In late November, as the Gilets Jaunes—or Yellow Vests—protest movement took hold in France, Martin Goillandeau and Makana Eyre wrote for CJR that participants were harassing, and even assaulting, journalists. Since then, the protests have become a weekly occurrence. So, too, have threats against reporters. “The harassment and violence have got worse,” Eyre told me this morning. “I went to the Saturday protests in Paris to shoot photos and see how big it would get. This was the first time that I really felt nervous with my camera… I saw people interfering with broadcasts, shouting at media teams, and getting in their faces. For much of it, I had my camera in my coat.”
This past weekend, a group of Yellow Vests in the northern city of Rouen set upon two journalists working for LCI, a French TV news broadcaster; they were spared by two bodyguards, one of whom ended up in hospital with a broken nose. Protesters aggressed another LCI team in Paris. In Toulon, two Agence France-Presse reporters were chased by about 10 people, while in nearby Marseille, photographers were hassled and blocked from taking pictures. In Toulouse, a group of protesters trapped a 31-year-old local journalist in her car and threatened her with rape. “They wanted me to open my window. I told them it wasn’t possible, that I had to go and pick up my son,” she recalled. “A man threatened me that I had two seconds to get out.” Organized groups have hampered newspapers’ core operations, too: overnight on Friday, for example, about 30 Yellow Vests blocked regional newspaper La Voix du Nord’s distribution depot and threatened to burn a truck, stopping 20,000 copies of the paper from being delivered. On Sunday, trash cans were set on fire outside the same paper’s offices. While no motive was immediately established, its director doesn’t think it was an accident.
VIDÉO @paris_normandie. Une équipe de journalistes de la chaîne @LCI ciblée par des manifestants à #Rouen. Les deux journalistes étaient accompagnés de deux agents de sécurité, dont l'un a dû être transporté à l'hôpital.
🔴 Suivez notre direct sur les ➡ https://t.co/VeQGgFWrvs pic.twitter.com/VmU9bpLOdI
— paris_normandie (@paris_normandie) January 12, 2019
Hatred of the news media among Yellow Vests derives from a poisonous cocktail of old and new grievances: as the sociologist Jean-Marie Charon told Le Monde, French radicals’ longstanding distrust of the press has been exacerbated of late by perceived negative coverage and anti-corporate rhetoric aimed at the big media companies. Public trust in journalists is critically low. And the media has lacked consistent support from politicians, who, as in the US and elsewhere, have indulged anti-press attacks more frequently in recent years. On Saturday, Noëlle Lenoir, a former government minister and (ironically) president of Radio France’s ethics committee, tweeted that the LCI journalists in Rouen bore responsibility for being attacked.
Yellow Vests’ attacks on journalists are complicated by the fact that it’s unclear who, broadly speaking, might reasonably be held accountable for them, or call for them to stop. The Yellow Vests movement is highly diffuse: while some activists have effectively become spokespeople, it lacks leadership and a coherent ideological agenda. An unpopular hike in diesel tax sparked the protests—neon yellow vests only became a symbol because French motorists are obliged to keep them in their cars—but that policy has long since been scrapped, and still tensions continue. Copycat movements have started, albeit on a much smaller scale, in other European countries, including the UK. But again, beyond a general sense of anti-establishment rage, it’s not easy to define what links different “Yellow Vests” movements.
For now, politicians and well-intentioned activists—via public platforms and out on the streets—should speak out in support of the press, and look out for the journalists who, by doing their jobs, are putting themselves in harm’s way. And media-watchers in the US should pay attention. In France, the fear of routine physical violence against reporters has become real.
Below, more on the Yellow Vests:
- “We want your skin”: In November, Goillandeau and Eyre recounted shocking early examples of attacks on reporters. In Toulouse, for example, “dozens of Yellow Vests started yelling, ‘We want your skin,’ and ‘You’re less than shit,’ then calling the journalists ‘collaborators,’ a reference to the support the Vichy government gave to the Nazis during World War II.”
- In the ring: While the Yellow Vests movement lacks a coherent structure, some activists have gained a wide following on social media or personal press attention. The Financial Times’s Domitille Alain and Victor Mallet profile eight important figures, including Christophe Dettinger, a former French boxing champion who was filmed punching police officers in Paris last month.
- Talking it out: On Sunday, French President Emmanuel Macron, who the Yellow Vests want to resign, announced a three-month “national debate” he hopes will quell the protests. While he promised to listen, however, he said his economic-reform agenda would continue.
- Empty vests: “Yellow Vests” has become fraught shorthand for reporters; while the symbol has become ubiquitous in France, it’s increasingly meaningless in ideological terms. In the UK, meanwhile, both far-left and far-right protesters have appropriated it. The Guardian’s Ben Quinn and Jon Henley track the fight for ideological ownership.
Other notable stories:
- Yesterday morning, I wrote about vulture-capital-backed Digital First Media’s bid to buy Gannett. After I hit send, Nieman Lab’s Ken Doctor came out with this comprehensive piece, situating the bid in a context of industry-wide consolidation plays and Gannett’s recent decline. “Gannett, like it or not, is in play,” he writes. “Even two years ago, that statement might have been dropped jaws—Gannett was clear it wanted to be the consolidator, not the consolidatee. But no longer: In an industry of unending downturn… all bets on the conventional wisdom of newspaper ownership are off.”
- Following a top-level rejig at NBCUniversal, Mark Lazarus will assume responsibility for NBC News, MSNBC, and CNBC—raising questions over the future of Andy Lack, who chairs the former two news divisions, and who has recently come under fire for NBC’s gamble on Megyn Kelly, failure to gamble on Ronan Farrow’s Weinstein reporting, and the #MeToo scandal around star host Matt Lauer. NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke backed Lack yesterday.
- Stephen Colbert’s CBS Late Show is proving a popular stop for Democrats with presidential aspirations, CNN’s Brian Stelter notes: over the past month, Colbert has interviewed Bernie Sanders, Julian Castro, and Kamala Harris, with Kirsten Gillibrand slated to appear tonight. Across the aisle, John Kasich, the never-Trump Republican and outgoing Ohio governor, is looking for a contributor gig at CNN or MSNBC (he’s ruled out going back to Fox) ahead of his own possible 2020 movement, CNBC’s Brian Schwartz reports.
- In CJR, Ryan Thornburg, who teaches journalism at UNC-Chapel Hill, calls on his department’s faculty to make an institutional statement against a Confederate monument that stands on campus. “In my reporting classes, I teach my students what I was taught—that good journalists learn how to set themselves aside and take a posture of professional detachment,” Thornburg writes. “I still believe all those things. But I’ve let my pursuit of impartiality shackle a voice that journalism needs right now—one that says our field isn’t so callous that it can’t defend basic human freedoms.”
- The Times’s Jim Rutenberg reckons Trump’s tweets praising the National Enquirer’s recent Jeff Bezos expose were a “Valentine” to David Pecker—the chair of the tabloid’s owner and erstwhile Trump pal who is now cooperating with New York prosecutors investigating the president. Meanwhile, at Bezos’s Washington Post, journalists are still weighing how to handle the Enquirer’s reporting on their owner’s love life, Vanity Fair’s Joe Pompeo reports. “Tabloid-style extramarital affairs aren’t typically in their wheelhouse,” Pompeo writes. “At the same time, they don’t want to appear to be ignoring the story.”
- Vox’s German Lopez takes issue with former Times reporter Alex Berenson’s new book on the potential danger of pot, which has received ample attention lately, including from Malcolm Gladwell in The New Yorker. “While a compelling read written by an experienced journalist, [the book] is essentially an exercise in cherry-picking data and presenting correlation as causation,” Lopez writes. “Observations and anecdotes, not rigorous scientific analysis, are at the core of the book’s claim that legal marijuana will cause—and, in fact, is causing—a huge rise in psychosis and violence in America.”
- And the punk zine Maximum Rocknroll is going out of print. It will live on online and through its weekly radio show, Pitchfork’s Evan Minsker reports.