Lance Armstrong and Dominique Strauss-Kahn have long shared a common ability: both have parlayed their extraordinary talent into a relationship with the national press corps that has protected them from seeing their dubious ethical behavior exposed (at the minimum) or from being held accountable for their alleged crimes (at worst). It took many years and a recent CBS “60 Minutes” interview of one of Lance Armstrong’s team members on the Tour de France for the American press to finally realize what had been a fairly obvious reality to many observers of professional bicycling, namely that most professional cyclists, including Armstrong, have used performance-enhancing drugs for years. Similarly, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former head of the International Monetary Fund and ex-future President of France, was known to have behaved inappropriately with women for many years, with a suspicion of at least one outright rape attempt. Yet the French press corps had created a kind of omerta around him until he was recently arrested in a New York hotel for attempted rape. Why this journalistic conspiracy of silence for the two men in their respective countries?
As a humble student of communities of all types, I believe there is merit in studying even destructive communities. Journalists are an essential ingredient in a democracy. By exposing the secrets of rich and powerful people, they are supposed to “keep them honest,” as CNN advertises the late-night program of one of its journalists, Anderson Cooper. In the cases of Lance Armstrong and Dominique Strauss-Kahn, though, journalists became co-dependent with the subject they were supposed to cover. Instead of investigating the objectionable activities or crimes of their global sports or political star, they moved into a pattern of silence. This is the dark side of co-creation, and it behooves us to find out how such a negative form of co-creation develops.
For Lance Armstrong, American journalists seem to have wanted to believe the fairy tale: the inspiring story of Lance overcoming cancer, Lance becoming a global star in a sport traditionally dominated by Europeans, Lance mobilizing huge resources for a great cause with his cancer foundation. As a result, they deliberately ignored the growing evidence pointing to Lance’s doping, including some high-quality investigative journalism done by the French sports daily L’Equipe. Somehow, the US sports journalism community seems to have coalesced around a collective belief that accusations of Lance’s doping in the French press were the result of sour grapes because Lance had stolen the limelight from French cyclists in a major French sport. Instead of collectively rallying around this orthodoxy, wouldn’t their job have been to investigate these claims? Why didn’t they? Where were the Woodward and Bernstein of American sports journalism? Why weren’t they running around asking Lance’s team members, nurses, team managers, doctors, mechanics, hotel keepers, anti-doping authorities, and law enforcement officials about what they had observed? How could they miss a story with so many protagonists and involving so many daily interactions with prohibited products?
The Dominique Strauss-Kahn (DSK) story is equally troubling. Like many other people who occasionally travel in French power circles, I had heard stories of DSK’s womanizing behavior for years, including some rumors of outright predatory behavior. French people profess to be amused by the peccadilloes of their political and corporate leaders (but hopefully not their crimes!). They often blame the American investigation of inappropriate sexual behavior by powerful people on American puritanical tendencies, conveniently ignoring that these investigations often point to human weaknesses that degrade leaders’ ability to lead, or make them vulnerable to corrupt behavior to protect their shameful secrets. When US politicians are suspected of inappropriate behavior, a pack of journalistic hounds gets unleashed in quest of a scoop, and editors rejoice over the possibility of a page one exclusive on the topic. By and large, France does not have a tradition of investigative journalism, which represents a gaping hole for a democratic country of its size and importance on the international scene.
Even more worrisome is the lack of willingness on the part of French journalists to take on the country’s political and corporate leaders. The co-dependency that exists between journalists and French leaders is palpable. French power circles frequently interfere with journalistic independence and utilize access as a blunt instrument, and there have been numerous stories of phone calls being placed in strategic places to de-fang ambitious journalists who tried to practice American-style journalism. The sad thing is that intimidation of this kind has largely neutered the French press, producing more and more daring behavior by some of its leaders. I fear that DSK’s behavior at the New York Sofitel will turn out to be but the ugly head of a larger beast.
The greatest perversion arising from this lack of transparency about the reprehensible behavior of French leaders is that women who have been victims of these behaviors have understandably refrained from speaking out, thereby allowing these horrendous behaviors to continue unchecked, and exposing more women to these predators. Why haven’t Le Monde, Le Figaro, or the major French TV and radio channels interviewed the women who have described DSK’s inappropriate behavior? Why haven’t they spoken to IMF employees, hotel front desk employees, members of DSK’s Socialist Party, or staff members at Socialist Party conventions? Why did news editors not encourage their journalists to follow up on the rumors?
There is no co-creation without transparency. Both the Lance Armstrong and DSK stories are illustrations of the fact that co-dependency can develop in the dark alleys of power. Journalists operate in a difficult economic world, with advertising revenues, circulations of major newspapers, and television audiences at major news networks all down. Finding the courage to take on the Lance Armstrongs and DSKs of this world and reinvigorating the old-fashioned investigative journalism tradition may be the profession’s best hope.