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A journalist in search of "reality TV"

When Fritz Pleitgen was elected director of Westdeutscher Rundfunk (WDR) in the summer of 1995, one of his goals was to broadcast "reality television".

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A journalist in search of "reality TV"

When Fritz Pleitgen was elected director of Westdeutscher Rundfunk (WDR) in the summer of 1995, one of his goals was to broadcast "reality television". What was meant by this was something completely different from the “reality TV” that is known today, the allegedly authentic observation of pseudo-celebrities with behavioral problems. Pleitgen meant a strengthening of journalistic formats such as reportage, documentation, and television films with a strong connection to everyday life.

Pleitgen's idea of ​​television is as relevant today as it was then, and the role of public service broadcasting as a link between citizens is crucial for its future viability. Pleitgen, who was head of ARD's largest broadcaster until 2007, recognized this early on and took it to heart. This also had to do with the fact that Pleitgen, born in March 1938 in humble circumstances, began writing as a freelancer for the local editorial office of the “Freie Presse” in Bünde in East Westphalia at the age of 14.

In the twelfth grade he left school without a degree because, as Pleitgen said in an interview, he "didn't have the desire or time to study anymore". That was aimed at learning school knowledge, but the curiosity and interest in real life was so immense that Pleitgen became one of the best-known and most respected journalists in the Federal Republic in the decades that followed. In 1963 he switched to WDR and thus in front of the camera. There he was quickly entrusted with major global political issues, such as the 1967 Israeli Six-Day War. As early as 1970, when he was only 32, Pleitgen became ARD correspondent in Moscow.

"I've just always been very lucky," said Pleitgen about his life - but of course that alone didn't make him one of the most influential foreign correspondents at a time when there were far fewer media than today and public service reporters were reporting in determined by the perception of many people. In addition to luck, it also took a lot of courage, self-confidence and ability to join the Cold War with his wife and a small son – three more children came later.

Along with colleagues like Gerd Ruge, Pleitgen became one of the great old “Russian commentators” in the republic. As recently as March, he admitted that he had underestimated the danger posed by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Which of course should not be confused with naivety. In May 2021 he said in a Focus interview that he would like “finally a concept for a policy with Russia” – where there were no concepts, it was easier to go wrong. Russia also employed him later as a journalist, creating travel reports. In May, he emphasized the close ties to Europe: “For me, the Russians are Europeans, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov – that is European culture.”

In 1977 Pleitgen left Moscow and moved to East Berlin, from where he reported for five years. Here he and his family were spied on, he was often "fed up", he once told the "Tagesspiegel", but finally continued. Even in the GDR, his approach was not that of the know-it-all westerner: "We didn't want to appear as missionaries, we had a high degree of credibility because we didn't run around like the communist eaters."

In 1982 he went to Washington, six years later Fritz Pleitgen became WDR editor-in-chief. As a moderator of the "Weltspiegel", of the "Brennpunkt" special broadcasts and later of the "Press Club", he remained present and did not disappear behind his executive desk, as it probably could have done. The WDR needed Pleitgen as the face of the broadcaster, but Pleitgen wanted it that way, too, as he was almost always and above all concerned with journalism.

For the post of artistic director, which he took over in 1995 from Friedrich Nowottny, also one of the prominent journalists of the post-war period, this meant that there was no administrator here, but someone who took the public service job seriously. In 2004 he, himself a member of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), who occasionally made uncomfortable reform proposals, suggested that broadcasting bodies should no longer be made up of politicians.

Even then there were debates about the broadcasting fee, at the end of Pleitgen's term of office the increase in fees was initially lower than expected, so savings had to be made. The projects that are mentioned as Pleitgen's merits during his time as director can be criticized because they contributed to the expansion of the public broadcasting system, but they were justified in terms of content and journalism - this included the stronger regionalization of the WDR, the founding of Phoenix and the launch of youth radio station 1Live. There is expansion for the sake of expansion and expansion for the sake of the cause - the latter was Pleitgen's concern.

After leaving in 2007, Pleitgen, who was born in Duisburg, took over the management of "Ruhr.2010", a cultural event that was supposed to give the region an upgrade. In 2011 he became President of the German Cancer Aid founded by Mildred Scheel. Exactly two years ago, Pleitgen explained on Carmen Nebel's ZDF show that the cancer had "caught" him himself, pancreatic cancer. Pleitgen remained active, his book An Impossible History was published last year. When politicians and citizens moved mountains". As examples of the human ability to change things, against all odds, he cited the fall of the Wall and German unity.

The journalist died in Cologne on September 15 at the age of 84. If you want to hear Pleitgen about his life in the original version, we recommend the podcast "Fritz Pleitgen - His Life" (in the ARD Audiothek). When asked what people should remember when they hear his name, he said in an interview a year ago: "It would be nice if people knew that I existed at all. That would be enough for me.”

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