La Science et la société

The French press: an insider’s view of the wreckage

By Thierry Thodinor

This is a first-hand account.

It is that of Marie, a young and talented journalist who, at the age of twenty-eight, voluntarily scuttled her career as a French journalist.

This profession, which had been her dream since childhood, is a disaster in today’s France, ravaged by conformism and corruption.

Because all the media in France belong to a handful of oligarchs who are largely dependent on the orders (complicity?) of the state for their business, investigative journalism has given way to subservient journalism.

There is little or nothing in common between the overpaid editorial writer (who is paid according to his self-righteousness) and the proletarian journalist who copies dispatches off the assembly line.

Journalists no longer inform: they bleat out a single thought, reproduced identically on all media, track down and denounce deviants, get depressed and drink to forget their insignificance.

Just a few days ago, the most prominent political editorialists were discreetly summoned to the Élysée Palace to learn the language to be disseminated to the public.

Yet there is no crisis of vocation. Journalism schools are still full of students who are kept in the dark that once in post they will have no room for initiative either in the choice of subjects or in the way they are handled.

In the press (broadcast and print), everything conspires to ensure that journalists have neither the time nor the audacity, or even the desire, to delve into a subject or exercise their critical faculties.

Two statistics highlight the disaster:

– 66% of journalists under 30 are freelancers or on fixed-term contracts

– 40% of first-time press card holders have left the profession after seven years.

Let’s hear what Marie has to say…

General considerations

„Journalistic experience varies considerably depending on the type of media you work for. The work of an image reporter (JRI) in a 24-hour news channel is not the same as that of a deskeeper in the written press or a local reporter in the regional press. However, there are two things that all editorial experiences have in common: places are very expensive and life as a freelancer is hellish.

„Fixed-term contracts can be very short (sometimes lasting less than a week), which means constant stress and a tendency to be subservient. This gives rise to a certain mentality within the profession: you hold on to your job no matter what it costs and you give up your private life to keep a job with impossible working hours“.

„The press card is the Holy Grail of the profession. To get it, you need one or two full years’ work. One year for graduates of a grande école (which was my case) and two years for those who come from a school that doesn’t belong to the ‘Ivy league’ of the profession. Without a press card, salaries are meagre and you’re no better than a common commodity (pencil or toilet paper) in the eyes of the hierarchy“.

At journalism school

The selection interview

„I applied for one of the three ‘majors’ of journalism schools in France (Sciences Po Paris, Centre de Formation des Journalistes also based in Paris and École Supérieure de Journalisme in Lille).

By the time you get to the oral, you’ve already prepared yourself. You know that there’s a certain political line and that you can’t go too far outside the box (a balancing act between being within the box and at the same time being a little original to stand out).

But, all the same, my oral was quite atypical and very revealing of what they ‘fear’ to receive as a student within their school.

On my CV, there was nothing but work experience as a young student (waitress, administrative secretary, etc.). It also said that I was born in Russia and that I had dual nationality.

On average, an oral lasts around twenty minutes. Mine will last forty minutes.

It was 2015, just as Russia was ‘invading’ Crimea.

As a result, my oral, which had begun as a ‘classic’ oral (my reasons for wanting to be a journalist, why I chose this school, etc.) very quickly took a strange turn and had nothing to do with journalism. I was asked if I knew Alain Soral (an anti-liberal activist with a sulphurous reputation) and if I was in favour of the Russian annexation of Crimea. I remember because it made a big impression on me, I didn’t really understand why I was being asked that. Obviously, it was to ‘test’ me, to see if I was clever enough to understand that there are some things you just can’t say.“

Conformity classes and peer pressure

„The pressure on students comes in different ways, but it’s always stealthy. Stealthy because no one will ever come up to you to tell you that you’re thinking wrong or that you don’t fit a journalist’s standard.

The method is infinitely more devious. First, there are the half-yearly reports. At the end of each term, each teacher has to fill in an observation on each pupil (an observation on their work AND a general observation, a sort of behavioural note that will end up in your file). Some teachers noted that I drew curious parallels between immigration and delinquency, which any editor (and future employer) would inevitably translate as ‘enemy of the state’ in the French context. It’s easy to see why it’s better to keep quiet so that we don’t end up with these ‘tasks’ in our report cards. Above all, our teachers are not just teachers; they are often heads of editorial departments (of the Parisian press in particular). So there’s pressure on what we can or can’t say, and pressure on what we can write in our reports, because our teachers are above all our future employers. If you don’t suit a teacher, there’s no doubt that it will be very hard to get a job in the editorial department where he or she works, or even in the national (ie Parisian) press as a whole, which is a small, closed environment where „entre-soi“ reigns“.

„In addition to the ‘lectures’, there were also weekly talks by ‘specialists’: a speaker would come and talk to us about a particular social issue: feminism, minorities, social justice and so on. The idea was to hear, in the voice of someone „from outside“ the school, how we „should“ think (this was not a debate, but a course in which a specialist presented THE truth about a subject). During a lesson where a ‘specialist’ had explained to us that Catholicism was a form of anti-Semitism, two pupils (including me) expressed their disagreement with this presentation, and the aftermath was literally this: some pupils wrote an e-mail to the management and the specialist to ‘apologise on behalf of the fascists in the class’. Obviously, this kind of experience discourages people from speaking out. Of course, the students did this to make themselves look good, as editorial positions are very rare and hard to get. Internalized social pressure, peer pressure: just like in the camps, the most enraged kapos come out of the ranks of the students“.

My experience in a news channel

„When I graduated, I joined the biggest all-news channel in France. I was taken on for a four-month fixed-term contract as an image reporter. On paper (and as taught at school), the JRI films a report, edits it and adds his or her commentary. In practice, news channel JRIs are nicknamed ‘Recmans’ by other journalists because their only job is to press the ‘Rec’ button on the camera once they’ve been sent out into the field. In my case, a typical day consisted of arriving at the newsroom, going to the JRI ‘quarters’ and seeing the editor-in-chief for the day (there were three or four of them in that position and they rotated between them). I didn’t attend editorial conferences, had no say in anything and didn’t really understand what I was doing there. I’d go and see my editor-in-chief and he’d say to me: today you’re going there, there and there. It was either to conduct an interview with a guy on a subject that I hadn’t chosen or suggested, or to film footage of an event (such as a demonstration), or to put the microphone and camera in front of a guy who was going to be interviewed live by the presenter on set. In short, 95% of my job consisted of getting in the car and putting the camera down.

During my fixed-term contract, I only produced one real story (i.e. going out into the field, meeting the people involved, carrying out interviews and filming illustrations) which was never broadcast because it wasn’t in the news ‘momentum’.“

No qualms about sucking your marrow

„The airwaves have to be full 24 hours a day. JRIs have a shitty pace of life and a shitty social life. When you work for a news channel, you’re on a tight schedule (you’re not allowed to be late) because the driver is planned in advance. This takes its toll on the mind, especially as the work isn’t interesting either (no-one has time to dig into a subject, Tuesday’s news sweeps aside Monday’s, etc.). You can’t take a proper lunch break, you can’t go to the loo, but you have to drive any old way, park anywhere, and so on. And the editor-in-chief can call you at any time to change the original plan! All this to earn (having just left school, I didn’t have a press card at the time) a miserly €1,100 a month (in Paris!) with 20 people waiting behind you to take your place.“

My experience in the written press

„Another room, another atmosphere at one of France’s biggest daily newspapers.

Working on the desk, you’re not running around all day, but you’re sitting next to your colleagues in an open space. There’s always no time to delve into the subjects (because of the race for readership, which means you have to publish papers at breakneck speed).

„As a copy editor, you can be proofreading, writing dispatches or, very rarely, having the day off to do a more in-depth story.

The proofreader proofreads all the papers, except AFP/Reuters dispatches, which don’t need proofreading and are published directly once they’ve been copy/pasted (and the photo added). The proofreaders read the ‘agency’ papers. The agency that worked for us was an independent agency that did not have media or press service status and specialised in SEO and high-audience subjects. Every day, they would send us around forty subjects with a high potential audience that had been unearthed using Google Analytics. The articles were delivered turnkey (article and photo) for publication. Only topics with buzz.

Control and political technology

„A great deal of attention is paid to cases of sexual assault, murder, etc., particularly committed by non-Europeans. The names of the perpetrators are often withheld until they are brought to trial. To avoid „playing into the hands of the extreme right“ and stirring up „racism“, we are asked not to indicate the criminal’s origin and to give the culprit a Christian first name.

In the case of the vaccines against covid, the papers were carefully proofread so as not to frighten people or make them suspicious of the vaccines. The job of proofreader (which is a very intensive one) consists, to sum up, of checking for mistakes and bad turns of phrase and laying the groundwork to avoid controversy.

You also have to copy/paste AFP dispatches (an average of 3 to 4 per hour), writing fast-moving stories (an average of one article per hour, sometimes even 30 minutes) and, when the news dictates, managing „live“ stories. The idea is simple: manage the news of the moment quickly, and try to be the first on the scene with ‘information’.

That’s why, when the news is important (like a minister under investigation), we often publish the AFP alert/lead straight away (which is one or even two lines long) and say „more information to come…“. The idea is to be quick, the first to publish, even if there isn’t really any information explained in the paper. The articles we have to write, on average in an hour or less, are in 95% of cases articles by colleagues that we rewrite. Typically, we see an interesting subject at BFM, we rewrite it, trying to find other sources, mix it up a bit and send it off for proofreading. In fact, everyone does this, which is why you find the same news in 90% of the media. There are times, however, when we have to miss a story for reasons that are not transparent. In the case of the Epstein affair, instructions were given to cover only the bare minimum and to be the last wagon on this news. Certain scandals (notably  paedophile networks) were glossed over on the pretext that „there is no case“.

The drafting of longer papers is decided at the editorial conference or beforehand by the heads of department. As there is still a deadline to be met, there is a tendency to use the same experts to avoid wasting time. It takes time to find a good contact who agrees to answer the same day or the next day, so it’s often easier to bring out the same people. That’s why it’s often the same experts that you see everywhere (you know they respond quickly, they know the drill, they’re „good customers“) on TV, in the papers etc.

From an organisational point of view: the editorial conference takes place every day at 9am. The subjects are decided directly by the heads of department. Your subject is either trashed or approved. Sometimes a second meeting is held if the subject of a paper is sensitive. For example, in the case of a paper on the impact of sanctions against Russia, the question arose as to whether to keep the subject, given that the experts explained that there would be no spin-offs.

Press pathologies

„A final word on the psychopathologies I observed before fleeing this dangerously toxic environment.

Aurélien, a twenty-year journalism veteran, is an alcoholic separated from his wife, with whom he „unintentionally“ had a child. With his new „companion“, he has just adopted a black child.

Elodie, 50, morbidly obese, with no family or friends, goes to the Maghreb to have her „arse blown off“ every time she has a holiday.

Olivier, after a year and six months of depression, has come back to work part-time at the editorial office.

So long, assholes!“

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