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Journalism and Democracy : Letter to the German Press

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Bundespressekonferenz in Berlin. Bild: EPA

I have been circulating among you since the first day of June, asking strange questions. This is what I learned.

          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.

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