazi Germany. Do you understand how this can look from the American side, especially now, when Americans are getting wounded and killed in Iraq? Do you understand why the Americans feel that France is the enemy and the French think it was just a little disagreement that’s going to blow over?
A.H.: That’s after the war. I want to stick to the period that I studied. I agree that in the American press, too, they speak about the occupation. Even officials…I was surprised to see an American general speaking about occupation. I suppose that when a foreign country is on the ground and exercising power it is occupation. Now it can be a positive or a negative one, people can welcome being occupied for a while. When you speak about resistance, it depends. But if you just take the words, if the people are doing terrorist acts—and we can have a definition of terrorist acts—they are terrorists. When people attack American soldiers it is not terrorism, it’s fighting, so they are resisting something. Maybe they are the bad guys, but they are resisting something. Maybe the Americans are the good guys, but those people are resisting. I agree with you that sometimes it is used in a malicious way but I don’t think that all the words have to be taken that way. For example, the French resistance did terrorist acts. That was De Gaulle’s idea, to terrorize the Nazis. And sometimes they did acts of resistance.
Poller: But you know that in the history of the United States “occupation” does not have the same meaning as l’Occupation and la résistance in French. But I won’t belabor the point. Since we are coming to the end of this interview, shall we take a look into the future? You covered the US presidential elections in 2000; I would be curious to know if you have plans to cover the 2004 elections?
A.H.: Not at the moment
Poller: But you would like to?
Poller: Do you have any comments on the Democratic nomination campaign? Have you been following it?
A.H.: No I don’t have any comments. I’m following the campaign, but I don’t have comments. The only comment I would make is that democracy is alive and kicking in the States.
Poller: In your interview with Dennis Boyles (January 9, 2004, www.nationalreview.com ) you said you were wondering if there’s a place for someone like you in French journalism. What do you think today? And, also, do you think there’s a place in France for a new kind of journalism, a new kind of press?
A.H.: I don’t know about the second part but I know today that there is room for somebody like me. I am currently negotiating and studying the contract before signing.
Poller: The fact that you had the courage to do this job took you out of a stable situation but maybe it’s putting you into a situation that is more dynamic for you and might help the French press in the way you wanted to do in writing your book.
A.H.: I see that it is dynamic. I have a proposition to do my job in an important media and I think it’s good news for all journalists. It means that sometimes we can be a bit audacious and take the risk of criticizing people who don’t really accept criticism…and we can still have a professional future. So that’s good news.
Poller: That’s a nice way to end the interview…with good news.