The Media Today

Getting over your ex

March 28, 2023
Photo: Jacques Paquier, Flickr

“The media are neither allies nor adversaries, they neither think nor feel. They are like furnaces. If you are the person who puts in the fuel, you exist.”

Nicolas Sarkozy said this in 1997, to the authors of a book about the privatization of the French TV channel TF1, in which he played a part. Sarkozy was then in his early forties and had already been in politics for two decades, first as a municipal councilor in a commune in the Paris area, then as the commune’s mayor, then as a national budget minister and government spokesperson. Over the years he cultivated close relationships with both individual journalists and powerful media barons, two of whom served as witnesses at his second wedding, in 1996. Later, as interior minister in the government of Jacques Chirac, Sarkozy orchestrated newsworthy criminal raids, hosted press conferences for hundreds of reporters, and appeared so often on TV that a network once called him in as a standby after a scheduled guest dropped out, according to Emma Jane Kirby, who covered Sarkozy for the BBC. He obsessed over his ratings, so much so that he described taking part in a widely watched debate as his highlight of 2003.

Sarkozy’s strategy, as the historian Christian Delporte has put it, was one of “hypervisibility.” He would ride the strategy all the way to the French presidency; he was elected in 2007, becoming a “hyperpresident.” As Kirby has noted, Sarkozy’s relationship with the press while in office was paradoxical, at once more controlling and more liberal than that of his predecessors. He allowed the media—and thus the public—to peep into his private life as he courted his third wife, the singer and model Carla Bruni. This was novel for France, and some observers decried it as a gauche Americanization of the public sphere. (Sarkozy had “abandoned the theater of the heroic for daily TV,” the philosopher Régis Debray sniffed. “For the first time, and as in the US, France has not elected a character from a novel but a star of the small screen.”) But many journalists seemed mesmerized. At a press conference in 2008, Laurent Joffrin, the editor of the left-leaning magazine Libération, asked whether Sarkozy was hoarding power for himself. Sarkozy made fun of Joffrin for six minutes. The other journalists in the room laughed along.

As Sarkozy’s presidency progressed, there were more profound moments of tension with the press. One followed his effort to install his son on a prestigious board overseeing a business district in Paris. Then, in 2010, Mediapart, a startup investigative site modeled in part on ProPublica, reported on allegations that Sarkozy and his allies had exploited Liliane Bettencourt, the ailing heiress to the L’Oréal cosmetics fortune, for an illegal campaign contribution. A Sarkozy ally responded by accusing Mediapart of “fascist methods,” Fabrice Arfi, who worked on the story, told me. Certain members of the French media and commentariat—which have traditionally been quite reverential of the presidency—criticized the site, too. There’s something “still a little bit monarchical” about the French republic, Arfi said. “Our investigations disrupted the order of things a bit.”

Sarkozy also faced media mockery for his height; one magazine put his face on the cover in the style of a mug shot. “As if humiliated at having adored him, the press was now contributing to the de-consecration of Nicolas Sarkozy…based on a combination of attraction and repulsion,” Delporte wrote in 2012. Still, he remained, for the press, “an exceptional figure, a sort of flamboyant magician, fascinating and fearsome, capable of turning the worst situations to his advantage to such an extent that, in the run-up to the 2012 presidential election, even with disastrous ratings in the opinion polls he was still perceived as having everything to play for.”

Sure enough, Sarkozy lost that election, to François Hollande (who endured his own difficulties with the press). In the short term, at least, he continued to attract ample coverage; as Arfi told me, Sarkozy “structured the French media landscape to a very large extent even after his defeat.” In 2014, Nathalie Schuck, a political journalist who had just cowritten a book about Sarkozy, noted on a public-radio show that in the weeks after his departure from power, some members of the press felt as if the French electorate had just broken their “favorite toy.” A satirical puppet show broadcast a sketch that showed leading French TV journalists begging—to the tune of “Call Me Maybe”—for Sarkozy to come back, citing their boredom and poor ratings. Sarkozy’s team reportedly laughed along.

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Sarkozy’s continued media presence was also due, in no small part, to judicial investigations that started to target him, including in the Bettencourt case. (France, similarly to the US, does not allow for a sitting president to be indicted.) In the summer of 2012, his home and offices were raided. In the fall, when Sarkozy showed up at a courthouse in Bordeaux to answer questions, at least twenty-three camera crews were there to meet him; a local café owner reported that, thanks to the heavy media presence, his takings had risen by as much as 10 percent. In 2013, Sarkozy was placed under formal investigation. Around the same time, the judge in the case received a bullet in the mail. So, too, did a pair of journalists. “This time, they’re not loaded,” an accompanying letter read. “Next time, they will be.” In the end, the investigation into Sarkozy was dropped.

When Schuck spoke on the public-radio show in 2014, Sarkozy was on the cusp of returning as head of his conservative political party. The first question asked of her fellow panelists was whether the press had missed Sarkozy; one replied that to miss someone, they have first to have been absent. By then, Sarkozy was under investigation again in a separate case, involving taped evidence that he offered to help a magistrate win a prestige posting in Monaco in exchange for information in the Bettencourt case. By 2017, he was under investigation again, this time for knowingly authorizing his 2012 campaign to exceed campaign-spending limits in a convoluted fake-billing scheme. By then, he had tried and failed to get picked as his party’s presidential candidate for the 2017 election. The fallout from a planned trial in the 2012 spending case, a correspondent for the New York Times wrote, would now be limited by Sarkozy’s “diminished role in French politics.”

In March 2021, Sarkozy was convicted in the Monaco-judge case. He wasn’t the first former president to be convicted of a crime in France (that was Chirac, on embezzlement and conflict-of-interest charges dating to his days as mayor of Paris); Sarkozy was the first to be handed a (non-suspended) prison sentence, though he still isn’t expected to serve any time behind bars. Following the verdict, Sarkozy allies went on French television and railed against what they saw as a politicized prosecution. Sarkozy himself made a similar case, albeit in more emollient language, in print and TV interviews. Editors and columnists at two publications owned by friends of Sarkozy also came to his defense. In each case, journalists at the titles publicly disavowed comments that they saw as attacking the integrity of the justice system.

In September 2021, Sarkozy was convicted again, this time in the campaign-spending case. He has appealed both verdicts; decisions are expected in the coming months, and Sarkozy still faces an investigation in yet another case, involving the alleged financing of his 2007 campaign by the Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi. (Paradoxically, Sarkozy later championed the military intervention in Libya that toppled Gaddafi’s regime.) By this point, Sarkozy’s accumulated woes—including in the Gaddafi case, which Mediapart has covered aggressively—aren’t always making the front pages in France, Mathieu Magnaudeix, who has covered both French and US politics for Mediapart, told me. Introducing a recent public-radio program looking back at the long-term impact of Sarkozy’s border rhetoric on the growth of the far right in France, the host noted that his presidency has now almost been forgotten, despite the sharp change in tone that it represented. In March 2021, in the week after Sarkozy was convicted for the first time, he appeared only once among the top headlines in the print edition of Le Monde. The top print headline the day after his conviction was about Donald Trump pledging a comeback.

Alexis Lévrier, a media historian, told me that if French presidents enjoy reverence in France’s “presidential monarchy,” former presidents “lose their sacredness, they lose their legitimacy, they become a person like anyone else.… They’re no longer Jupiter. They’re no longer the monarch.” When I asked him about France’s experience of indicting former presidents, Lévrier laughed and said, “It’s going well.” The press “did its job, the judiciary did its job, and a former president can be convicted. It’s almost been normalized now.”

No furnace runs forever.

Other notable stories:

  • Yesterday, a shooter at a private Christian school in Nashville killed six people, three of them students. The shooter used AR-style weapons in the attack; as Axios noted, the news moved to the top of the Washington Post’s homepage yesterday, displacing a deeply reported package of stories that had stemmed from a seven-month investigation into the AR-15’s role in America. Elsewhere, CNN’s Oliver Darcy reported that several news organizations updated their stories on the shooting after initially misgendering the suspect, a transgender man, as a woman. Darcy also pointed to coverage of the shooting by Joylyn Bukovac, a reporter with the Nashville TV station WSMV who herself survived a school shooting, in 2010, and spoke about the experience on air.
  • Also yesterday, President Biden signed an executive order regulating the federal government’s use of powerful commercial spyware tools that could pose security risks in the US or have otherwise been abused by foreign governments, including to surveil activists and journalists. The order, Mark Mazzetti reports for the Times, “covers only spyware developed and sold by commercial entities, not tools built by American intelligence agencies,” and is not “a blanket prohibition”; the Drug Enforcement Administration, for instance, already uses an Israeli-made tool and has no plans to give it up. (I wrote in February about the abuse of Pegasus spyware against journalists.)
  • In media-jobs news, Edward Felsenthal is stepping down as editor in chief of Time; Sam Jacobs will succeed him on an interim basis, with Felsenthal staying on as executive chairman. Elsewhere, Jonathan D. Salant—whose recent departure as the only remaining DC bureau chief for a New Jersey newspaper was decried by members of the state’s congressional delegation—will now serve as assistant managing editor for politics at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. And, according to the Wall Street Journal, Gayle King, of CBS, is also set to take over as host of a weekly prime-time show on CNN.
  • Late last week, journalists at Les Echos, a French financial newspaper, went on a byline strike in protest of what they called the “forced departure” of Nicolas Barré, the paper’s editor in chief. According to Adrienne Klasa, of the Financial Times, staffers at Les Echos have accused Bernard Arnault—the paper’s billionaire owner, who also owns the luxury conglomerate LVMH (and was one of the Sarkozy wedding witnesses I mentioned above)—of pushing out Barré over a book review critical of a fellow media mogul.
  • And BuzzFeed’s Chris Stokel-Walker spoke with the Chicago man who created the AI-generated image of the pope in a puffer coat that tricked the world over the weekend (yes, including me, if you were among the readers confused by my sarcasm in yesterday’s newsletter). The creator of the image said that he was tripping on shrooms at the time, and that the fact that so many people fell for it was “definitely scary.”

ICYMI: Has the press learned to cover Trump better? The past week suggests not.

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.