Can Donald Trump’s favorite anti-establishment website shake up Berlin’s staid media landscape — and unseat Angela Merkel?
- By Sumi SomaskandaSumi Somaskanda is a freelance journalist living and working in Berlin.
BERLIN — In October, a 19-year-old German college student was raped and murdered in the southern city of Freiburg, her body thrown into a nearby river. A little more than a month later, police arrested and charged a 17-year-old Afghan refugee; he turned out to be a convicted criminal who had attempted murder in Greece in 2013 and was released after serving just two years of his 10-year sentence. He then slipped into Germany under the guise of seeking asylum.
Was the crime big news? It depends on whom you ask. There was no mention of the arrest, for example, on the country’s main nightly news program, Tagesschau; the editor in chief argued at the time that national broadcasters rarely cover local murders, and that this one should be treated no differently. The national newspaper Die Zeit didn’t originally cover the case for the same reason, pointing out that it hadn’t reported the student’s disappearance or when her body was found, and that was well before it was clear who was responsible.
But Tagesschau’s decision, in particular, was greeted in some corners with outrage. Even prominent politicians accused it of playing into the hands of far-right forces. “Silence doesn’t help, it only makes matters worse,” Julia Klöckner, the deputy chairwoman of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative Christian Democratic Union Party (CDU), told the daily Bild. Ansgar Heveling, another CDU politician of the Bundestag’s interior committee, lamented that the omission could be interpreted as trying to protect a young asylum-seeker — and “[giving] that impression is fatal,” he said.
This was neither the first, nor last, instance of anger at how Germany’s establishment media have covered stories related to the country’s ongoing migration crisis. When thousands of women reported that they were sexually assaulted and robbed at Cologne’s central train station on New Year’s Eve in 2015/2016 by a mob of young immigrant men, the story was picked up by regional outlets. But some national media appeared to ignore the story at first and expressed reluctance to report that asylum-seekers were involved — and were subsequently excoriated for weeks. Then, after the truck attack on a Berlin Christmas market last month, public broadcasters came under fire once again, this time because CNN was faster to go live (by about an hour) and quicker to link the attack to terrorism. The broadcasters argued that they were waiting to gather basic facts before going to air on pure speculation; still, it appeared to be further right-wing ammunition.
Sylke Tempel, a long-time Middle East correspondent for German media and the editor in chief of the political magazine Internationale Politik, says journalists from many mainstream media outlets feel the migration crisis has forced them into an impossible position. “Here we are in a situation where they know people will think they are sweeping something under the carpet, where actually they’re not reporting about cases where no refugees are involved,” she said. “How do we deal with this? It’s a really complex question.”
That complexity is informed by German journalists’ sense of professional duty, one that historically is based less on adversarial muckraking than stewardship of a national consensus on liberal democratic values. Germans have rarely objected to the consistently decorous and at times stodgy journalism that results. They’ve also not had much of a choice — but that may be about to change.
More choice is precisely what Breitbart — the American news website with an explicitly right-wing, anti-establishment political agenda — is now intent on offering. In November, fresh off the heels of Donald Trump’s victory, the media company announced its plans to expand to Germany and France. Breitbart seems to think that the country’s media landscape, and Merkel’s government, is ripe for disruption. The rising support in Germany for anti-immigrant movements suggests it might be correct. Membership in the anti-Islam Pegida movement swelled to tens of thousands of people in early 2015, and the right-wing populist Alternative for Deutschland (AfD) has capitalized on some of the same momentum, surging in regional elections. Meanwhile, an article published last week by America’s Breitbart website falsely reporting that a mob of Muslims had set fire to a church in the western German city of Dortmund on New Year’s Eve went viral among Germans, obliging city officials to respond.
It’s not yet clear, however, that the Breitbart brand of disruption is something the majority of Germans will ultimately want. Germans are, after all, known for their fondness of rules — and if there’s anything Breitbart is known for, it’s for breaking them.
Last fall, Alexander Marlow, the editor in chief of Breitbart’s U.S. operations, told the Reuters news agency that the company was interviewing to set up an editorial staff in continental Europe. The expansion was motivated by business goals, Marlow said, but also political ones — above all, helping unite anti-immigrant, anti-establishment sentiment across the West and elect right-wing candidates. Both Germany and France are going to the polls in key national elections this year.
Breitbart’s announcement of expansion plans didn’t go unnoticed in Germany. In the southern city of Heidelberg, the AfD responded with glee. “Breitbart is coming to Germany. Fantastic! That will trigger an earthquake in our stale media landscape,” AfD Heidelberg tweeted.
In other corners, however, the pending arrival of a brazen, agenda-driven outlet accused of spreading anti-Semitic, racist ideology was met with fear, skepticism, and scorn. The Berlin daily Tagesspiegel called the move “expansion multiplied by agitation”; Tagesschau ran a report labeling Breitbart a “platform for white supremacy”; publisher and blogger Christoph Kappes announced he was starting a watchdog site to track and resist Breitbart’s content and influence. “[Breitbart’s] combination of turbo tabloid coverage with a political agenda and a well-known brand doesn’t exist in Germany yet,” he warned in his manifesto — the implication being that Kappes would like to keep it that way.
Germany’s news media are deeply rooted in a postwar legacy of ensuring diverse opinion and balanced, neutral reporting — as long as the coverage conforms to mainstream postwar politics, which eschews explicit nationalism and emphasizes polite consensus-building.
To that end, Germany has privacy laws and hate speech regulations far firmer than those in the United States. There are a variety of informal watchdogs, too, from the German Press Council to Bildblog, a website originally dedicated to picking apart sloppy or sensational coverage in Germany’s largest daily, Bild, but which has since expanded to the broader media landscape. Both aim to police the German media’s professional and political standards
But some of those standards compete with a duty to cooperate with the establishment in maintaining the country’s hard-won political status quo. One practice widely accepted by German journalists (that would be anathema to American journalists) is quote authorization, where interview partners agree to speak only on the condition that they approve their quotes after the fact. Journalists often see their interviews altered significantly, or entirely blacked out by press attachés.
German newspapers span the mainstream political spectrum — ranging from the far-left-leaning Taz to the national dailies Süeddeutsche and Die Zeit in the middle and the more conservative FAZ and Die Welt — but they generally don’t stray far from the country’s journalistic code of conduct, even in editorials. Ansgar Koreng, a lawyer who represents major outlets in Germany, says cases of personal attacks on politicians or public figures are still fairly rare among established media. Some establishment journalists and politicians are also understood to nurture a culture of mutual fraternization and favors, according Kuno Haberbusch from the investigative Netzwerk Recherche group.
The national nightly newscast Tagesschau, which drew so much fire for its decision on the Freiburg murder, is the archetype of the journalism that the German media landscape produces. The flagship news product of ARD, one of the country’s three powerful public broadcasters, Tagesschau traditionally drives national news coverage and public debate. The broadcasters draw from obligatory license fees (currently about $18 a month) paid by German residents, companies, and institutions that allow them to employ a network of correspondents across the globe and invest in special investigations.
But Tagesschau’s success is also due to the show’s overt propriety — sober anchors reading the day’s most important global affairs, often off paper scripts, devoid of any flash and drama and accompanied by sterile, sensible graphics. The German public, and other German journalists, tend to equate these aesthetics with trustworthiness.
But just as the rise of the AfD suggests an increasing dissatisfaction with the political establishment, there are signs that Germans may be becoming more fed up with the country’s approach to news. The public broadcasters in particular have been accused of shedding journalistic standards in favor of overt activism, and right-wing groups claim the broadcasters are whitewashing stories to shield asylum-seekers and Merkel’s migration policy. In the summer of 2015, for example, they beamed out images of desperate refugee families entering Germany; the AfD seized upon those images as proof of bias, because the majority of migrants arriving were actually young men.
Lutz Frühbrodt, a professor of communications at the University of Applied Sciences in Würzburg-Schweinfurt and a leading media analyst, says some public broadcasters in particular do play politics in favor of the parties in power and share close ties to them, but they cannot be condemned on a whole. “They also produce a lot of investigative, exclusive stories that are critical of the government and companies,” he said. “The idea that they are in some way a state broadcaster like Poland or Russia or Turkey, that’s just nonsense.”
Still, in a 2014 study on media consumption, about 54 percent of those polled said they had “little trust” in the media. Another, more comprehensive study conducted by the Munich-based TNS Emnid institute in 2016 revealed that only about a third of Germans polled still believe their media to be free and independent. The rest saw government, big business, and advertising as the real drivers of news. Already back in 2008, the media program Zapp had lamented surveys that placed journalists in the same class as car salesmen and real estate agents — in other words, untrustworthy.
Breitbart is betting that there’s a gap it can exploit between the demand among Germans for right-wing media and the present supply.
When it launched in the United States in 2007, Breitbart was a mostly fringe outlet and it stayed that way for years. According to a Pew Research Center study, only 3 percent of American readers got their news from Breitbart in 2014. But its share of the American news market has risen steadily as the political landscape has become increasingly fragmented. The success of Trump and his aide Steve Bannon — chairman of Breitbart — saw the site’s influence surge to new heights. In 2014, it launched in London, where it has supported the rise of the populist and nationalist UK Independence Party and saw its profile rise along with the June vote to leave the European Union.
When Breitbart arrives in Germany it will not have nearly as much competition as it did in Britain, where there was already a far more established and lurid conservative media market. The closest equivalent Germany has to a British-style tabloid, Bild, has built its model upon screaming headlines and sensationalist stories, and it’s often criticized for nationalist undertones. But Bild is not nearly as ideologically driven, or anti-establishment, as Breitbart, or even the Murdoch-owned press in Britain. Christoph Classen, a senior researcher in media and information at the Centre for Contemporary History in Potsdam, Germany, believes the tabloid is populist in the truest sense of the word, serving as a bellwether of public opinion.
“It’s primarily about earning money, not about representing a specific political position,” he told Foreign Policy. “You really notice that when you see that it represents wildly different opinions and changes relatively quickly. On refugee policy, for example, they were part of the welcoming culture for quite some time. You’d never see that from a truly right-wing outlet.”
But Germany has seen the arrival of smaller, conservative outlets that have sought to capitalize on growing anti-establishment sentiment. Tichys Einblick, a news and opinion site, broke onto the conservative scene a few years ago, founded by Roland Tichy, the former editor of Germany’s Business Week (WirtschaftsWoche). He spurns the terms anti-establishment and right-wing, saying he simply recognized a gap where readers like him — at the nexus of libertarianism and social conservatism — were not being addressed. In just a few years, Tichy says his site has amassed some 600,000 readers and a loyal team of writers and supporters.
Further right, Compact Magazine is anti-Euro, anti-refugee, and, according to Die Zeit, the “magazine of the dissatisfied.” To its supporters, Compact, circulation 85,000, is a courageous rebuke to the liberal, biased mainstream outlets; to its critics it is a strident, highly politicized tabloid peddling conspiracy theories. There are others like it, including Kopp, Epoch Times, and PI (Politically Incorrect) News.
Despite the waning trust in established media, the (previously mentioned) study on news consumption indicated that a significant majority of those polled still get their information from public broadcasters or mainstream papers. Yet that study categorized about a third of the people polled as “doubters,” or Germans who demonstrated uneasiness over the country’s current state; and most of these said they got their information from social media or private television.
It’s among the doubters that Breitbart has a chance to earn an audience, especially with its ample resources, global reach, and (thanks to Bannon) growing brand recognition among the AfD and its supporters.
Tichy doesn’t see the American outlet as competition but believes it would force him to sharpen his profile. “Many people in Germany are scared of Breitbart,” he said. “People will now see what happens when something really right-wing with lots of media money comes in.”
While Tichy believes there is room in Germany for an outlet like Breitbart, he doesn’t think it will be easy for the American media company to successfully gain a foothold here. Even if Breitbart managed to hire enough writers and staff, Germans will be skeptical of a foreign outlet, he says, especially one that might not have the cultural competence to engage German readers and users. “It’s hard to build an international media organization because in the end, all media is local,” he said. “They will have to walk and talk like Germans.”
Still, some are taking steps to prepare for Breitbart’s arrival. Die Zeit has launched a blog called Glashaus, or glass house, which seeks to lift the veil and offer readers a look at the daily decision-making in what the paper covers, and what it doesn’t. The attempt at more transparency comes as Germany braces for what is set to be a bitterly fought national election campaign. Just how Breitbart will fit into a journalism ecosystem that has long put a premium on politeness is not yet clear. Germany’s news media have generally played by the rules; now, the commitment of German society as a whole to its traditions is about to be tested.
“If someone is so clearly working outside of the system, we can’t measure them,” said Lutz Tillmanns, the director of the Press Council, told Tagesschau in a recent interview. “It’s a question of a general societal discussion now. Does this type of society want this [type of media]?”
Image credit: Getty Images/Foreign Policy illustration