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Ideas Abound In Brave New Media World

Sharp, often scathing words and images in the news are meant to shock. Sometimes this sells, circulations and ratings boosted. A slap can also inform. Not all stories benefit from tact and subtlety. It is the privilege of a free press.

write onGerman news weekly Der Spiegel certainly attracted attention - worldwide - with a cover illustration (February 3) depicting US president Donald Trump with a knife and the severed head of the Statue of Liberty. There is a two-word caption: America First. “Donald Trump is now president of the United States,” wrote editor-in-chief Klaus Brinkbaumer, “and it physically hurts.” Der Spiegel has the widest circulation of any news magazine in Europe. (See more about media in Germany here)

The cover was created by Cuban-American free-lance artist Edel Rodriguez. "I was nine years old when I came (as a political refugee in 1980), and I remember well the feelings of being a young child leaving my home country," he said to the Washington Post (February 3). He said the illustration represents “the decapitation of democracy, the decapitation of a sacred symbol.” Last year advertising industry voice Ad Age listed Mr. Rodriguez as one of the fifty most creative people of 2016.

German news media, generally, is quite traditional. Re-built completely after World War II publishers and broadcasters tend to tread lightly, preferring essay to polemic. There can be sharp words but Germans are always mindful they invented the printing press. Not making waves has been a signature… until recently.

Reaction from German publishing rivals came quick. “Der Spiegel is playing exactly to Trump’s needs,” writes conservative daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) (February 4), “a distorted image of him that he can make use of for his own distorted image of the press. The image and text does not invite a sober, differentiated view of Trump’s politics.” Weekly competitor Die Welt (February 4) called the cover illustration “crude… publicity at any cost…an example of hyperventilated anti-Trump journalism.”

“In all its imagery the caricature succeeded. It radiates,” said art critic Carsten Probst on German public radio Deutschlandradio Kultur (February 4). “Trump is now a media label, a distinctive figure like Mao or Elvis.” The February 4th cover of The Economist, drawn by British illustrator Miles Donovan, depicted the US president tossing a flaming Molotov cocktail under the caption “an insurgent in the White House.”

Last week TV satirist Jan Böhmermann was again awarded the German Television Prize (Deutschen Fernsehpreis) for best late night entertainment show. “We are dedicating the prize to the ZDF legal department,” he beamed, quoted by news agency dpa (February 3). His Neo Magazin Royale show, appearing on public TV channel ZDFneo, regularly skewers the powerful and the pretenders.

Herr Böhmermann’s satire didn’t sit well with Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, like other authoritarians not fond of criticism. A lawsuit was filed - hence the reference to the ZDF legal department - by president Erdogan personally under a German law criminalizing insults toward heads of State. German courts tossed out the lawsuit in November for “insufficient evidence of wrongdoing.” A few weeks later the German parliament moved to remove the lese majeste law from the books as “obsolete and unnecessary.”

TV satirists around Europe took to their Final Cut Pro X for a slam at the “America First” meme. The Dutch were first with a “Netherlands Second,” followed by the Swiss, Danes, Belgians, Portuguese and Lithuanians (asking for third). Herr Böhmermann’s crew, without surprise, couldn’t resist. (See here on YouTube)

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