(The following text is a final exam paper authored by Ray for a graduate level class on media and politics taken in Spring of 2006. It contains excerpts from actual interviews conducted with top members of the German media as well as outside experts on the German media scene. Particularly shocking are admissions by top German journalists that self-censorship took place to a significant degree in the run-up to the Iraq war at the very highest levels of both state-sponsored and private media. The paper offers a comprehensive look at many of the problems with media coverage of the United States today:)
The international media research institute Media Tenor has released several studies over the past few years with one common finding: Rising anti-Americanism in German media. A 2005 study concluded that German television broadcasters had been continually casting “US-American protagonists and institutions” in a negative light since 2002. Another 2004 study on German-American divisions over Iraq concluded: “Especially German TV broadcasters worked less as news reporters and instead came across as part of ‘their’ government.” The same study found that in the run-up to the Iraq war, German media “barely drew a distinction between democracy and dictatorship in their news coverage.” Another study concluded: “While there were more opposing voices, such as the FAZ, available to the German readers than in its neighbor France, the media generally jumped on the popular, anti-war band-wagon.” 
The German media’s coverage of the United States was also discussed at length at a 2004 conference hosted by the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies (AICGS). The participants concluded that German media “overwhelmingly backed the Schroeder government’s position” in the months prior to the Iraq war. Panel members also debated whether influential segments of the German media tend towards anti-Americanism. Considering decades of robust German-American ties through the much of the Cold War and beyond, the implications were troubling. But recently, a slew of contentious issues and conflicting interests, including the Iraq war, have served to widen the transatlantic divide. Several AICGS panelists discussed the recent rift and concluded that, “while the media is part of the problem, they are not the source or instigator.” In private interviews, however, numerous German journalists and media observers expressed a far more candid view of the German media’s role in shaping perceptions of the United States. Some spoke openly of pandering to anti-American populism, pressure from above to exclude certain viewpoints, lack of expertise and access, and pervasive bias. What follows is a summary of those interviews and the major themes addressed.
Ideological Media: Tradition or Problem?
Professor and State Department Foreign Service Officer Richard Schmierer served two four-year tours at the United States Embassy in Germany from 1992 to 1996 as Press Attaché and from 2000 to 2004 as Minister-Counselor for Public Affairs. During his second tour, transatlantic relations cooled considerably and media coverage of the United States became noticeably more critical. When asked whether he thought anti-Americanism was a problem in German media, Schmierer diplomatically replied that the charge of anti-Americanism was “too broad.” He emphasized that German media, “are professional and world class,” and have a long tradition of reporting from a particular viewpoint. Generally speaking, Schmierer felt that some German media reflect, “a certain European point of view that sees elements of the U.S. and certain administrations as not having the worldview they share.” Cornel Faltin, the Washington, DC Bureau Chief for Springer Publishing, also pointed out that, “there are different papers for different readers. On the one hand you have TAZ (Tageszeitung – left-wing daily) and on the other you have Die Welt (conservative daily). That’s freedom of press.”
Others, including ZDF Bureau Chief and Correspondent Eberhard Piltz, felt that ideology was a major impediment to quality coverage of the United States. Piltz spoke of “prejudice” and described it as “an intellectual arrogance that thinks that the American way of life, feeling, taste and thinking is inferior and not authentic.” He complained that many journalists see “the U.S. through an ideological lens,” and that “most of them grew up with the leftist, socialist dream and now they look for scapegoats.” Stern magazine correspondent Michael Streck agreed with Piltz’s statement and worried “that populism goes over the line quite often.” Deutsche Welle Bureau Chief for North and South America Ruediger Lentz also expressed deep concern that “populist” ideology and views often “resonate the public mood” when it came to coverage of the United States.
Iraq: Views Suppressed
Ideology is clearly a serious problem in some corners of the German media. All too often, particularly in reporting on foreign affairs, viewpoints that go against popular sentiment are not given a fair hearing. Additionally, most of the journalists interviewed worried that bias negatively influenced reporting. One of the most troubling aspects of the interviews was the assertion, made by at least three of the interviewees, that journalists were pressured, or knew of colleagues who were pressured, not to run certain stories in the run-up to the Iraq war. Eberhard Piltz related that he “had to fight with the desk people (the editors) to tell and get in why the war was coming” and added that he "had a hard time telling the stories." Martin Wagner of Bayerische Rundfunk radio broadcasting said that he had not personally been pressured, but that “more than a couple colleagues,” experienced a “tendency especially in the run-up to the Iraq war,” not to run stories explaining the Bush administration’s position for fear of upsetting readers. Wagner claimed that the pressure on colleagues came from “above” from “owners.” Professor Schmierer observed that: “In the run-up to Iraq, media were put under strictures to limit the opposing side because readers and viewers might become incensed and the media were afraid to alienate or lose audience.” He summarized the situation this way: “Things got emotional.”
Stories in their Suitcases and “Leitmedien”
Cornel Faltin put it best: “Some colleagues already have stories in their suitcases.” In Faltin’s view, some correspondents working in the United States are influenced by pre-existing views. One interviewee stated anonymously that many journalists come to the U.S. “with preconceived bias.” Eberhard Piltz concluded that, “they tend to look at America with their European, German eyes.” He added that, "stories that make Bush look bad were requested all the time." According to Piltz, one would only have to "wait by the phone for the editors." Piltz also stated that the editors were those who "went in the streets and cried for Ho Chi Minh" at an earlier time and many still viewed the United States as "the spoiler of their dreams." Piltz was of the opinion that Spiegel and Stern magazines were in the forefront of "Bush bashing" and cautioned that it was often difficult to separate "Bush-bashing from anti-Americanism." He described anti-Americanism as a "larger phenomenon" that reaches back to at least 1917.
Another factor that has contributed to “predetermined” reporting is the excessive reliance on so-called “Leitmedien” or leading media. Martin Wagner explained that many “editors at quality papers read The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Der Spiegel and have stories and ideas all ready before the day starts.” This game of follow-the-leader reduces the number of issues that actually reach the German news consumer. Wagner stressed that many examples of good journalism were ignored because they did not relate to “hot” topics. The problem is compounded by what Cornel Faltin identified as, “too much entertainment” reporting. Uwe Schmitt agreed that media was “too celebrity oriented.” The result is limited coverage of substantive issues.
Monolithic Views, Pet Issues, and Clichés
Medien Tenor studies conducted over the past few years clearly indicate an increase in critical, negative reporting on the United States. German media have “picked out only the negative (issues) and forgotten the others,” according to Ruediger Lentz. Lentz suggested that too many Germans see America in a “monolithic way” and have a stereotypical image of a “bad, ugly American.” He lamented that German media “don’t follow up on the open and heated debate in the U.S. and the divisions.” Eberhard Piltz agreed that, “the criticism in the U.S.A. doesn’t fit into some Germans’ picture of the bad or ugly America.” David Kaspar, the founder of the German-American blog Davids Medienkritik, pointed to an excessive interest in the negative and sensational as a source of bias: “They search for problems and even if there weren’t any they would invent them.” Kaspar opined that positive stories, such as low unemployment levels in the United States, are often ignored.
A frequent complaint expressed by interviewees was that German media inadequately convey the complexity and internal divisions that make up American society. Professor Schmierer emphasized that it is important for Germans to understand “America’s position, values and approach” as well as the country’s “unique circumstances.” He felt that German media “did not generally give that level of depth.” Uwe Schmitt argued that, “high quality papers do get nuance,” but added that, “there are pet issues” that some media dwell on. Cornel Faltin acknowledged the presence of pet issues, but felt that it was a “periodical thing” and that “certain issues” evoked more interest at times than others. One interviewee stated anonymously that the media “don’t make an honest effort to explain the American mind” and don’t “explain why people supported Iraq.” He worried that the media regularly “feed stereotypes.”
Two Media Tenor reports from 2004 spoke of a view of America clouded by clichés. One offered a fitting quote from author Friedrich Mielke: “Today the Americans and Germans are again allowing themselves to be seduced by clichés. For many Germans, America is the land of predatory capitalism, striving for hegemony, and the arrogance of power.”
Lack of Access, Experience, and Travel
The most universally expressed frustration among journalists interviewed was the lack of access to the United States government. Claus Tigges, the Economics Correspondent for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ), referred to German journalists in the United States as “no vote reporters.” When asked how he dealt with the problem, Tigges concluded that German media are often forced to rely on U.S. media and think tanks. Michael Backfisch, Bureau Chief of the financial daily Handelsblatt, agreed that access was “tough” and “networking crucial.” The access problem clearly boils down to a lack of interest and time on the part of U.S. government officials. Because most American politicians are interested in reaching voters, even small domestic newspapers receive more attention than the largest German network. With the end of the Cold War, Germany has become less central to U.S. geopolitical objectives and, as a result, no longer attracts the same level of interest from high-ranking U.S. government officials.
Professor Schmierer also pointed out that some reporters had inadequate knowledge of the United States: “Those who are reporting should have had recent exposure to the U.S.” As an example, Schmierer pointed to ZDF, a major public television network. According to Schmierer, most of the “ZDF staff assigned to foreign affairs had never been to America and an exchange was arranged.” Martin Wagner countered that, “many Germans have been to the U.S.” and added that, “media are often prepared.”
While it is true that many Germans have been to the United States, it is not necessarily the case that German journalists assigned to cover the world’s only remaining superpower are fully prepared. As in most nations, German media focus primarily on domestic events. International coverage, though relatively extensive in Germany, still suffers from limited budgets and lack of interest. When coupled with the pressures of the twenty-four hour news cycle and the need for ever-shorter sound bites, the impact on the quality of coverage can be stifling. Limited budgets also make it difficult for some journalists to travel outside of Washington, DC or New York. Uwe Schmitt felt that it was “pulling the rug out if you can’t travel” and worried that, “it does influence journalism.” Ruediger Lentz agreed that, “it is a problem getting out” and getting “exposure.” Other journalists, including Michael Backfisch, felt that the focus on Washington was “overloaded” and remarked that journalists often felt compelled to stay in Washington for “scoops” and “new material.”
But not everyone agreed that travel was a problem. Several correspondents insisted that a reasonable balance was possible. Additionally, escaping the Washington “bubble” is hardly a problem unique to German media. The focus on Washington, DC is, however, clearly another factor that influences German coverage of the United States.
Anti-Americanism? Populism, Bush, the 800 Pound Gorilla, and Iraq
There is little doubt that the German media has grown more critical of the United States over the past five years. But there is disagreement as to the causes and implications of this trend.
Since September 11, 2001, German and American leaders have cooperated in Afghanistan but bitterly disagreed over Iraq. Gerhard Schroeder turned opposition to a military confrontation with Saddam Hussein into a winning campaign issue during the 2002 elections, much to the dismay of the Bush administration. Overall, approval of the United States and the Bush administration has fallen significantly in Germany since 2001. The overwhelming majority of Germans opposed the Iraq war and America’s refusal to seek a more multilateral solution. Many Germans dislike President Bush and what they perceive to be his overbearing approach to issues such as the Kyoto Protocol, the International Criminal Court, and Guantanamo Bay. Some worry that America is striving towards world hegemony. Uwe Schmitt remarked that the United States is admired as a “cultural leader,” but is also perceived as an “800 pound gorilla that wants to dominate yet be loved at the same time.”
So is German media coverage of the United States a fundamental source of the transatlantic divide or simply a reflection of larger societal trends? The answer is both. History is an undeniable source of differences. Contemporary observers too often forget the heated disagreements between the United States and West Germany over Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s and over the deployment of nuclear missiles in the 1980s. These disagreements also revolved around the question of military force and American geopolitical dominance. For Germany, the use of military force was taboo for decades following the Second World War. Because of its past, Germany has a far more skeptical view of military action and tends to favor multilateral approaches, even if they are sometimes flawed or ineffective.
Unfortunately, many influential figures in German media, politics and society have undeniably exploited recent transatlantic tensions for political and financial gain. All too often, populism and anti-Americanism have replaced honest, constructive criticism. Take, for example, the following covers from Stern and Der Spiegel, two of Germany’s best-selling, most influential political weeklies:
How America Lied to the World (2004) / Method Wild West (2004)
USA: The Lords of the World (1997) / Blood for Oil (2003) / The Conceited World Power (2003) / Operation Rambo (2003)
“A writer for the German weekly Der Spiegel told me during the Iraq debate not to take offense at the crude anti-American covers of the magazine such as the ugly, bearded, drooling Rambo figure it used to show the typical GI in Iraq. "We're just trying to please our million readers," he explained.”
Then there was also the portrayal of Americans as bloodsucking mosquitoes by IG Metall, Germany’s largest trade union:
Some, including German diplomats, have attempted to downplay and deny the problem of anti-Americanism. Others, including some of the journalists interviewed, felt that most of the recent ugliness in German media was attributable to dislike of the Bush administration. Ruediger Lentz put it best when he said that, “it’s not as simple as anti-Bush.” Lentz worried about a vicious cycle or “Teufelskreis” of anti-American media feeding anti-American, populist sentiment. When asked how the cycle could be broken, Lentz offered only this: “To change patterns of behavior is a long process.” It now seems that that process is slowly beginning to move forward. Iraq is no longer as divisive an issue and Gerhard Schroeder has since left office, leaving a more America-friendly Angela Merkel to patch up the wounds. Most observers hope that this difficult period in German-American relations is just another bump in the road of an otherwise healthy relationship. Only time will tell.
- Eberhard Piltz, Bureau Chief and Correspondent, Zweites Deutsches Fernsehen (ZDF) – German state television.
- Uwe Schmitt, Senior National Correspondent, Die Welt – Daily newspaper.
- Ruediger Lentz, Bureau Chief and General Manager of Deutsche Welle North and South America – State sponsored international news broadcaster.
- Michael Streck, Correspondent, Stern magazine – Weekly political illustrated.
- Martin Wagner, Foreign Corresponent, Bayerischer Rundfunk – Bavarian Radio Broadcasting
- Claus Tigges, Economics Correspondent, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) – Daily newspaper.
- Cornel Faltin, Bureau Chief, Springer Publishing – Media publishing house.
- Michael Backfisch, Bureau Chief, Handelsblatt – Daily financial newspaper.
- Richard Schmierer, State Department Foreign Service Officer and Georgetown University Professor, Press Attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Bonn from 1992 to 1996 and Minister-Counselor for Public Affairs at the American Embassy in Berlin, Germany from 2000 to 2004.
- David Kaspar, Founder and Editor in Chief, Davids Medienkritik – English-language weblog on German media and politics.
UPDATE: For more on this topic, see this interview with Lutz Erbring.
Addendum: Pet issues common in German media coverage of the United States include:
- Perceived American religiosity.
- Perceived American obsession with guns and violence.
- The death penalty.
- The perceived excess and superficiality of American capitalism and (non)culture (i.e. fat people, the super rich, SUVs, fast-food, M-TV/hip-hop culture, Hollywood, corporate scandals, buy-outs and "excessive" profits.)
- Perceived social inequality in the United States (i.e. amerikanische Verhaeltnisse, poor Americans are starving and freezing to death or at least struggling with 2-3 jobs and no health insurance while the rich live it up. Perception that America has no social safety net or a woefully inadequate social safety net.)
- Perceived American unilateralism/exceptionalism (i.e. Iraq, Kyoto, ICC, Guantanamo)
- Perceived American "hurrah" patriotism or "hyper" patriotism (i.e. flag-waving).
- Perceived American paranoia/overreaction about terror and obsession with security and the "war" on terror and the perceived willingness of Americans to sacrifice key civil liberties (the Patriot Act has become a favored target) and take extrajudicial actions involving torture, renditions, etc.
- The perception that the Bush administration controls (or at least dominates) the media and can somehow intimidate media into following the party line. The perceived view that there is a lack of diversity of opinion in US media and that FoxNews, talk radio and blogs are the menacing conservative vanguard of what all US media are becoming or have already become. (i.e. US media are "gleichgeschaltet" or in lock-step.)
- Anything that casts a negative light on the US military (i.e. Abu Ghraib, trials of US troops, bombings or killings of civilians real or imagined).
- Anything that casts a negative light on the Bush administration.
- Iraq is a disaster-quagmire-catastrophe-debacle perhaps unparalleled in human history. Iraq = Vietnam = defeat and humiliation for America, the US military and Bush.
- The perception of the US as an imperial hegemon out to expand its global power and military-industrial complex while using democracy as a convenient (yet false) excuse to do so. Oil = blood = Halliburton = war.