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Journalism and Democracy : Letter to the German Press

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Jay Rosen.

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.

(See the German version of the essay here.)

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.“

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