Germans are losing faith in their media. Nowhere is this more apparent than in mistrust of refugee crisis media coverage. Where did journalists go wrong? And how much of this skepticism reflects a preference for rumors over facts? By SPIEGEL Staff
You couldn’t ask for a better reader than Isolde Beck. She has had subscriptions to the Süddeutsche Zeitung, Badische Neueste Nachrichten and SPIEGEL for many years. And as a retiree, she takes the time to thoroughly read through the newspapers and magazine.
But her relationship with the media has become troubled in recent weeks. She has the feeling that the “news is being suppressed” and that journalists are no longer allowed to “articulate certain things.” Beck has stopped believing what the journalists write.
These feelings prompted her to send SPIEGEL an irate letter to the editor in early January regarding a cover story about the sexual violence in Cologne. “We can no longer assume that there is a democracy or even freedom of expression in this country anymore,” she wrote, “and the media are complicit, for the most part, perhaps out of reluctance to alienate interviewees, or perhaps because it appears to be gratifying to manipulate readers or to make fun of them, however you want to put it.” In retrospect, says Beck, she would not have expressed her thoughts quite as drastically. But, she adds, it was so soon after the Cologne sexual assaults and she was furious with the perpetrators and the press, which she believes took too long to report on the incidents. Several days did indeed pass before the mainstream media in Germany began reporting heavily on the events of New Year’s Eve.
Beck felt vindicated in a suspicion she had had for months: that the media had long concealed the extent of crimes committed by refugees and migrants. As early as the end of last year, she says, she was surprised to read reports that refugees were no more criminal than Germans. “How could the media have known this at the time?” Beck asks. As far as she is concerned, it’s clear that “the media manipulated their reporting to reassure people.”
Getting Out the Pitchforks
In voicing these sentiments, the SPIEGEL reader joined the ranks of a movement that seems to have gained momentum in recent weeks — one that, to varying degrees, is claiming that journalists are no longer capable of being independent and unbiased.
It is a phenomenon that defies simple description. According to polls, 40 percent of Germans believe the media are not credible. And the loudest of them all, people like Tatjana Festerling, an organizer with the anti-immigrant, Islamophobic PEGIDA movement, have even taken to calling on the public to get out the pitchforks to chase journalists out of newspaper offices.
The criticism is mainly directed at reporting on the refugee crisis. According to a recent survey by the Allensbach Institute, a respected German polling firm, only a quarter of Germans believe that the media paint a correct picture of the level of education and share of women and children among incoming refugees.
Beck is no radical. She opposes the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party. She taught German to adolescent immigrants in the 1990s. Nevertheless, the days after the incidents in Cologne on New Year’s Eve destroyed something for her. She feels that the media have ignored her fears. She also feels a bit helpless, because her doubts feel so vague and uncertain to her. Still, Beck isn’t cancelling her subscriptions. “Why?” she asks, sounding horrified. “I couldn’t live without Süddeutsche.”
Hers is a case of disappointed, but not lost, love. But it is also thought-provoking. How can a woman who has been reading SPIEGEL, Süddeutsche Zeitung and Badische Neueste Nachrichten for years hit upon the idea that the journalists writing for these publications are trying to manipulate her, their reader?
Anger Versus Apprehension
A distinction must be made between those who chant the misnomer “Lügenpresse,” or lying press, and attack journalists, both verbally and physically, and those who are critical or suspicious of the media.
Those in the first group pose a threat to journalists and freedom of the press. They don’t want dialogue or transparency. They want journalism to disappear.
Those in the second category are questioning journalists’ performance. Their criticism may sometimes be harsh, unfair and inarticulate. Still, these are ultimately questions to which journalism must find a response.
The problem is that the boundaries between the two groups are indistinct. Those who verbally abuse journalists no longer seem to be in the minority. A more rancorous and aggressive tone is also spreading in Internet forums and letters to the editor. The problem is that rage is turning into hate, and hate into violence.
Take Uwe Ostertag, for instance, a man who berates journalists on the Internet, calling them “blindly obedient hacks” and “dogs” that should be “beaten,” “thrown into a sack” and “drowned in a pond.” He refers to them as “rats,” “zombies” and “cockroaches,” to be “destroyed by the exterminator.”
There are publications like the German nationalist magazine Compact, which asked readers to vote for “Germany’s worst lying journalists.” Compact calls Anja Reschke, the host of the political news program “Panorama” on public broadcaster ARD a “siren of multiculturalism” and Golineh Atai, a reporter with the same network, a “cold warrior.” SPIEGEL columnists Jakob Augstein and Georg Diez are “the anti-German” and “the asylum preacher.”
The rage, hatred and hostility are not just being expressed verbally anymore. Journalists are badgered and berated, hit with flagpoles and attacked with pepper spray.
This isn’t a matter of people simply misbehaving or things getting a little out of control. It’s an attempt to stoke fear and create a mentality that turns journalists into targets, both individually and collectively. It’s an attempt to muzzle the democratic media.
And it has not been ineffective.
A prominent TV journalist decided not to talk to SPIEGEL about the kinds of people using the term “lying press” after she noticed how colleagues who spoke out on the issue were inundated with hate mail. She said she was unwilling to “become an even bigger target in a prominent position.”
That may sound overblown, but anyone who has ever explored the darkest recesses of Internet forums or waded through the kinds of letters to the editor and viewer mail that have flooded editorial offices in recent months can understand why someone who is not otherwise given to anxiety would choose to keep a low profile.
A certain sense of fatigue has also set in among journalists. Is it even worth engaging with readers and viewers who say they don’t believe journalists anymore?
Rolf Christoffer also vented his displeasure with the media in a letter to his local paper, the Mindener Tageblatt, writing that he had “valued and enjoying reading it, as a small but decent regional newspaper.” But now, he added, he heard that the editor-in-chief was tolerating a “muzzle code, in his rush to show obedience to the government.”
“Are you being paid by political parties or by your readers?” Christoffer asked. If it turned out that such arrangements had indeed existed with the state of North Rhine-Westphalia or the federal government, “I will immediately cancel my subscription to the daily newspaper I have respected for so long, the Mindener Tageblatt, and will get my information solely from Internet forums.”
The Mindener Tageblatt, founded in 1856, with a circulation of 31,000, confronted the accusation in an unusual way. Editor-in-Chief Christoph Pepper not only responded to the letter in detail, but he also published the correspondence in the paper’s blog.
No, Pepper replied, there were no such arrangements, neither between “the press” and “the parties,” nor between individual newspapers and parties, “at least none that I am aware of.” Most importantly, he wrote, there is no governmental power that could control the media and what it publishes through laws or ordinances.
Pepper continued that the Mindener Tageblatt has been owned by a local publishing family for six generations, a family “whose voting habits are unknown to me, just as mine are unknown to them.”
Pepper’s response was well received, both on the Web and by Christoffer. He had not expected such an extensive reply from the editor in chief, he says. Nevertheless, the letter could not change the fact that the 70-year-old is dissatisfied with the media, with politicians and with Germany on the whole. “The republic is oriented completely to the left,” says Christoffer. He cites surveys that conclude that many more journalists sympathize with the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) or the Green Party than the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU). “No wonder conservatism is being wiped out.”
Journalists For Sale?
Christoffer gave himself a present for Christmas, the book “Gekaufte Journalisten” (Bought Journalists), by Udo Ulfkotte, a former editor with the conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ). The book contains claims such as: Freedom of the press is just an illusion, and top journalists are merely an extension of the NATO press office.
Ulfkotte’s book was published by Kopp, a melting pot for conspiracy theorists. Kopp publishes works by ufologists, and by authors who claim the Americans destroyed the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center themselves in 2001. Ulfkotte’s book was on the bestseller lists for months. “Bought Journalists” is the bible of all those who have renounced their faith in the German media. Ulfkotte’s critics see the book as a vendetta against the FAZ, which he left on bad terms.
Christoffer even shares the critics’ assessment. Nevertheless, like Ulfkotte, he believes that journalists are not maintaining a sufficient amount of distance from politicians, especially in Berlin. He says he heard that at the beginning of the refugee crisis, Chancellor Angela Merkel invited journalists from major publications to the Chancellery, where it was suggested how they should report on the issue — namely that the negative consequences of Germany’s refugee policy were to be concealed. Christoffer imagines that the journalists, flattered by the invitation to the Chancellery, readily agreed.
Meetings like that do not take place. However, there are conversations that take place “on background,” to which government ministers and the chancellor invite journalists. This is a normal procedure. For journalists, the purpose of these meetings is not to pick up instructions, but to obtain information. When politicians are guaranteed anonymity, they reveal things they would never say in public either because they are incongruous with their positions or perhaps the party line.
The agreement is that journalists may not quote directly from these confidential meetings. But they are allowed to use the information in their reports. How they treat the subject matter is their business.
Siegfried Vollmert, 57, is the purchasing and sales director of a steel company in Essen. He travels a lot, driving 80,000 kilometers (49,710 miles) a year through Europe. He no longer believes what the papers write, he says, adding that he prefers to see things for himself.
While traveling for work last year, he decided to make a stop in Dresden to take a look at the kinds of people who were taking part in PEGIDA rallies. And if he wants to know about crime in refugee hostels, he says, he asks police officers he knows.
Vollmert subscribes to Süddeutsche Zeitung, Iserlohner Kreisanzeiger and the newsweekly Focus. He buys a copy of SPIEGEL at the newsstand every Saturday. “There must be a reason why the media are losing circulation,” he says. “The average Joe has a keen sense for when he’s being taken for a ride.” Vollmert accuses the media of having lost sight of the interests and concerns of its audience. The teacher shortage, poor hygiene in hospitals and a growing number of burglaries — journalists ignore all of these issues, says Vollmert, because they have blockaded themselves in their ivory towers. “They don’t listen to what’s happening down below.”
Vollmert says that he used to be a member of the CDU. He once handed out flyers for the AfD, he says, but only because he wanted to help a friend who was running for office — he doesn’t identify with the party’s agenda. In fact, the AfD’s current popularity makes him nervous, he adds, arguing that the media are still partly to blame because they failed to decisively denounce immigrant parallel societies, which right-wing agitators took advantage of. “The press has allowed itself to be misused by politics and its mission of political correctness,” Vollmert says.
It doesn’t take much digging to discover that Vollmert ran as a candidate for the AfD in the 2014 Iserlohn city council election. He says he can’t explain how he ended up on the list. But according to the city’s election office, every candidacy is verified. Vollmert confirmed his candidacy in writing, and there were no doubts about the authenticity of his signature. Vollmert insists this is the first time he has ever heard of his supposed candidacy.
Mistrust Knows No Class
In a poll conducted for North Rhine-Westphalia public broadcaster WDR in late October, more than 40 percent agreed with the statement that the state and the government influence reporting. And one in five respondents felt the term “lying press” was justified.
Data from the Allensbach Institute reflects how much Germans’ trust in the media has changed in the last 25 years. The result: surprisingly little. In regular surveys in the two decades after German reunification, a consistent 30 to 40 percent of respondents said they had considerable or a great deal of trust in “the newspapers.” That value has remained relatively constant over the years. Since 2012, it has even increased to more than 45 percent.
Nevertheless, it does seem disconcerting that more than half of Germans have little or no trust in the media. But that doesn’t mean this group believes journalists are fundamentally manipulative or biased.
“I would guess that the majority of these people tend to have a healthy skepticism toward the media,” says Carsten Reinemann, a Munich-based expert in communication studies who has analyzed various statistics. In addition, comparable studies also show that Germans are just as distrustful or even more so vis-à-vis other institutions, such as political parties, churches or the federal government.
In a non-representative preliminary study, Reinemann examined the motives and views of extreme critics of the media. To do so, his students searched relevant Facebook groups for people who didn’t believe a word that came from the media. They managed to have conversations with about 1,000 people — from all kinds of political persuasions.
Regardless of their political views, the respondents tended to reject the country’s elites. They also frequently felt unrepresented by the media and even threatened. As a reaction, they often turned to so-called alternative media, and commented in online forums. Reinemann isn’t surprised that so many extreme critics of the media have middle-class, as opposed to lower-class, backgrounds. “Low trust in institutions has little to do with educational level.”
Let Them Speak
When Dunja Hayali, 41, a host with the ZDF television network, gave her acceptance speech for the Golden Camera award, a German film and television honor, in early February, it seemed as if all the negative things she had absorbed in recent months came pouring out. Hayali had often reported on PEGIDA and had sought direct dialog with the very people who accuse the media of lying. In the process, the journalist sometimes encountered sheer hatred.
Just a few days before she received the award, a man stopped his bicycle in front of her in Berlin’s Kreuzberg district and shouted in her face: “Lying press! You liar!” Hayali was shocked and feared the man was about to physically attack her. Instead, he got back on his bike and road away, still shouting the same words.
Hayali talked about the incident during her speech at the award ceremony. And she also said things that seemed self-evident. She condemned hate and racism, and she confessed that journalists are also just people, and that they too make mistakes. Then she asked: “Does anyone really believe that anything is achieved with all this hate?”
The audience gave her a standing ovation, and Hayali received hundreds of emails and Facebook messages, almost all filled with praise.
One of the two viewers, a tourism manager from Bavaria, criticized the media for always getting bogged down on a single issue. First it was Ukraine, then Greece, and now it’s the refugees. But no one, he said, pays any attention to unemployment or the problems of the retail industry. The other viewer, a manager of a company in Brandenburg, said ZDF is lying and its strings are being pulled by someone, though he couldn’t say by whom. Hayali assured him that no one had ever told her what to say, and that she was free to write her own questions. Nevertheless, said the man, there were many things he didn’t believe, such as the ZDF reports about refugees at the Hungarian border. He said he preferred to watch amateur videos about the issue on YouTube. When Hayali asked why, he said: “Because there are so many different ones.”
Her editorial office contacted 110 critical viewers to prepare for the story, says Hayali, but many were unwilling to meet with her. Others were disqualified in the preliminary interview for things such as denying the Holocaust. Others were simply incapable of arguing effectively. Only a handful was left in the end.
Hayali is satisfied with the outcome. At the end of the conversations, both men told her that while they did not share her view, they did appreciate the fact that she had approached them. “If we want to regain our credibility, we must have a dialogue with our critics. We have to explain to them how we work,” says Hayali. “Maybe that’s our new task for the year 2016. Part of that is admitting our mistakes. But mistakes are not lies.”
After the incidents in Cologne on New Year’s Eve, Hayali, whose family is from Iraq, wondered: Have we done something fundamentally wrong? Were we blind when we celebrated Germany’s Willkommenskultur, or welcoming culture, in August? Did we overlook things? “Clearly there were taboos in the discussion of how refugees are being treated. But for me, there was no such thing,” she says. “At ZDF, we were reporting early on about fights in refugee hostels. I was always able to tell it like it is, and I don’t think that has anything to do with my immigrant background.”
Still, she says, she has noticed how quickly one can become jaded as a journalist. Since September, when the chancellor began allowing refugees from Hungary to enter Germany, Hayali has repeatedly received messages on Facebook telling her how German women had allegedly been raped or how mass robberies were being committed by refugees. “I pursued every lead at first. But none of them were true.”
‘I’m No Conspiracy Theorist, But…’
Philipp Karger, a 33-year-old engineer, hardly gets any of his news from classic media anymore. “It’s obvious that you get your information from above,” he says, citing coverage of the New Year’s violence in Cologne as evidence. The fact that the media took so long to report on the ethnic background of the presumed perpetrators was the result of instructions from the federal government, or at least an organization affiliated with the government, says Karger. He is so sure of himself that he reacts with genuine surprise when his accusation is rejected. “I thought that had already been officially confirmed,” he says. According to Karger, the media had to respond as they did so as not to undermine Merkel’s refugee policy.
Until recently, Karger still believed the prime time “Tagesschau” evening news program on public broadcaster ARD was neutral. He changed his mind after New Year’s, when some media organizations took a long time to report on the story emerging from Cologne. He gets his information from the Internet and his Facebook timeline. On Facebook, he subscribes to pages such as: “Today we’re tolerant — tomorrow we’ll be strangers in our country” and “Schweinfurt TAKES A STAND — no thank you to asylum abuse.” He also follows the Facebook pages of the Germania Würzburg fraternity and the AfD.
He realizes that Facebook pages also spread “a lot of junk,” says Karger, and yet he stopped believing the media years ago. He believes media organizations assist individual parties in return for donations or exclusive information after an election win, for example. “I’m no conspiracy theorist, but I do believe we’re really being taken for a ride,” he said.
An ‘Unlimited Echo Chamber’
Rumors are what fuel skeptics’ belief in a “lying press.” Things that “one” has heard about somewhere but that hasn’t turned up anywhere in the media.
It doesn’t matter whether a rumor is true or false. It derives its power from the “escalation of the emotions associated with it, when people infect one another,” the Russian sociologist L.A. Bysow wrote as long ago as 1928. One look at the comments left below online articles that deal with the subject of refugees is enough to understand this. “Once the tone has gone in a certain direction, there is rarely a change of mood,” says Georg Diedenhofen, editorial director of a talk show on broadcaster ARD called “Hart aber Fair,” or “tough but fair.” The comments section of the show’s website was a case in point after Jan. 18. There was talk of “doctored police reports and patronized citizens — is anything off-limits nowadays?”
The majority of viewers who submit comments to the website do not believe in a free press or critical reporting. Some even suspect the press has a direct phone line to the Chancellery. It’s a creepy, languorous community in which one person validates what someone else heard somewhere. It’s an echo chamber of hearsay.
Granted, such downward spirals of rumors told and retold have always existed. In war, opposing sides have always availed themselves of rumors. Rival corporations are no stranger to them either. But the Internet lends a special dynamic to rumors, which creates problems for journalists.
“Readers and users are demanding faster and faster categorization and evaluation of events,” says Brigitte Fehrle, editor-in-chief of the Berliner Zeitung newspaper. “They want fast truths, which is absurd. As journalists, we must stick to the facts. A journalist has to call a presumption a presumption and a rumor a rumor. There is no other option.” She has noticed that reactions vary depending on the medium. Readers of printed newspapers are also outraged, she says, “but for the same articles, colleagues have received aggressive, insulting posts as well as threats of violence and death threats when their articles were published online.”
Fehrle is not hostile to technology. She is grateful for the reach her paper has now, thanks to the Internet. But she also notices that with some people, digital media are conducive to more coarse communication. “Twenty years ago, five people would sit around a table at the bar, discuss all kinds of crazy things and perhaps even make threats. But they left it at that.” With the Internet, she says, the same people have an “unlimited echo chamber, which apparently emboldens them to make even more radical statements.”
The More People Know, the Less They Believe
This brings us to a question that not only affects journalism, but is also fundamental: How compatible with the Internet is democracy? Or, to put it differently: How is the Internet changing democracy?
Germany currently has a representative democracy. Voters vote and lawmakers decide. The counterpart to that is direct democracy, in which, ideally, everyone decides on everything.
When the Federal Republic of Germany was established in 1949, its founders decided against direct democracy, partly out of fear of what the direct will of the people can bring about.
In a sense, the media in Germany are also representative. Trained journalists have made it their profession to weigh the news and decide what is important and what is not.
Power does not lie in the hands of individual journalists, but in the institutions for which they work, such as newspapers or magazines. They have to prevail in the marketplace and can freely choose their positions. From the conservative FAZ to the left-leaning Die Tageszeitung (taz), this has been a social process practiced for decades in Germany, more or less successfully.
The Internet has confused everything. It encourages an anti-institutional impulse in people, one that is also anti-elitist and autonomous.
This isn’t bad in itself. On the contrary, at first the Internet raised hopes that it could decisively democratize the process of informing people and forming opinions. Knowledge was to be set free, and control over knowledge, news and information was to be lifted. The Internet was the promise of a radically different public.
And in many respects, this dream is coming true. Today, we can know, learn and discuss more than ever before. Mankind is potentially smarter than ever before.
At the same time, the oversized freedom brought by the Internet also has its negative side: A person who can know everything at any time eventually loses perspective. The problem is that the Internet suggests constant availability and, ultimately, constant control. If everything can be known, then there are answers to everything.
This has made many people more suspicious. They can no longer cope with the contradictions, to which they were not nearly as exposed in the past. They protest against the complexity of reality, reducing it to black and white, lies and truth.
The more people believe they know, the less they can handle it. On the one hand, they no longer believe anyone. But on the other, they often fanatically believe the wrong things. This is the paradox of the digital age.
‘The Media Are Reacting Hysterically’
How do we confront this? How do journalists cope with the accusations, the insinuations and the blatant hatred?
To answer this question, one must look back to last summer. It was a time when Germans, if only fleetingly, looked in the mirror and saw a completely different Germany. It was the infancy of the Willkommenskultur, the welcoming culture that is the object of so much hatred by some people today.
Back then, the country was surprised by itself and its popularity abroad. Sure, some Germans were setting refugee hostels on fire as the new foreigners arrived, but millions more were helping.
In those days, this different Germany was the big news story. And like every big news story, it outshone everything else. Perhaps it would have been asking too much of the media to immediately interject the critical question of whether all of this could work. Even journalists do not live outside their own time, nor are they immune to the public mood. Reporters also have their own expectations and fears, political convictions and moral values.
It is important for journalists to keep reminding themselves of this. Only then can they ensure it doesn’t distort their view of reality or bias their reports. Only then can they see when too few critical questions have been asked and take action to rectify it.
Most of all, journalists must constantly allow themselves and their work to be questioned — by themselves, colleagues and their audience. But they should be careful not to allow the enemies of the press to drag them into a battle, one in which these enemies can portray themselves as victims.
‘We Do Not Accept Their Declaration of War’
Stefan Raue, the executive editor of MDR, a public broadcaster covering much of the eastern German states, including Saxony, says this about his relationship with all groups that accuse the media of being liars: “We do not accept their declaration of war.”
MDR reports critically on AfD and PEGIDA. But Raue has always refused to sponsor anti-PEGIDA events and fundraisers. He speaks with the AfD politicians in the state parliaments. MDR journalists invite PEGIDA supporters to their editorial offices to observe their work.
Allowing one’s work to be questioned without feeling provoked also means not reacting hysterically. And it means not allowing others to compromise your standards of what is and isn’t news, for fear of being pilloried as a suppressor of truth.
Raue believes this point has been reached. “The AfD and its issues are overly present in the media. The media are reacting hysterically.” According to Raue, the media have become disproportionate in their reporting on the risks of immigration. “Suddenly someone being groped in the pool becomes one of the most important stories of the day.”
And what about the distrust of the press? What about the many people who are no longer quite sure who to believe, or whether they should trust journalists at all?
Austrian TV host Armin Wolf, a journalistic institution in the Alpine country, has a simple answer to these questions: “Explain, explain, explain.” How journalists work, how they form their opinions and how they check facts. “Of course journalists make mistakes,” he says. “But I don’t know a single journalist who makes mistakes on purpose.”
Wolf has followed the rise of the right-wing populist Freedom Party of Austria and its former leader, Jörg Haider. Austria, he says, is an admonitory example of what can happen. Nevertheless, Wolf recommends more composure for the German media. “We should not overestimate our clout,” he says.
As a host, says Wolf, he often receives the suggestion that he attack the empty content of the right’s message. “But it isn’t that simple. Most are so well trained that they can even endure a tough interview for 10 minutes.” Only research, fact-checking and caution are effective against rumors and rumor-mongers, says Wolf, and they take time.There is one point, however, on which he at least partly agrees with the criticism of the media from readers and viewers: that journalists hardly even recognize everyday life at many levels of society, and that they no longer directly perceive social conflicts at the lower end of society.
“The academization of our profession is a problem as well,” Wolf says. “The fact that journalists are not as present where society needs them most — there’s something to that.”
By Markus Brauck, Georg Diez, Alexander Kühn, Martin U. Müller, Ann-Kathrin Nezik, Vanessa Steinmetz, Der SPIEGEL
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan