“I always wanted to be a journalist. I wanted to witness history. I didn’t want to be in front of the camera, I think that was my motivation in the beginning. My motivation was really to listen to people, to meet people, to describe the daily life of people. I really believe in serious journalism, which is, in my opinion, vital to democracy.”
Laura Haim was a Fall Fellow at the University of Chicago Institute of Politics. Born in France, she began her career in journalism at seventeen years old at RTL Radio. In 1992, she moved to the United States and worked as a reporter for twenty-five years. For four of these years, she lived in and reported on the Middle East for CBS. She then covered Barack Obama’s presidency and Donald Trump’s presidential campaign for Canal Plus. In December 2016, she joined Emmanuel Macron’s presidential campaign in France, as his spokesperson for international affairs.
“In the United States at the moment, you have many different ways of doing journalism. The print press is doing extraordinarily well, the digital press is doing really interesting work, and the investigative work is there. I’m just a little skeptical about the twenty-four-hour cable news system with the breaking news effect. I personally think that at one time, it’s too much, and you’re losing people by doing that. What is the best way to speak about Trump? Does it have to be every fifteen minutes of breaking news?
Each media really has its own responsibility about democracy. I mean, what is important in the world that we live in? Is it important that people understand the world we live in, that we think about the democratic process? Or is it more important to do ratings—to cover the latest tweet by Donald Trump?”
Haim elaborated on what it means for the different forms of media, such as print and broadcast media, to uphold responsibility to democracy.
“To cover one candidate all the time has an effect on an election.
In France, it could not happen, because we have a strict law prohibiting the media from covering one candidate more than another. In the last weeks of the French presidential campaign, we had sixteen presidential candidates, and, lo and behold, the French media had to give equal amount of time to each candidate. There was a joke in France that ‘it’s to avoid the Trump effect.’”
According to Haim, there are other ways that broadcast media upholds this responsibility.
“One of the most important moments in the last two weeks [of campaigning] was the TV debate between Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen. Millions of people watched and in the first thirty minutes, you saw that Emmanuel Macron was extremely well prepared, against someone who was just using expressions, smiles, and bad words against Macron. It was quite interesting to see someone who was quite inspired by the Trump campaign in front of Macron, because she was definitely unprepared for this debate.
[In France,] because the candidates sit across the table from each other, they are able to interact with each other. It is not this kind of ‘two minutes, two minutes’ debate [in the United States]. It’s important for democracy when sometimes you have a debate in which people interact more, than to have this rigid debate, when each candidate is behind a podium.”
Haim touched on how social media, as another relevant form of media today, also plays a role in democratic elections.
“There was important moment which was about a factory that was supposed to close in Amiens, France. It was a very sensitive issue, and there was a strike. Macron went, Le Pen went. It was very, very heavy. The unions were there. The workers were there. They basically almost wanted to kill Macron—they screamed at him, they burned tires, it was a very, very violent thing.
Macron wanted to show to France that he was able to walk through, that he wanted to dialogue with the people who were against his policy. We posted on Facebook this event. We were able to show Macron talking to workers, even when workers were against him. We were able to show his courage, his determination.
I think we won the election on this day.
Basically, the politicians have created with Twitter and Facebook a direct way to talk to the people, which has never happened before. I think it’s good, because it’s without filter. But, at the same time, it’s good to also have a strong press. You need to have a counter-power that is looking at what the politicians and the people who want to become president are doing. That’s also the power of democracy.”
The ways that these different forms of French media cover political news are significant, as Haim discussed, because they ultimately affect people’s decision-making in a democratic election.
In France, “Twenty-four hours before the vote, you have to pause on the media, and the candidates themselves cannot campaign. If you participated in any way in the campaign, you could not use your Twitter or Facebook account for twenty-four hours.
In France, the law is saying that voting is really important and you need twenty-four hours of silence to make a decision. The election in France was extremely important, and on that Friday, people in their mind knew who was a candidate.”
Haim compared this with how certain US medias treat people’s decision-making process.
“When I was in France for seven months [on Macron’s campaign], I was completely immersed in the French world. I was not watching CNN, MSNBC, Fox. Then I come back here, and again [as it was during the election], it was happening, and I was shocked. I was shocked because there’s a national obsession with Trump at this moment in this country. Everything is breaking news.
I will say that everybody has to take a deep breath, to pause, and to think: how are we going to cover Trump? What is important, are we going to do a breaking news each fifteen minutes about his last Tweet?
The people who receive the media are very clever, and that’s why I disagree with what people in Washington and in New York are sometimes saying. They think for the people: ‘we know what is good for the people,’ or, ‘we do not want to do that because the people are not going to watch.’
You cannot say that for the people! When you’re going to Iowa, going to New Hampshire, California, and when you’re doing town hall meetings, you see that people are clever. They know what’s happening, they are well informed, and you have to make sure that you respect the cleverness of the people. When you think they’re stupid, when you begin to say ‘I know what is good for them,’ yes—you have what’s happening in America.
I would like to see a national debate about how the press is going to cover Trump at this moment. I would be interested to see a poll with this question: ‘do you think that the medias are covering too much of Trump?’ And I bet that the majority of the American people will say not only yes to this question, but they will say ‘we need something different.’
I believe in the power of people and in the cleverness of people, especially in this country.”
Due to Haim’s dedication to journalism, her extensive background in covering campaigns, many people were surprised to see her join Macron’s campaign.
“Yes, I was a journalist for twenty-five years, I believe in the power of serious journalism. But after the Trump election, I just needed a change in my life. I went back to France, I saw Macron on TV, and I was like, ‘oh my god, this guy has a chance to be president!’ I was challenging myself, I thought, ‘Maybe I can help, I can do something I’ve never done before.’
When you’re on the other side, it’s completely different; it’s a different world. As a journalist, you witness history, and as part of a campaign, a historical campaign, you’re part of something that is happening. I think I can say now that I better understand politics. I believe more than ever in the power of people, and I learned in my experience with Macron that, more than ever, it’s important to respect the civil society.”
After Macron’s campaign, she has now returned to the United States, not fully knowing what her next pursuits will be.
“I never wanted to be in front of the camera. I had, and I still have, many thoughts to be a photojournalist. I really think that, especially in the ‘90s, photographers were doing extraordinary stories. They have a way to become invisible and to capture the moment. And I’m always saying that you always, about history, remember a picture.
I think I need a little time to think about the next step. I want the next step to be about what I believe in—about respect, and showing the world, or making sure that someone is showing the world.”
Image licensed under Creative Commons; the original may be found here.
Elaine Chen is a second-year Political Science and Economics major. She's also a staff writer for South Side Weekly, a weekly newspaper that covers South Side Chicago civic and cultural news. On campus, she's involved with the dance group UChicago Maya.