For decades, Le Monde has maintained its reputation of being an accurate newspaper, the kind people count on as a reference for facts and stories. It is a newspaper that has retained its old-fashioned style almost as a guarantee of its independent news voice and ownership.
In 1990, when so many technology changes had come to other papers, there were no computers in Le Monde’s newsrooms or the printing offices. The newspaper would not publish photographs, only cartoons. The journalists, mostly men, would gather information through private conversations and investigations. They would dictate their stories to secretaries or maybe use their own typewriters. Even in 1995, when a new management team lead by former political journalist Jean-Marie Colombani launched a revamped, more dynamic version of Le Monde, it managed to increase sales while keeping its reputation and values intact.
But during the later years of that decade, computers, electronic equipment, and the Internet began to surface in the newsroom. By 1997, Le Monde had opened an interactive Web site (www.tout.lemonde.fr) though no one seemed quite sure of how it would be used. Very few people used the Internet at the time and, at first, the site simply was another way of reading the main stories of the printed version. Now the Web site has some autonomy, publishing some of its own reporting and offering interactive services to the 15 percent of the French population who have access to Internet, as well as to foreigners.
In September 2000, when Le Monde’s investigative reporters got access to a videotape containing accusations that President Jacques Chirac had supervised a corruption scheme generating big funding for his political party, the Rassemblement pour la République (RPR), the Web site itself became national news. Hard copy readers of Le Monde could learn this news in the Friday edition dated September 22 that was available for sale in Paris starting at one in the afternoon on September 21. Subscribers and readers from the provinces, or from abroad, would, in theory, not discover the story until the next morning’s mail distribution and kiosk openings.
Editors at Le Monde knew its published accusations were so serious that other media organizations (radio and TV) would refer to the scandal before the next day. So, for the first time, Le Monde’s editors decided to publish its story online first. The story went up on the Web site on Thursday morning, a few hours before the printed version of the same story would begin to reach readers. Because the reporters had the videotape, the editors decided to also put the unedited tape on the site so viewers could hear and see the accusations that were being reported.
The videotape was an autobiographical text of Jean-Claude Mery, edited by an independent journalist, Arnaud Hamelin, now under judicial scrutiny for “concealing a violation of professional secret.” However, with prosecutors harassing Hamelin about meetings he had and information he received, the Societé des redacteurs du Monde (journalists are the majority stockholders of the newspaper) issued a statement expressing its concern. The statement called these judicial efforts “an impediment against the freedom of information and the protection of sources as guaranteed by European legislation.”
Mery was a real estate promoter and party fundraiser, who died of cancer in 1999. On the videotape, back in 1996, he explained how Chirac had supervised several corruption schemes when he was the mayor of Paris. Back in October 1986, Mery claimed he had, as an adviser to Chirac, conveyed millions of French francs in kickbacks as political contributions from big firms. Just as Kenneth Starr’s impeachment report on President Clinton was put on the Web in the United States in 1998 and created a national uproar, our “tape scandal” did the same. Internet publishing, used in this way for the first time, pushed sales of printed copies of the newspaper 30 percent higher on September 22, and 39 percent higher on the 23rd, the two days on which revelations were published. The Web site and the newspaper carried the same information about Mery. But the fact that people could directly listen to the tape gave the story instant credibility and seemed to increase their desire to know more through access to the printed editorials.
At first, legal specialists questioned the legal status of a videotape, compared to a written document. But since everybody could freely listen to the Web, this accusation soon went away. Then several politicians and firm representatives claimed that the operations being denounced were too old. Back in 1986, they said, there was no legislation defining the financing procedures of French political parties. (Several laws were passed starting in the late 1980’s.)
Observers also questioned the timing of the tape’s release: It came right before an important poll, organized by Jacques Chirac, asking French people if they agreed to shorten the presidential mandate from seven to five years. Obviously, the hot corruption story was more appealing than the dry constitutional law question. In the most massive case of absenteeism ever, only one-third of French citizens showed up at the polls, and 70 percent approved the shortening of the mandate. That outcome was not surprising, but what shocked people was that so many French citizens seemed so indifferent to democracy that they wouldn’t even vote anymore. Had the “tape” story had such an impact that this amount of voter absenteeism was becoming a sign of disgust towards the political world?
In the midst of this, Le Monde was accused of wanting to weaken Chirac, a conservative. But on the very evening of the referendum, the French weekly magazine L’Express revealed on its Web site that Dominique Strauss Kahn (a socialist and former minister of finance) was the owner of the original tape by Mery (Le Monde had a copy), a fact he never mentioned.
The story also raised some questions about Le Monde’s traditional position within the French press as the news organization that could be counted on to retain a focus on sound and important international issues. With France governing as president of the European Union until December 2000, with Serbian unrest and tensions developing in the Middle East, Le Monde’s decision to dramatically highlight this scandal by releasing the videotape on its Web site made some wonder about the newspaper’s “Parisian bias.”
The use of this new technology has not threatened Le Monde’s independence, nor has it weakened its journalistic role of filtering news to the public. On the contrary, using the Web site seems to have increased the newspaper’s audience and opened new arenas of investigative reporting. Government offices sometimes make some long-term trends and statistics available online which, when analyzed correctly, can be very revealing. “Conversing” on the Web about specific issues can also bring the journalist a lot of new information that can then be worked with and verified.
In the videotape story, the interactive Web site helped to move the revelations more rapidly to the general public, and hearing the voice and seeing the images increased their credibility. However, these actions were closely monitored by all the editors in chief, which hopefully will always be the case at Le Monde and other publications as this type of publishing increases. In the years ahead, Le Monde, like other newspapers, will need to find ways to ensure that the news delivered through either print or the Web are equally sound and accurate.
Françoise Lazare, a 1998 Nieman Fellow, has been a reporter for Le Monde since 1989, where she now specializes in global international lifestyle issues. She started as an economics writer after graduating from the Institut d’Etudes Politiques and from the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. In 1988, she worked in the newsroom of The Wall Street Journal as a correspondent for La Tribune de l’Economie, then affiliated with the New York publication.