The Story Behind the Story

Tr@nsit Online

When people talk about journalism nowadays—and particularly when journalists talk about journalism—a chorus of lamentation usually rises to the heavens. One has the impression of attending a funeral service rather than a celebration among colleagues.

As everybody knows, there is much to bemoan all over the world. Catchphrases may suffice: the good old printed newspaper, the big problem child, is faring notoriously badly. No publisher has yet found the magic solution to compensate for the demise of print media faced with the gush of income from online products. By the way: I do not believe for one second that this demise is inexorable.

Journalism seems to have become a sickly profession in which one must expect evil tidings on a daily basis. This eats away at the self-confidence of journalists, whom you have to imagine as the melancholy, brooding type.

Obviously, their pride has been hurt. For something like a century, journalists were in a cosy position, even if not held in high esteem. They had special access to the realm of news, often they maintained good contacts to politicians and other vips, they knew more than others, they were cleverer than hoi polloi. They could rest assured in the feeling that they had an authoritative and even sovereign function to fulfill.

During my stint at a grand old newspaper, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, I was able to witness the remnants of this sense of importance with bemused fascination. The journalists at the faz viewed themselves, at least so it seemed ten years ago, as the magistrates of news analysis with a national mandate. They did not have to follow the readers; rather, the readership had to follow them.

Everybody knows that that era is over. Nowadays journalists have to take arms against a sea of troubles and impertinence. More than anything else, it is the change in media technology that aggravates them. Suddenly they are running behind events. No longer part of the avantgarde, they seem to have become the derriere-garde. The chores of journalists have been industrialized; they have become a cog in the machine, and this has debased their work in the eyes of many. The journalist nowadays is a round-the-clock-contractor who produces mass commodities.

You are all familiar with this complaint—and I only mention it in passing, in order to add that I do not share this pessimism the tiniest bit. Although I do acknowledge that what you see in editorial offices these days is not always edifying or uplifting.

However, I believe that more opportunities than dangers have arisen thanks to the Internet. I am not merely referring to easier access to information or the new possibilities of visual design. I am mostly referring to the fact that, in the future, it will be possible to create a much more intelligent kind of journalism, a journalism which will be able to dig much deeper. The pure speed at which news is being handled, the dumbing down which is so often deplored—these are not our fate.

Having said this, I now want to turn to the question of whether we ourselves have not created the phenomenon we like to call the crisis of journalism—whether we journalists have not at least contributed our share to it. Let me show what I mean by referring to a privileged playing field of traditional journalism: political journalism.

In democratic countries, at least, politics occupies two storeys, the first of which rests firmly on the ground. Everything that happens can easily be viewed from the outside. And what do we see there?

If we believe the journalistic reports that reach us every day, we see first and foremost people who are incessantly quarrelling with one another. They compete, they lie, they cheat, they defraud their colleagues, they hide their true intent—and never, ever are they interested in political aims, only in their personal gains. They are just like you and me, that is: mean, devious, ignoble.

Let me cite a topical German example. Since October 2009 we have been governed by a coalition of conservatives and liberals. Although both sides had described and evoked such a constellation as their alliance of choice, at the beginning it was a disaster: a complete blank as regards content, no clarity and much namecalling. For the majority of journalists this came in handy. When something goes wrong it always appears much more interesting than a roaring success.

By last summer almost all the professional soothsayers were absolutely certain that the government was at the end of the line. One prognosis was more dramatic than the other as to when the coalition would break down. But of course the government was nowhere near the end—it even managed to get a few things right. And suddenly, we were rubbing our eyes: no trace of a collapse any more. Why this false appraisal and why the astonishment?

The augurs had only watched the surface of politics, where scandals are rampant. This was driven by the base motives of many observers, who, if I may say so, are passionate backseat drivers and view politics only from the perspective of possible failure.

I could easily add the Italian example to the German one. In Italy, too, the media—even quite serious papers like Corriere della Sera or La Repubblica—blow up the daily quarrels in the Palazzo, the Montecitorio, in parliament and endless press conferences out of all proportion. In the end, they resemble a horror painting which the genius of George Grosz could not have painted in more lurid colors.

Behind all this is a very foolish concept of timeliness: basically, the completely insane idea that politics only happens in the now, in the present. This, of course, is influenced by the speed with which news is handled today. Every little discord, every flea must be turned into an elephant in a milieu where noise, sensation and catastrophe trump everything. In the end, the readership might even conclude that this is the stuff, the content of politics. This kind of journalism loses sight of the greater context.

Or rather—let me return to the metaphor of the two storeys—this kind of journalism disregards the second and more important layer. Beneath the ground floor there is the cellar. And through the cellar flows the broad and slow stream of history. Even in times of globalization, when the velocity of events increases, most of the problems that politics has to deal with are old and not new.

In Italy, for instance, this is the old conflict between the North and the South. This imbalance is much more significant than the ballet which Berlusconi, Fini, Bossi, Casini, D’Alema and Bersani perform with such sprightliness before our eyes. Shortly before the 150th anniversary of the unification of Italy, the country is asking itself what connects it at heart.

The same holds true for Germany. Here the old question of how much freedom Germans can and will tolerate is much more decisive than any speculation as to whether Angela Merkel still holds the reigns or whether she will soon be pushed aside by younger and smarter people. By no means do I wish to vilify political soap operas; they are often quite amusing.

But one must not overlook the fact that our politicians—whether they want to or not—are constantly dealing with questions such as whether Germans, in these uncertain times, should put safety above everything else. Everything revolves around matters such as demography, the welfare state, industrial progress. Do we dare to put our railway stations underground or should we leave everything as it is?

I would like to risk advancing one thesis. A journalism with hope in the future and in its readership must decide to do more than simply splash around in the frothy surf of anxiety that prevails today. It must put such matters aside and address the aforementioned questions. If it does not do this, it is demanding too little from its readership. Certainly, journalists must also be paddlers. But in the future it will be more important to know how to dive. It is increasingly about the story behind the story.

Today’s journalists have to be fast. They cannot afford to be anything else in this era of high-speed turnover of news. But simply being fast is not a solution in itself. The journalists of today have to stick to traditional virtues: calmness, distance, time for reflection. For this reason, journalists have to fight—and fight with passion.

Allow me to offer another German example. For decades, politicians and journalists have been growing closer together. So close that it has not always been good. Gerhard Schroder would never have become chancellor had he not surrounded himself with a horde of journalists who found his new casual style fantastic and exciting. Each side helped the other, even though it went unmentioned and perhaps to some was not even apparent. Journalists grew close to an alpha male who supplied them with exciting political stories. And they profited from the radiance of this unusual and self-confident man.

It is obvious that such closeness can be problematic. Ever since the German government relocated to Berlin a short two decades ago, this closeness has become even more intense. Politicians and journalists have become intertwined—to the detriment of both politics and journalism.

By no means do I wish to glorify the past. However—all journalistic curiosity aside—perhaps it was better when parties and politicians discussed legislation, reforms, coalitions, and so on in relative isolation, and only went public when they had something substantial in their hands. Then was the proper time for public debate. This, thank God, avoided a blow-by-blow approach to the story.

In today’s hectic world, we are doing harm to both the political and journalistic worlds. It is obvious that journalism is drowning in sea of petty sensationalism. Society is getting older and older. How can it nevertheless remain young, curious and innovative?

This is an enormous topic that encompasses nearly every aspect. Many laws need to be changed, and sooner or later a new pension system must be created. We will have to address questions of life expectancy and the depopulation of certain regions. Culturally speaking, we will have to get used to the concept of “young” old people, who no longer conform to the centuries-old rule dictating that the elderly must reside on the fringes of society or outside society itself.

Topic for topic, we are concerned with the worlds of our own inner life experiences and perceptions. What a vast amount of material! It is here we find the stories, the puzzles, the solutions, the dilemmas. I am certain that a journalism that persistently sticks to the topic will retain its old audience and attract a new one as well.

But the hectic closeness of politics and journalism also harms politics. Keeping with my metaphor of two storeys: every ambitious politician finds it advantageous to remain as long and as visibly as possible on the ground floor, where he or she can be seen. What they do below this level is of no interest to anyone. The result is that the public remains unaware of actual political dealings—the grinding of the great political machine. (There are, of course, politicians who like it this way.)

Politicians are constantly in the media spotlight. This forces many of them to do things just to please the media. It is not what they do that counts, but what they pretend they are trying to do. Politicians cater to the media. And they go so far as to make political decisions based primarily on media considerations. It is hard to find a politician who does not complain that the political world has been taken hostage by the media. They consider this to be an ironclad law in the modern world from which there is no escape.

I am sorry to have to say this. Because I am in no way prone to cultural pessimism. The world is not getting better or worse – just different. And there are always good opportunities. Even today. New technologies offer us opportunities we once only dreamed about. To go into great detail, to tell great stories, to explore yet undiscovered worlds, to provide background, to pose questions, to practice observation languages and to turn answers into even more questions. The wealth of possibilities available to us today is fantastic. All we have to do is do it.

So why don’t we?

A German version of this essay will be published
in issue 41 of IWM’s journal

Thomas Schmid is the publisher of the WELT Group, Berlin. He worked for various newspapers, among them as editor of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung. From 2006 to 2010 he was Editor-in-Chief of Die Welt.

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