The world reflects as Notre-Dame burns

Yesterday evening, Paris time, Notre-Dame cathedral caught fire. As it burned, photos and video—of billowing smoke; of flames raging in the cross-shaped interior; of the spire leaning slowly, then tumbling away—held global attention. French media were never far from someone weeping. “Pardon me… I am just so shaken,” one caller cried on Radio France. “It’s a treasure, a national treasure that has gone up in flames,” said another, through sobs. The late edition of Le Parisien, echoing the poignant religious symbolism of so much coverage, led with the headline Notre-Dame des larmes: Our lady of tears.

In the US, the story was everywhere. The networks quickly corralled their correspondents (disrupting at least one vacation in the process). As news reporters kept us abreast of firefighters’ battle to save the cathedral’s structure, magazines published more personal reflections. In The New Yorker, Lauren Collins recalled a recent visit to Notre-Dame’s roof, where she had checked in on renovation work. “Tonight,” she wrote, “I realized that we may have been some of the last people to stand there.” For The Atlantic, Rachel Donadio watched amid a crowd as a building that had “survived eight centuries of plague, war, revolution, and the Nazis” started to fall. “Messages come in from friends around the world—‘Are you okay?’—as if this were another terrorist attack, or a death in the family,” she wrote. “In a way, it is a death. In the human family. We are all shocked together.”

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In many corners of social media, the atmosphere was funereal. Even people who could see the fire with their own eyes viewed it through their phones. They were “trying to capture in a few pixels what had stood for centuries,” wrote Donadio, who encapsulated the cathedral’s lifespan: “Built in the Gothic era, destroyed in the social-media era.”

Because this is the social-media era, misinformation about the fire spread quickly. BuzzFeed’s Jane Lytvynenko rounded up hoaxsters’ claims that Emmanuel Macron/Michelle Obama/“Muslims”/terrorists set the fire deliberately. (While the actual cause has yet to be established, French officials say there’s no evidence of arson, and suspect an accident.) The platforms, once again, attracted criticism. Matt Dornic, an executive at CNN, said Twitter refused to remove a fake CNN account because it had the word “parody” in its bio. (The account was later suspended.) YouTube, for its part, flagged several major outlets’ livestreams of the fire as misinformation, then, for some reason, linked out to explainer content about 9/11.

For the most part, who or what might be to blame seemed a secondary concern. People around the world led with their tributes, their reflections, and their grief. As Michael Kimmelman observed in The New York Times, no one had died. The global reaction, nonetheless, was overwhelming. Was it because Notre-Dame has been such a focal point of Western culture, both religious and secular? Was it something peculiar to Paris, which has always tugged on our heartstrings? Was it the abundance of shocking visuals, served to us everywhere we looked? Did we see a metaphor—in our troubled times—for lost permanence, lost steadfastness, lost beauty? What, exactly, did it stir in us? Admittedly, it’s easier to pose questions than answers.

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Whatever the reason, an angry world and much of its media stopped, for a few hours, at least, to watch a tragedy and to try to process it. We weren’t silent—far from it. But the tenor of the coverage was a break from the incessant thunder to which we have become accustomed. Briefly, something old and beautiful commanded our attention, and our contemplation.

Below, more on Notre-Dame:

  • The latest: According to French authorities, the structure of the cathedral is still “sound” and major paintings from inside have survived largely intact. Last night, Emmanuel Macron, the French president, vowed that Notre-Dame would be rebuilt, and promised that a national fund would be launched today for that purpose. (Hundreds of millions of euros have already been pledged). For the latest updates, follow The Guardian, in English, or Le Monde, in French.
  • View from the inside: Philippe Wojazer, a photographer with Reuters, was one of the first journalists to get images from inside the burned cathedral. He shared his striking photos on Instagram.
  • “An impromptu memorial service”: Vanity Fair’s Erin Vanderhoof writes that Twitter was both a breaking-news resource and an “impromptu memorial service” yesterday. “In the face of an unfathomable, historic loss, Twitter became a place to mourn, to squabble about the right way to mourn, and to then hit ‘play’ on the video of the spire collapsing and mourn again.”
  • “A different kind of catastrophe”: For the Times, Kimmelman reflects on the symbolism of Notre-Dame and the fire. “This fire is not like other recent calamities,” he writes. “Notre-Dame, where no one died, represents a different kind of catastrophe, no less traumatic but more to do with beauty and spirit and symbolism.”


Other notable stories:

  • The 2019 Pulitzer Prizes were awarded yesterday. It was a big day for local outlets: the South Florida Sun Sentinel won the coveted public service prize for its reporting on the Parkland school shooting, while the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette was honored in the breaking news category for its coverage of the Tree of Life synagogue massacre. (As CJR’s Andrew McCormick wrote, the awards reflected a violent year for journalists.) The LA Times and Baton Rouge Advocate also picked up prizes, as did The New York Times and Wall Street Journal for deep investigations into Trumpworld, and Reuters, whose journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were honored for the reporting that put them in jail in Myanmar. The full list of winners is here.
  • The Justice Department confirmed that the Mueller report will be delivered to Congress and the public on Thursday—once lawyers have finished redacting it. (We were originally promised it by today.) “This release comes right before Easter and Passover, and coincides with one of the longest recesses on Capitol Hill,” Politico’s Playbook team noted. “No matter what the report says, that DC will be empty is a bit of a boon to the president and his team.” Also for Politico, Darren Samuelsohn previews the tactics different readers might use to digest the report, which runs to nearly 400 pages.
  • Over the weekend, Twitter took down several tweets linking to a news article about pirated content. The TV network Starz had complained that the article included screenshots of copyrighted material and “information about [its] illegal availability.” Given “fair use” provisions in US copyright law, the complaint looked like overreach. CJR’s Mathew Ingram was among those whose tweets were targeted. “Twitter seems to act incredibly quickly whenever there is a copyright claim, but it is considerably more circumspect in responding to complaints about offensive or harassing speech,” he writes.
  • Bernie Sanders went on Fox News last night, sparring with hosts Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum during a town-hall event in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Politico’s Holly Otterbein writes that Sanders “emerged triumphant” from the broadcast. “In the days preceding the event, Sanders faced backlash from liberals who said he shouldn’t participate… But when it was over, Sanders had received an hour of positive exposure on the highest-rated cable channel—something none of his primary rivals have yet risked.”
  • In February, Vice launched Vice Live, a flagship new nightly news show. According to The Daily Beast’s Maxwell Tani, the program has already been canceled. (The company said it would be “breaking out” some of the show’s “most popular talent and formats.”) During its brief run, Vice Live struggled for ratings and with offscreen tensions.
  • Editorial staff at Quartz are unionizing with the NewsGuild of New York. In a statement, the Quartz Union said Uzabase—which bought Quartz from Atlantic Media last year—“seems committed to our core goals,” but that “their plans for Quartz’s editorial operation remain unclear, and with layoffs taking place in droves across the industry, our future feels uncertain.” For our Spring/Summer 2018 print issue, Anna Heyward assessed the wave of unionization efforts sweeping digital newsrooms.
  • For CJR, Igor Bosilkovski checks in with Mirko Ceselkoski, the “Macedonian fake news strategist” whose former students attracted international attention when they churned out junk content ahead of the US presidential election in 2016. “For now, Ceselkoski says that the majority of his business comes not from politicians, but from his work with US trucking companies… ‘There are no surprises here, everything is legal.’”
  • In an essay for ABC News, Elizabeth Thomas, a graduate journalism student at Georgetown University, reflects on going to study at the institution that enslaved two of her ancestors. Recently, students at Georgetown voted to start a fund for descendants of the university’s slaves, to be paid for by a slight increase in tuition. The university has yet to approve the measure.
  • And James Murdoch, son of Rupert, maxed out his campaign donation to Pete Buttigieg, whose longshot bid for the Democratic presidential nomination has gathered momentum in recent weeks. Despite the hardened conservative politics of much of his family’s news empire, James Murdoch describes himself as a centrist.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR's newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.