I’ve just returned from New York, where I attended a launch event for the Center for News, Technology and Innovation. Given the many questions around the future of news in an algorithm-driven media environment, this newly founded institute aims to serve as an independent, global policy research centre. My personal media research, whenever I’m in the US, is to watch TV, preferably the morning shows and only the partisan ones, whichever side. It’s like a car crash. I just can’t look away.
Whether Fox, Newsmax or MSNBC, the anchors (and most talking heads) are refreshingly one-sided and either obsessed with Joe Biden (“We pray for the president and his family, but he has completely lost touch”) or addicted to Donald Trump’s legal issues.
You remember how the BBC, intent on providing impartial journalism during the referendum campaign, was accused of not properly assessing which of two opposing arguments was more likely to be true? Well, in these US channels you have to look hard to find such a thing as an opposing argument, let alone nuance.
The audacity of the lopsidedness hits me every time I’m there, and although it’s not a new phenomenon at all, it hasn’t been around for ever either. It’s progressed. And while you may be concerned with the BBC’s sometimes inadequate attempts at impartiality, I worry about the German public broadcasters’ lack thereof.
Unlike the Beeb, journalists working for German public broadcasters don’t face the same barriers to taking a political stance. The good ones will never let you know. The less qualified ones show their bias, proud to be on the supposedly winning side of the zeitgeist; currently left of centre.
As a consequence, the Instagram channel of ARD/ZDF’s youth programme Funk recently labelled the chairman of the CDU, Friedrich Merz, his Bavarian CSU-counterpart and the leaders of extremist AfD as “rechts”. Literally, rechts just means right, but the term has long been ideologically charged to mean right wing radical.
If editors can’t see the difference between the racist AfD and Christian or conservative democrats from Angela Merkel’s former governing party they should change jobs. Instead, the CDU received a contrite apology from ARD and ZDF headquarters.
I wish it had been a one-off, but lately there’s been a burst in bias-driven coverage. The news programme Monitor demanded a stop to “trivialising language”; we should say climate crisis (not change) and global heating (not warming). Not surprisingly, a young infoshow host cheerfully hugged an Extinction Rebellion activist before interviewing her, and the warm welcome was even broadcast – no one involved thought it in any way problematic.
A quote by the opposition leader, Merz (“The Greens are our main adversary among the governing parties”), was distorted (“The Greens are our main adversary”) so as to make it seem that he has a bigger problem with the Greens than with the AfD.
Little surprise that the anchor of the popular, award-winning infotainment show ZDF Magazin Royale called the CDU “Nazis with substance”. A “private tweet”, a ZDF spokesperson later said in yet another apology. Equally “private” and of course satirical was his tweet of a Baader-Meinhof-style wanted poster with headshots of known and less well known conservative and economic-liberal MPs, journalists and scientists – people whose opinion the showrunners obviously don’t agree with.
In case you are wondering: no, no one had to resign after any of these or other incidents. No one except for Arne Schönbohm. The former president of the Federal Office for Information Security, a CDU-affiliated civil servant, was sacked by his boss, the social democratic home secretary. Her reason was a report by the same ZDF Magazin Royale that labelled Schönbohm a “cyber-clown” and connected him to Russian intelligence.
The allegations were serious. They were also unfounded. Schönbohm was wrongly accused and ridiculed in front of millions of viewers and he is now suing ZDF and the home secretary.
What the well-meaning left-leaners among ARD and ZDF fail to realise in their daily effort to gain the moral high ground: AfD and other “anti-establishment” groups couldn’t devise a better strategy to set licence-fee-payers against the (indispensable) public broadcast system than to create proof of partisan journalists who care more about gender-friendly language than about their viewers.
A 2023 poll shows that 70% of Germans trust ARD and ZDF. That is a lot still, but it is also eight percentage points down on 2020. And if you look at east Germany, it’s only 58% trust there. About time to win people back.