Letter to the German Press

In 2018, I spent three months in Berlin studying German "pressthink," my term for the ideas journalist hold in common. This essay summarizing what I learned was published in German and English by a leading newspaper, the FAZ.

3 Sep 2018 12:41 pm Comments Off on Letter to the German Press

Originally published in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, September 2, 2018


I have been circulating among you since the first day of June, asking strange questions. Now it is time for me to tell you what I learned about your institution, and its current predicament.

My research project for the summer was to answer this question: What is German pressthink, and how does it differ from the American kind? (I had a fellowship at the Bosch Foundation that allowed me to do that, while living in Berlin.) “Pressthink” is a term I invented, so don’t try to look it up. It means the common sense of the journalism profession, the way your occupation “thinks” about its task. But also the ideas German society has about what a free press is for.

Pressthink in the U.S.

For thirty years I have been writing about pressthink in the United States – and criticizing the performance of American journalists when I thought they needed that. My method for studying German pressthink was to talk to people here and try to make sense of what they told me. Early in my fellowship I was interviewed by Deutschlandradio Kultur, and they asked me: how will you know if your findings are scientifically correct?

Actually, I don’t know. This is an open letter to German journalists, not a research paper for my academic colleagues. Where I am wrong, someone in Germany will probably tell me, and my Twitter feed will light up with complaints. I’m ready for that.

These thoughts are based on the 53 interviews I did for this project (List here.) I tried to talk to people who were differently placed around the German press. I interviewed bosses and workers in German newsrooms. I talked to trainees and freelancers, teachers of journalists and professors who study the German media. Because I am interested in institutions – which are “frozen thought” – I went to the Press Council in Berlin, and the programming council (the oversight body) for one of the regional public broadcasters, RBB. I talked to New German Media Makers (Neue deutsche Medienmacher), an activist group that is trying to change German journalism. I interviewed two former editors of Bild, and the founder of a watch blog about Bild. And many others.

Here is what I found.

There are five pillars of German pressthink. The first is freedom of the press, same as in the United States. Government should keep its hands off. The second pillar is that some things are more important than the right to publish: privacy, victim’s rights, and preventing hate speech, for example. These things have far more weight than they do in the US.

The third pillar is that broadcasting is too important, it has too much influence to be left to the market or the state. Standing between market and state is Germany’s public broadcasting system, with a mission to help citizens form their own opinions based on knowledge, rather than propaganda. It has a decentralized structure and a dedicated funding source, the license fee (€17.50 a month) that some Germans resent paying. Would they rather have Fox News?

The fourth pillar is the least noticed by the people I interviewed. (We don’t know who discovered water, but it wasn’t a fish) Journalists in Germany have a positive duty to protect minority rights, and prevent extremes of the left or right from overtaking the public sphere. Not just in their private opinions but in their journalistic work, they are defenders of liberal democracy and the dignity of all human beings. They help secure the achievements of the post-war republic, anchored in Europe. This I regard as the jewel of German pressthink, but it is increasingly under pressure. Controversy surrounds it, as I will explain later.

Pillar five is not, I think, native to Germany, but I heard a lot about it in my interviews. In America it is the doctrine of “objectivity.” It warns journalists against becoming too involved in politics, or letting their beliefs influence their reports. In the UK, it’s the duty to remain “impartial,” a founding principle of the BBC. When you raise this topic with journalists in Germany, they almost always mention a famous remark by Hanns Joachim Friedrichs, anchorman for the news program, Tagesthemen. In a 1995 interview with Der Spiegel he said, “Don’t make yourself party to anything, even if it’s a good thing.”

Often the people who spoke of this cornerstone statement in German pressthink went on to explain that the statement was getting misinterpreted by some journalists. Friedrichs, they said, was not an extremist about objectivity. His view was simpler: When your job is to report, you have to avoid becoming tangled up in things. Maintain professional distance. Viewers won’t trust you if you’re as emotional as they are. You’re allowed to have an attitude (Haltung) but stay cool when you’re delivering the news. And don’t shout.

Right wing populism

Staying cool has not been easy for German journalists with the rise of right wing populism. Even calling it that – right wing populism – has become something to fight about. Here is the story my sources told me about this major event in German pressthink. What I will describe is a consensus narrative, which of course has dissenters and exceptions. On the broad outlines of this story there was rough agreement. On the interpretation of it, much debate. Ready?

During the European migrant crisis of 2015, the press joined with many others in German society and in a sense participated in “welcome culture.” If you remember, the hashtag for Bild’s “We help” (wir helfen) campaign was #refugeeswelcome. By accepting so many refugees, Germany was being the good guy, and this permitted feelings of national pride to flow, including through the press. That was was not a bad thing, said my sources, but in too many cases journalists did not extend that pride to asking hard questions about how the refugee policy would work, the risks that came with it, and the events that were driving Angela Merkel’s decisions- including media coverage.

Then, the story goes, Cologne happened. The shocking assaults on New Year’s Eve and the slow way the truth came out were largely the fault of the police, who misreported the event initially, but participation in that failure by the national news media tended to support complaints by the far right that had been gathering force for years. “You won’t tell us the truth about migration because you are part of the system that is forcing this policy on German citizens.”

It was a propaganda point, of course, but after the refugee crisis of 2015 and now with the events in Cologne, it carried just enough truth to sting badly. Lugenpresse is the cruder form this critique took. Systempresse is subtler, and harder to disprove. The result was that German journalists began to doubt their performance, and look for a way to self-correct.

In September of 2016, the editor-in-chief of Die Zeit, Giovanni di Lorenzo, wrote: “We have once again exposed ourselves to the suspicion that we are in cahoots with the powerful, that we are reporting as uniformly as if we were controlled; that we are ignoring the concerns and fears of people who do not themselves belong to the refugee relief or the political class.”

And then, the story goes, AfD happened. By winning 94 seats in the elections of 2017 the party brought its media strategy to the center of German politics. Keep accusing the press of “political correctness.” Claim to speak for a neglected population that journalists know nothing about. Make headlines by pulling stunts and breaking taboos, then play the victim when journalists try to balance all that free publicity with critical questions. As the attention economy shifts toward your issues, keep insisting that the establishment press doesn’t want to talk about them. That keeps the pressure on.

A counter public sphere

Meanwhile, construct on the internet a counter public sphere for core supporters, where there is constant news but only one message: the political class and the media elites are united against you, and determined to make you feel bad for having the “wrong” opinions. Commit to our side and you can feel good again. We have facts to confirm all your suspicions.

To finish my story – the one I heard in my interviews – German journalists told me there was a “correction after Cologne,” and with the added shock of the 2017 election the self-examination has continued up to today. There are now intense debates in newsrooms and classrooms about how to cover right wing populism, what kind of attention to give it, and what to do about a widening gap between journalists and the public, which goes well beyond the core supporters of AfD or the people who turned out for PEGIDA marches.

For example: it was a common opinion among the journalists I interviewed that the press in Berlin is too intimate with players in the political system. While this is the sort of criticism that can be made at any time, it has a different feel when right wing populism is on the rise all over Europe. How do we demonstrate in a clear and forceful way that we are on the public’s side? How do we show we are listening? Those are questions German journalists are now asking themselves, whereas before the events of 2015-2017 they might have assumed the answers were self-evident. That is what I mean by a major event in German pressthink.

Everyone I talked to for this project said I should try to give my advice as an outsider who visited Germany and asked questions. I will do that, but first I have an observation. Look again at what I called the fourth pillar in German pressthink: Journalists have a positive duty to prevent extremes of the left or right from overtaking the public sphere. They are supposed to be defenders of liberal democracy and the dignity of all human beings. They uphold the post-war consensus: a Federal Republic anchored in Europe with a social market economy (soziale Marktwirtschaft).

The status of this fourth pillar is shifting. It is moving from a background belief, a silent assumption, to a front and center position in media and politics. Increasingly it will have to be fought for. Increasingly it will be attacked. That’s part of what the insult, systempresse, is about. But even more than standing up for it, journalists in Germany will have to sit down with it and invent a deeper and at the same time more agile and creative way to observe this commandment.

Publics everywhere are getting harder to inform. The reasons for this are many. Journalists were once the gatekeepers for the news and information sphere. Now they are just one source among others available. A lot of what journalists do involves reporting on the maneuvers of governing elites. As confidence in these elites weakens, that kind of journalism can feel dated and out of touch. Social media reduces dramatically the cost for like-minded people to locate each other, share information, and fortify their defenses against unwelcome facts. This can have the effect of shutting out the press. These trends are not as advanced in Germany as they are in the United States, but that is no reason to ignore them.

My advice to German journalists:

* Pillar five – stay cool, keep your distance, remain objective – is in obvious tension with pillar four: defend liberal democracy and stand up for the dignity of all human beings. This tension is good. Learn to work with it. Don’t trust anyone who tries to erase it.

* People who feel unheard do not make good customers for complex and uncomfortable truths. Improvements in public listening should therefore be higher on your innovation agenda.

* There’s a difference between doing journalism and doing politics. But this does not release journalists from the requirement to show good political judgment. Maybe the problem with participating in welcome culture was not the sentiment, refugees welcome, but the illusion that it could ever be that simple. That was not good judgment.

* My experience in trying to warn people about Donald Trump’s campaign to discredit the American press leads me to say this: It is not the job of journalists to “oppose” a political party or charismatic leader. But they have to oppose a political style that undermines democracy and erodes its institutions. You should add this distinction to your pressthink.

* The principle, “treat AfD as a normal party for as long as it is possible to do so…” is an intelligent one. The problem, of course, is what to do after that point. I thought ZDF had a good idea when in an August 12 interview it asked Alexander Gauland about urgent issues other than the one he most wanted to talk about: refugees, refugees, refugees.

* It’s not your job, as journalists, to tell people what to think. But it is your job to alert them to what they need to think about. Social scientists call this agenda-setting. It is one of the most important things journalists do. But if the news agenda is set by the opinions of people in your newsroom, that simply isn’t good enough. A reporting agenda borrowed from the parties in power isn’t good enough, either. What if they aren’t listening? Nor is an agenda set by entertainment values, or by media stunts and taboo busting. This is another area where innovation is required- and transparency.

I will give a gold medal in pressthink to the first newsroom in Germany that goes public with its priority list for covering the news and distributing attention, its agenda. This would be a “live” feature that anyone can access online, an editorial product, updated weekly or when something big happens. The different items on it should result from deep thought and careful research- and of course they have to both recognize reality and resonate with citizens. When critics say in that menacing tone, “what’s YOUR agenda?” just send them the link. If they don’t like it, ask them to help you improve it. Among other benefits it would have is that the need for genuine newsroom diversity would immediately become apparent when you decide to go public with your priority list.

Users have more power

Final thought: The users of journalism have more power now. By “users” I mean the readers, viewers, listeners. The license fee payers and subscribers. They have more power because they have more choice, because the media system is more two-way, and because populism now invites them to exit from the system, a threat that journalists have to take seriously.

When one party gains more power in a relationship, the relationship changes. German pressthink will have to evolve in recognition of that. Are you ready?