WHAT METHODS ARE PERMITTED IN THE RATINGS WAR?  

A panel discussion on the occasion of the 5th anniversary of the RIAS BERLIN COMMISSION.
May 24th, 1997, Amerika Haus Berlin

Participants in the panel discussion:

Ernst Elitz,
Director of DeutschlandRadio
Peter Laufer, US radio and TV journalist, author of “Inside Talk Radio — America’s Voice or just Hot Air?”
Matt Marshall,
correspondent of Wall Street Journal, Bonn
Werner Sonne, former correspondent of ARD in Washington
Dieter Weirich, Director of Deutsche Welle

Host:

Robert L. Earle, Minister Counselor for Public Affairs
Embassy of the United States of America in Germany


The struggle for ratings is getting tougher. Falsified TV features have been broadcast in Germany several times already. In the United States, the news also has to be entertaining; weather, crime and traffic are the staples of most local newscasts. In contrast to Germany, reenactments, the use of hidden cameras, and the private lives of politicians are not considered taboo. Are German journalists simply too timid — “pussycats rather than tigers,” as Wall Street Journal correspondent Matt Marshall wrote in Die Zeit?

Robert L. Earle:
We have framed our topic this morning within the context of the ratings war, but I think it goes beyond ratings, it goes to the core of journalism, as it is practiced when you are sitting with the source, or someone you are interviewing, and you are making decisions on the spot about how to probe or flatter or frighten or lead, or whatever it is to try to get at the real story as best as you can. Are US journalists tigers and the German journalists pussycats, or in German “Bettvorleger”, as Matt Marshall recently wrote in an article for the German weekly paper Die Zeit?

Matt Marshall:
There is a difference between the press and TV. But I think despite these differences this thesis can be transferred, can be generalized to a certain degree to include television. I think it basically goes back to the way the two different professions developed in Germany and in the USA. This is clear when one sees how much the government is involved in the media in Germany. You have a very large degree of state intervention everywhere in Germany. There is less intervention in the United States. Whether it be newspapers or television you had heavy political involvement and this political involvement has continued. I think this thesis can be generalized because there are still many differences in the way American and German journalists go about reporting, especially in Bonn but also in investigative journalism, because of this tradition of having the state take care of so much of people’s lives. There is a tradition in the United States of having the press perform an “ersatz” public function. In Germany people expect the state to assume this regulatory function.

Werner Sonne:
Not only did I work in the US for 81/2 years, I also spent 14 years of my life in Bonn. As a young man, I started there as a “tiger”, and — in my own judgment — I did not end up as a “pussycat”. When I listen to this thesis, I must say that this does not reflect my own experience. On the contrary, as a former Bonn correspondent, I think that the German press — also in comparison with the American press - does fulfill its control function, and has caused more politicians, including Franz-Josef Strauß and Jürgen Möllemann, to resign than the American press. I should like to stress that the American press is suffering from a kind of “Post-Watergate Syndrome”. Since the majority of the American press slept through Watergate (only the Washington Post actually led to the impeachment of Richard Nixon with its relentless research), Washington journalists are always keen to dig up new scandals. It is my own impression that they sometimes overdo it. They are afraid to miss the next Watergate story and for many years have been hunting after Whitewater, particularly targeting Bill Clinton. It is really not my intention to depict Bill Clinton as a faultless hero. He definitely has shown a lot of weaknesses. But what I have seen particularly in the past few years, regarding attempts to accuse him of almost anything, convinced me of the fact that at least the White House correspondents suffer from this “Post-Watergate Syndrome” without having achieved much so far. This also holds true for the election campaign and the rightly criticized campaign contribution scandals. Again, people targeted Bill Clinton. I understand that, because he is the President, but what was overlooked was that his opponents, the Republicans, had received twice as much in campaign contributions, i.e. 400 million dollars, whereas the Democrats were satisfied with only 200 million dollars.

Particularly in the past few months, I have found it striking that the U.S. press is quite colorblind in this area. This is a surprise, as one usually accuses the US press of being a leftist, liberal press siding with the Democrats. One has to have a more inclusive view regarding American journalists and nobody who has ever traveled across the United States will challenge this statement. There are a number of quality newspapers on the East coast, as well as on the West coast, but in the middle of the country the American press is not really that exciting when it comes to critical reporting. Regarding quality standards, our provincial press does not have to fear any comparison with the American press.

Robert L. Earle:
Do you investigate and report differently in Washington than you would if you were working in Bonn?

Werner Sonne:
No, I do not think so. I believe that I actually fulfill the function of a critical watchdog, a function we should and must fulfill. In Bonn an ARD correspondent is closer to events than he would be in Washington, not in the sense of being a “pussycat” but in the sense of critical reporting. I should like to give you an example of this: If you saw the interview by the WDR editor-in-chief for television with Federal Chancellor Helmut Kohl in April 1997 and compare this with the farewell interviews David Brinkley, one of the senior reporters in American television, carried out first with Bob Dole and then with Bill Clinton one day before and one day after the presidential elections in the US, you actually almost fell asleep during David Brinkley’s interviews, whereas the interview with the German Chancellor was quite lively, to put it mildly.

Ernst Elitz:
The yardstick for quality in journalism cannot be how many politicians were forced to step down, but rather the intensity, quality, and accuracy of research. The second important point I should like to mention is political influence. What is more harmful for journalism: too much political influence or too much economic influence? Politics is controlled by the public, whereas the economy and industry are not publicly controlled. And in our present situation, when publishing houses not only own newspapers but also operate radio and television stations — with a market share limited to 30% — they can of course use the media to further their own economic interests. The best, and at the same time, worst example does not come from Germany.

We all know that Murdoch removed a BBC channel from his satellite, because the BBC had been reporting critically about the human rights situation in China. Murdoch, however, wanted to do business in China — media business — and he did not like this kind of reporting. He felt it threatened his activities. He considered the freedom of the press less important than his economic interests. If he had focused on political considerations, this would not have happened. In a system under public law, which is controlled by representatives of the public, including politicians, I think it is more likely that the quality of journalism is ensured than in a system where journalism is used and controlled only by economic interests.

Dieter Weirich:
First of all, the German side, of course, rejects with unanimous indignation Matt Marshall’s opinion that we are “pussycats”. Let us focus on the question of whether there are differences between Anglo-Saxon journalism and Teutonic journalism. Here the question whether one forces a politician to step down is, of course, not the main consideration. But it is indeed clear that investigative journalism can cause politicians to resign from office.

I disagree somewhat with my colleague Mr. Elitz, because industry and politics in Germany have actually entered into a very close relationship with each other. Just look at the development of competition in telecommunications and also in mass communications. There are two federal states in Germany — one governed by a conservative, one by a socialist majority — whose regulatory policy is “If you hit my Bertelsmann, I’ll beat up your Kirch” (Bavaria is the home of Kirch Media Group, North-Rhine Westfalia is the base of Bertelsmann). Against this background, one must say, there are political interests and there is political control!

Let me speak to the point of the issue: I believe that in the two countries there are different tendencies and trends. I agree with Matt Marshall’s criticism that in Germany there is not enough target-oriented, investigative journalism. And this is simply due to the fact that too few of the media have investigative teams which can work on a story for several weeks. And there is also a difference regarding the image of the media as an instrument for information. In Germany television is still considered an information tool, and I think this overestimates its role. An American professor for communications once told me, “Television has to be fun; intelligent people read newspapers” I believe that there is a difference regarding the self-image of journalists in America and in Germany. Journalists in Germany definitely do just as good a job and produce just as much quality, but the difference is that German journalists consider themselves part of the overall political scene which is obsessed with harmony. Everybody functions in his or her own category, either the conservative or the liberal one. That is why in some press conferences you get the impression that journalists are “ersatz” politicians rather than critical investigators. The longer a journalist has been in the business, the stronger his or her chameleon-like adaptation, although the situation was worse in the 1970s. There is definitely a change today.

A final reason why I do not like to glorify Anglo-American journalism in general has to do with the terrible examples of biased, “peephole” journalism, not so much inpolitical reporting but in coverage of the private lives of people. This applies to Great Britain, as well as to the US: Competition in this area is constantly increasing, and of course nobody can seriously defend this peephole journalism. I am referring to the child-abuse campaign against Woody Allen and the “Royal Peep Show” one can watch in Great Britain every day including the subsequent indignation of a prudish public. In this context, we are experiencing a high degree of hypocrisy on the part of the media, and that is why — with a self-critical look at the German media — I would not want to agree with the statement that in order to change the German pussycats into tigers, we only have to follow the American example.

Peter Laufer:
When you look at our two cultures and our two nations and our two countries, if you want to find a doormat you can find a doormat here and you can find a doormat in America. If you want to find tigers, they are on both sides of the water. For me it is of greater concern how talk radio and the tabloid press are pushing the so-called mainstream press. This is something we have seen since the O.J. Simpson trial, and before that the William Kennedy Smith rape charge. We should be much more concerned about results of the ratings war and circulation war, and about what we are doing in terms of content, rather than whether or not we are pussycats or tigers, because we are both.

Robert L. Earle:
Is this a problem with German competitiveness at the moment? You have got all this regulated state-subsidized electronic mass media! Whereas in the U.S. or other countries people live and die by the marketplace and have to be competitive, have to dig in!

Werner Sonne:
It is not secret that ratings are the holy cow in America, as well as in Germany, and this also applies to the public broadcasting system. I think this is not a good develment, particularly in Germany, when it comes to assuring the quality of journalism. You all know that for local news in America the most important principle is “When it bleeds, it leads,” i.e. bloodshed guarantees good ratings. American television today is produced under the influence of focus groups, i.e. a selection of citizens is asked what they would like to see, and in most cases it’s soft news and crime. So this is what the local stations concentrate on. This trend is becoming more obvious, and American journalists also deplore it. So the brutal editorial focus is exclusively on market shares and ratings. Unfortunately, this virus is also spreading to the national media in America, where “soft news” is becoming more prevalent. In the area of “hard news”, the amount of foreign policy reporting has decreased by over 50% in the past seven to eight years. Of course, in Germany, too, there is a trend to focus on “soft news” to survive the merciless competition.


Robert L. Earle:

Mr. Elitz,
to what extent do ratings affect you and to what extent do ratings affect your journalists?

Ernst Elitz:
Being the only public national radio station in Germany, DeutschlandRadio is in a unique situation. Because we are financed by listeners’ fees we are free of commercials, and do not have to struggle for market share and ratings at any cost. We are not subject to this kind of economic influence. But, of course, we have to try to increase the market share of our sophisticated radio and television programs. A journalist focusing on political information — and this is what I consider my own task — of course wants to inform many people, because this is the best way to trigger processes of maturation in a democratic society. To generate ratings at any cost for economic reasons is something I consider negative because it reduces the quality of journalism. Of course, journalists who are under eco-nomic pressure to achieve high ratings will become the pussycats of a sensation-seeking audience. It is not good to be the pussycat of politicians, but it is equally bad for a journalist to be the pussycat of the sensational-hungry audience either. For me, a journalist is an agent supplying information which enables the audience to form opinions.

When talking with colleagues who work for highly investigative magazines, they tell me that in the past, when market pressure and competition were not yet so great, they were able to research a story until it was 110% sure. Then they would publish it although it might have taken a week or two weeks to complete. Today, competition is so tough that they publish a story when it is only 98% or 90% sure, because they know that the competition does not adhere to their previous high standards. They also know that with subtle wording, speculation, suspicions, and rumors they can design a story in a way that makes any litigation unlikely. For readers and viewers, rumors are of course much more fascinating and interesting than the truth. The truth is more sober than its beautiful sister, imagination. And that is why rumors and suspicions generate much larger market shares than serious information. So I am concerned that, for economic reasons, journalists might become the pussycats of a sensation-seeking audience.

Matt Marshall:
I agree with the emphasis on the problem of having people wanting violent news and the media responding by giving it to them. However I don’t think we can get away from the need for personal responsibility, on the part of the audience as well as journalists. There are some problems, but today the electronic media show increasing self control. There are two media critics on all large newspapers and there is a large discussion in the opinion section of newspapers on the role of media in society.

Coming back to investigative journalism: The point is that the Los Angeles Times had six journalists at its disposal to cover the campaign contribution scandal that broke out this year. This newspaper from Los Angeles, with 30 people in Washington, uncovered and basically set the agenda on the campaign contributions story. There is no such assignment of staff in Germany to Bonn, although Der Spiegel is an exception. I think only Der Spiegel does very strong investigative reporting.

There is also this fight in the German press and television to have access, to sit on the plane with Chancellor Kohl and to get the interview. And they will do anything to get this interview. I think they tend to reduce their criticism in order to maintain that access. Most of us have probably heard about Der Spiegel, about how the correspondent travelling with Kohl to Brunei was not allowed to sit on the plane. He could not participate in some of the activities when he got to Brunei, because he was shut out by the spokesperson of Kohl. This is because Der Spiegel has an antagonistic relationship with Kohl. I don’t think that would ever happen in the US. I think that my colleague Werner Sonne is in the minority and that the majority of German journalists that I have talked to believe that there is what they call “Absprachekultur” there is an agreement by government officials to allow them into background discussionsas long as the journalists don’t go too far. What we found in the case of Süddeutsche Zeitung is that you have the correspondent in Munich writing the very critical articles and the correspondent in Bonn, more interested in maintaining access, not writing extremely critical articles

Peter Laufer:
Don’t you think, de facto, that that happens in America also?

Matt Marshall:
I don’t think so, because there is just no tradition of shutting out someone because they have written something. I think this is a reflection of the German tradition of deference to authority that does not exist in the U.S. It is not built into us to want to say a positive word about somebody. It is seen as weak, because of the tradition we have developed to be on the side of the public, to fend off government. That is a very strong part of our tradition. In Germany, that doesn’t exist. Here you have a starting point of trust.

Ernst Elitz:
It has already become a tradition that interviews of Bonn-based politicians are not carried out by our Bonn correspondents but by journalists based at the studio in Cologne. These are younger colleagues who remain healthily aloof from what is going on in the capital and in politics. They will definitely ask questions which are different from those asked by a journalists who wants to have access to the Chancellery again the next morning. I think this is a good division of labor.

Werner Sonne:
You might have noticed already that Matt and I have quite different views of things, and I should like to explain this in more detail, so that you do not go home today with the impression that American journalism is so critical and the journalists in Bonn are really only these frequently quoted pussycats. I want to be self-critical and say that of course there was a tradition in German journalism which lasted 20 years and which Mr. Weirich briefly mentioned, i.e. the “confessing journalism” which was somewhat the legacy of the 1968 movement. I dissociated myself from this then and I still do so today. Thank God, this trend is subsiding — and it has never existed in American journalism, which I consider a positive feature. I am very pleased to see that a younger generation of German journalists is now emerging who do not follow this trend.

Regarding the fact that American journalism is allegedly free of ideologies, I should say that when looking at the time of the Cold War, and even looking at the situation today, I have to ask myself what American reporting about American foreign policy was like. For example in Latin America where massive American interests were at stake and where Ameri-can politicians had been turning a blind eye for decades, this even had an impact on the New York Times. There were instructions that terrible violations of human rights were simply to be ignored. Today I wonder about the American sphere of influence in the Middle East, in Saudi Arabia, in other Arab states. What about democracy and human rights in Kuwait, where America waged a war? Which American journalist actually makes the effort to critically analyze this? There has to be a reason behind all this, and to simply maintain that there is no ideology involved is quite a daring statement.

Peter Laufer:
I think it is important for me as an American journalist to point out that we have given a lot of politicians free rides. This happened with Ronald Reagan for 16 years including his governorship of California. It was pretty ludicrous; we just left him alone. The current nonsensical situation is to give most favored nation status to China, while we act as if Cuba is about to take over the lower 48. We can make a long list requiring self-criticism, so I just think that we as Americans should be cautious when we attack our German colleagues and shouldn’t paint ourselves as being all rosy.

George Lewinski (Market Place, Los Angeles):
Have journalists somehow lost contact with the people they are talking to, because of their privileges, better education, higher salaries?

Prof. Lutz Erbring (FU Berlin):
During this discussion, the terms audiences, ratings, and market shares have been used with a somewhat negative connotation. The audience is the public, the same people who vote on election day, and I believe what we are overlooking in our self-definition here in Germany is that journalism is a service industry and not an information industry.

Werner Sonne:
I do feel privileged being able to participate on behalf of our audience in very many exciting events and to report about them. This is my service function. However, it should not reduce my distance from these events, and it should not make me forget that I have to fulfill this service function. But it is also our task to report about what is important and what is relevant with an interest in enlightening our audience. If we had a populist attitude and only produced what people want to see, then we would actually destroy journalism.

Dieter Weirich:
If somebody has the correct atti-tude and self-definition as a journalist, it is a good thing if he or she has a better education than listeners or readers, because one’s most important task as a service provider is to explain often complicated social and political facts and to spare the reader or spectator one’s own opinion. The real service is to research as many facts as possible so the audience can get a comprehensive view of the situation — this is the true art of journalism. All this debate about journalism as a service function is, of course, also due to the self-image of the Germans, their concept of culture, and their concept of freedom. But it also has to do with the fact that we seem to have deleted the word “customer” from our dictionaries. Now the word “customer” has returned and even includes the radio and TV audience. So a new concept of service will emerge, and here I do agree with Mr. Sonne.

It cannot be the task of a public station to follow every popular fashion. Public stations particularly should not adjust to these fashions because they have a clear mandate laid down by law. If a public station can no longer be distinguished from a private one — then we no longer need it.

Prof. Steinmetz (Universität Leipzig):
Regarding the “Absprachekultur” that has been criticized, I should like to add that this is something students from East Germany particularly follow with great attention, because they remember it from the past. If there are any signs of this phenomenon, the media culture in this country will have to be very careful.

Matt Marshall:
When I talk about “Absprachekultur”, I’m talking about relativity. Obviously the situation is different. What happens to press releases issued by the Chancellor’s office is not comparable to the direct transfer of information from the Politbüro to the press in the former East. I would like to explain what I mean by “Absprachekultur”, based on my experience in Germany and the U.S. I have seen the different ways journalists deal with interviews. Essentially when you agree to an interview in the U.S., when you agree to have it on record, then the journalist can use your quotes; he doesn’t have to check back. Here in Germany you have to check back with whoever you talk to, even though you have it on tape. I have interviewed high officials plenty of times and I had a quote I would have liked to use and I had to send it back just to confirm it. Even then, they say they’d like to change it, take out this word or that word. For politicians and central bankers in Germany, this is normal. I’m just very thankful that this culture has not rooted itself in the U.S. And that is what I mean by “Absprachekultur”.

Werner Sonne:
It is not very unusual in the U.S. either that quotes are checked. I read this all the time although I never had to do it myself. However, some US journalists told me that they also check back and review quotes and facts — particularly in long magazine articles.

As a radio and television correspondent in Bonn I interviewed many officials, including Chancellor Kohl, and I always broadcast what I considered appropriate. Often I had to considerably cut my material, in order to get it down to the format of the Tagesschau, but I never asked anybody for permission and was never obliged to do so. In the end it all boils down to the question: Do you subject yourself to these rules or not? What is important is always how you allow yourself to be treated.

If you let people treat you in this way, politicians notice this very quickly and form their opinions about you and may use you for their purposes. But if you do not let them treat you like this, the word will also be spread. So it depends on the individual journalist and his or her backbone. I believe one does not have to put up with this kind of treatment in Bonn either.

Dieter Weirich:
Matt, I think you are developing this little obsession. At the moment, none of the political players seems to like the Wall Street Jounal very much, neither the Bundesbank nor the Minister of Finance, Mr. Waigel. When the chief press officers come with their long list for interviews, then, of course, you are not exactly ranking first. Such is life.

In electronic media, the approach is a rather pragmatic one. If you only have 40 seconds for an interview, this problem does not exist. I believe that in the print business, it is an international rule that in interviews which will later be quoted the interviewees reserve the right to review what they said, and they have good reasons to do so. If we have a background conversation and you quote certain parts of it without letting me know in advance in what context they will be used, then I want at least to have an opportunity to check the quotes. I think that is the usual international procedure, and this also applies to Germany.

Robert L. Earle:
I want to thank this panel. I think it has been a great and very colleagial discussion. You all have been very frank. This exchange really furthers our effort at the RIAS BERLIN COMMISSION to build a transatlantic bridge in the field of broadcasting. We are very close to one another, we can learn a great deal from one another, we are respectful as we approach these topics, but we do have to be vigorous because there are big tasks out there.


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