The Scandalous History of America’s Newest Media Baron

The new owner of Politico, Axel Springer, has a decades-long record of bending journalistic ethics for right-wing causes.

By , a Berlin-based journalist.
A copy of the Jan. 16 issue of German tabloid Bild Zeitung that features an exclusive interview with U.S. President-elect Donald Trump.
A copy of the Jan. 16 issue of German tabloid Bild Zeitung that features an exclusive interview with U.S. President-elect Donald Trump.
A copy of the Jan. 16 issue of German tabloid Bild Zeitung that features an exclusive interview with U.S. President-elect Donald Trump. Sean Gallup/Getty Images

When the German media house Axel Springer snapped up the Washington news site Politico in October 2021 for around $1 billion, the media world gasped at the financial audacity. The sum is a full five times the American enterprise’s annual sales. Subsequent reporting by the New York Times has focused attention on Axel Springer’s workplace culture and allegations of its retrograde approach to gender issues. What has been missing thus far—conspicuously so, from a German perspective—has been greater alarm at Axel Springer’s long and well-documented track record of mixing journalism and right-wing politics.

Politico, a political journalism company founded in 2007 to cover politics and policy in the United States and internationally, is studiously neutral in its political commitments. The Axel Springer empire, by contrast, has always been unabashedly arch-conservative. Since its start in Germany’s postwar era, Axel Springer hasn’t hesitated to indulge in overt (if largely improvised) right-wing populism—even when that requires bending journalistic rules. The ubiquitous German tabloid Bild and the online Bild.de are regularly sanctioned by the German Press Council, a body responsible for enforcing the German Press Code, for their violation of standard journalism ethics relating to personal privacy, among other issues.

Mathias Döpfner, Axel Springer chief executive and part owner, oversaw the purchase in 2015 of the news site Business Insider, today known as Insider, which accelerated the organization’s move into international digital media. But Döpfner sees Politico as the company’s big-name bridgehead to authoritative U.S. media. Although Insider’s traffic numbers are formidable, its reliance on clickbait puts it in another journalistic league, in terms of impact and reputation, than Politico. (While most digital media has abandoned traffic-metric quotas for its writing staff, Insider under Springer has embraced them.)

When the German media house Axel Springer snapped up the Washington news site Politico in October 2021 for around $1 billion, the media world gasped at the financial audacity. The sum is a full five times the American enterprise’s annual sales. Subsequent reporting by the New York Times has focused attention on Axel Springer’s workplace culture and allegations of its retrograde approach to gender issues. What has been missing thus far—conspicuously so, from a German perspective—has been greater alarm at Axel Springer’s long and well-documented track record of mixing journalism and right-wing politics.

Politico, a political journalism company founded in 2007 to cover politics and policy in the United States and internationally, is studiously neutral in its political commitments. The Axel Springer empire, by contrast, has always been unabashedly arch-conservative. Since its start in Germany’s postwar era, Axel Springer hasn’t hesitated to indulge in overt (if largely improvised) right-wing populism—even when that requires bending journalistic rules. The ubiquitous German tabloid Bild and the online Bild.de are regularly sanctioned by the German Press Council, a body responsible for enforcing the German Press Code, for their violation of standard journalism ethics relating to personal privacy, among other issues.

Mathias Döpfner, Axel Springer chief executive and part owner, oversaw the purchase in 2015 of the news site Business Insider, today known as Insider, which accelerated the organization’s move into international digital media. But Döpfner sees Politico as the company’s big-name bridgehead to authoritative U.S. media. Although Insider’s traffic numbers are formidable, its reliance on clickbait puts it in another journalistic league, in terms of impact and reputation, than Politico. (While most digital media has abandoned traffic-metric quotas for its writing staff, Insider under Springer has embraced them.)

Döpfner has said he’ll ramp up staffing at Politico by more than 10 percent, publish in multiple languages, and expand its footprint by broadening coverage. But given Axel Springer’s history, there should be serious concerns about the compatibility of its journalistic culture with its newest U.S. property. The Axel Springer empire’s core commitments have always been expressly political: “pro-US, pro-NATO, pro-Israel, pro-austerity, pro-capital, anti-Russia, anti-China,” as a 2020 article in the Guardian described the company’s flagship Bild newspaper. Axel Springer has produced a long trail of vindictive yellow journalism in Germany—coverage more akin to a blend of National Enquirer and Fox News than the serious aspirations of Politico. Today, Germans say they trust Bild significantly less than other German media sources.

Axel Springer himself, the empire’s founding father, did not hide that he used Bild and the daily broadsheet Die Welt to intervene in German and European politics—often on issues that directly benefited the fortunes of the media house. Born in 1912 to a well-known publisher, Springer started Bild Zeitung in 1952, in imitation of the United Kingdom’s tabloid press. The daily was immediately recognizable, as it is today, with its giant full-page headlines and mix of provocative right-wing editorializing, soft porn, and sensationalist lowbrow stories. Circulation skyrocketed—aided by the helping hand of the CIA and British occupation military. The Axel Springer publishing house branched out from there. By the 1960s, it owned dozens of regional dailies, glossy weeklies, and other major national publications such as Die Welt, and it has dominated the German media landscape ever since.

Widely referred to as Germany’s Rupert Murdoch, Springer ensured his politics were expressed unmistakably in his publications. That was particularly so in Bild, his “dog on a chain,” as he put it. Communism was the Axel Springer press’s enemy No. 1. “He saw Soviet communism as the divider of Germany,” the sociologist Detlev Claussen said, “which had to be defeated. This is why he moved the center of his publishing house to West Berlin.” The Axel Springer high-rise, built defiantly adjacent to the Berlin Wall, became one of Cold War Berlin’s most identifiable monuments.

Axel Springer’s involvement in political discourse across its many media properties during the Cold War painted with an exceedingly wide brush: Germany’s Social Democrats, trade unionists, and peace activists were objects thrown together into one barrel with Soviet communism. This created a stigma around German progressivism that cost them voluminous sympathy with the working classes—and probably soccer stadiums’ worth of votes too. For decades, the redbaiting effectively poisoned debate on such issues as social policy and abortion, among many others. In the 1960s, the Axel Springer press’s rabid denunciations of the leftist student movement and its leader Rudi Dutschke helped inspire a West German man to attempt to assassinate Dutschke in 1968, critically wounding him and ultimately leading to Dutschke’s death  years later.

Springer believed fervently in a united Europe and a Germany (ultimately a unified one) secured firmly in the Western camp—which meant no diplomacy of any kind with the Soviet Union or East Germany, unless undertaken by himself. Indeed, he conducted international diplomacy at his own discretion, meeting with Soviet, European, Israeli, and U.S. leaders, as he saw fit. Springer consorted in a highly personal way with the conservative Christian Democrats’ upper echelon, including its chancellors: from Konrad Adenauer to Helmut Kohl. “No other man in Germany, before Hitler or since Hitler, has accumulated so much power, with the exception of Bismarck and the two kaisers,” remarked Der Spiegel publisher Rudolf Augstein.

The Axel Springer press’s obsession with scandals and lurid photos of victims of catastrophes, traffic accidents, or other tragedies earned it recrimination from many corners. The German Press Council has sanctioned it well over 200 times since 1986—more than any other German publication. But these violations of basic journalism ethics obviously don’t faze Axel Springer media house, as these practices haven’t ceased. (In 2021 alone Bild media was reprimanded by the council 26 times.) The way in which this kind of scandalmongering has destroyed lives was fictionalized poignantly in Heinrich Böll’s acclaimed novel, and the subsequent film adaptation, The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum.

Although Bild today, in terms of readership, is just a shadow of its former self (1.2 million paid circulation, down from a high of 4.5 million), the Axel Springer media house under Döpfner continues to pursue political agendas and vendettas with the same tenacity as it did decades ago. “Döpfner denies it,” said Anne Fromm, a media expert at the daily Tageszeitung, “but Bild launches one campaign after another, be it against the minimum wage, mandatory vaccinations, Green Party candidates, or other targets.” In 2007, for example, Fromm notes, Axel Springer savagely fought the minimum wage for the very reason that its private postal service PIN AG relied on thousands of workers earning half the proposed minimum. This threatened Axel Springer’s financial interests, according to Fromm. “The flurry of reports bashing the minimum wage had nothing to do with journalism,” she said.

Whether it be same-sex marriage, migrants and crime, Fridays for Future, young women in politics, Greek profligacy, electric cars, or Islam, Bild and its offshoots wage no-holds-barred war. Axel Springer’s current bugbear—which it presents as evidence of a supposed new authoritarian German Democratic Republic taking hold in Germany—is lockdown measures, mask mandates, vaccination campaigns, and COVID-19 policies in general. Although it doesn’t explicitly endorse the anti-vaccine movement or its conspiracy theories, it provides them a forum and ample sympathy. Recent headlines read: “Government has a corona fetish,” “There are government bans that make life hell for others,” “This is akin to hunting down the unvaccinated,” “Corona: Nonsensical rules need not be followed,” and “We are suffering from a policy pandemic more than anything else.” Now that the anti-vaccine campaign has turned violent, Axel Springer’s role is coming under ever heavier fire from counterparts in the media world, and the Bild outlets have backed off somewhat from the hysterical reporting.

Spiegel and later the New York Times uncovered the high-profile Bild chief editor Julian Reichelt’s sleazy workplace behavior, and in the case of the Times report, this was just days before the Politico acquisition. The Times had internal Axel Springer documents that revealed that Reichelt, now 41, had an affair five years ago with a 25-year-old junior staff member and then promoted her to a high-level newsroom post for which she was unqualified. “That’s how it always goes at Bild,” the woman told company investigators. “Those who sleep with the boss get a better job.” Other female staff members also filed allegations of sexual misconduct against Reichelt, prompting his removal a day later.

In the late 1970s, Bild’s shoddy practices were dramatically unveiled by the West German investigative journalist Günter Wallraff, who worked undercover there as an editor for months. Wallraff exposed the use of fake and altered quotations, as well as outright lies that turned nonstories into sensationalist catnip—regardless of the privacy and reputation of the story’s figures. For years afterward, the Axel Springer house pursued Wallraff with all of its might, even for some time successfully blocking the publication of parts of his books on Bild, as well as sections of a documentary film. Wallraff went on to found an organization to help people victimized by the publication.  Forty-four years after the Wallraff book, two German media analysts came out with a follow-up investigative report that concluded that in-house practices at Bild had changed very little in the intervening period.

The questions that Axel Springer should now have to face as it expands its footprint in the United States further are multiple, and without clean answers. Will it try to push its U.S. companies in terms of politics? Does Bild-style trash journalism have its own niche in the United States? Can German ownership adjust to the more sensitized U.S. workplace culture? Is unabashed clickbait the future of Axel Springer’s U.S. digital media, the way it is in Germany?

Although Döpfner has said that Politico staff must abide by Axel Springer-wide guiding principles—support for a united Europe, Israel’s right to exist, and a free-market economy, among others—they at least won’t be required to sign a written commitment to the principles the way German personnel must. Döpfner, however, told the Wall Street Journal that people with a fundamental problem with any of these principles “should not work for Axel Springer, very clearly.” Döpfner apparently doesn’t see a contradiction between insisting upon this political line and “editorial independence and nonpartisan reporting,” which he has promised at Politico.

Until now, the U.S. media scene has only experienced drips and drabs of the Axel Springer media house—a brand of media culture unfamiliar to it. The success of the venture hinges upon Döpfner’s delicacy. It’s not something he or Axel Springer media house is known for.

Correction, Jan. 19, 2021: The magazine Spiegel, not the New York Times, first reported on accusations regarding Julian Reichelt’s behavior in the workplace. Also, Axel Springer was born in Altona, which was not part of Hamburg at the time, as was originally reported.

Paul Hockenos is a Berlin-based journalist. His recent book is Berlin Calling: A Story of Anarchy, Music, the Wall and the Birth of the New Berlin (The New Press).

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