Some Renard Gascon, others say Normand,
Almost dying of hunger, lives on top of a vine
Ripe grapes apparently,
And covered with a ruddy skin.

The galand would have gladly made a meal of it;
But as he could not reach it:
« They’re too green, » he says, « and good for cads. »

Didn’t he do better than to complain? 

The Fox and the Grapes, Book III, 11
Jean de La Fontaine 

Alienation contains in itself the impossibility of saying publicly that one is alienated, because being alienated is not knowing that one is, or doing everything to forget it(1). Certain attitudes and behaviors, determined by years of professional practices, shaped by an environment, which also justify the material conditions of existence — to « open up » is to be fired for sure — cannot be modified; this would indeed imply a complete restructuring of one’s life, one’s work, one’s relationships, one’s being-in-the-world Isn’t trying to make well-meaning journalists say what they « can’t » say doomed to failure from the start? As Herbert Marcuse stated, « the concept of alienation becomes problematic when individuals identify with the existence imposed on them and find fulfillment and satisfaction in it. This identification is not an illusion but a reality. Yet this reality is itself only a more advanced stage of alienation; it has become quite objective; the alienated subject is absorbed by his alienated existence. There is only one dimension, it is everywhere and in all forms »(2).

This stage of alienation is, however, the last stage, the one where doubt no longer exists, or almost, and it is necessary to think that the well-placed journalists in the editorial offices have passed through various stages before; if thinking as they think now ensures the preservation of their status, it has sometimes been at the price of a certain mental imbalance and psychic tension. They have experienced — and certainly still experience on some occasions, but progressively less so — what the famous social psychologist, Leon Festinger, discovered and theorized in the 1950s: cognitive dissonance. 


In 1957, Léon Festinger addressed a particular question: if the psychological optimum is reached when the cognitions(3) are consistent with each other, what happens when they are not? In the latter case, the researcher speaks of cognitive dissonance, which occurs  » when a new cognition is in contradiction with cognitions already anchored in the subject’s mental universe »(4). In other words, « cognitive dissonance » occurs when several of the subject’s attitudes are inconsistent with each other or when one of his or her behaviors does not fit with an attitude. The typical example is the case of smoking in which the individual experiences both cognitions that support this behavior and others that disavow it. Cognitive dissonance has the effect of generating a state of tension that the affected subject will seek to reduce, much like a thirsty person seeks to drink. 

For the most part, research on cognitive dissonance has been conducted in the « forced submission paradigm »: « In this one, the experimenter leads an individual to submit to a counter-attitudinal or counter-motivational demand (the individual freely performs an act that goes against his attitudes or motivations) ». What is particularly interesting in this case is that the subject is « freely » doing something he does not want to do. 

In one of their famous experiments (Festinger and Carlsmith, 1959), students were asked to perform a most boring and meaningless task for an hour (such as turning pegs a quarter turn, without stopping). Afterwards, using the absence of a collaborator as an excuse, the subject who had just completed the task was asked, in return for payment, to present it in an extremely positive way and to extol its interest and merits to another student. These subjects, who were actually asked to lie, were divided into three groups: one receiving a large payment for doing so ($20), one receiving a small payment ($1), and the last group who did not have to go through the step of telling another student about the experiment. After that, the subjects had to answer alone a questionnaire evaluating their real attitude towards the first boring task performed. 

The results show that the lowest-paid students (who  » (e.g., « the students who find the least justification for their discourse presenting the experience as attractive »,) are those who will modify their attitude towards the boring task the most: « by finally finding the task rather interesting, they simply aligned their attitude with their behavior. » This can be summarized as follows: 

- generative cognition ©
= « I say the task is interesting » 

- inconsistent cognition (A)
= « I know the task is tedious and boring » 

- C implies not A, hence production of dissonance 

- Reduction = « I find the task interesting 

When subjects are well paid (20 euros), incompatible cognitions (« I found this task very boring »/« I had to explain to someone that the task was very fun ») create less dissonance because subjects find an external justification for their behavior (the relatively large sum of money), since the remuneration somehow justifies their speech. Whereas when they are paid $1, they felt a form of obligation to agree with what they told the other students, as there was no justification for them to say the opposite of what they thought. 

These results are fantastic for explaining how we are able to change our ideas. But what do they have in common with mass journalism? It is that a journalist who is convinced at the beginning of the importance of his profession, of the search for truth (attitudes) and who will be led daily to have behaviors (to privilege the scoop to substantive analysis, sensationalism and emotion to decoding; withholding important information, asking uninteresting questions, etc.) that are in contradiction with his attitudes, will(5) experience a state of tension specific to cognitive dissonance. As a journalist who was fired for trying to do her job explains: « The ideological machining necessary to conceal the extent of the crime was increasingly difficult, requiring powerfully divided individuals with a very particular nervous system »(6).

« When a system reaches such a degree of imposture, the points of tension become extreme among the personnel responsible for its daily maintenance. Some break down, shutting down in silence or shame. Others hold on. They are generally the most empty, the most false, those that a personal neurosis has put in unison with a regime of generalized mystification. 

Aude Lancelin, p. 113 

The person who is subjected to this form of symbolic violence has three possibilities: either he leaves (and the sooner the better), giving priority to his attitudes over the behaviors imposed on him, but the choice of refusing a salary is difficult, all the more so in the current context; or he is in a state of permanent tension, generating stress, depression, suffering, sometimes even suicide. Or, as a last possibility, he modifies his attitudes, does not really give importance to this search for truth, refuses to see that he is being used and, as a last resort, accepts (if he had not already accepted it before), the world as it is, and perceives it, like himself, as incapable of change. This last strategy can be done in at least two ways (see points 2 and 3 below). 

The « real life » is then the press groups that we do not question, whose influence on the editorial staff is not studied. Journalism that has passed all these stages of accepted submission now believes itself, like an electron, free and never prevented from saying whatever it wants: but it forgets that during this process of deconscientization, it has judged what it is good or not to say in order to keep its status and its place; it has internalized the prohibitions, the acceptable things and the limits not to be exceeded, and it does not experience this at all as censorship. 

« The intellectual police is a software program grafted in the head ». 

Serge Halimi, The New Watchdogs, p.70

They have no problem working for a media with a multi-millionaire owner. They are not even in dissonance anymore, they refuse it and probably succeed in it, like the dealers at the car show who admit that cars emit CO2 into the atmosphere — and therefore pollute — but refuse to say that they pollute.(7) One wonders « how the information professional imagined that an industrialist was going to buy a means of influence while forbidding himself to influence its orientation ». (8) Abnegation of the wealthy? It will be hard to believe… 

The individual who reduces the dissonance by an act of cognitive rationalization thus justifies his or her submissive behavior, and comes to see it as an act of freedom. This is a normal psychological mechanism, a kind of necessity to maintain balance. But in the case of mass journalism, « who does it serve? » is the question that must be asked. 


While the testimonies of journalists disgusted by the practices of their editors are multiplying, and the underbelly of the cards is becoming visible, illustrating the real designs of the dominant media, most of the journalists in the editorial headquarters still in office continue to justify themselves, to see in what is for us the substance of journalism mainstream only drifts, accidents, which do not taint the whole. 

« Genuine freedom of choice includes the ability to choose from options that are not exclusively offered by an oligarchy whose primary goal is to sell viewers to advertisers. 

N. Chomsky and H. Edwards, p.37

Some journalists, however, who have left or been fired, testify to what goes on behind the scenes. This is the case of Vinciane Jacquet, correspondent in Cairo of the newspaper Le Soir, which refused to treat the case of the disappearance of the Egyptair plane between Paris and Cairo as the editorial staff had asked, namely « to insist on the « sadness of the families » and to speak (question) the safety of the Egyptian airline », and who was thanked, not being « operational »:

« In this time when people accuse journalists of lying, amplifying, covering up, in short, do not trust them, I decided to say no, and not to give in to sensationalism in disregard of information journalism and its ethics. And all this, if I may say so, for a paltry salary. I do not regret it, I am even proud of it. This kind of request from them, insisting on « excitement » rather than facts, was not a first, but concerned less serious subjects and where I therefore « let it go ». It is important that we journalists, freelance or not, know how to say no and remember that our words, our angles, can have devastating consequences on individuals. It is essential that we be the ones to restore the readers’ lost trust. The editorial offices will apparently not do so, or not very much. Long live news journalism.  »

More recently, another « thanked », Aude Lancelin, this time in France and by L’Obs, wonders when the newspaper of which she was the deputy director, « decided to commit suicide by ceasing to report on reality? »(9).

On the evening of the Walloon rejection of CETA, a journalist from the Luxembourgish channel RTL-TVI announced, without even realizing it, that he was not actually doing his job: « In reality, no one really knows the details of this agreement. The opinions are mainly based on concerns related to the supposed consequences of globalization »(RTL-TVI, October 24). If the journalist wants to pass off the popular doubt as ignorance, the usual contempt of the media for the people, he states above all that the journalists did not help him to really understand « the details of this agreement ». 


If we see that among the strategies of cognitive rationalization (see point 3 in the box), one of the means is to justify one’s behavior/cognition by adding other behavior(s)/cognition(s) to it, we can deduce that the creation of an alternative media can be an attempt to balance one’s behaviors and attitudes. Indeed, if I feel too constrained in a capitalist press owned by wealthy families, I can reduce this tension by engaging in an independent media. This is one way to reduce dissonance. 

However, working in a free media can hardly be combined with a paid job in a capitalist media, because when you are in one, you have to pretend the non-existence of the other, and vice versa. But when one’s income depends on the other, it is easy to guess that it is in the editorial office of the dominant media that we will have to forget our struggles, while once we have reintegrated our fight for a free press, we will have to constantly remind ourselves who feeds us… In the end, therefore, we will not be able to make a free media since we will not be able to say everything. As Serge Halimi says: « Going to the media [de masse], is to keep silent about the media or to say about them only what they agree to hear », and if this analysis works for the one who comes to speak in the media, it is all the more relevant for the one who works there. 

Entertainment « keeps the public away from politics and generates apathy in this area that is most useful for the preservation of the status quo. » 

Chomsky and Edwards, p.95

The free press is not « alternative », it does not coexist next to the « other », finding its foundations in the indigence of the latter, whose functioning it must inevitably dismantle and explain what it is.(10) The subject engaged in an « alternative » press while working in a capitalist media, will support this rather schizophrenic situation while being careful not to denounce the structure of the mass media and all that it provokes on his job. This is the price that ensures his retention of his position. Always to the detriment of the truth, sometimes to the psychological health of the journalist. 

Isn’t criticism of the mass media essential? We think so. It remains therefore to commit oneself alongside those who perceive more advantages, in terms of freedom and authenticity, in denouncing the abject practices of the mass media, than to continue to submit, to instill doubt in the others who, once collectively organized, will be able to initiate a change of heart. 


Attitude: « I believe in freedom of information and I want to work towards that. Behavior: « working in a media that one knows is subject to the interests of the powerful and suffering the consequences of this daily in one’s work ». 

Types of dissonance reduction strategies: 

1. Behavior/cognition change and attitude compliance. For example: leaving the editorial office where you work. 

2. Justify a behavior/cognition by accommodating the conflicting cognition. For example: « I can sometimes write an article in total « freedom » ». 

3. Justify his/her behavior/cognition by adding new cognitions. For example: « I’m going to get involved with Journalists Without Borders or start an alternative newspaper. 

Notes et références
  1. Rappelons la signification du terme : « État de l’individu qui, par suite des conditions sociales (économiques, politiques, religieuses), est privé de son humanité et est asservi. Par extension, tout processus par lequel l’être humain est rendu comme étranger à lui-même» (Le Petit Robert).
  2. Herbert Marcuse, L’homme unidimensionnel, Éditions de Minuit, Paris, 1968, p. 39.
  3. Les cognitions se rapportent à ce qui constitue la connaissance dans un sens large (tels la mémoire, l’apprentissage, le langage, la perception, etc.). La cognition se rapporte à la façon dont nous nous construisons mentalement des représentations à partir de notre perception.
  4. Sylvain Delouvée, Psychologie Sociale, Éditions Dunod, 2013, p.82. Les citations qui suivent, si la source n’est pas mentionnée, sont tirées du même ouvrage.
  5. Notons que si le tri et le formatage ont déjà eu lieu sur les bancs des écoles de journalisme (et sur les bancs de l’école avant), certains ont réussi à garder leur intégrité pendant leur formation et sortent encore avec des illusions. Voir l’ouvrage Les petits soldats du journalisme, François Ruffin, Éditions des Arènes, 2003.
  6. Aude Lancelin, Le Monde Libre, Éditions Les Liens qui Libèrent, 2016, p.47. C’est nous qui soulignons.
  8. Serge Halimi, Les nouveaux chiens de garde, Éditions Raisons d’Agir, p. 69.
  9. Aude Lancelin, Ibid., p. 75.
  10. Voir « Made in Alternatif », Kairos n°24.

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