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Blaming News Media For Extremism Tasty Low-hanging Fruit, Social Media Quite Bitter
For every sporting event media coverage starts early in the season. The tempo rises to the pre-game shows; lots of shouting and waving. The event itself is almost parenthetical. Itís the post-game analysis where everybody tries to appear reasoned and sober. So it is, too, with elections.
German voters went to the polls just a week ago (September 24) to elect members of parliament, the Bundestag. Support for major political parties fell, some more than others, as populist far-right party Alternatif für Deutschland (AfD - Alternative for Germany) gained seats for the first time. Some in Germany - and elsewhere - were surprised, and some horrified, at the showing for AfD candidates. Some were surprised the anti-immigrant, anti-refugee party’s nostalgia for the days of the Soviet Union - or earlier - had not fared better. There will be a different political coalition for Chancellor Angela Merkel to lead.
German politicians, certainly those with headaches, started complaining about media coverage immediately after the results were announced. "In the next few weeks, we will discuss the extent to which the two public broadcasters have massively contributed to making the AfD not small, but to make it big", complained Bavarian Interior Minister and CSU member Joachim Herrmann on the ARD talk-show Berliner Runde (September 24), quoted by Focus (September 25). More blunt was outgoing Bundestag member and Green Party politician Hans-Christian Ströbele, saying broadcasters should not "pick up every fart or fad that an AfDer lets loose.”
The AfD succeeded in holding the focus of major newspapers and broadcasters, public and private. TV talk-shows during this campaign cycle, covered meticulously by newspapers, seemed to have one focus: the AfD. Major party representatives in TV debates were similarly drawn in. All of this served only to raise more criticism of journalists and the news media, publishers finding another reason to complain about public TV network ARD and public channel ZDF. The messenger is a convenient target when the message is difficult.
Media reporting heaped attention on the Pirate Party Germany (Piratenpartei Deutschland) several years ago, noted Süddeutsche Zeitung (September 25). “But since the Pirates did not politically polarize as much as the AfD - and even fewer voices reached - no one revolted. Meanwhile the Pirates sunk into political insignificance.” The German Pirate Party first appeared in 2006 as a socially liberal political voice, peaked in 2011-2012 and effectively disappeared in 2016.
Critical news coverage pointing out the AfD’s most noxious positions served only to keep it “in the conversation,” said Ludwig-Maximilians-University communication professor Carsten Reinemann. And critical coverage on public broadcasting channels (ARD and ZDF) “hated by the AfD” only strengthens the party in its role of victim. "AfD supporters, who want a culturally and religiously homogeneous Germany, with which to hammer a supposedly uniform, traditional German identity, will not be deterred."
German public TV went on the defensive, publishing (September 29) an opinion poll taken after the vote showing large majorities (7 in 10) finding election coverage “rather balanced” and less than 20% saying “rather one-sided.” Leaving a top-secret Television council meeting, ZDF Director General Thomas Bellut said the final TV debate with Chancellor Merkel (CDU) and Martin Schultz (SPD) was “problematic” because of “interplay between the four journalists.” He called for a new law on TV debates.
Social media may have had less effect than expected, other than stirring up journalists. The AfD did, of course, post its most loathsome videos to Facebook, some borrowing from Russian sources. “Facebook is highly suitable for emotionally-charged content that would otherwise be out of the question,” said Social Media Watchdog founder Martin Giesler to Deutsche Welle (September 29). “There’s no reason to remain sober and factual for Facebook because people get bored.” The AfD complained about government-funded fact-checking websites as “in the service of left-wing extremists.”
Looking at online search queries, online news reports and aggregate poll data over several months German researchers concluded that “bad news is good news,” reported BuzzFeed News (Germany) (September 28). Voting intention for the AfD rose on any news coverage, positive or negative. "If the media had not reported on the AfD for several weeks, the polls would be five points lower,” said Munich College of Politics data researcher Simon Hegelich. “In the case of the established parties, however, survey values were more likely to fall on negative headlines.”
Distance always provides durable insight. “I would not start with blame now, but of course the media has a special responsibility in the reporting and it can reinforce certain trends,” said award-winning Austrian journalist Nina Horaczek to German media news portal meedia.de (September 29). She is chief correspondent for Vienna weekly Falter and a specialist in extremist political groups.
“Media is in a difficult situation,” she offered. “On the one hand, there is a duty to report, but these electrified reports bring the populists exactly the stage they need. Parties like the AfD need continuous media excitement. The same principle can also be seen in (US president Donald) Trump, who has made the choice to agitate and was much more frequently in the media than Hillary Clinton.”
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