On February 22, 2005, just one day before President Bush visited Mainz, Germany on his tour of Europe, this highly interesting interview was published in "Die Welt" on anti-Americanism in the German and European media. Here, now, is a full English translation:
Swaths Bombed Through Baghdad
How German media fall out of their role when reporting on the USA – A talk with anti-Americanism researcher Lutz Erbring
Everywhere that President Bush turns up these days on his trip to Europe he is received by public protests. At the beginning of his second term, the rift between Europe and the United States of America does not seem to have diminished, even though the diplomatic signs have since moved towards reconciliation. According to a poll from the US foundation German Marshall Fund, 59 percent of Germans and 62 percent of the French clearly reject the foreign policy of the US President. Nonetheless, 34 percent of those questioned believe it is possible that an improvement could come about in President Bush’s second term. What role do the media play in this process? Franz Solms-Laubach spoke about it with the Berliner journalism professor and anti-Americanism researcher Lutz Erbring.
DIE WELT: How objective are the German media when it comes to reporting on, for example, the USA?
Lutz Erbring: It is amazing, but journalistic expectations of professionalism quickly go lost when it comes to reporting on foreign nations. With domestic topics no journalist would consider composing such texts such as those he writes, without further consideration, on events in nations like France, Great Britain or the USA. These texts typically reflect the official line of the government in relation to foreign policy. This is, however, how it also is in the USA. It happens entirely unconsciously, but is simply unprofessional.
DIE WELT: The line between news and opinion is not maintained?
Erbring: In reporting on foreign nations it is definitely significantly weaker. A whole lot of daily journalistic routines that maintain behavioral controls stop at the German border.
DIE WELT: Why?
Erbring: One can only speculate about the psychological mechanism. Domestic news reporting is closer to daily life for most journalists, they are more sensitive to partisanship in the context of domestic politics. Beyond the borders there is no learned restraint. It is empirically clearly provable that themes having to do with foreign politics are weighed with far less care.
DIE WELT: And that is how anti-American stereotypes come through in the media?
Erbring: We attempted to classify those stereotypes related to the USA that break through time and again. They range from arrogance to non-culture, double-standards, prudishness to superficiality and are transmitted and reinforced by media such as television, radio, newspapers and magazines. A favorite example for that was an ARD news program at the beginning of the invasion of Iraq about two years ago, when the moderator, I believe it was Anne Will, at a time when the active bombing was fully underway and the Americans were picking out military targets with high-tech equipment and "intelligent missiles," said: The American Air Force has again "bombed swaths through Baghdad." "Swaths" – The word naturally reminds many Germans of the carpet bombings in the Second World War. If one were to use such a formulation in the news about a controversial domestic political topic: The telephones would be ringing off the hooks. I am certain that in this case there was barely a call.
DIE WELT: What differences do you see between the right-wing and left-wing political spectrum in Germany?
Erbring: From the right comes more the diminishment of everything American in a cultural sense as flat, superficial, worthless, false, cheap and loud. In other words, that which seems to be a horror for every person of culture. From the left comes the anti-capitalistic related diminishment of everything American with anti-Coca-Cola cries and the perceived threat of McDonaldsification. But these streams of thought are actually not all that different when one takes a more precise look. In the media it remains pretty much the same.
DIE WELT: Where do the roots lie?
Erbring: The anti-Americanism related to culturalism is tied together with the European cultural arrogance that sees itself as the counterpiece to the America it perceives to be without culture, and its beginnings reach back into the 19th century. After the Second World War, it was initially not very strongly defined because of the impacts of the Marshall Plan and other US measures to help Germany. The view of America first became overshadowed in the German public again in the late sixties with the student unrest of 1968 and the worldwide protests against the war in Vietnam. In this period the term "Americanization" became a virulently negative word.
DIE WELT: The criticism of Bush is then, in line with that explanation, an escalation of old stereotypes?
Erbring: This newest form of anti-Americanism is marked, not insignificantly, by the especially high ability to irritate that President George W. Bush jr. possesses in the German and European public. At the end of 2003, shortly before the invasion of Iraq, only around nine percent of Germans still felt near to the Americans, 45 percent said: "America is distant to me." Five years prior to that, the relation was basically the opposite. The feeling reversed itself in the shortest time.
DIE WELT: Through the influence of the media?
Erbring: The media provide an interpretation, with potential political and cultural impacts, of complex phenomena for everyday life. On the other hand, the stereotypes must also already be present as a thought pattern among the media consumers. Only so can the silent agreement between broadcaster and consumer function when it comes to stereotypical shortcuts. There must, in other words, be a common denominator, otherwise the one would not understand what the other was saying.
DIE WELT: Can such thought patterns be changed?
Erbring: Our analysis has shown that personal experience does not protect against the sweeping use of stereotypes. Anti-Americanism therefore requires no Americans. Stereotypes live their own lives, are relatively immune to reality and resistant to change.
DIE WELT: No hope for improvement?
Erbring: In five years there will be a different President and Iraq will likely be pacified. That would naturally have impacts on the strength of the resentments that have fixed themselves onto certain individuals in the present situation. But beneath the surface smolder the long-burning embers of latent anti-Americanism. It has a long tradition and will remain, also when President Bush is no longer in office and Palestine is peaceful.
Mr. Erbring makes a point worth repeating: Anti-Americanism in the German media and society did not begin with, nor will it end with the Presidency of George W. Bush. President Bush is simply a convenient lighting-rod upon which the inherently anti-American elements in Germany and Europe can focus their hatreds without appearing to be anti-American on a wider scale. We've all heard it before. Many Europeans try to draw a clean and distinct dividing line when they say: "I am just anti-Bush, not anti-American."
But for many Europeans still filled with deep-seated anti-American resentments and condescension, this supposedly clean and distinct dividing line is often far more blurry than they would ever really care to admit...
(Note: Emphasis in quoted sections ours. Translation by Ray D.)