Being a French journalist means never having to say you're sorry.
Jul 7, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 41 • By ANNE-ELISABETH MOUTET
So, in the case of Muhammad al-Dura-a 12-year-old Palestinian boy allegedly killed by Israeli fire during a skirmish in the Gaza strip on September 30, 2000-it was not really to be expected that the journalist who released the 59-second news report, Charles Enderlin, longtime Jerusalem correspondent for France 2 TV, would immediately admit having hastily slapped together sensational footage supplied by the channel's regular Palestinian stringer, and not checked whose bullets had, in fact, killed, or perhaps even not killed, the boy.
In the ensuing eight years, the small figure of Muhammad al-Dura cowering beside his crouching father became the defining image of the second Intifada. The "child martyr's" picture cropped up on posters, websites, postage stamps, and street names throughout the Muslim world from Mali to Indonesia, fueling lynchings and suicide bombings. The Israeli authorities at first took the French report more or less at face value and blandly deplored the child's death in a hasty release ("To the best of our knowledge, the boy was hit by our fire"). Others, however, were not so sure.
They parsed and scoured each of the 59 seconds of the film and every corner of the location for clues, ballistic angles, improbable moves, and hidden motivations. The film showed the two figures first seeking cover from gunfire, then later slumped over, though with no sign of blood or wounds. When increasingly convincing voices came to question, at the very least, the point of origin of the shots-the location of the small Israeli garrison made it pretty much impossible for Muhammad and his father, who was allegedly wounded, to have been hit by Israeli bullets-it took six weeks for the Israeli army spokesman to state in an interview that "both versions of the incident [are] possible," and two more months for an official investigation to be launched.
Meanwhile, Enderlin and his bosses at the state-run France 2, who had distributed their news item free worldwide, were refusing to answer questions. They flatly declined to provide the complete 27 minutes of footage taken that afternoon by the cameraman, or to concede any possible error, ping-ponging in the classical obfuscating pattern of bureaucracies everywhere. ("It's not the crime, it's the cover-up" hasn't yet made it to France.) It took two years for Enderlin to give his first interview, to a friendly colleague, Elisabeth Schemla, the respected editor of the Proche-Orient.info website and a former L'Express associate editor, in the course of which he confused "protecting one's sources" with not providing the tape. (Personal disclosure: I was at the time deputy editor of Proche-Orient.info.)
Even an hour-long documentary produced in 2002 by the award-winning German broadcaster Esther Schapira, who works for German state television's First Channel, failed to make a dent in the stance of France 2. While purposely keeping away from more controversial theories, Schapira's work comprehensively put paid to the "Israeli bullets killed Muhammad al-Dura" theory. Asked by Schemla why French television would not broadcast Schapira's film, Enderlin stonewalled: "I don't decide what the channel runs. I have bosses, there are people above me in charge . . . a professional hierarchy."
Having dug in his heels in time-honored fashion, Enderlin, a seasoned journalist and a French-Israeli dual national who'd spent most of his adult life at the same job, never imagined the al-Dura story would dog him. He was covered by his superiors in the hierarchy, affording him the Zen-like serenity achievable in large French organizations, which are profoundly top-down and basically unchanged in spirit since the court of the Sun King. His coverage of Israel and the Palestinian Authority, while regularly criticized by pro-Israeli groups, was highly esteemed by his peers. He had produced a well-informed documentary series on the Oslo Accords, the peace process, and the 2000 Camp David talks, tied to a book that has been published in English; and, while it could be argued that he was perhaps too close to some of his sources (several of the parties to the peace talks actually held discussions at the France 2 bureau, loaned by a helpful Enderlin as discreet neutral ground), this was a notable achievement. Such a person could not, in the order of things, be seriously threatened by a bunch of activists or scruffy bloggers behind their computer screens questioning his professional judgment. When he dismissed accusations of a cover-up by explaining that he had chosen "not to show the full footage of the child's agony," which would have been "unbearable," he fully expected to be taken on trust.
Yet the bloggers and the activists refused to let the story die. In fact the unlikely alliance of, among others, a professor of medieval history from Boston University, a hot-headed former financial executive, and a former Le Monde reporter soon brought to light practices that would surprise no journalist with experience working in a totalitarian state. Most foreign correspondents covering the Palestinian territories from Israel rely on local stringers, cameramen, fixers. These Palestinian nationals do not benefit from the protections routinely granted international journalists. They and their families can be subjected to all sorts of pressures by a system not known for its respect for human rights and free speech niceties. The staging of scenes for the benefit of photographers is common.
The medieval history professor, Richard Landes, a soft-spoken American who spent his childhood in France and got his early education in a Paris public school, now one of the case's most devoted parsers, coined a word for Palestinian manipulation of the media: "Pallywood." He believes the whole al-Dura incident was staged. Using footage taken by other cameramen on the scene that day, he argues his case forcefully on two well-visited and regularly updated websites (theaugeanstables.com and seconddraft.org) as well as in countless articles and interviews.
Enter the hothead. Philippe Karsenty is a French Jew who felt so let down by the mainstream coverage of the second Intifada and the Middle East in general that he gave up a successful career in finance to start a media monitoring agency. His Media Ratings (web address m-r.fr) challenges the validity of press stories on all subjects with a test he dubs "the P.H.I.L.T.R.E method," rating articles for "accuracy, consistency, independence, freedom, transparency, accountability, and exhaustiveness." Karsenty took up the al-Dura case and started firing away at everyone he saw as responsible for perpetrating a dangerous lie.
Karsenty is a boyish character in his early 40s with rapid-fire delivery, a serious cell-phone habit, and an unflagging, self-appointed sense of mission. He makes enemies among his friends with as much gusto as he takes on the French establishment. (There is something of the neighborhood kid ringing all the doorbells on the block about him.) He has attacked various French Jewish leaders as well as France 2's news director, Arlette Chabot; Enderlin; France 2's chairman, Patrick de Carolis; and a slew of politicians. He routinely uses expressions such as "I will bury him!" and "I will end that conniving bastard's career!" He is a bit mad, but it can be argued that many saints and heroes were a bit mad-if Joan of Arc had been happier in her Lorraine village, we Parisians might all be speaking English.
Karsenty is no saint, but it was his peculiar blend of bravado, doggedness, testosterone, and plain bad manners that eventually caused France 2 to blink. (I was reminded, meeting him, of the former New York senator Alfonse D'Amato, who gloried in his "Brooklyn Rottweiler" nickname and was turned loose by the Senate Banking Committee on Swiss banks that refused to reveal the number and balances of their Holocaust victims' accounts. Until then, the Swiss had only been confronted with polite delegations headed by the suave likes of Paul Volcker, the former Fed chairman, and Stuart Eizenstat, the former undersecretary of state. They had gotten nowhere. D'Amato, taking no prisoners, unlocked the process in a couple of months.)
At any rate, two years ago, after one Karsenty op-ed too many about the "arrant hoax" of the al-Dura affair, France 2 sued him for libel. In a country where judges are civil servants, their first ruling surprised few observers: They ruled for the national institution, France 2, and ordered the outsider, Karsenty, to pay one euro in damages to the plaintiffs, a fine of 1,000 euros, and another 3,000 euros in costs. Even accounting for France's relatively moderate legal rates, this was a slap on the wrist. Taking a gamble, Karsenty appealed.
The appeals court convened last month and asked for-gasp-evidence, namely the famous 27-minute France 2 unedited master footage, which not even Enderlin had seen when he filed his item for the evening news. (His Palestinian cameraman, Talal Abu Rahmeh, had sent him by remote link about 6 minutes from which to make the news segment.) France 2, dragging its feet, eventually produced 18 minutes of film. (There is practically no such thing as "contempt of court" in such circumstances in the French judicial system.) The showing of this film made for an eerie moment at the trial, when the hitherto blasé judges sat up and started watching with more attention, then took a recess, after which they asked for all of France 2's footage. It would prove to be the turning point in the proceeding.
Karsenty came to court loaded for bear, with trolleyfuls of documentation, including a 90-page ballistics report. Out of it all, the court also trained its sights on a telling 2005 Le Figaro opinion piece by two establishment journalists, Denis Jeambar, then editor in chief of L'Express (France's answer to Newsweek), and Daniel Leconte, head of news documentaries at the state-run French-German cultural channel, Arte (a kind of French-German PBS), both unlikely participants in this undignified scrum. Jeambar and Leconte, egged on by a former Le Monde journalist, Luc Rosenzweig, who had taken a great interest in the case and started writing about it for the small Israeli news outfit Mena, asked France 2 as early as 2004 to show them the original raw rushes. Acknowledging Jeambar and Leconte's weight in the French establishment, France 2 had done for them what it had refused to do for countless others and had shown them, and Rosenzweig, the 27 minutes of film.
What happened then was typical of the cat-on-a-hot-tin-roof behavior even powerful French figures display when faced with any kind of violation of the unspoken but well-understood order of precedence obtaining among the elite here. While Jeambar and Leconte took their time to ponder what they'd seen, Rosenzweig had the nerve to file a piece for Mena describing the tape's scenes of staging just before the fatal shooting. You could see Palestinians being carried on stretchers into ambulances, then coming out again unharmed, all in a kind of carnival atmosphere, with kids throwing stones and making faces at the camera, despite what was supposed to be a tense situation. The tape showed occasional gunshots, not continuous firing. From the general horsing around captured on film by Abu Rahmeh, Mena concluded that the whole scene must have been staged.
Their being preempted by Rosenzweig incensed Leconte and Jeambar, who expressed their displeasure in the 2005 op-ed in the center-right Le Figaro. They spent so much of the piece denouncing Rosenzweig, his gall in reporting first on what he'd seen in the company of his betters, and the conclusions he'd dared draw independently, that it was easy to overlook a key fact: Jeambar and Leconte themselves not only conceded that the tape showed Palestinians stage-managing various shots and horsing around, they also described joking about those very scenes with the France 2 executives who were screening the tape for them.
All of those present at the screening-illustrious visitors and France 2 executives alike, the op-ed recounted-had ended up in full agreement that it was impossible to determine where the bullets had come from, but that it was highly unlikely that they could have come from the Israeli garrison. More crucially, Jeambar and Leconte also had caught Enderlin lying (or, as they kindly put it, "extrapolating"): "There was no 'unbearable agony' of the child anywhere on the tape," they wrote. "It wasn't edited out, it simply did not exist."
The Figaro piece had little impact when it was published, but it turned out to be one of the crucial elements in Karsenty's challenge to France 2's version of events. He won his appeal. The ruling, handed down on May 21, stated that he had acted in good faith as a media commentator and that he had presented a "coherent body of evidence," although the hoax could not be definitively proven. The judge also noted "inexplicable inconsistencies and contradictions in the explanations by Charles Enderlin," whose appearance in court was his first sworn testimony in the matter.
You might think Enderlin's professional standing would have been damaged by all this. You would be wrong. In less than a week, a petition was whipped up by his friends at Le Nouvel Observateur, France's premier left-wing newsweekly. The petition conceded no gray areas, no hint of doubt. It called Karsenty's vehemently argued but exhaustively documented stance a "seven-year hate-filled smear campaign" aimed at destroying Enderlin's "professional dignity." It flatly stated in the opening paragraph that Muhammad al-Dura was killed "by shots coming from the Israeli position." It expressed rank astonishment at a legal ruling "granting equal credibility to a journalist renowned for his rigorous work, and to willful deniers ignorant of the local realities and with no journalistic experience." It professed concern about a jurisprudence that would-shock! horror!-allow "anyone, in the name of good faith and of a supposed right to criticize and so-called freedom of speech, to smear with impunity the honor and the reputation of news professionals."
There followed the names of over 300 journalists-sorry, "news professionals"-and hundreds more miscellaneous celebrity intellectuals (under the heading "Personalités"), as well as a vast slew of mere web surfers ("Internautes"). Note, here again, that while the journalists were listed in apparently neutral alphabetical order, the managing editor of a provincial news conglomerate cheek by jowl with a lowly travel magazine stringer-the key distinction between pros and outsiders was maintained. It was as if the eight-year controversy had been irrelevant. From "news professionals," who were viewed as right by definition, no accountability could possibly be required. The guild was closing ranks.
Scanning the long list (to which new signatures are added daily at the Nouvel Obs website), I experienced a kind of life-flashing-before-my-eyes moment. There were the names of people from every magazine or newspaper I'd ever worked at; people I'd trained with; people I'd been great pals with before life packed us off in different directions; and people I'd last seen only the week before. It was, to tell the truth, Stepford-like scary.
I resolved to call as many of the familiar names as I could. I knew, or thought I knew, where these people came from. Why had they signed? It might be awkward to ask, I reasoned, but wasn't it our business to ask questions?
As it turned out, it was plenty awkward. I came to recognize the moment when, after the "voice-from-your-past" greetings and the "where-are-you-now" fat-chewing and the nostalgic memories of past editors, colleagues, competitors, copy-takers ("all done by computer now, nobody to tell you you're not making sense!"), I got around to the subject at hand. As I started explaining that I was writing a piece on the al-Dura affair and was wondering why they had signed the petition, I learned to recognize the telltale pause, the "Good Lord, she's caught Scientology! She's gone over to the crazies!" moment, after which the whole object of the exercise would become to hang up on me as fast as possible.
There were those, like a foreign editor at a liberal magazine with whom I'd spent boozy evenings bemoaning the failings of our respective boyfriends 25 years ago, who now brushed me off like an inconvenience. "Haven't got time, too many pages to edit, staffer off sick, really, why do you ask such questions, have a catastrophic week, can't really talk to you until . . . well, Friday, but you will have filed by Friday, right?"
"Oh, no, there'll still be time on Friday." (Palpable disappointment on the line.) I did call the following Friday-I only got past her voicemail by reprogramming my cell phone not to send out my caller ID-and got an angry hiss in answer to my greeting. "I'm in an interview, can't talk, have nothing to say"-click.
There was the noted Paris-based former Washington Post foreign correspondent, 75-year-old Jon Randal, a Middle East expert I'd looked up to for years as a cub reporter, who trenchantly explained that he was seeing in all this a dangerous American trend of "vindictive pressure groups interfering with news organizations," now unfortunately crossing the Atlantic. (Having lived in Paris for over 40 years, Jon had become alarmingly French.)
"Americans have been under the gun of such people for some time, but France used to be free of this kind of thing. [These groups] are paranoid, they're persistent, they never give up, they sap the energy of good reporters. I can't imagine how much money France 2 has spent defending this case. Charles Enderlin is an excellent journalist! I don't care if it's the Virgin Birth affair, I would tend to believe him. Someone like Charles simply doesn't make a story up."
But, I tried to interject, the absence of the boy's "agony" from the tape?-
"Nonsense! Televisions don't show extreme violence. You know that. Look, I don't know what side you're on in this?"
"I'm trying to make sense of it all."
"I want you to call my friend at NPR, Loren Jenkins; call David Greenway at the Boston Globe; they'll tell you about pressure groups."
That was a different story; I had no time left and didn't call.
Similarly, there was the seasoned reporter from Le Figaro who thought Charles Enderlin, quite simply, was the best reporter operating in the Near East today. "These people, the ones attacking him, they're extreme rightists, yes? You can't take anything they say seriously." I conceded that the hoax wasn't proven, but that the shots had in all likelihood come from the Palestinian side. Esther Schapira . . . There was a sniff. "Pas très sérieuse, non?"
"Well, actually," I said, Schapira had just received the 2007 Europa Prize for her documentary on the murder of Theo van Gogh and been nominated for the 2008 Banff Television Awards. There was a small noise of well-bred surprise. All the same, nothing he'd heard until now had remotely convinced him or was likely to change his mind.
Then there was someone who insisted so vehemently on not being quoted or described in any way that I won't even reveal this person's sex. "Look, this whole thing has been a nightmare for Charles. He's received hate mail, his wife has been threatened, he's about to have a nervous breakdown. You want the truth? I don't give a flying monkey about the case. I signed for Charles. In all honesty, I think he edited his film on deadline and was careless, and afterwards he didn't want to admit he'd screwed up. A one-minute film, and it snowballed from there. Don't put in anything that might identify me, I don't want him to think I don't believe 100 percent in what he says, he'd be devastated."
This, at least, was bluntly honest. Jean-Yves Camus, the political scientist and expert on radical Islam, with whom I'd worked at Proche-Orient.info, was another unrepentant signatory, one who didn't mind being quoted. "Do I think Charles Enderlin lost a good opportunity to own up to a mistake early in the day, and spare himself this anguish? Of course. You know how we work in a hurry? Guy sends him pictures from Gaza, tells him the Israelis shot the kid, he believes him-I mean, even the Israeli Defense Forces spokesman believed it! But you can't own up one, two years after the fact. It's too late, it would mean you abdicate. It's a nice job Charles has, he's nearing retirement age. I don't think he wanted to rock the boat. You know Charles, he's always been status-conscious; he likes being the France 2 man in Israel. Plus, these people behind their computers, they're not real journalists, are they? You can't come from your day job and blog at night and imagine you've become a reporter. It doesn't don't work like that. There are standards."
Still, I asked, why sign a text adamantly asserting the dangerous notion that Muhammad al-Dura had been shot by the Israelis if you don't believe it?
"I was asked to. It was to support Charles. Did you know his wife is Danielle Kriegel? Daughter of Annie Kriegel [a great anti-Communist academic, now dead], sister of Blandine [a philosopher and a former Chirac aide at the Elysée palace], sister-in-law of Alexandre Adler [Blandine's husband, who writes about geostrategy and politics in most French quality newspapers, perennial guest on highbrow talk-shows]."
With all those credentials, the cloud of respectability surrounding Charles Enderlin was reaching pea-soup opacity. I tried one last time.
"Couldn't you have asked for the wording of the petition to be amended? Or started your own petition?" It would have been, Camus told me in the tone of someone who had too much on his plate to busy himself with ancillary details, "too complicated." We made a date for lunch two weeks hence and hung up.
At the other end of the scale, there was the rather intimidating star lawyer Theo Klein, getting on in years, who 20 years ago had been the president of CRIF, the official umbrella representative body of French Jews. I called him and reminded him that he'd been kind enough to invite me to his 1989 French Revolution Bicentennial party. (His office was on the Champs-Elysées, and it was the dream vantage point from which to watch the Jean-Paul Goude-designed parade and listen to Jessye Norman, draped in a giant French flag, belting out the "Marseillaise.") Theo Klein took my call pleasantly and dove into the thick of the matter.
"Well, perhaps the bullets were not Israeli after all, but if something was set up, I'm sure Charles had nothing to do with it. He is a remarkable journalist. I respect him, and I'm sure this matters more than whether a bullet came from the right or from the left. After all, many Palestinian children have been killed in the Intifada. You know, the Israelis haven't made half the noise about this that some French Jews have." He was outraged, outraged by the court ruling.
The daughter and granddaughter of lawyers myself, I gently reminded him that it wasn't done in France to criticize a court ruling. He changed the subject as if stung. "Really, I find deplorable that people are hounding Charles Enderlin like that. He has suffered, really suffered. And his poor wife. . . . They wanted to emigrate to America at one stage, do you realize?"
Well, I suggested, Americans were actually rather big on correcting reporters' mistakes.
"Surely not after so much time?"
Even after a long time. Corrections were duly appended to stories on the websites of newspapers, to prevent the eternal metastasizing of factual errors. Maître Klein marvelled for a moment at such thoroughness. It seemed, I could tell, a little pointless to him: He, like almost everyone else I'd spoken to, rated facts far below reputation. Still, I decided to go over that ground one last time. Wasn't there some doubt about the actual fatal shot? Why sign this text?
"My dear," Theo Klein said, in an infinitely weary voice, "I'm not a journalist. I haven't read this petition. I have macular retina degeneration. I can no longer read."
Anne-Elisabeth Moutet is a political journalist in Paris and a frequent contributor to the BBC.