Let's face it: Media tend to over-report the most vile and extreme aspects of our society. "If it bleeds - it leads" is much more than a cliche - it is a journalistic fact of life. The danger with the daily sensationalism is that it skews the viewer's perception of reality. In other words, a viewer is apt to believe that the world around him is a much more rotten than it actually is.
Interesting thought experiment: What if you were a foreign correspondent...?
Imagine you are an American correspondent in Germany. You are encouraged by your editors to report only the most extreme, outrageous, strange and dark sides of German society. Your publication chooses to ignore the 97% of issues that bring Germans and Americans together and instead focus on the 3% that most divide the two nations - such as attitudes towards prostitution, social welfare, guns, etc. This seedy sensationalism sells - and that is exactly what your editors are after. For that reason, they also strongly encourage you to write whatever you can on Neo-Nazi violence - not because the issue is genuinely troubling - (and it is) - but because it brings good ratings and reaffirms your readership's dark stereotypes of the Vaterland.
Beyond that - your editors oblige you to bring stories only on a narrow band of pet issues that they have predetermined are of "interest" to the readership. (In fact, you may have been specially selected for your job because you have an ideological propensity to dislike Germany and favor stories that make Germany look bad.) When you arrive in Berlin, you discover that Germany isn't quite the awful place you expected and - because you are a free spirit - the urge is great to report on the many complex aspects of German society. Predictably, however, your editors discourage any independent ideas that might shed a different (you might say balanced) light on things.
The pet issues and big politics are all they want. In particular, the editors want to demonstrate that Germany is a nation infatuated with pornography, cursed by extreme alcoholism and blighted by racist attitudes towards non-Germans. Every other week - if things are slow - the boss pressures you to bring a story on another hopeless unemployed wretch in East-Berlin desperate to get out of the country. He just won't publish your more "upbeat" stories or even critical stories that fall outside the narrow band of pet issues.
The editors supplement your work by sprinkling-in stories cut-and-pasted from news wires on Germans behaving badly worldwide. You eventually realize that intellectual honesty takes a distant backseat to the pet-issue template devised by your editors. Making Germans and Germany look bad at all costs - to reaffirm the stereotypes and political leanings of readers - is no longer something you can question without risking your job.
One week - your publication runs a cover depicting a giant spider drapped in a German flag and wearing lederhosen sucking the blood of a lifeless blue collar American trapped in its web. You realize that this crude reference to recent lay-offs of American automobile workers by a large German multinational is appalling and unfair. The cover sparks a slew of hateful and irrational letters-to-the-editor by readers. You want to speak out against what you now believe is hate-mongering for profit - but again - you fear for your job.
Not surprisingly, the most "self-critical" Germans - those with a particular talent for shamelessly bashing their own nation and people - are held up as heroic dissenters and showered with awards by your publication and others like it.
Finally - because quite a few other publications share the same general ideology of your own and follow the same pattern of reporting - it is not beyond the pale for your editors to proclaim that you represent the "mainstream" of American media and that you are largely fair and unbiased in reporting on Germany.
Turn the mirror around...
Now let us turn this script around. The above is a reflection of how certain influential segments of German media have operated for years now. The latest Amerika-Korrespondent for Stern magazine - Jan Christoph Wiechmann - offers an excellent example. One of his more recent articles is entitled: "Weapons Trade in the USA: An AR-15 with your Coffee?" The opening paragraph reads:
"In Europe one usually receives a cookie with their coffee. In the USA it is an assault rifle: In the Texan solitude, waitresses with highly teased hair offer the things for sale in weapon shops camouflaged as cafes. Normal daily life in Bush-Country."
The article paints a picture of daily life in the USA that is neither typical nor normal. Yet the author intentionally presents the extreme as the ordinary - not because it represents an accurate reflection of typical daily life in the United States - but because it is sure to sell and re-affirm the deeply-held stereotypes of "Stern" readers. Further, Wiechmann cleverly selects a subject - or perhaps his editors selected it for him - that has long been a favorite pet issue of left-leaning German media for years.
Another recent example is an article, entitled "US Tourist Collapses During Sex - Dead," that appeared in SPIEGEL ONLINE on an American who died after overdosing on a potency drug while engaging in sex tourism in Thailand. Certainly - had the tourist in question been Dutch, Brazilian, Russian or German - this article probably would not have made it onto the SPON website. Fellow blogger Joerg of Atlantic Review - who brought this article to my attention - hit the nail on the head:
"If it had been a German tourist, it might not have made news on Spiegel. Or maybe it would have been, if at least the pills were American."
Why is this piece newsworthy at all? The answer is simple: It offers SPIEGEL readers another choice opportunity to look down on Americans.
Looking at the larger picture...
The long-standing media patterns described above - when combined with the sort of ugly and exploitative political opportunism that marked the Schroeder re-election campaign of 2002 - serve to transform the fault lines that represent honest German-American differences of opinion (on questions such as Iraq, trade, the role of the state, etc.) into gaping chasms of misunderstanding and mutual abuse. This leads to the sort of self-reinforcing media-political feeding frenzy that we saw from 2002 to 2005, a period that produced some of the most ugly and irrational manifestations of anti-Americanism in the history of democratic Germany.
Fortunately, Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy have made it evident that it is possible to disagree with the United States without tapping into the overflowing keg of anti-American sentiment - fueled by the media tendencies outlined above - in their respective nations. As a result of the political changes at the very top, the level of media vitriol has ebbed over the past year or two. It is important to remember - however - that the group of people calling the shots in the German media in 2002 and 2003 are essentially still running the show today. Given the right political conditions and the media's tendency to follow larger political patterns, they would gladly return to the high-pitched anti-American hysteria that flooded German media only a few years ago.
Endnote: Allow us to offer that there is certainly some of what we describe above in American media as relates to Germany - though on a much smaller scale. It is true that some Americans still associate Germany primarily with Nazism, beer or lederhosen. If anything, however, the American media pays far too little attention to foreign issues - and it is the lack of attention to Germany and Europe that is far more troubling.