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U.S.: France Complains News Reports Hurt Its Image

In an unusual move, the French government has accused the U.S. administration of trying to tarnish the reputation of France. The accusation -- denied by U.S. officials -- says that French opposition to the war on Iraq is the reason for this alleged smear campaign.

Washington, 16 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The government of France is complaining to American officials that the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush is using the news media to wage what it calls an "ugly campaign to destroy the image of France."

Jean-David Levitte, France's ambassador in Washington, sent a letter to Bush and to members of Congress yesterday. The letter said the White House failed to discipline administration officials responsible for leaking inaccurate stories to the media. The motive, the letter says, is to disparage France in retaliation for its opposition to U.S. policy on Iraq.

"The Washington Post" reported that the letter includes a two-page list of articles in U.S. media over the past nine months that accuse France of various unsavory contacts with Iraq on the basis of anonymous sources.

The most recent was an article published on 6 May in "The Washington Times," which quoted unnamed intelligence officials as saying the French government had issued French passports to fleeing Iraqi officials in Syria allowing them to travel to Western Europe.

France has vehemently denied all these accounts, and no one in the U.S. government has publicly confirmed them. But on the day of "The Washington Times" story, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said the French someday will have to account for "what they did or did not do," as he put it.

Yesterday, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was asked during a Pentagon briefing about France's claims of a U.S. government campaign to ruin its reputation. He replied: "Certainly there's no such campaign out of this building. I can't speak for the rest of government, but I have heard of nothing like that."

It is not uncommon for governments -- or dissenting government officials -- to use the news media for their own purposes. This was evident in Washington during the months preceding the war in Iraq, according to Jane Hall, an assistant professor of communications at American University in Washington.

"I think that, in the walkup to the war in Iraq, there may have been some times when the administration wanted to scare the Iraqis and plans were leaked. I also think there were people in the Pentagon who were opposed to the war plans who were, at least last summer, leaking some things that pretty clearly indicated that these were people opposed to the plans," Hall said.

Hall told RFE/RL that a journalist must be careful when publicizing information provided by a source who insists on anonymity. She said that in her two decades of reporting, she kept in mind something that she was told early in her career. "When I first got into journalism, a friend of mine who was a pretty well-known journalist said, 'Just remember: Whenever somebody tells you something, they're telling you something for a reason.'"

Hall noted that there are times when a story is more than just a collection of facts, but is an indictment of a person, an institution, or even the government of a powerful country -- in this case, France, which also is the United States' oldest ally.

According to Hall, it is important to let the subject of a story comment on it. Just as important, she said, is to obtain independent verification of the claims. This becomes even more important when the subject's reputation is at stake.

But Hall said this is not always possible. She cited the 6 May article in "The Washington Times," written by Bill Gertz, a veteran journalist who has a reputation for accuracy and good contacts among intelligence officials.

Hall said even Gertz may not have enough contacts or other resources to verify such sensitive information. "The rule used to be that you get more than one source," she said. "When you've got something that seems exclusive, you've got to be really careful, I think. It's very hard to check out what a U.S. intelligence official tells you, though, independently. I mean, what are you going to do? You're not going to be able to go to Iraq or Syria yourself. You have to trust your source and try to verify it as best you can."

Stories like the ones that have drawn complaints from the French government tend to be exclusive to a publication or broadcaster, according to Mark Feldstein, an associate professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University in Washington.

Feldstein explained that stories such as Gertz's tend to be detailed and contain sensitive information. Therefore their sources usually entrust them only to reporters who have proved to be reliable in representing the nuances correctly.

And then, Feldstein said, there is the chance that the story is wrong -- either due to the faulty information from the source, or misreporting by the journalist. "When you get a story like Bill Gertz's at 'The Washington Times,' where it's only one outlet that has it, usually you have one of two things operating. Either you have a story that's maybe bogus -- and I'm not saying that that's the case in Gertz's situation because he's had some pretty good scoops -- or you have something that other reporters can't match because you're really looking at different factions within the government leaking for the purpose of pushing their specific agenda, and they're probably going to do that with people they really trust," he said.

Ultimately, though, mutual trust is needed to bring such a story to the public. Not only must the reporter trust his sources to give him reliable information, but the sources themselves must trust the reporter to write the article accurately, and never to disclose his source's identity.

Feldstein said the record indicates that Gertz and his sources share that trust. "Gertz obviously is well-connected in the national-security apparatus, he works for a very conservative newspaper, 'The Washington Times,' and probably is more trusted than the average mainstream reporter to not reveal his source."

Feldstein said this mutual trust includes an implicit threat that further ensures reliability: each side knows that if the other breaches the trust, the relationship is ended. If the reporter betrays his source, his journalistic credibility will be badly damaged. If the source betrays the trust, his identity may be revealed.