The Dominique Strauss-Kahn Story: A Cottage Industry For Theme-Seeking Journalists

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A man walks past front pages of newspapers featuring former International Monetary Fund (IMF) chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn, at a central kiosk in Paris July 2, 2011. (Photo: Gonzalo Fuentes - Reuters)

Though it wasn’t deafening enough to mark the official opening of journalism’s summer Silly Season, a recent chorus of articles improvising on the Dominique Strauss-Kahn topic does merit the momentary elevation of the discerning reader’s eyebrow.  Come on colleagues: this caper is sensational and dramatic enough on its own to keep us from having to schlep off to the wilds of left field to dig up any counter-intuitive twists. For those of you who missed some of those one-bridge-too-many angles now being explored, here’s a sampler of stories that arguably didn’t need to be done. (And yes, this would be me writing about stories that shouldn’t have been written. Does this make me a hypocrite? Probably. Maybe it is Silly Season after all.)

The Fox Mulder Theme: The French press is currently buzzing with stories about staunch DSK backers repeating their earlier (and evidence-free) charges their hero was the victim of a conspiracy. (Sorry, most links in this section are to French texts.) Over the weekend, two Socialist politicians restated their belief that Strauss-Kahn had been undone by a nefarious cabal–and pointed an accusing finger at top management of Accor, the French hotel group the owns and operates Sofitel. They not only claim someone at the New York Sofitel alerted the Elysée barely an hour after Strauss-Kahn’s May 14 arrest for sexual assault, but allege Accor assisted “certain French cloak-and-dagger services” afterward with whatever it was those evil spooks had up their sleeves. Against Friday’s dramatic news that New York prosecutors no longer feel the victim’s credibility will withstand defense probing if they take their sexual assault case against DSK to trial, proponents of the conspiracy angle feel certain their charges will be taken more seriously. And they may be right—thanks to other still other media variation on the DSK theme.

Reports in recent days have noted how official responses to conspiracy allegations themselves raise new questions–sort of. On Monday, less than 24 hours after the new speculation of a Strauss-Kahn set-up, Bernard Squarcini, director of France’s main domestic intelligence service, categorically denied his agency had in any way been involved in DSK’s situation, or had interacted with Sofitel or Accor management. But if Squarcini was unequivocal, his boss—French Interior Minister and former Elysée chief of staff to President Nicolas Sarkozy, Claude Guéant—denounced the charges as “perfectly scandalous”. Yet in doing so, Guéant noted it “would be perfectly normal if a large hotel chain had informed French authorities” that an international VIP and French citizen had been arrested virtually on its turf. And while ridiculing the conspiracy theory detractors theorize as having been aimed at taking out Sarkozy’s main rival for the 2012 presidential race, Guéant nevertheless acknowledged he had been informed of DSK’s predicament shortly after police took him in. In this atmosphere, that’s being considered significant.

Except that a government’s top cop being clued in real time to big developments concerning the country’s political life and international relationships is hardly evidence that a vast, evil plot had been afoot. Despite that, don’t expect the rumor won’t go away as quickly as it resurfaced. On Sunday, a former U.S. Treasury official came forward with his thinking on why DSK could have been set up by political adversaries.  The previous day, Libération ran a story citing apparently informal comments by Strauss-Kahn’s advisors and allies about DSK’s “paranoid” behavior during a April 28-29 visit to Paris. The report says Strauss-Kahn requested non-encrypted cell phones be incapacitated during discussions to prevent furtive eavesdropping by pro-Sarkozy security officials—and named Guéant explicitly. It also says Strauss-Kahn described how a fabricated, difficult to disprove rape accusation could be cooked up and rolled out by forces wanting to wreck an international figure’s career. In doing so he noted that forces with established records of intelligence dirty tricks “want me fired from the IMF”, and is quoted then saying “the Russians are the keenest about that, and Putin is close to Sarko…” All sounds ominous, doesn’t it?

Not really. Never mind that there’s actually zero evidence of a conspiracy, or that Friday’s development indicates prosecutors now think their case has been blown by moves that a secret operative of a slick, professional set up would have never made. Conspiracy backers—and articles on them—insist the truth is out there, the government denies knowledge, and several other X Files slogans we’ve all forgotten because The Wire was more recent, and way, way cooler.

The Journalists Writing About Journalists Theme: Given the peerless role the New York Times has played in reporting the biggest scoops in the DSK affair, it might not be surprising its principal rival, the Washington Post, has tried to find other niches in the story. Analyzing the flaky journalism and cynical flip-flopping of tabloids, however, probably wasn’t worth the reporting effort that went into its Monday story. Let’s hope it will know better next time.

Yes, the French noticed when the NY Post called Strauss-Kahn “Le Perv” and compared him to a notoriously randy, French-accented cartoon skunk. But if French and international media quoted the habitually over-the-top headline hysteria and partisan attacks on Strauss-Kahn’s presumption of innocence by New York tabs, it was for the same reason many non-Americans were shocked by U.S.  justice that seemed to be steamrolling DSK and treating him as a criminal before his trial even began: it was all part of the wider reaction to what struck many in Europe as the excessive, brutal, take-no-prisoners atmosphere that seemed to define Strauss-Kahn’s treatment and dilemma.

Much has been debated (and denounced) in France and Europe about the American legal system and its functioning vis-à-vis other judicial structures abroad. And observations and conclusions arising from that debate may well be drawn from as officials seek to improve tlegal systems on both sides of the Atlantic. Which is all interesting and very much germane to the case. But examining the journalism of tabloids in the DSK affair as a socio-cultural exercise and warning about not allowing hype-mongers set the tone for what the world media then reports? Is that really necessary? Turning news into sensationalism, cherry picking facts (when information has indeed been proven as such), creating entertainment from current events, and cheering the hero—or jeering the villain, even if that happens to be the same person at different moments—is what tabloids do. They’re the professional wrestling of journalism. If the rest of the media isn’t aware—and actively avoiding replication—of that, we’re in bigger trouble than the odd reporter reaching too far to squeeze one more story out of a topic.

The Old Chestnut Theme: While the Post was off in the tabloid weeds, the Times decided to examine DSK from a tired old angle: looking at how French reaction to Friday’s drama is in reality driven by anti-Americanism. With all due respect to the Times and its staff, it isn’t. It just isn’t. And it’s hard to see how you make the claim it is if you know what French anti-Americanism has always been about.

In recent history, French anti-Americanism has been rooted in the pride, arrogance, defiance, and (let’s face it) envy personified by Charles de Gaulle, who dominated most aspects of French life in the 1950s and 1960s. That standard Gaullist expression of anti-Americanism endured in varying virulent forms into the late 1980s. Under this general view—which was shared to differing degrees, and for different reasons on the left and right alike—the U.S. appeared as a domineering, neo-colonialist, manipulating, bullying and essentially suspicious ally (“ally”, since the only other super power available was even worse) whose efforts to advance its own national interests and agenda had to be watched and off-set at all times. In its most rabid form, French anti-Americanism was akin to a kind of nation-focused racism: a prejudiced point of view that saw anything the U.S. did, said, desired or proposed as by being—by definition—corrupt, unfair, selfish, and just plain bad as its source was. Even individual Americans who might prove themselves honest, noble, and altruistic were the futile drop in the ocean of American exceptionalism and bullying.

That kind of thinking has been virtually absent from mainstream French politics and society for a good two decades now, and it stands out in toweringly bigoted obviousness on the very rare occasions it is expressed again. (The last time I heard it was in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, when extreme-left leader Arlette Laguiller—you have my permission to ask “Who?”—distinguished herself as the only French public figure willing to step in front of a camera to say she couldn’t be sorry for the victims or condemn the perpetrators, since the entire attack was the inevitable, logical response to relentless American violence against poor nations and oppressed people. The universal French reaction of that time was instead summed up by the le Monde headline, “We Are All Americans”.)

The French by and large like and respect the U.S.—though not without reserving the right to criticize it, and do things differently when they think it better. That’s called “being human”. And while the French, like many other people around the globe, can be shocked when they crash up against certain aspects of American life they find objectionable, counter-productive, or repulsive—whether it’s the death penalty, attitudes on hand guns, ideological opposition to clearly superior French health care, or the way America’s criminal system treats suspects—that doesn’t strengthen or unleash supposed anti-American demons that reside in them. Neither Iraq nor the DSK saga has inspired the French to cut back their visits to the U.S. that so many of them seem to love, or decrease their vast consumption of American music or video exports. A nation that gets the shakes if it misses a single episode of House just isn’t going to throw the entire, generally cherished American baby out with the DSK bath water.

Meanwhile, even French politicians Americans have recently vilified as anti-American have scarcely qualified for such accusation—especially under the definition of the term over the past 70 years. Ravished for his (alas, entirely prescient) opposition of the Iraq war, former President Jacques Chirac was actually big fan of the U.S., and even spent time living the American life stateside during his youth. Like most French people, Chirac reserved the right to disagree with his friends—an unacceptable outrage to Iraq-blinkered Americans and media of that era—but on the whole was a more avid lover of the U.S. than the a successor who gave himself the flattering nickname “Sarko l’américain”. Meanwhile, anyone think new IMF leader Christine Lagarde is a closet American basher? How about NBA star Tony Parker? And though there are lots of reasons to criticize the incessant, annoying media pontificating by Bernard-Henri Lévy, droning anti-American isn’t a knock that would ever stick. The DSK affair outing the France once again as anti-American? Isn’t that thematic formula being held backwards?

Indeed, given the volume of name calling that takes place across the Atlantic during moments of tension—whether it’s Iraq and “freedom fries”, or differing views about how societies treat big shots accused of violating the rights of women—there’s an argument to be made that there’s more knee-jerk anti-French sentiment in the U.S. than there is anti-Americanism waiting for an excuse to explode in France. Though the French certainly were good at anti-Americanism in past decades, it’s actually hard to find anyone committed to genuine anti-Americanism in France today–and probably impossible in its political class and mass media.  That’s certainly not reversing itself at the very time Strauss-Kahn looks like he may get off the American legal hook—and probably won’t be the case even if New York tabloid covers start mocking French conspiracy obsessions. Neither the French or the tabs are that silly.