BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. Here's a story for our troubled times: A gang of Africans and Arabs attack and rob a young woman on a train outside Paris, insult her, draw swastikas on her stomach and overturn her baby carriage. None of the passengers come to her rescue or call the police. The woman went to the French police two weeks ago with these allegations, and the public and politicians were horrified. It was the big story on French radio, TV and in the newspapers. There's only one problem -- the anti-Semitic crime didn't happen. Within days, the woman admitted fabricating the story, and everyone backtracked. But, the damage was done, especially to the credibility of French media. Independent producer Thomas Marzahl reports from Paris.
THOMAS MARZAHL: Within two and a half hours of the first report of the alleged attack, the French interior ministry and President Jacques Chirac had condemned it as hideous and shameful. [FRENCH NEWS PROGRAM CLIP PLAYS] The affair topped all evening news shows. The dailies ran front page headlines such as "Vile and Stupid," and "The Train of Hate." Everyone based their reports on the allegations of one woman, and the responses from the interior ministry and Chirac's Elysee Palace. Sophie Roquelle, deputy editor of news for the conservative Le Figaro, defends her paper's coverage.
SOPHIE ROQUELLE: We were careful. The story said it was her version of the facts. We really insisted on that. But, it's the problem when you, you know, it's July - there's no other big news. If the Elysee plus the interior ministry, you know, reacted so big, so - for us, that Sunday it was a big story. I mean for the, for the newspaper. It gives a lot of credibility to a story.
BERTRAND PECQUERIE: You have to imagine this kind of climate in France, that when such a story happens, immediately you have to take a position.
THOMAS MARZAHL: Bertrand Pecquerie is the head of the Paris-based World Editors Forum, a resource center for newspaper editors.
BERTRAND PECQUERIE: If you don't take a position, you are considered anti-Semite. It's impossible for ministers, for political leaders not to immediately take a microphone and saying it's horrible.
THOMAS MARZAHL: The editor in chief of the left wing Liberation is Antoine de Gaudemar. He thinks the media joined with the politicians in the rush to react.
ANTOINE DE GAUDEMAR: As soon as we hear about a story like this, we are conditioned to react immediately, and I think it is very dangerous, because we lose our critical spirit, and when we - you are journalist it's the first thing to do to --not to believe immediately what is happening, but to ask questions, to verify. And, and so it was a hard mistake, but I am not sure that it will not happen again.
THOMAS MARZAHL: Liberation, Le Figaro and every other daily gave as much prominence to the affair when it fell apart. Liberation went further -it disclosed in detail how it dealt with the story the day after it broke. It also immediately apologized to its readers and to the Arabs and African falsely accused of committing the attack. The last time the paper wrote a prominent apology was four years ago -- then, for a page one picture with the wrong caption. In a commentary for Liberation, media critic Daniel Schneidermann wrote that people were horrified and fascinated at the same time. He likened the affair to a wolf whose appetite is insatiable. [SCHNEIDERMANN SPEAKING IN FRENCH]
INTERPRETER: Everyone is scared of the wolf, because it's hungry. But I wonder whether we, French citizens, aren't hungry ourselves - hungry for the wolf. It's as if we need an enemy. It's as if we're hungry for events like this, where we hastily believed that the hellish vision of what the young woman said had happened.
THOMAS MARZAHL: Pecquerie lauds the press for frankly admitting its rush to judgment, but he says French media need an independent watchdog. In Great Britain, the Press Complaints Commission can censure the print media for false reporting and bases the decisions on an ethics code the newspapers themselves drew up.
BERTRAND PECQUERIE: The movement of watchdogs is typically Anglo-Saxon. It's a very good thing that citizens, readers, academics decide to watch the media. The media watch the reality, and somebody has to watch the media. So it's a, a very simple movement, and I hope we will have the same movement here in continental Europe.
THOMAS MARZAHL: Schneidermann advocates a more American approach. [DANIEL SCHNEIDERMANN SPEAKING IN FRENCH]
INTERPRETER: Perhaps one day we'll no longer fall into such traps, but how? The media have to question themselves, look at how they work. Like the New York Times did concerning the war in Iraq. The lesson is: the media have to investigate themselves more and more.
THOMAS MARZAHL: This week, a court handed the woman who fabricated the whole affair a suspended sentence, and she was ordered to undergo counseling. French media critics might counsel their media to see an analyst as well. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] For On the Media, I'm Thomas Marzahl, in Paris. [MUSIC UP FULL]