These are allegations that media companies and journalists have been leveled at in almost every crisis for years: one-sided reporting, censorship of certain opinions, mouthing the mouths of the powerful. Whether it’s the refugee or corona crisis or the Russian war of aggression in Ukraine: time and again people feel that certain facts or perspectives in “the media” are not sufficiently appreciated. On Thursday evening, Markus Lanz was on the ZDF talk show with two men who sensed "self-alignment" in the German media's reporting on the Ukraine war: philosopher Richard David Precht and social psychologist Harald Welzer. They discussed their reservations with Melanie Amann, head of the “Spiegel” capital city office, and the deputy WELT editor-in-chief Robin Alexander.
"It's not an easy round tonight," says Lanz at the very beginning of the show - and should be right. The – if you want to call them that – arguments from Precht and Welzer were quickly taken apart by Amann and Alexander. The show still went on for about 50 minutes - really not an easy round. Especially for the viewer.
In their new book "The Fourth Estate - How Majority Opinion is Made", Precht and Welzer accuse the German media of having become active players in the Russia-Ukraine war and of not giving enough space to critical voices in relation to arms deliveries. In the spring, the authors themselves spoke out in an open letter against arms deliveries to Ukraine - and unequivocally called on the attacked Ukraine to submit to their fate. In any case, there was no military chance against the all-powerful Russians.
In short, there are two men on a talk show whose (false) forecasts have been repeatedly discussed in the German media - and they complain about the lack of media coverage for such judgments.
Alexander addresses two central allegations in the book, which – as he says – “logically exclude one another”: on the one hand, accusing journalists of making common cause with the powerful and, on the other hand, claiming that they push politicians to make decisions that aren't good - they don't go together. Alexander: "Let's stick to the thesis, we're driving Scholz." Ukraine's first demand was for a no-fly zone. The federal government did not agree to this demand - but German leading media did not side with Ukraine either. However, this first demand by Ukraine does not appear in the book.
Precht contradicts: "The no-fly zone appears in our book". Alexander checked this after the talk show was recorded. He posted a screenshot of a term search in the book on Twitter – neither the term “no-fly zone” nor synonyms could be found.
At some point Precht tries to explain what he wanted to achieve with the joint book with Welzer: "It's about looking at the German press landscape with what incredible unanimity a certain interpretation of the events and a certain way of reacting to them could be read everywhere. There is an "enormous predominance of a certain positioning" - empirical media research will prove that. Alexander listens to Precht's remarks, shaking his head. Amann takes them apart in terms of content: Prechts and Welzer's work contains things "that many people think that way. But there are also many things in there that deserve a little more research. Because they didn't systematically evaluate how we reported on the war. Rather, you have described how you perceive how we reported on the war.” It was in no way qualitatively or quantitatively examined how the media actually reported. – "That's not possible yet," interjects Precht. – "Of course it works," counters Amann. "It just takes a little longer than two or three months."
Alexander next takes on the charge of "self-conciliation." In a statement from their publishers, the term “equal circuit” was even mentioned in the NS style. Precht and Welzer accuse the German media of having written and commented on the Ukraine war to a large extent with the same thrust. "I did what you didn't do this afternoon," says the WELT journalist. He checked "what we wrote". The following list makes it clear that very different opinions were and are represented at WELT alone: “12. March: 'Armistice – the sooner the better'; Stefan Aust, our editor. April 13: 'Zelenskyj should not go too far' - after Steinmeier's unloading; Jacques Schuster, our political chief. April 26: 'Declaring Ukraine a model democratic state is an illusion'; Thomas Schmid, our mastermind. May 3: 'Not every skeptic is a Putin understander' - against arms shipments; Elisa Hoven, judge at the Saxon Constitutional Court, signature on this Emma letter.”
Alexander's conclusion: the assertion that almost everyone wrote the same thing in the German media was "simply wrong. And if you tell that to your readers, you're telling them an untruth."
Welzer and Precht draw back to the fact that there was a clear quantitative bias in the reporting. "Do you seriously believe that the position of those who doubted the supply of arms has had as much say in the leading German media as that of those in favor?" asks Precht. – Amann: "One would have wished that you had simply pursued this question when researching your book." Instead, the authors only pursued this question based on their gut feeling. Precht may be a busy reader, but not a researcher on the subject: "I'm sorry, but you're arguing from the gut," says Amann.
Just seconds later, Precht confirmed exactly this impression of Amann: Alexander had now listed four counter-examples. "Four to five hundred - impressive proof of balanced reporting," says the philosopher wryly. – "500 is obviously a made-up number," Amann counters. - Precht: "Or 2000 or whatever." - Amann: "You can deal with numbers that way, but then it's just not true to the facts." And then the "Spiegel" journalist gets to the heart of the confusion: "If you doesn't have a solid factual basis for your own research, then you just end up in the undergrowth now that we're torn, which number is the right one now. If you had given us that, we would have accepted it too.”
Again and again in the program it seems as if Precht and Welzer - as with the no-fly zone - no longer know exactly what they wrote in their book. At one point, Amann refers to a passage that states that journalism training has existed in Germany since the 1990s. The journalism school she attended was founded in 1949. Precht denies that it says so in the book.
In the final chapter, Amann takes up another example of non-research, the authors would recommend journalists to have more workshops for self-reflection on their work: "As a journalist, I could probably go to a workshop every other weekend," counters Amann with a description of the reality. Welzer intervened accordingly: That's not in the book either.
At the end of the show, Lanz says he finds the book “interesting. I think it's worth reading." It probably wouldn't work without an advertising block for his podcast partner Precht. After the authors have previously described everything that is not in the book, everyone has to decide for themselves whether they really want to invest the 22 euros.