Critical coverage: the controversy between German media and the right wing
By Ian Strahn
On a sunlit June afternoon, around 60 flag-bearing Germans gathered in the shadow of Berlin Central Station to take a stand against what they call the Islamization of Germany. The demonstrators are members of Baergida, the local offshoot of an organization known as Pegida. Translated, it stands for Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West.
Perched on a makeshift stage, Manfred Rouhs, a graying politician, greeted the crowd with a toothy smile. He wished the demonstrators a happy Ramadan. They laughed.
Rouhs began by referencing a recent newspaper article that depicted him and the participants of an earlier anti-refugee demonstration as neo-Nazis and accused the organization of inciting violent attacks on refugee shelters. The audience booed and chanted, “Lügenpresse,” lying press.
The next day, neither the local nor the German national media made any mention of Rouhs and the Baergida demonstrators. Events like this have become routine. Baergida has been holding rallies like this every Monday for months.
In the wake of the current European refugee crisis, skepticism and mistrust of the media has become a part of everyday conversation. Reporters in Germany face the challenge of addressing the politically charged, complex issues of flight, migration and integration while remaining unbiased. Many Germans believe that journalists have been unsuccessful thus far.
The term, Lügenpresse, is German for lying press. It is used by right-wing organizations like Pegida who believe the German press is biased towards Chancellor Angela Merkel’s pro-refugee policies. Infamously wielded by Joseph Goebbels, the Reich Minister of Propaganda during the Nazi era, the term’s origins reach back to the 1800s. More recently, media skepticism has established itself in the political mainstream instead of staying confined to the fringes. A study conducted by the Dortmund-based Forsa Institute showed that 44 percent of respondents believed that the media either partially, or wholly lies to the German public.
Cristina Gonzales, an American radio journalist, has been studying this phenomenon since the fall of 2015. Sipping a cappuccino in one of central Berlin’s historic cobblestoned courtyards, she said that even before the refugee crisis reached its peak, usage of the term “lying-press” was on the rise.
“In 2014, Lügenpresse was named the un-word of the year in German,” she said. Un-word is a title awarded by linguists in Germany every year.
Gonzales’ findings, which she presented at the American Academy in Berlin in May, indicated that the history of media manipulation in Germany has contributed significantly to media skepticism today.
During the Nazi era, the National Socialist propaganda ministry directly controlled the media. After World War II, American and British forces took over management of West Germany’s media outlets until 1949. On the east side of the Berlin Wall, the Soviets continued the legacy of suppression and manipulation until the collapse of the German Democratic Republic in 1990.
Because of this legacy, Gonzales said she believes many Germans are suspicious of close relationships between the media and the government. They receive most of their news from television, which is dominated by two public broadcasting services: ARD and ZDF. Unlike American public broadcasters like PBS, which are funded primarily through donations, these channels follow the BBC model and are largely financed by a mandatory fee of 40 dollars per month paid by German citizens.
In her research, Gonzales said she often came across accusations that ARD and ZDF are producing left-of-center programming.
“In my opinion, this concept of one-sided coverage is somewhat accurate,” she said. Studies have shown that those drawn to journalism tend to be liberal, whether in Germany or the U.S. Few agree with the positions of populist movements like Pegida, or share the concerns of the right.
Thomas Fuhrmann, editor of Morgenmagazin, ZDF’s popular morning news program, disagrees. He said that personal political orientation plays little role in his journalistic practice.
“I can distinguish between what I’m doing as a citizen of this country and what I’m doing as a professional,” he said.
Morgenmagazin features a mix of news and entertainment, comparable to ABC’s “Good Morning America.” Front and center in their central Berlin studio, are Fuhrmann’s two anchors, Dunya Hayali and Mitri Sirin, whose parents immigrated from Iraq and Syria respectively. Hayali has received overwhelming numbers of disturbing, and often threatening hate mail.
“I will pray every day that you die,” wrote one of her less vulgar critics.
For Fuhrmann, much of what comes out of right field amounts to prejudiced conspiracy theories.
“We have to show what is happening, and if something is not working,” he said.
Fuhrmann referred to a twelve-part series on the integration of refugees in the small town of Templin. He said he considers this an example of his program’s multidimensional coverage of the issue.
“Twelve refugees were offered internships in Templin, but after just one day, nine had already dropped out of the program,” he said.
According to Fuhrmann, the ZDF team reported the information, despite the recognition that it might perpetuate negative assumptions about the work ethic of refugees.
“It might harm the cause of integration, but it’s not our job to always calculate whether it harms or not,” Fuhrmann said.
Morgenmagazin has also devoted considerable resources to give Merkel’s opponents a voice in the debate. Earlier this year, Hayali won the prestigious Golden Camera award for ‘best information’ in recognition of a piece interviewing anti-immigrant demonstrators in East Germany.
“We have to talk with them,” Fuhrmann said of right-wing populists.
While Hayali’s work has encouraged a dialogue with citizens on the right side of the political spectrum, Fuhrmann admits that the German media’s portrayal of the refugee situation has not been an unmitigated success.
The dysfunction of the German media became clear on Dec. 31, 2015, in Cologne. Around 500 women were sexually assaulted and robbed during New Years celebrations. The perpetrators were primarily migrants of North African descent, a politically significant fact considering many Germans’ uncertainty about the future of refugee integration.
What followed seemed to be an across-the-board failure of German journalists to report the news accurately and in a timely fashion. For several days, ZDF’s primary news program failed to even mention the events.
“My colleagues in Mainz argued that we needed more time, which was just the wrong decision,” Fuhrmann said.
When the police finally released the ethnicity of the attackers, many Germans, already skeptical of public broadcast media, became convinced that ZDF and ARD newsrooms had intentionally concealed information about the identities of the perpetrators.
“That was a turning point for the trust in our work,” Fuhrmann said.
Deborah Cole, an American journalist with the AFP wire service in Berlin, said she believes that the events in Cologne forced Germans to reevaluate their trust in the media.
“Everyone was able to see what they wanted to in this story,” she said, “and the skeptics were able to say ‘you see, this really proves everything we’ve been saying all along’.”
Popular support for Merkel’s open-border policies seemed to wane.
“That night in Cologne the dream died,” Cole said. After the events in Cologne, a controversial new political party gained momentum in the polls.
In an unassuming, apartment-style building, far from the offices of Germany’s public broadcasters, Ronald Glaeser sat in the conference room of Junge Freiheit, a niche newspaper known for being politically far right. He is a vocal leader of a new, rightwing populist party, the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). Since the attacks in Cologne, Glaeser’s party has experienced a drastic increase in support, evident in their strong showings in three state elections in March of 2016.
Like many right-wing politicians, Glaeser sharply criticizes media coverage of what happened on New Year’s Eve.
“The media tried for three or four days to sweep it under the rug,” he said.
According to him, the mainstream German news did not begin reporting about everything until after online reports brought the issue to the political forefront.
As a journalist for Junge Freiheit, Glaeser said that at least once per month he begins research on a story that turns out to be a rumor. Glaeser said these stories are never published.
“Every journalist has the problem that they produce biased things,” he said. “Everyone makes mistakes, but our assumption is, of course, that our colleagues in the Lügenpresse consistently report falsehoods.”
When pressed to give additional examples of media bias, he cites two incidents from 2006.
He said France already counts many North Africans among its population.
“They are, as a result of their cultural heritage, not as successful and capable as us white, middle Europeans” he said. “We don’t want to see this in Germany.”
He said he believes that if an open-border policy is pursued for the next 50 years, Germany will become a third-world country.
These convictions do not necessarily qualify him as a neo-Nazi, according to Jonas Frykman, an expert on right-wing extremism.
Frykman’s institution, the Aktionsbündnis Brandenburg, is a non-partisan organization devoted to combating violent extremism. Frykman has been studying the relationship between the media and the right wing since 2009.
“There are problems with how leaders of the racist movement are portrayed,” Frykman said, explaining that employees of the Aktionsbuendnis Brandenburg only refer to people as neo-Nazis if they directly affiliate themselves with the National Socialism of Germany’s Third Reich. He said other individuals are more appropriately referred to as racists or xenophobes.
Because Naziism is so heavily stigmatized in modern German culture, many right-wing individuals, even those with much more obvious ties to National Socialism than Glaeser, are deeply offended by the label of neo-Nazi. One significant factor contributing to media distrust among the political right is, therefore, the media’s misuse of terms associated with Germany’s Nazi past. Journalists who ostracize right-wing politicians and protesters with loaded characterizations are likely to be labeled as members of the lying press. This could explain why Rouhs, and the Baergida demonstrators were so dissatisfied with the German media.
On Invalidenstrasse in the Mitte District of Berlin, Rouhs and the Baergida protesters marched down the street to nationalistic rap music from speakers in Rouhs’ car.
Though many say they are prone to generalization, racial stereotyping and conspiracy theories, Baergida and their AfD allies have made their mark by pinpointing shortcomings of the German media system, and using those shortcomings to their political advantage.
Almost a year after refugees started pouring into Germany by the thousands, the mainstream German media still seem to struggle with reporting all sides of the crisis accurately and fairly.