Private lives, public responsibility

Today’s New York Times (May 16, 2011) carries an important conversation entitled,  Questions Raised About a Code of Silence about the French journalistic habit of protecting the private lives, especially the sexual lives of elected and other public figures.

These reflections come in the wake of the attempted rape (among other charges) leveled against IMF head, French presidential contender, Dominique Strauss-Kahn.  Mr. Strauss-Kahn is alleged to have attacked sexually a 32-year-old woman at a Sofitel hotel in midtown Manhattan on May 14.  Grotesque, vile details of the maid’s testimony can be read elsewhere.

According to the Times article Marie-Christine Boutin, a deputy in Parliament and a leader of the religious right, remarkably defended Mr. Strauss-Kahn, suggesting that he was the victim of a trap.  This is the same woman who congratulated President Clinton for exploiting the 19 year old daughter of his friend and supporter, noting “his strength of libido. “He loves women, this man!” Ms. Boutin said. “It’s a sign of good health!”

The article notes that the French have considered themselves superior as journalists in this regard to US and British journalists, in their noble accomplishment of keeping politics “out of the bedroom.”

A most recent manifestation of this version of French superiority was Mr. Sarkozy successful defense of  ‘the nephew of François Mitterrand, as minister of culture, even though he had written a memoir describing in graphic detail how he had paid for sex with “boys” in Thailand.”

It turns out, in fact, that this uncommon calm over troubling behavior (is it a coincidence that the trans-lingual term to describe not caring is non chalance?) is not only due to this peculiar version of not caring, but in fact is closely tied to the fact that ” libel laws are so protective of private lives that the least intrusion in print or broadcasting inevitably leads to legal action and heavy fines.”  Could it be then that French journalistic traditions have mistaken cowardice for sophistication?

It is true that thoughtful consumers of news are cursed with the superficial and salacious in much of what pollutes our print and airwaves, but the notion that private lives are separable from public responsibilities is simply untenable.

This fact begins to quiver near the pen of the French press in the wake of the Strauss-Kahn’s alleged loathsome “behavior in the bedroom.”

The key interview person in the Times article suggests the same,

“We felt that we were superior to the Americans and the British by upholding the principle of protecting private life,” Pierre Haski, one of France’s leading political commentators and co-founder of the political Web site Rue89, said in an interview. “But we journalists haven’t done our job properly. We were used and abused in keeping secrets. We need to define our role in a more aggressive way — and say that not everything private is private.”

The article lists a good half dozen so-called “private” facts, all sexual in nature, that turned out to have explicit impact on public policy.  For example,

“I knew that when Roland Dumas was foreign minister, he was romantically involved with the daughter of Syria’s defense minister,” he said. “I didn’t write it because it was a matter of his ‘private life.’ I was wrong. It had an impact on France’s foreign policy.”

Since French journalism is the leader of this kind of errant excess, it is always good and helpful when events move important institutions toward balance. The insight is correct. Journalists must devote their skills to inform the public of behavior that impacts policy.  The application though is incorrect.  The ideal of responsible journalism should not hold to the impossible error that private sexual behavior never does so.

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