Reviewed by Horst Pöttker
»This book looks at the needs and behavior of the audience on the one hand and, on the other, the constraints facing and possibilities available to journalism. Its most important concern is that each side should see the other not as an opponent, but as a partner pursuing a shared goal – ideally the goal of making life for each individual and life together in society a little bit better.« (18)
This passage is taken from Alexandra Borchardt’s introduction entitled »A deep divide. Journalism and its audience.« It sounds pleasant enough – who would not want to bridge divides between people and make the world a better place? But this concept is far from a matter of course, especially when it comes to journalism as a profession.
The notion or the will to make the world a better place is not in itself enough to achieve the goal. The leaders of the French Revolution, inspired by the idea of improving the world, ended up chopping each other’s heads off. The commitment to shaping the world in Germany’s image accompanied the genocide of colonized peoples and the First World War. And it remains to be seen whether Jack Dorsey, Bill Gates, or Mark Zuckerberg will succeed in realizing their good intentions to improve humanity through boundless communication. Alexandra Borchardt herself appears skeptical – if not, she would not have reduced her wish to improving the world »a little bit.«
Moving down a level from an idea of the general and major risks inspired by history, it is worth asking whether the intention to make the world a better place should be integral to professional journalism specifically. What improves the world? Or, to put it more modestly, what makes things better, or at least not worse, for people in their »life together in society?« In highly complex societies like ours, comprising a large number of specialized professions, this also appears to depend on whether those in such professions are aware of their role and (can) effectively and reliably allow their work to be guided by this. If others are able to rely on this and everyone is conscious that everyone else makes a contribution through their specific roles, this creates the fabric that we call societal cohesion, social integration, or common good – forming the foundation for wellbeing and potential improvement. Thus, journalists are particularly key in helping to make the world a better place when they can be relied upon to concentrate on their particular role in a way that recognizable to others.
The two books are based on contentious understandings of what exactly this role is. Birk Meinhardt grew up in what was then East Germany, where he studied Journalism Studies and began work as a sports reporter. After reunification, he spent many years as a reporter and columnist for Süddeutsche Zeitung (SZ). Today he earns his living as an author. His book provides a clear, detailed, and in-depth description of the growing doubts that led him to break away from the newspaper so beloved by well-educated (West) Germans in 2012. What he experienced under the SED regime and its media shaped his understanding of journalism as a profession in two ways. Firstly, it has made him especially hungry for the freedom and self-determination that lacked in the GDR; secondly, it has made him particularly sensitive to the kind of mental mechanisms that accompany this lack of freedom and self-determination.
Meinhardt provides the full text of three reportages that the SZ did not print. The first is about investment transactions by Deutsche Bank and the power of the international rating agencies; the second looks at politically opportune miscarriages of justice in the fight against the far right; and the third covers the Ramstein relay station, via which people in the Middle East are killed more or less accurately at the touch of a button on an Air Force base in distant New Mexico. Those responsible at editorial offices are well within their rights to reject manuscripts for reasons such as threadbare research or inelegant language, but what Meinhardt is talking about is the political opportunism, familiar to him from the GDR, used to justify the rejection of manuscripts or editorial alterations despite professional quality. He gives his response to the person responsible at the SZ, who he claims revised his reportage on miscarriages of justice:
»You say that the far right could use my story for their own ends. That is […] exactly the argument that I heard often, too often, in my first life, as a young journalist in the GDR. The critique you make here, they said, may be justified, but it could suit the class enemy well, so we’ll leave it out. And anyway, where are the counter-examples? There are plenty of them, aren’t there? So please, dear Birk, rewrite this, add this in, etc.« (69).
Meinhardt’s critique is based on the conviction that the role of journalists is to provide accurate and comprehensive reporting, i.e. to make the world as transparent as it is without taking into consideration whom accurate information might (politically) benefit or damage. Rudolf Augstein referred to it as »saying how it is.« Meinhardt’s view:
»Reality, if it is tough, must be narrated, and this narration should not be softened and semi-retracted again through relativization that is opportune for all sides. If it hurts to read the pieces, that is due not to the pieces, but to that which is depicted in them« (70).
Even in the GDR, he says, he had a bad feeling when acting against this conviction. Given the civilized cotton wool in which requests for change were wrapped at the SZ, for example, he would like to see »a return to the crudeness of the rejections of previous times. The bluntness of the words chosen. The brutality of the tone. The hostility of the looks. One was powerless, but one knew exactly where one was« (71).
A different fundamental understanding of the role of journalism permeates Alexandra Borchardt’s book, although one would not guess it from the catchy alliteration in the German title. Pontius Pilate famously asked, »What is truth?« Borchardt argues that it is more than simply accuracy – it is also something good, something worth striving for; it is the intention of not merely depicting the world, but of making it better – even if only »a little bit.« This impression is gained less from Borchardt’s undoubtedly accurate references to dangers facing the profession of journalism as we know it as a result of the digital transformation in the economic, social, cultural, and technological conditions in which it exists. Advertising income for information media is collapsing and, as the chance of a consistent income decreases, those entering the profession are becoming less qualified; trust in the media is falling as it becomes more difficult to differentiate between reliable information on digital networks, while algorithms and bots threaten to supplant professional responsibility. The long string of traps into which journalists have always fallen, but today even more so, also makes depressing reading: from the traps of ego and envy, to the traps of speed, power, and data, to arrogance and stereotyping (cf. 75-102).
The author is a former Managing Editor at the SZ who has also conducted research at the Reuters Institute in Oxford and taught at various academies of journalism. Her view of the role of journalists can be seen in her ideas for how journalism should work to overcome the crisis in which it finds itself. This is characterized by depictions of leading figures whom she claims should be emulated, especially well-known female journalists like Maria Ressa, Hannah Suppa, and Julia Leeb. On the latter, Borchardt writes:
»Leeb has spent time in Congo, North Korea, and Syria. If one wants to do something about suffering, she believes, one must document it. She thus specializes in what she calls 360-degree journalism, which she believes will revolutionize journalism. With the aid of virtual reality, the audience is given the sense – at least optically and acoustically – of being at the heart of the action; they can look around in all directions. If people feel as if they are there, Leeb argues, they develop more compassion and empathy. That encourages them to become involved politically, for example, in the relevant issues« (25).
The fact that Borchardt sees a commitment to doing good as the role of journalism and the key to its future is also clear from much of the wording she uses, including the last sentences of her book: »If journalists listened better to their audience, and the audience to journalists, a lot would be gained. After all, both are – or should be – on the same side. It is the side of those who are fighting for a better life for everyone« (201).
There is an element of teaching here. In contrast to Meinhardt’s view, here the commitment goes beyond an accurate, unembellished representation of how it is. What is meant is not least the commitment to something integral to the definition of truth in a moral sense. Like many others, Borchardt attaches to this the wide-ranging term »democracy,« responding to Hanns Joachim Friedrich’s famous bon mot as follows:
»[…] where is the line between good and existential? Democracy, for example, is something existential, and supporting it is the mission of journalism in free societies. Advocating democracy is therefore not only allowed, but essential« (98).
While Borchardt’s commitment is to a good thing that she calls democracy and in favor of which she hopes to convince and educate the audience, Meinhardt is committed to an ideal that is not fully achievable, but nonetheless effective from a regulatory point of view: objectivity. Borchardt considers this less important, as it is »a term that is hard to grasp« (99).
By its very nature, a review demands an assessment. Meinhardt’s consistent concentration on the role of reporting how things are, his commitment to comprehensive transparency as a professional attitude, makes more sense to me. There are plenty of professions whose job it is to influence and steer human behavior in the interest of what is good: teachers, clergy, lawyers, politicians, even advertisers and those in PR. In addition to these, we also need a profession that we can rely on to want nothing else than to inform us about everything that we should know, so that we can decide for ourselves, individually and socially, on a realistic basis, how we wish to act.
Commitment to good causes that goes beyond a journalist’s professional role, including commitment to democracy, is associated with the temptation to leave out information that could be assumed to damage this cause. All too often, a commitment to democracy requires a fixed idea of what democracy is, for example the principle of majority rule. Yet we Germans looking back at 1933 (when Hitler was elected Chancellor), or the Americans looking back at 2017 (when Donald Trump was elected President), know better than most that majorities can get it terribly wrong and that democratic procedures can yield highly problematic results.
Democracy is not only an institutionally anchored state, but above all a permanent process of productive change that emerges through conflict. Keeping this democratic process going demands that even those circumstances that do not fit in with the points of view that appear to go without saying in the journalists’ bubble are unflinchingly made public in a way that is not limited by political, educational, moral, or ideological blinkers. Commitment to democracy in a democratic state is always also a commitment to that state in the condition in which it finds itself, as well as to the representatives of the time. The »public role« of journalism – in the sense of responsibility for the existing state and the society that carries it – was first mentioned in the Schriftleitergesetz [loosely: Journalism Act] of 1933.
If one accepts that the Süddeutsche Zeitung is a flagship example of high-quality journalism in Germany today, then each of the books in its own way shows that this journalism is closer to Borchardt’s concept of its mental foundation and its understanding of its professional role than Meinhardt’s. Indeed, its commitment to something outside its basic professional obligation to publicize the way things are is seen as a way to overcome the crisis in which it finds itself. Perhaps this also goes some way to explaining why trust in the information media is waning across the board.
This review first appeared in rezensionen:kommunikation:medien, January 14th 2021, accessible at https://www.rkm-journal.de/archives/22500.
About the author
Horst Pöttker, born 1944, is a retired Professor of the Theory and Practice of Journalism at TU Dortmund University and Senior Professor at the university of his home city of Hamburg.
Translation: Sophie Costella
Alexandra Borchardt (2020): Mehr Wahrheit wagen. Warum die Demokratie einen starken Journalismus braucht. [Daring to speak more truth. Why democracy needs strong journalism], Berlin: Dudenverlag, 224 pages, EUR 18,-.
Birk Meinhardt (2020): Wie ich meine Zeitung verlor. Ein Jahrebuch. [How I lost my newspaper. A yearbook] Berlin: Das Neue Berlin, 144 pages, EUR 15,-.