Stephan Russ-Mohl greets the reader on the inside of the cover with a broad smile. But the book is far from cheerful. What he describes on the next 300 pages of Die informierte Gesellschaft und ihre Feinde leaves the reader feeling both alarmed and ultimately helpless.
The book’s sub-heading reveals what Stephan Russ-Mohl is worried about: »Why digitalization threatens our democracy.« Anyone who has followed the public discourse about exactly this over the last few years, however briefly, will be familiar with the issue. A lot has been said and written recently about the demise of quality journalism, filter bubbles, the news-deprived, and fake news deciding elections. Stephan Russ-Mohl’s book takes a wide view of the topic, bringing together various aspects to create an overall picture. Throughout the entire book, it is clear how worried the author is. But he is also angry – about sloppy journalists, unscrupulous providers of social media platforms, power-hungry politicians, and blinkered experts in communication studies.
Although the publication’s list of sources – running to 28 closely written pages – gives it a broad base, the argument is chiefly driven by the author’s zeal. Russ-Mohl has written a book targeted at a wide audience: academics in media and communication studies, journalists and media managers, economists and social psychologists, media users and the wider public. In an almost apologetic introduction, he describes it as a very personal book, whose writing and presentation are more in line with journalistic than academic standards. This does not have to be a bad thing. On the contrary – the book delivers something that he proposes towards the end as a potential solution to the problem: academia’s involvement in the public debate with generally comprehensible contributions in public media.
But let us return to the beginning. Taking fake news and malicious false information as his starting point, Russ-Mohl addresses the issue of general disinformation in a society stuck in an attention trap. He identifies further trends in journalism such as the increasing loss of trust in journalism and its acceleration through digitalization, before addressing the responsibility that journalists bear for this malaise. This is the subject of a significant part of the book, entitled The lost innocence of mainstream journalism. The next topic is the role of populists in public disinformation. The book ends by discussing potential countermeasures – a section to which Russ-Mohl dedicates around 100 pages. His plea is addressed to media managers, journalists, academics, and, last but not least, media users – citizens in a democracy i.e. all of us.
This brief outline of the content makes it clear that the book leaves no stone unturned. Russ-Mohl picks from an embarrassment of riches to demonstrate the wider contexts. At the same time, he backs up his arguments with references to sources, many of them academic, others newspaper articles and personal interviews.
As Russ-Mohl himself writes, academics have a tendency to retreat into the safe niche of their research focuses and to publish work for a limited audience. In this book, Russ-Mohl does the opposite. Of course this makes him a target. Some of his observations appear overly simplistic, losing some of their analytical teeth – for example when he tars various types and cases of fake news with the same brush, regardless of whether they are audacious lies from the Trump election campaign, satirical media critique, or Orson Welles’ 1938 radio program about a Martian invasion (cf. 22ff.). The epistemological discourse of the last few decades has made many journalists and almost all academics frightened to use the word ›truth‹. Russ-Mohl, on the other hand, is not afraid to stand by it and to communicate his assessment in incisive style. In places, his choice of words is puzzling. For example, the author writes consistently of the ›mainstream media‹ without once examining the dubious instrumentalization of the term by the populist forces he criticizes so strongly.
Russ-Mohl almost seems to derive pleasure from scolding journalists. Taking Uwe Krüger’s findings on the causes of public mistrust in the media as his starting point, the author makes no secret of his low opinion of journalistic quality. He describes exaggerated teasers, such as a cover story that showed Angela Merkel in a blue and white nun’s habit and the headline »Mother Angela,« as serious errors and fake news. When he lists other examples of poor performance, however, it is sometimes unclear what exactly the problem is – for example in his reference to a story in the Guardian, which apparently published a dubious translation of an interview with Julian Assange (cf. 136).
Some of what Russ-Mohl sees as dramatic errors appear somewhat pedantic. For example, he considers it »thoughtless, perhaps even cynical« (181) when journalists – and academics – talk of the commercialization of journalism when, he claims, actually entire markets are disappearing and they should therefore be talking of de-commercialization. He ignores the fact that commercialization refers to the focus on commercial rather than journalistic goals and is therefore an entirely appropriate term. At times, the author’s personal opinion is all too clear – he laments the »unimaginative programming« (192) of ARD and ZDF, who he says show too much sport and crime drama, while ignoring challenging educational and cultural offerings from talk shows like Maischberger.
The sometimes polemic tone does not help his cause, for example when he refers to journalists who are enable to take criticism as »sensitive little souls« (169). Building on the tradition of communication studies expert Hans Mathias Kepplinger, he also complains that journalists do not conduct unbiased research and only quote experts that back up their own opinion – only to write that the nuclear disaster in Fukushima only killed three people and quote Kepplinger as an expert, without noting that other experts put the number of cancer victims at anywhere between 14 and 1,100 due to the increased levels of radioactivity.
Furthermore, while Russ-Mohl dedicates several pages to Kepplinger, it is not until the end of his journalist scolding that he mentions Kepplinger’s opponent, journalism researcher, Siegfried Weischenberg, in order to relativize Kepplinger’s statements. There is no question which findings Russ-Mohl prefers. While he quotes Kepplinger’s work over numerous pages, calling it a »particularly persuasive example of what journalists could have learned over the last few decades if they […] had had the tiniest spark of interest,« he merely describes Weischenberg as someone who »tended to flatter and glorify journalists« (169). No more of Weischenberg’s findings are included – indeed, he is not even mentioned in the register of persons, in which Kepplinger appears eight times. Russ-Mohl cannot be accused of completely ignoring contradictory positions, but the extreme one-sidedness of the sources chosen does make a dubious impression.
Given the countless assertions and hypotheses presented in the book, the occasional contradiction is forgivable. At times, the author appears to have lost track of his own arguments – for example when he states that the media generate a fear of terrorism on the one hand (cf. 146), yet keep the mass population quiet and docile and have a pacifying effect on the other, only to complain in the next sentence that television viewers are constantly confronted with murder (cf. 159). Although the reader can easily understand the contradictory views, one could expect the author to have dealt with these observations in a more deliberate and nuanced way. In addition, the author has a tendency to repeat himself when outlining shortcomings, for example in the titles on page 162 (»Foreign reporting: Gaps and translation errors«) and 164 (»Illusions of competence and translation errors«).
Instead of merely indicating the shortcomings of journalism, it would also have been fair to honor the initiatives with which journalism is attempting to address them. For example, Russ-Mohl accuses the media of allowing itself to be instrumentalized by Islamist terrorists by willingly spreading their message of blind terror (cf. 145); but there is no mention of the fact that media have publicly stated that they will no longer communicate certain images and content in order to deny the terrorists a platform.
The potential solutions he Russ-Mohl offers start off pessimistic: The subheadings »What can be done?« (233) and »What each of us can do« bookend around 100 pages on which in which the author searches and finds little. He sees no help at all coming from the state; he is also skeptical about financing through crowd funding and foundations; he takes a dark view of promoting media competence; social media platforms are of little use for serious fact checking. All that remains are closer collaboration with an academia that is willing to cooperate and a return – in journalism to the old virtues and in society to »people with backbone« (330) who repeatedly stand up for their basic rights.
The book does not strike a hopeful tone. Even in the introduction, the author warns that his work inspires not so much optimism as speculation about an oncoming disinformation disaster. It is a broad-based, passionate call to arms that does not sugarcoat anything. Every page makes it clear that the situation demands a book like this. We can only hope that journalism, media houses, policymakers, audiences, and society heed it.
Translation: Sophie Costella
This book review was first published in rezensionen:kommunikation:medien, 4th of December 2018, accessible under https://www.rkm-journal.de/archives/21561.
About the reviewer
Prof. Dr. Guido Keel is Head of the IAM Institute of Applied Media Studies at ZHAW Zurich University of Applied Sciences. The focuses of his research include quality in journalism, change in journalism, and journalism in non-European contexts.
About this book
Stephan Russ-Mohl: Die informierte Gesellschaft und ihre Feinde. Warum die Digitalisierung unsere Demokratie gefährdet.[The informed society and its enemies. Why digitalization threatens our democracy]. Series: Edition Medienpraxis, Vol. 16. Cologne [Herbert von Halem] 2017, 368 pages, EUR 23