How to Save Democracy From Technology
Ending Big Tech’s Information Monopoly
GERMANY is no longer the country with the largest number of newspapers, as it was before 1933. Even so, the products displayed on a German newsstand bring to mind the words of Benedict XIII when, after his election as Pope, he looked out at the vast crowds assembled in the Piazza San Pietro: "What in the world do they all live on?"
Today the Federal Republic and West Berlin with a total population of 52,000,000 have 1,230 daily papers with a total circulation of 13,000,000, which means that there is one copy for every four inhabitants. This quota is about halfway between the figures for the newspaper paradise of the Weimar Republic (2.6 copies for one inhabitant in 1932) and the propaganda era of Joseph Goebbels (five copies for one inhabitant in 1939).
Yet among the more than 1,000 new German daily papers there are not even half a dozen of national reputation and not a single one with an international reputation such as the Berliner Tageblatt and the Frankfurter Zeitung had in pre-Nazi Germany or like that of The Times in England, Le Monde in France or the Neue Zürcher Zeitung in Switzerland. The great weakness of the German press is not in quantity but in quality. This situation has its roots in the Third Reich and in the economic and sociological changes of that era and the years following. Its consequences may one day be of deep political importance.
The end of the Second World War brought a basic structural change in the German press. German readers noted with amazement that when The Recorder made its appearance in London last fall it was the first new paper in 25 years. Germany has had nothing but new papers during the last eight years.
After the capitulation in May 1945 the old papers were no longer allowed to appear. At the beginning the various military governments issued a few newspapers under their own imprint. But by the end of 1946 about 100 new German papers had been established; at first these had American, English and French censors on the editorial staff, but later they operated on their own responsibility. The Allies confided their responsibility in each case to some proven anti-Fascists, and the paper's license was made out in their names. In theory the idea of licensees, as they were called, may have seemed almost perfect to its inventors, but actual practice soon showed several defects. Not all the anti-Fascists were democrats. Communists played the leading rôle in all the anti-Fascist organizations during the first postwar months. Further, besides being anti-Fascists and democrats, the licensees were of course supposed to have at least some knowledge of newspaper work. Not many of them did.
Soon legal and economic problems arose in addition to those involved in the selection of personnel. Was a licensee to be publisher only or was he to be editor as well? Was he to be just the owner of the paper's name or did he own the enterprise? At this point the old-time publishers reappeared on the scene; they had been, naturally, publishers of more or less Nazi papers before 1945 and now were no longer allowed to operate in this field. In so far as they were not owners of purely Nazi publishing houses which were broken up by the Allies, or publishers who emerged as major offenders from the denazification process and whose printing offices were confiscated, most of them were, in spite of their "brown stains," the legal proprietors of the houses where the democratic editorial offices were now installed and owners of the machines which now composed and printed the democratic daily papers. They fixed the rental for the use of publishing houses and printing machines, either according to their consciences or their pocketbooks. One German paper wrote in those days that it was the right of the old-time publishers to make money and the duty of the licensees to carry the responsibility.
After the currency reform had been made in 1948, after the circulation restrictions enforced by the Allies through the rationing of paper had been lifted, and after licenses had been abolished in 1949, the old-time publishers regained their former rights. New papers shot up like mushrooms. Small provincial papers tried to revive well-known old names. From the beginning of 1949 to the middle of 1950 the number of newspapers in Germany rose from 160 to more than 1,000. Paper consumption still remained low compared to that of other countries, though it soon exceeded that of 1939. In 1951 approximately four and one half pounds of paper per inhabitant were used in the Federal Republic compared to approximately 18 pounds in Great Britain and something more than 71 pounds in the United States.
In the newly-established Federal Republic the basic factors for calculating the costs of a daily paper had drastically changed from the days of the Weimar Republic. Expenditure in terms of the monetary unit had increased by more than 100 percent. Moreover, it had proven economically impossible to meet costs if the price per copy was increased by only 20 percent, or five pfennige. In order to operate at a profit, the German papers had to have twice as large a circulation as they had needed in 1933. This was achieved in due course. While the 4,700 papers of the Weimar Republic of 1932 had an average circulation of 5,300 copies, the average circulation of the 1,230 papers of the Federal Republic and West Berlin was 10,500 copies by mid-1953.
The struggle for larger circulation soon had its effect on the papers' contents. As the circulation was doubled, so the concessions to popular taste had to be doubled. German readers, stuffed with political news of a contradictory nature during 12 Nazi years and four postwar years, more and more preferred papers in which the non-political reading matter outweighed the political. They wished to be informed as briefly as possible and with as little mental exertion as possible. They liked light, dramatized and short news items, with pictures. They skimmed over the political headlines and then turned to local news, features, entertainment, sports and picture supplements. Sensational and shallow illustrated papers flourished.
The severe competition between the newly-established daily papers, and the need of each for larger circulation, resulted in more and more catering to popular demand, as ascertained through polls and experience. This was the boomerang of tyranny and "reëducation."
Today there are five different types of German newspapers:
Local and Provincial Press
Fifty percent of all papers which appear in the Federal Republic are so-called boiler-plate papers. They write and edit only the local news in their own offices. All the other pages, including those with political news and leading articles, are obtained ready-made from other larger papers. Before 1933 this type of paper existed only as an exception. Today half of all the German papers have had to turn to it to keep down costs. A daily press of this kind offers a danger to the budding German democracy, for the larger publishing houses which provide the boiler-plate papers with the finished pages deliberately try to fit political news and comments to as many readers as possible, regardless of political trend. The result is a complete lack of political color.
The "Generalanzeiger" Press
This is the city equivalent of the provincial press--popular news organs without party tendencies. The operating principles of these papers are the same as those of the boiler-plate press, and the dangers are the same: political indifference in order to try to please all readers. The best-known paper of this type is the Hamburger Abendblatt with a circulation of about 400,000.
The Boulevard Press
Since this type of paper requires a big city it exists only in Munich, Frankfurt and Hamburg. Here the color of a statesman's necktie is more important than the treaty he has signed. The largest paper of this kind is the Bildzeitung of Hamburg, the only German paper which has a circulation passing the million mark and which, like the Hamburger Abendblatt, is owned by the most powerful German publisher, Axel Springer.
Aside from these three faceless types of newspaper, all of them with more or less petit bourgeois tendencies, there are two kinds of political papers in Germany:
The Party Press
It became evident as far back as the twenties that German readers were turning away from the party press, a trend which has progressed steadily ever since. Even papers which are definitely attached to a political party now pretend that they are independent. In the first postwar years licenses were granted in the British zone to party papers only; in the American zone to no party papers at all; and in the French zone to both kinds. These geographic differences are still reflected in the party press. Only two papers of a purely party character have a circulation of more than 200,000, and both appear in the British zone. They are the Rheinische Post of Chancellor Adenauer's Christian Democratic Union, and the Social Democratic Westfälische Rundschau. Communist and extreme rightist papers play no part at all in the German press. Neither in number nor in circulation nor in influence are they of any consequence.
The Independent Political Press
Among the few papers of this kind there are perhaps four which have a certain national importance. Die Welt which appears in Hamburg was originally the paper of the British occupation power and was sold to its present German publisher, Axel Springer, only in 1953. It has a circulation of about 250,000. Since it came into German hands, its trend has been in accord with the present government policy. It was the first political daily to break with the tradition of the daily leading article; it prints brief political editorials on weekdays, and a more extensive leading article only in the weekend issue.
The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung is the only one among the more important papers which tries--in name and make-up--to follow the lines of a famous paper of former days, the Frankfurter Zeitung. It was founded only after the currency reform, in 1949. The publishers spent 1,500,000 D-marks (about $375,000) before the paper became profitable; today its circulation lies between 100,000 and 200,000. The original money came from the "Wirtschaftspolitische Gesellschaft," which sponsors among other things the social market economy of Professor Erhard, Minister of Economics in the Federal Government. The paper has a similar slant and is taken as representing German industry. Only in foreign policy does it at times deviate slightly from the Chancellor's line.
The Süddeutsche Zeitung of Munich is a former licensed paper. Of its four publishers some are close to the C.D.U., some to the S.P.D. Its circulation has passed 200,000. Its trend is left liberal, with special consideration for Bavarian interests. The Frankfurter Rundschau, with a circulation of between 100,000 and 200,000, stands for the policy of the S.P.D. opposition. It is also a former licensed paper. Among its first licensees were two steadfast Communists who, however, departed at an early date. In spite of its strong trend to the left the paper was endowed by the American High Commission with 1,600,000 D-marks (about $400,000) after the currency reform, and thus ranks at the top of the list of German papers which drew on the American fund for the support of the German press.
There are three main reasons for the low quality of the German political press and its consequent lack of importance and influence: shortage of good journalists, lack of financial means, absence of a metropolitan press.
The problem of qualified personnel affected every aspect of life in postwar Germany. To put it in an extreme way: after 12 years of Nazi rule and six years of war the only democrats who had not emigrated and were still in Germany either had survived by coincidence, or had been considered too unimportant to be liquidated by Hitler and his security police. Ernst Friedlaender, at present the most influential German publicist, came back from abroad after the war. Only in exceptional cases have young talents been able to assert themselves against the dominating mediocrity of the older journalists. Occasional Nazi journalists with great names from the Hitler days reappeared on the scene. They were a failure. Apparently they had forgotten journalism in the Third Reich under Goebbels; it turned out that they could neither think nor write clearly, and in no case did they succeed in gaining an influential position in publishing.
The lack of financial resources was the result of the structural change in the German press after the war and of the rise in costs and the decrease in income. Increased publishing costs led to cuts in the editorial department. For the same reason the entire German daily press has not been able to send even a dozen correspondents abroad in the postwar years.
There is no metropolitan press for the simple reason that there is no capital. Berlin papers like the independent Kurier and Tagesspiegel have no chance of becoming great and influential papers because of the city's precarious situation. Also, their rigid habit of viewing all political issues from the Berlin perspective makes them unobjective and monotonous, while their distribution is limited by Berlin's insular position. On the other hand, the temporary capital, Bonn--a small university town on the Rhine--has no press of importance.
Apart from that, the choice of Bonn as temporary capital of the Federal Republic interfered with the possible development of a great political press for another reason. When the Parliamentary Council convened to spend months in working out the Basic Law of the Federal Republic, German readers were entirely preoccupied with vital economic needs and in consequence were to a large extent indifferent to whether there was progress or discord at Bonn. As a result, German papers contented themselves with auxiliary correspondents who happened to live in Bonn or nearby. Some papers retained these representatives after Bonn was selected as the capital; others either sent a different correspondent or procured their news from the Federal capital exclusively from news agencies. So it happens that several German papers do not maintain any direct representation in Bonn, while others have a minor journalist on the spot or share a correspondent. On the whole, one might say that the German press has only about the same number of representatives in its own Federal capital today as it used to have in a foreign capital in normal times.
In the old days in Berlin the various departments of the metropolitan papers used to be in close touch with the appropriate ministries, parties and organizations. Provincial papers worked along the same lines by sending a large staff to the capital. The old Frankfurter Zeitung had its editor and an editorial staff of from 20 to 30 in Berlin. Today a Bonn correspondent has to cover --often for several papers--everything from parliament to foreign policy to the Ministry of Communications to film legislation. The present Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, which endeavors to follow in the steps of the Frankfurter Zeitung, does not have one of its important leader-writers in Bonn; its staff there consists of but a single correspondent. It must be noted that this is not solely the result of locating a capital in a small town; the lack of qualified personnel and the lack of financial resources mentioned above are also factors.
For all these reasons it is hard to underestimate the political importance of the German press. Its information from abroad is insufficient and certainly is not original. Its domestic influence is slight; the entire political press has not been able to bring about the fall of one minister or even bring him into serious danger during the four-year rule of the first Federal cabinet--not for lack of opportunity, but for lack of influence. In the same way, it was not the German press but the reports and reactions of the foreign daily press which recently prevented the establishment of a Ministry of Information.
This lack of an influential political press has become all the more lamentable since the parliamentary elections of September 6, as there is now a crushing government majority and little impressive opposition in parliament. In this situation, it should be the duty of the press to keep an ever-watchful and critical eye on the behavior of the victorious government parties, to remind them to observe moderation and thus to fill the rôle of a real "opposition" in the country. The German press will hardly prove able to fulfil this assignment, either because it is lacking in strong opinions, as in the Generalanzeiger and provincial press, or because it is authority-conscious, as in part of the independent political press.
The dangers which may follow the decreasing alertness of the German press threaten not only democratic development in general but also the press itself. There is as yet no universal press law in the Federal Republic. Bavaria and Hesse have issued individual regional press laws. For the remaining seven Laender, the "Reichsgesetz für die Presse" of May 7, 1934, with a few amendments, is still valid. Since, however, the Basic Law refers to press legislation as the privilege of the Federal Government, there is every reason to suppose that within the next four years a new Federal press law will be created. This law may be favorable or damaging to the free development of the young democratic press.
Tendencies which have already become evident in this connection justify a certain anxiety. For one thing, there was the recent unsuccessful attempt of influential politicians and officials of the Federal Republic to establish a Ministry of Information for the purpose of "enlightening the public" and to prepare press legislation. For another, there was the first draft of a Federal Press Law as published in 1952 by the Ministry of the Interior. This draft provided that papers and magazines "hostile" to the state might be banned for a period of up to six months by the Minister of the Interior, or "in cases of particular danger to the security of the state for an indefinite period." In official quarters it was even suggested that this paragraph might be dropped if, instead, a copy of every printed item were to be presented to an official for approval before it went on sale. Bonn has since dropped the idea of this draft law. But the uneasiness it caused remains.
Article 5 of the Federal Republic's Basic Law says: "Freedom of the press is guaranteed; there is no censorship." There thus can be no doubt regarding the good-will of the legislature. But 12 years of Nazi rule and the present totalitarian threat from the East have confused even truly democratic brains and hearts in Germany. Many think to serve the cause of freedom by limiting it. Freedom cannot stand barbed wire fences, even though they might be put up for its protection. "Newspapers must not be bothered," said Frederick the Great 200 years ago. His words apply again in Germany today.