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French Claim for Origins of Investigative Journalism

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Overseas capitals do serve to offer new perspectives. I was surprised during a fairly recent Paris trip to read in Le Monde its claim that Voltaire, a writer I greatly admired already, deserves the extra, and to me unexpected, accolade of "father of investigative journalism."

2011-12-11-Voltaire.jpgWe likely know Voltaire -- or at least I do -- as a combative and witty philosopher who so powerfully represented the originally Scottish (before in France it was appropriated as distinctly French) Enlightenment period. We'd recall him too as the author of Candide, that wonderfully comic satire on societal ethics. But I have never associated him strongly with journalism, except in that he prefigured -- as one of France's first "public intellectuals" -- an entire school of news-reactive opinion-writing, which shows up today as editorials and op-eds the whole world over.

He's certainly served as an international patron saint (of course a secular one) for freedom of speech. My wife, Melissa Bellinelli, and I happened to speed in a taxi past one our favorite restaurants, Le Voltaire, on (of course) the Quay Voltaire, in the house where he died in 1778, and promptly played the "Which Quotation Do You Think of First?" game. What came up for me was that crisp endorsement of America's First Amendment, reputedly expressed by Voltaire a good three decades before the Bill of Rights was even written but frequently cited in its support: "I disapprove of what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it."

I pedantically emphasize that this is a "reputed" Voltairism, although it's famous worldwide and always presumed authentic. On checking it out during our Paris stay, I was chastened to discover that there's no French original to be found anywhere for these resonant words. It's a mere paraphrase, from one of his now-lost letters, that was summarized by the biographer E. Beatrice Hall in her influential English study The Friends of Voltaire back in 1907.

Voltaire's forceful expressions of opinion, plus his insistence on the tolerant acceptance of others' opinions, are now well-appreciated element of the man's genius. But the often sole-destroying, pavement-pounding of an investigative reporter? I wasn't sure that is as good a fit.

But I learned that in his later years (well, in his 60s... he lived until 84, after all) Voltaire turned to door-to-door evidence-gathering and cross-referencing, hard at work to produce thoroughly researched exposés of wrongful arrests and convictions, and of institutional corruption.

It began with the horrific Calas case.

Jean Calas was a Protestant businessman in the south-western city of Toulouse convicted -- after being tortured -- of the "hate crime" murder (as we might call it today) of his 28-year-old son, a convert to Catholicism. The elder Calas was executed, horribly enough, by strangulation.

Voltaire spent two years amassing evidence to prove that, despite the prosecution's claims, Jean Calas was in fact very tolerant of Catholics, including his son, and that -- more dramatically -- the son was in reality a chronic depressive who had killed himself in a fit of self-hatred. The murder verdict was overturned in the Supreme Paris Court. The king was moved to provide a large financial settlement for the doubly-bereaved family.

Voltaire went on to investigate and expose many more cases of injustice over a further 12 years, always setting the authorities aflutter and panicky when he did so.

And on reflection it did seem all of a piece, this combination of absolute insistence on free expression, no matter how disruptive it might seem to the powers that be, and the discomforting of authority with painstakingly uncovered facts.

Paris of course honors him with multiple statues (as well as countless portraits in paint) from high up in the Louvre's elaborate façade... to the garden shrubbery of the Institut de France... to down in the Pantheon's cool crypt where he's buried. You can't move far in that city without being aware (in a way still unusual for many a writer) of just how the author looked. And the look is all of piece, too, with the philosopher and the skeptical investigator.

All the representations capture his infamous smile or smirk. And I owe much of my further understanding of Voltaire through his face to an essay invitingly titled Voltaire's Grin by Richard Holmes, the "total immersion" biographer whom I've praised before -- mostly for his work on the interlinked poets Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth.

From Holmes, though, and from other sources, I already knew that Coleridge was deeply put off, however engaging he may have found Voltaire's writings, by that smile -- calling it the typical expression of "a French hairdresser." Coleridge, it has to be said, took everything... all pain, all pleasure, and all ambiguity... desperately seriously. Voltaire on the other hand reveled in a sense of humor which was multi-directional and very often sharply self-effacing; he compared his own facial appearance to that of a maimed monkey, un singe estropie.

Holmes makes a convincing case for the Voltairean smile being all of a piece with the memorable bon mots we associate with this powerful (and again pointedly unpious) preacher of tolerance. His philosophical quips -- what he himself said were efforts "to be very brief and slightly spicy" -- were, according to Holmes, "the verbal equivalents, the linguistic icons, of Voltaire's mocking grin."

And Voltaire's overall rallying call isn't a bad one for all of us to follow... philosophers, journalists, or indeed anyone pursuing a thoughtful life, while not solemnly respecting the status quo too much.

He urged: "Let us always march forward along the highway of truth, my brothers, grinning derisively."

Read more of David Tereshchuk's media industry insights at his weekly column, "The Media Beat." with accompanying video and audio. Listen also to The Media Beat podcasts from Connecticut's NPR station WHDD.