BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. This week, the 24-hour news channel game got a little bigger with the launch of France 24.
[CLIP] [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
ANNOUNCER: This is "France 24."
FRENCH ANNOUNCER: Nous sommes en [AUDIO TRAILS OFF]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The new government-funded satellite cable and Internet channel launched this week in Europe, Africa, the Middle East, New York and Washington. Today it's available in French and English, and plans are to add Arabic and Spanish down the line.
It is a new station but an old idea. A recent story in Business Week speculated that the French desire to speak to the world dates back two decades, but that French President Jacques Chirac got particularly keen on it in 2002, when France felt stifled in the pre-war debate.
After all, America had CNN, the Brits had the BBC – but let's face it, in America, at least, misunderstanding the French has a rich history that certainly predates the war in Iraq.
GROUNDSKEEPER WILLIE: Bonjour, you cheese-eatin' surrender monkeys. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That's Groundskeeper Willie on The Simpsons in 1995. In the late '90s, National Review columnist Jonah Goldberg reinjected the phrase into the mainstream media. By the time France was blocking the war at the United Nations Security Council, the phrase had resurfaced, and "surrender monkeys" was being gleefully repeated on Fox News and other apparently Francophobic news outlets. But that's just us Yanks.
Jacques Chirac, in spearheading the effort to launch the new channel, probably intended to convey his nation's true nature to the world. That would be consistent, says Jack Doppelt, a journalism professor from Medill University, visiting at the Institute D'etudes Politiques de Paris.
JACK DOPPELT: You know, France has a very serious inferiority complex now and for the past generation. [BROOKE And that is a part of French conversation here. You know, why isn't France as important as it used to be in anything, whether it's films or perfume-making or winemaking or politics?
This did come out of the brain of Jacques Chirac after the breakdown between France's position on the Iraq war and the United States and Britain. And in his head, that's what made it seem so important that France's image, its being, get out there to the world.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So is the Paris street buzzing about France 24 right now?
JACK DOPPELT: No, it's not, of course. It's ironic. The whole idea of France 24 is to export some notion of France and French culture. Nobody knows even what channel here you can get it on.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Its mission statement more or less suggests that what it really wants to do is spread French art de vivre, I guess -
JACK DOPPELT: Mm-hmm [AFFIRMATIVE].
BROOKE GLADSTONE: - the art of life around the world. Well, what exactly is that?
JACK DOPPELT: Well, that's a good question. I mean, there are three things that it's now projecting as what it wants to get out there – some notion of diversity, some notion of debate, because French talk shows use the format of lively debate, and the art of living. And the art of living is just, you know, a notion of lifestyle. In simple form, it might be the shorter work week that France has.
Well, if you think about how is that going to be projected in the day-to-day news stories, and the answer is it's not really. So I know exactly what France 24's promotional material has been saying, but I don't know how it's actually going to serve the end that it claims to be serving, which is not to say that it won't be a valuable product for the world to have – more reporters out in the world shooting more stories with more images and more material from parts of the world that are underreported. That's a good thing.
But I would be totally shocked if it succeeded in getting out France's art of living or anything else that's purely French.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: France 24 wants to do original worldwide reporting on an 80 million Euro budget – that amounts to about 114 million dollars – compared to CNN's 856 million. They're going to be beating back much better-established and better-funded competitors.
JACK DOPPELT: Yes, and I think they know that. It is not going to make the kind of statement that an Al-Jazeera is making, as it turns out, in pretty much the same time and the same places in the world.
I tend to think if they're thinking modestly, it may be a useful product for the world to have. If they're thinking commercial success, which they're not, but if they're thinking at least financial viability, that's even going to be hard.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So it's something more akin to, say, Germany's Deutsche Welle than it would be to the British BBC – if they're lucky.
JACK DOPPELT: Exactly. And Russia even has a channel, Russia Today. So I think despite its pretenses of trying to be one of the major players – it even had to change its promotional materials to saying it was going to be the third among three to now being the fourth among four, with Al-Jazeera, and, you know, it's not even taking into account EuroNews and Sky and Deutsche Welle and all types of other stations.
And the only thing they have in common is they tend to present as being news-oriented programming for 24 hours a day. Other than that, they're competing against dozens and dozens and dozens of news and reality and documentary channels. So I predict that it will be a modest player in the scheme of things.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I think what you've suggested is that maybe the French perspective isn't distinct enough to have made a difference even if they had the cash to back it.
JACK DOPPELT: I agree with that. I don't think it is distinct enough. It is adjusting a little bit its promotional materials to really be – for instance, it started out by saying something like, everything you're not supposed to know, and no one had any idea what France had to offer about things you're not supposed to know, since the basic news orientation in France is kind of cozy with its politicians, and you're not going to know things you're not supposed to know.
So they changed it a bit to be, the French eye on world news, beyond the news, all of these kind of clichés. And what it's really trying to stake out is that it is going to be in places in the world that are underreported.
However, for that, it seems to me that if you're in the United States and you want a new flavor, you want to see stories from places like the Congo and Togo and Sierra Leone, you're not going to be turning to them. You're going to be turning to Al-Jazeera.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: All right. Jack, thanks a lot.
JACK DOPPELT: You're welcome.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jack Doppelt is a visiting professor at the Institute D'Etudes Politique de Paris. Back home, he's a professor at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism