Searching for Sky
by Zak Vescera, 2023 Journalism Fellow
“I don’t even know what we’re talking about anymore.”
Jean-Luc Mélenchon has been speaking with this other voice for nearly five hours now. It is the small hours of the morning in the heat of a presidential election cycle that could bring Mélenchon to the Elysée. They talk about the campaign trail, his climate policy and his fear of a burning world. He lands on a tangent about a little cottage he owns in the French countryside and his little garden in front. Suddenly, he loses his place in the conversation. He’s tired. But the voice has more questions.
“It’s 1:30 in the morning,” Mélenchon remarks.
“Nonsense,” the other responds. “It’s only 1:17.”
This faceless voice is one of France’s most influential podcasters. The man known only as “Sky” has secured interviews with some of the most powerful people in the country. He racks up millions of views on his YouTube channel, Thinkerview, and millions more via livestreams on Facebook and other platforms.
Through it all, Sky has stayed anonymous. His guests answer questions from a plain, grey chair, the interviewer hidden outside the frame. When they attempt to allude to his identity, he cuts them off. He rarely responds to media requests, once telling a journalist that he usually grants them only to students completing research projects (he did not respond to mine). When Sky does speak to reporters, he does so under strict conditions: no photos, no comments that might identify him, no asking about his past.
We know a few things: Sky lives in Paris, is a former computer hacker, and wants to transform media as we know it. “In France today, the news has become counterproductive,” he told Les Inrockuptibles. Sky sees declining trust in journalism as a result of reporting that is incurious, lazy, and partisan. His solution is a channel that rebukes most modern journalistic conventions, including the notions that journalists should be identifiable and their work attributable.
To his supporters, Sky’s channel is a radical experiment, one that is invigorating engagement in longform media at a time when trust in the conventional press is collapsing. But Sky’s popularity despite his decision to stay hidden raises key ethical questions for journalism in the digital age. Journalists have chosen to hide their identities for centuries, though typically only under oppressive regimes that criminalized critical reporting. Sky’s case is different; his anonymity appears to be a preference. In seeking to repair the media, Sky may in fact be part of a movement of people fundamentally altering its norms, changing the public view of what journalism can and can’t be (or should and shouldn’t be).
Thinkerview began in 2013 but rose to prominence five years later amid social turmoil in France. That was the beginning of the gilets jaunes or “Yellow Vest” Movement in France, protests against fuel taxes that became a massive, grassroots push for democratic reform in Emmanuel Macron’s government. Thinkerview proved to be an attractive outlet for the movement’s supporters, who include a broad coalition of activists from both extremes of the political spectrum. Le Monde reported the number of subscribers grew from 200,000 to 310,000 in that year; today, there are more than 1.1 million. Thinkerview began securing interviews with more prestigious guests, some of whom were directly affiliated with the Yellow Vests.
But Sky’s guests were not limited to popular protesters. There was also the famed media analyst Daniel Schneidermann, Artem Studennikov, an aide to the Russian embassy in Paris, and eventually Mélenchon, then the leader of the far-left party La France Insoumise. Other Thinkerview guests have included physicists, former spies, bankers–experts, almost invariably, in their given fields.
In some ways, Thinkerview’s appeal is its intentional refutation of most media publications’ business models. While other outlets make TikTok accounts, Sky publishes interviews that are about two hours long on average. They are loose, flowing conversations that touch on everything from the media to espionage to climate change to European financial policy. Sky does not have a formal journalistic background, and his discussions with guests are often meandering, giving experts time to walk through their thoughts uninterrupted. This structureless approach curates a sense of intimacy and intellectual curiosity. François Boulo, a spokesman for the Yellow Vest Movement, for example, said on Thinkerview that the channel, in some ways, realized French philosopher and social scientist Pierre Bourdieu’s dream: a democratization of education and information.1
That loose format, however, also constitutes the channel’s biggest liability. Sky rarely cuts off his guests, and the channel does not support any form of live fact-checking.
Some observers, like Clement Parot of the French publication France Info, argue this approach gives the veneer of credibility to views that don’t deserve it. Many of his guests, however, are esteemed, respected academics and officials.
But others, like the far-left activist Étienne Chouard, have a long history of spouting conspiracy theories. Michel Collon, a Belgian essayist, used his 2016 appearance on Thinkerview to claim the CIA was training European followers of the Islamic State in camps financed by Saudi Arabia (he offered no proof of his claims, nor was he pressed for any). Since 2018, Thinkerview has used a crowd-source fact-checking application on its website, inviting users to flag content they believe is false or misleading. It does not, however, appear for a normal listener tuning in through YouTube, Facebook, or Apple Podcasts. So much, then, for its helpfulness.
In 2019, the Pew Research Centre found that only 28% of surveyed French adults believed the media was “very important” to the functioning of democracy, the lowest out of eight European countries studied in the poll. Notably, younger adults were more likely than their older counterparts to believe journalism matters but were more critical of existing news media; only 66% of surveyed adults aged 18-29 believed the news did a “somewhat” or “very good” job. As Sky has Iat times suggested, disillusioned, young French people search for alternative sources of information, they come to trust a person who stands outside the norm.
An obvious comparison with Sky is Joe Rogan, whose podcast has now become among the most popular in the English-speaking world. Like Sky, Rogan has come under fire for his inability or unwillingness to challenge guests making outlandish claims. The crucial difference, of course, is that we know who Joe Rogan is. People can challenge his views in an open, face-to-face way. They know how and by whom his work is funded. We journalists can search public records to see if his personal or political affiliations colour his work. All these are norms born of an expectation, as the Society of Professional Journalists puts it, that journalists should hold themselves to the same standard of transparency that they expect from others.2
That’s not to say Thinkerview is completely opaque. The channel lists an editorial board and maintains public websites and Facebook pages. It claims that its only regular source of revenue is donations from listeners (according to public records, it once also received a €50,000 grant from France’s national cultural service).
It’s just that the mystery surrounding Sky’s identity has fed questions about the channel’s operations and whether it has a political agenda or direction beyond its stated goals. Sky has described himself as “apolitical,”3 saying that he intentionally spoils his ballots rather than voting for a given candidate. Le Monde, in 2019, deemed Sky’s ideology “unclassifiable.”4 But the channel has since offered airplay to several guests associated with Vladimir Putin’s Russia, including a spokesman for the state outlet Sputnik and the head of the French branch of Russia Today (both interviews precede the Russian invasion of Ukraine).
Some commentators have argued that Sky has a right to conceal his identity.
Fabrice Epelboin, a professor at Sciences Po Paris, told the magazine Marianne he had known Sky for years but had never asked for his last name. “It’s a typical hacker’s habit,” Epelboin told the publication, “to not put anyone else in danger.”5 He is far from the only commentator or journalist who publishes anonymously. During the French Revolution, different groups and authors published their own newspapers, usually under pseudonyms. They took this step to protect writers against reprisal. Today, journalists who take such steps often operate under hostile, anti-democratic regimes where state laws mean that gathering news poses real, tangible risks to their safety and the safety of their families. But France, to most people, is not the kind of country where such secrecy is necessary. Its own revolutionary history offers an example of the dangers of widespread anonymous publishing. These anonymous publications operating during the revolution frequently published fabricated or wildly misleading information in a bid to advance political agendas.
Despite these reservations about Sky, we should not think that France is a model for press freedom. In 2019, Reporters Without Borders demanded the government respect the freedom of reporters covering the Yellow Vests protests; the organization said more than 80 reporters had been the victims of police violence since the actions began. In July of this year in response to a series of riots across the country after a young boy was killed by police, French president Emmanuel Macron considered passing a law allowing him to block social media and tap into cell phones. While there is no agreedupon limit to the violence or fear a reporter should face before they must go underground, these events indicate a future in which more may follow Sky’s lead. In these circumstances, anonymity becomes an attractive, if flawed, alternative to repression and harassment.
Howsoever you choose to judge Sky, his popularity raises fundamental questions about where journalism is and where it is going. His choice to remain anonymous and the efforts he takes to conceal his identity open the door to a world where journalists are not expected to be transparent about how they conduct their work and who pays them to do so. The lack of rigour he takes in interviewing some of his guests highlights the material harm this approach can cause by amplifying misinformation, omitting context, or otherwise distorting how listeners understand the world around them.
That leads to an even more complicated ethical question: should Sky be unmasked? If he has made the choice to remain anonymous, do others have a right to reveal that identity? Does that meet standards of public interest and trust that journalists should hold themselves to? In 2019, the French non-profit Conspiracy Watch published a photo of a Paris dinner hosted by Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s minister of foreign affairs. Conspiracy Watch claimed that one of the attendees was Sky, something the podcaster has never confirmed or denied (he accused Conspiracy Watch of promoting “guilt by association” and said that if he were there, it was to convince Lavrov to appear on his program). The man who might be Sky wore only black. He’s tall, his light brown hair combed to one side. Conspiracy Watch also published what they believe is his name. I, however, will not repeat it here.
Zak Vescera was a 2023 FASPE Journalism Fellow. He is a labour reporter at The Tyee.