Do morals matter? DSK affair and France

The French don’t do sex well. Political sex scandals that is.

But a sea change does appear in the offing for French journalism that may change all that. The widely known, but only lately reported, personal misconduct of Socialist politician Dominique Strauss-Kahn (DSK) appears to have provoked a fit of conscience.

This has not always been so. When the President of the International Monetary Fund was arrested in New York last May, the French philosophes went bananas.

Writing in Le Monde, Pascal Bruckner said:

America obviously has a problem with sex that stems from its protestant heritage. … It’s not enough though to describe the country as puritanical because what governs here is a twisted puritanism which, after the sexual revolution, talks the language of free love and coexists with a flourishing porn industry. What we have here is lubricious Puritanism.

Libération sounded the same theme, though in a muted key. It complained the DSK affair had produced France’s

first “Anglo-Saxon” sex scandal and brutally forced France to enter a zone of public debate which, until now, because of cultural exception, “Latin” identity or democratic weakness, was hitherto confined to rumors and gossip amongst a select circle of insiders.”

Times have changed. Disdain for Anglo-Saxon ethical standards has moved on to an examination of French media morals. But the question of what will inform these morals does not appear to have been asked.

“Transparency, how far?” (La transparence, jusqu’où?) is the headline on the front page of the 28 February 2012 issue of Libération. An editorial and a report on the publication of the book Sexe, Mensonges et Médias (Sex, Lies and Media) by Jean Quatremer, the newspaper’s Brussels correspondent, follow on pages 2 and 3.

The article “Sexe et politique: la presse sur le divan” (Sex and politics: the press on the couch) recounts the press’s failure to investigate the private lives of the powerful — from François Mitterrand’s prostate cancer and second family to the antics of DSK.

Libération reports that its reporter

had been one of the few who dared to say publicly that DSK had a problem with women. His appointment to the closed world of Washington had been a high risk and had been a perfect illustration of the press’s bad habits. “The lies, the refusal to investigate … the taste for colluding with the powerful.”

Following DSK’s appointment to the IMF in 2007 the article stated that Quatremer wrote:

the only real problem with Strauss-Kahn is his relationship to women. Too pressing, he often comes close to harassment. This is known throughout the media, but nobody talks about (we are in France). But the IMF is an international institution where morals are Anglo-Saxon. An inappropriate gesture, an allusion too specific and the press will have a field day.

These words went unnoticed until the front-runner for the French Socialist Party’s candidacy for the 2012 presidential election was arrested in New York and charged with attempted rape.

Nicolas Demorand, the editor of Libération wrote that in the wake of the DSK affair a journalist must examine his  conscience and ask

if he has done his job properly or, for reasons good or ill, totally missed a “subject” who obviously deserved scrutiny? Who has not thought about the uncertain border between privacy … and a potential political problem, about whether he must inform his readers?

The French press is entering a post-DSK era, Demorand said,

Our media’s all too timid modus operandi can now be seen with a new eye. It is true that journalists are friends with politicians. ‘Stay away from power!’ is the primary principal, an American journalist used to say. In France, we have dinner together, we go on holidays together, we have love affairs, we are graduates of the same schools, and so on. There is no tradition of investigation into the private world of politics. .. The public consequences of the president’s private life have remained in the shadows. This is because of a preference for commentary over cold facts. And also because of the lack of independence of public television stations. Let us point out that the President of the Republic appoints the station’s heads and chooses with his royal hand the journalists who will be allowed the privilege of interviewing the monarch.

France must find new ways of reporting on the powerful, the editorial concluded.

Not by moralizing or by voyeurism, but simply informing its readers when it is appropriate to do so. Investigate each story case by case and bear the burden of publishing. In short: become a working journalist.

All in all this is great stuff. Libération — a center left newspaper founded in 1972 under the aegis of Jean Paul Sartre — is seeking a revolution in the standards of French journalism. I hope it succeeds.

But in reading these reports, I was struck by a ghost, obliquely identified by Libération as an American ethic where “morals are Anglo-Saxon.” The tone of these stories is that virtue, at least as it is understood in the Anglosphere, is too religious too foreign for France. The French press’s failure to challenge the powerful was a failure of utility, not of virtue.

The religious, or moral element, is not completely absent. The French Catholic daily La Croix has argued the DSK affair “poses the question of the quest for coherence between public and private life,” and “virtue, a word that has gone out of fashion, could become the new prerequisite” for political life. Yet few other newspapers have pressed the issue.

La Croix has called for the return of morality to civil life — a virtue formed by a Catholic sensibilities of goodness and truth. This call should also be sounded to the press in France.

But I would hope that morals  as understood in the Anglo-sphere, not the dreaded “moralizing” condemned by Libération,  be brought to the table as well, for they inform our (English language) understanding of the truths of journalism.

In a 1943 study of the English novelist, E.M. Forester, Lionel Trilling coined the phrase “moral realism.” Trilling sought to overcome the Marxist binary view of the world in literary criticism, to overcome the “old intellectual game of antagonistic principles.”

Moral Realism [was] not the awareness of morality itself but of the contradictions, paradoxes and dangers of living the moral life.  .. [not simply the knowledge of] “good and evil but the knowledge of good-and-evil.

This ethic applies to reporting as well. The absence of reporting on the sin and human failings of political leaders should not be replaced with a 24/7 inspection of their private lives. Rather a sensibility that paradox, complexity and ambiguity are part of the human condition.

Is this too much to expect? Is it possible to use nuance in an age whose critical faculties have been dulled by reality TV and people who are famous for being famous? Where should the line between public and private be drawn?

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  • Jerry

    You ask good questions. Unfortunately l’affaire Limbaugh shows that some don’t believe in any lines including baseless accusations. But I would say that the line in general should be drawn in the gray area.

    In this case I would say that line has been crossed when a public figure is “Too pressing, he often comes close to harassment.” Because if life has taught me anything, it is that people perceive things differently. And someone who “comes close” in one person’s view will be “way over the line” in another person’s view.

    A public person who’s private life is the opposite of his public pronouncements is also over the line. This is true whether he or she is a minister or Congressman.

    Otherwise, I would ask if the private sphere would have any influence on the public sphere. Someone who’s private life would make him subject to blackmail would be a classic example here.

  • astorian

    No matter what subject a reporter is covering, he/she should memorize what music critic Lester Bangs (as played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) told teenage reporter William Miller in the movie “Almost Famous.”

    “These people (rock musicians) are not your friends. You CANNOT make friends with the rock stars. That’s what’s important. If you’re a rock journalist – first, you will never get paid much. But they’ll buy you drinks, you’ll meet girls, they’ll try to fly you places for free, offer you drugs… I know. It sounds great. But they are not your friends. These are people who want you to write sanctimonious stories about the genius of the rock stars, and they will ruin rock and roll and strangle everything we love about it.”

    Later in the movie, Bangs had this conversation with Miller:

    Lester Bangs: Aw, man. You made friends with them. See, friendship is the booze they feed you. They want you to get drunk on feeling like you belong.

    William Miller: Well, it was fun.

    Lester Bangs: They make you feel cool. And hey. I met you. You are not cool.

    William Miller: I know. Even when I thought I was, I knew I wasn’t.

    Lester Bangs: My advice to you. I know you think those guys are your friends. You wanna be a true friend to them? Be honest, and unmerciful.

    French journalism needs a Lester Bangs.

  • Dave

    Where should the line between public and private be drawn?

    “How” must precede “where.” That’s the religious ghost: On what basis will the decision be made that the line needs to be crossed? For us “Anglo-Saxons,” at least in the US, the basis is ultimately religious. But perhaps in France it will be a completely secular feminism that speaks of harassment and not the near occasion of sin.

  • sari

    Do morals matter? Sure, but who gets to define what constitutes moral behavior? Maybe it’s more important to prioritize behaviors in the context of societal standards, the potential damage wrought by either the individual’s behavior or the media’s disclosure, and whether the behavior is consistent with the individual’s stated morals.

  • northcoast

    Sari, it seems to me that without some bench marks or moral absolutes societal standards can get very low. Maybe some can excuse the behavior in office of some recent Presidents, but I think anyone promoting high standards has a harder job when the President sets a poor example. I’m not involved in child rearing these days, but I’ve heard or read comments to that effect.

  • sari

    The problem in a society as diverse as ours is that no one faith tradition can speak for all or even most. There needs to be some sort of societal consensus as to what constitutes moral behavior. Judaism distinguishes between the seven Noahide laws, applicable to all, and those laws which pertain only to the Jewish People. Do different branches of Christianity make similar distinctions?

  • Dave

    Sari, the Amish have folkways and the Jehovah’s Witnesses have internal discipline that are intramural, not applicable to outsiders.

    I agree with your post #4 as to where we should go to look for public morality guidelines that do not stem from some church. A major project of the Enlightenment was to recast morals on non-Scriptural grounds. But Scripture is in our DNA, as it were, and the fruits of “secualar” morals are likely to echo the Beatitudes and “whatsoever you do to the least.”

    Northcoast, “moral exemplar” is found nowhere in the Constitutional job description of the President. I think the public needs to grow up and no longer have to look to either Washington or Hollywood for role models.

  • John Pack Lambert

    It still shocks me that the French act like the DSK scandal was aboyut “sex” when in fact it was about rape. Even if he did not commit a crime, he was accused of a crime. I guess maybe in France men forcing women to have sex with them is not culturally viewed as criminal, but here in the US we see it as a crime.

  • Hector_St_Clare

    Re: There needs to be some sort of societal consensus as to what constitutes moral behavior. Judaism distinguishes between the seven Noahide laws, applicable to all, and those laws which pertain only to the Jewish People. Do different branches of Christianity make similar distinctions?

    Yes. The Catholic (and to some extent, Anglican) traditions distinguish between the commandments of ‘natural law’, which applies to all men, and whose precepts can be drawn from reason, intuition, and the study of nature and society, and ‘divine law’, which only apply to Christians and whose precepts are drawn from revelation.

    Not killing the innocent people, not cheating on your spouse, not committing acts of economic injustice, etc. are forbidden by the natural law, not just divine law. (Of course there can be arguments about where the exact lines are drawn).