In the United States, where I come from, there is an organized campaign to discredit the American press. This campaign is succeeding.
Its roots are long. For decades the Republican coalition has tried to stick together by hating on elites who claim to know things, like “what is art?” Or: “what should college students be taught?” Or: “what counts as news?” A good name for this kind of politics is “culture war.”
Donald Trump has advanced the culture war around the media dramatically. From bias and undue influence, to something closer to treason: “enemy of the people.”
Instead of criticizing The Media for unfair treatment, as Nixon’s vice president did, Trump whips up hatred for it. Some of his most demagogic performances have been attacks on the press, often while pointing directly at reporters and camera crews. Nixon resented the press in private. Trump resents it in public, a very different act. But his transformation of right wing media complaint goes beyond these lurid performances.
The campaign starts at the top with the President’s almost daily attacks on “the fake news,” and his description of key institutions — the New York Times, the Washington Post, CNN, NBC — as both failing and corrupt. They have their problems, of course, but these are some of the most careful and credible news organizations in the world.
At the bottom of the pyramid is an army of online trolls and alt right activists who shout down stories critical of the president and project hatred at the journalists who report them. Between the president at the top and the base at the bottom are the mediating institutions: Breitbart, Drudge Report, right wing talk radio, and especially Fox News.
The campaign works differently on the three major sections of the electorate. For core supporters, media hate helps frame the president as a fighter for them. “I will put these people down for you” was one of the most attractive promises Trump made during the campaign. He has delivered on that pledge. They in turn deliver for him by categorically rejecting news reports that are critical of the president, in the belief that journalists are simply trying to bring their guy down.
On his most committed opponents, the President’s political style “works” by inviting ridicule and attack. Their part in the script is to keep the culture war going. The anger, despair and disbelief that Trump inspires in his most public doubters is felt as confirmation, and consumed as entertainment by his most committed supporters.
Then there’s the third group: Americans who are neither committed supporters nor determined critics of Donald Trump. On them, the campaign to discredit the press works by generating noise and confusion, raising what economists call search costs for good information. If the neither/nors give up and pay less attention, that is a win for Trump, the polarizer-in-chief.
I am in my third week of studying German “pressthink”.
So that’s my short course in how the campaign to discredit the American press operates. Now let me switch continents to Germany, where I am in my third week of studying German “pressthink”. This is a term I invented. It means the common sense or taken-for-granted world that journalists share. I have been studying American pressthink for more than 30 years. Now I am comparing it to how German journalists think, and to the ideas they have in common.
One of my first discoveries is a phrase that every young journalist in Germany learns in school. At least ten people in my interviews have mentioned this phrase to me. It is something Hanns Joachim Friedrichs said in 1995. In English it would be: “Don’t make yourself a party to anything— even if it’s a good thing.” Journalists in Germany do not agree among themselves on the proper interpretation of this phrase. But they agree that it is basic to German pressthink.
I think the reason Friedrich’s quote keeps coming up is the debate around media treatment of right wing populism, which is to some degree a campaign to discredit the German press. Of course there are many important differences between the situation in the US, and the situation here.
Angela Merkel is not calling Der Spiegel fake news every week. She hasn’t declared ZDF the enemy of the German people. There is nothing in Germany that does what Fox News does in the US. Not even close. The regional and local press is stronger here, which creates an attachment to fact-based journalism. And the public service broadcasters are far stronger in Germany, as well. All of that matters. So do differences in the political system, and Germany’s long history of dealing with far right movements
But there are some warning signs. I am going to mention six.
1. The tight fit between right wing populism’s media stunts, its politics of spectacle, its determination to violate political correctness, and commercial imperatives in the media sphere: the need to sell papers and draw viewers. In other words, the logic of entertainment, the pleasures of shock and surprise, can make media practice friendly to the political practices of AfD.
2. The pattern in which the extreme right wing successfully influences news coverage of its issues — migration and crime — while at the same time claiming to be the victims of media bias and of political correctness in the press.
3. The way the entire spectrum of debate can shift based not on facts that have to be confronted, but on fears that have been successfully manipulated— manipulated in part through news coverage. (In the US, the news system just spent an entire angry week on immigration problems on the Southern Border, even though there is no increase in illegal crossings or asylum requests, and polls show that support for immigration is rising over the long term.)
4. The difficulty of changing the vocabulary and switching the frames journalists use to understand politics when the lines of conflict begin to shift from left/right, which is normal parliamentary politics, to open/closed, or enlightenment vs. counter-enlightenment. The ritual of “balance” in journalism makes sense when the fight is between left and right. Does “balance” make as much sense when the conflict is between liberal vs. illiberal democracy?
5. The difficulty of remaining observers who simply “say what is,” when the AfD and its allies keep pulling you into the debate as participants— not only in the poisonous accusation, Lügenpresse, but in the subtler criticism that is captured in the word Systempresse.
6. The tendency to think that fact-checking is enough to oppose the erosion of a common world of fact, which is one of the goals of right wing populism. Fact-checking is a welcome development in journalism, but it is not enough.
In the 1950s a famous sociologist in the United States, C. Wright Mills, drew a useful distinction between “troubles” on one hand, and “issues” on the other.
Mills said that troubles were the problems that concern people in their daily lives, their lived experience. “An issue,” he wrote, “is a public matter: some value cherished by publics is felt to be threatened.” When the issues that get attention fail to connect to people’s troubles, or when common troubles do not get surfaced and formulated as public issues… that is a crisis in liberal democracy. And it would seem to be something journalists could do something about. But not if they simply take what the political system gives them as issues, and try to make news from it.
I am still early in my investigation into the German press. So I may have this part all wrong. But it seems to me that basic to German pressthink is not only freedom of the press — meaning, government should keep its hands off — but also a more positive commandment.
I would put it like this...“We have to support liberal democracy. We have to fight against extremism and prejudice.” This may not be taught to young journalists, like Friedrich’s maxim, “Don’t make yourself party to anything— even if it’s a good thing.” But journalists in Germany absorb this belief anyway.
“We have to support liberal democracy. We are part of the fight against extremism and prejudice.” At the same time we have to say what is. We can’t become cheerleaders for a good cause simply because it is good. If journalists in Germany can learn to navigate that conflict then they will have something to teach their cousins in the United States.
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