BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. Remember the awful, wonderful summer of 2015? First, the awful: hundreds of thousands of people forced from their homes by wars in the Middle East. Some crossed the Mediterranean in leaky boats, some didn't make it. Once in Europe, they trudged north by foot through hostile lands, following maps posted to Facebook, until they arrived at the wonderful.
[CROWD HUBBUB/APPLAUSE UP & UNDER]
When the rest of the world said, go away, Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel said, yes, please come. And Germans flocked to train stations to cheer on the new arrivals. Of course, TV cameras were there too. And within a few months, about a million refugees and other migrants had arrived in Germany, population 80 million. But the rapturous welcomes last summer were followed this summer by stories chronicling horrible acts of terror – Istanbul, Nice, Normandy, Munich. Actually, that last one wasn't a terrorist act, but you wouldn't have known that from the initial reporting.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Police spokesman Marcus Da Gloria Martin said this was a terrorist attack, but who did it and why is unclear.
UK FOREIGN SECRETARY BORIS JOHNSON: If it seems very likely this is another terrorist incident, then I think it proves, once again, that we have a global phenomenon now.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It turned out that the shooter was not a refugee and he had no links to ISIS or any terrorist network. But no matter, the narrative resonated with many Germans. Reporter Ilya Marritz went there to find out why.
ILYA MARRITZ: If you want to see the paranoid style in German politics, go to Dresden in Eastern Germany. Go to Dresden on a Monday night, because every Monday after work in the Baroque center of town a safe space is created for all kinds of opinions that, until very recently, were considered unacceptable.
[GERMAN SINGALONG/UP & UNDER]
It starts with a singalong, three middle-aged guys on guitar. One of them is playing his instrument underneath a poncho. Can’t let a little rain ruin some patriotic songs, right? And as umbrellas start to go up, so do flags, black, red and gold German flags, white, blue and red Russian flags, then some weirdly menacing-looking flags I’m pretty sure don’t hang in the United Nations. And signs, so many signs – No Sharia, Islam Means Repression, Don’t Turn This Church into a Mosque. And then on a stage obscured by umbrellas, a mic goes on.
[SIEGFRIED DÄBRITZ TALKING]
It’s Siegfried Däbritz, a leader of the group that calls itself PEGIDA. That’s Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the Occident, Occident as in the West.
[DÄBRITZ SPEAKING IN GERMAN]
Now, I know for some people when they hear an angry voice speaking German to a crowd, their mind immediately goes to Hitler. I'm not one of those people. To me, at first, Däbritz’s speech is funny and sophisticated. He doesn’t talk about head scarves or immigrants stealing jobs. Instead, he does this 20- minute riff that's almost pure media analysis. At one point, Däbritz reads out a quote in a mainstream newspaper from a former public broadcasting chief. It concerns this German compound noun that the PEGIDA people like to use a lot, Lügenpresse or the lying media. And before he can finish, the crowd starts to bellow.
CROWD: Lügenpresse, Lügenpresse, Lügenpresse…
[CROWD CHANTING, UP & UNDER]
ILYA MARRITZ: And here I am, holding a mic high in the air.
ILYA MARRITZ: Hey, guys.
ILYA MARRITZ: A few minutes later, Däbritz reads out this quote from Germany's finance minister, saying, immigration is good for the country. And the people know what to do.
CROWD: Volksverräter, Volksverräter, Volksverräter, Volksverräter…
ILYA MARRITZ: Volksverräter, traitor to the people. This word chills me. I looked it up later. It turns out the Nazis introduced it as a legal term, specifically for treason committed by Aryans.
Stefan Niggemeier is an independent journalist who covers media. He says the views expressed at rallies like this one are far from the German mainstream, but PEGIDA and other anti-immigration groups have been effective at spreading a pernicious idea, the idea that the media and the political class are systematically deceiving the German people, suppressing the truth about migrants.
STEFAN NIGGEMEIER: Clearly, there is a problem when your readership assume you won’t tell them the truth and they kind of fill in the blanks. I think that’s very worrying, yeah.
ILYA MARRITZ: It’s a big change from one year ago. When train loads of Syrians started arriving in large numbers, journalism and public opinion seemed to be in lockstep.
STEFAN NIGGEMEIER: There was a huge wave of support. People greeted them at the main station, at the railway stations.
ILYA MARRITZ: Call it Phase 1, Love.
STEFAN NIGGEMEIER: That carried over into the media, which was also kind of happy to show these great stories about people helping people in need.
ILYA MARRITZ: Love was followed, as it so often is, by Phase 2, Reality Check.
STEFAN NIGGEMEIER: Stories about mayors of small towns and cities saying, actually, we are having trouble here, we don't know where to put them, we don't really have the means. And I think you started to feel, okay, it’s not going to be that easy.
ILYA MARRITZ: And Phase 2, Reality Check, might have lasted for a long time, if unforeseen events hadn't triggered Phase 3, Panic.
STEFAN NIGGEMEIER: But the big event that changed everything was New Year's Eve in, in Cologne.
ILYA MARRITZ: The first night of 2016, large numbers of women were robbed, sexually assaulted and harassed by roaming posses of young men. Over a thousand assaults were reported to the Cologne police that night. Eyewitnesses described the perps as North African or Middle Eastern in appearance. But curiously, news of the attacks didn't come out until days later. Police and politicians didn't immediately report the attacks. And neither did the press.
STEFAN NIGGEMEIER: It happened at the weekend. It was a holiday, so it’s not really the day when journalists start digging for things. And if was only triggered by social media that the media started to report on this. No major conspiracy, but it looked like that to many people who were suspicious anyway.
ILYA MARRITZ: If Phase 2 was a correction, Phase 3, Panic, triggered an overcorrection, Niggemeier says.
STEFAN NIGGEMEIER: Every tiny story got reported because they didn’t want to be shown to cover it up.
ILYA MARRITZ: But it went further than that. Last spring, German news chiefs gathered in Berlin to reconsider a guideline that is absolutely central to the way reporters cover crime in Germany, a guideline that’s been in place for more than four decades.
EDDA EICK: Guideline 12.1, Reports on Crimes.
ILYA MARRITZ: This is Edda Eick from the Press Council, the print media’s self-governing body. She agreed to read to me from the Code of Ethics.
EDDA EICK: “When reporting crimes, it is not permissible to refer to the suspect's religious, ethnic or other minority membership unless this information can be justified as being relevant to the readers' understanding of the incident. It must be borne in mind that such references could stir up prejudices against minorities.”
ILYA MARRITZ: So, what does that mean? [LAUGHS]
EDDA EICK: Think before you write an article. Think about the relevant information and the effects of your report.
[UWE VETTERICK SPEAKING IN GERMAN]
INTERPRETER: The point is to protect minorities from being stigmatized. But what we have unfortunately found is that the way the media is trying to achieve this goal is actually accomplishing the opposite.
ILYA MARRITZ: Uwe Vetterick is the editor-in-chief of the biggest newspaper in Dresden, Sächsische Zeitung or the Saxon Newspaper. He’s also one of the voices saying that Ethical Guideline 12.1 needs to be reconsidered.
INTERPRETER FOR UWE VETTERICK: Of course, most crimes are committed by Germans, but the fact that this is not reported means many of our readers make the false assumption that these minorities are committing the crimes.
ILYA MARRITZ: While we’re talking, he gets up and goes rummaging for some papers.
[RUSTLING SOUNDS/VETTERICK SPEAKS IN GERMAN]
It’s a study completed earlier this year by a local university in cooperation with the newspaper. They did a telephone survey of 300 newspaper subscribers, asking their attitudes about migrants, crime and the credibility of the press. And their answers are full of contradictions. One example: More than half of respondents said foreigners are no more likely to commit crimes than ordinary Germans. But when researchers posed a different question and asked them to specifically guess what portion of crimes are committed by refugees –
INTERPRETER FOR UWE VETTERICK: In almost all categories of crimes, with the exception of murder, the role of refugees is way overestimated.
ILYA MARRITZ: The survey also asked newspaper readers whether they believe the news they read and, again, deep contradictions. Most people said the paper reports fairly on refugees. But when the question was specifically whether the newspaper conceals crimes committed by foreigners, one in four said yes, and almost as many said they weren't sure.
INTERPRETER FOR UWE VETTERICK: So basically, half of our readers believe we are hiding something from them or they’re not sure whether we might be hiding something. That’s not good. Actually, it alarms us, because credibility is our highest value. Our business only works because people believe what we write. And if people don’t believe us on key points, then we have to ask ourselves how to reclaim credibility.
ILYA MARRITZ: So two problems. Newspaper subscribers who should be the best-informed people in the city have a pretty distorted view of foreigners’ role in committing crime. And, on top of that, they often don't believe the news they read anyway.
Stefan Niggemeier, the media critic, pointed out a third problem. In the old pre-Internet days, the biggest daily newspapers pretty much had a monopoly on facts. If they chose not to report the nationality of a suspect –
STEFAN NIGGEMEIER: Ten years ago, probably most people wouldn't have thought about a story. It doesn't work anymore. The whole gatekeeper thing doesn't work.
ILYA MARRITZ: All of this has brought Newspaper Editor Uwe Vetterick to a radical conclusion.
INTERPRETER FOR UWE VETTERICK: We want to always give the nationality of criminals and criminal suspects, regardless of whether it's a German, which it usually is, or a refugee or a foreigner, which is the exception. And we hope this will create more transparency, to clear up the fact that a crime people have heard about wasn't committed by a refugee, which is typically the case. And if it is a refugee, then we’ll say so.
ILYA MARRITZ: So now when a guy beats up his girlfriend on a Saturday night, the paper will say, a 33-year-old German national was arrested for assault. And maybe, maybe readers get a clearer picture of crime in their city. It might not be the right approach for everyone, Vetterick says, but here in Dresden, with regular Monday night anti-immigrant demos like the one I attended, here, it's important to try to reconnect people with the facts.
INTERPRETER FOR UWE VETTERICK: And if we figure out in a few years that it’s not working, we’ll have to think it over again.
ILYA MARRITZ: All through our conversation, Vetterick is precise, he's composed. When he really wants to make a point, his voice drops to a whisper. And then this thing happens that takes our conversation in a completely unexpected direction.
The phone rings, and when he comes back to the table Vetterick says it was his wife, and he mentions that she's a West Berliner by birth. Vetterick is from the East. And as a consequence of our different Cold War upbringings, he says, we both love America, the country that let my wife grow up in freedom.
INTERPRETER FOR UWE VETTERICK: And my life subject is freedom. When I was growing up as a teenager in East Germany, freedom was my great longing.
ILYA MARRITZ: In Germany, especially in the East, you can take the measure of anyone's life by learning how old they were in November, 1989 when the Berlin Wall came down. Uwe Vetterick was 20. He told me his social status was in the toilet. He’d just finished mandatory service in the East German Army, in a unit for Christians and other misfits, guys who refused to pick up a gun and shoot at other Germans trying to escape the country. Vetterick thought maybe he could become a minister, a low-prestige job. And then the wall came down, and overnight everything changed. East Germany announced its first and only free elections and Vetterick and some friends decided to start a newspaper, really more of a single-issue information sheet so people could learn about the different political parties they were going to see on the ballot.
INTERPRETER FOR UWE VETTERICK: We sold them in front of supermarkets and there were long lines to get it. Then for me, it was over. The election came and we were done.
ILYA MARRITZ: Not long after that, the doorbell rang. Vetterick was living in his parents’ house, in one of those big ugly high rises that Eastern Europe is famous for.
INTERPRETER FOR UWE VETTERICK: It was these guys from the West and they were holding our newspapers. And my byline was there, and they said, is this you? And I said, yes. They said, could we talk?
ILYA MARRITZ: He invited the editors inside, into his childhood bedroom.
INTERPRETER FOR UWE VETTERICK: It was tiny, and they sat on the edge of my bed and they said, would like to start working for us?
ILYA MARRITZ: The offer was a paid internship at this paper in a small city in the West. Vetterick thought it over and said yes. They put him up in a hotel. He’d never stayed in a hotel before.
INTERPRETER FOR UWE VETTERICK: The next morning I showed up for work. They took time explaining stuff to me. In the evening I went home to the hotel and I knew this is the job I always wanted. This was actually my dream.
ILYA MARRITZ: Until he was 20, Uwe Vetterick had no future. And today he has very little patience for nostalgia, but a certain nostalgia is in the air.
INTERPRETER FOR DORIS: In East Germany, it was more peaceful. A lot of people think things today are worse than they were back then.
ILYA MARRITZ: At the PEGIDA demonstration, people marched through the streets, and this one woman fixed me with a suspicious glance and kind of reeled me in. Doris is retirement age, a seamstress by training, and she told me her city has changed a lot, for the worse - migrant militias, drug dealers, murderers roaming the streets.
INTERPRETER FOR DORIS: Three-quarters of the refugees are criminals, the young ones, anyway, and 8 percent of them are illiterate. What are we supposed to do?
ILYA MARRITZ: Where are you getting your facts, I ask. Doris mentions two fringe websites, Compact and Politisch Inkorrekt, which each claim to be against Islam and against mainstream media. I ask Doris whether she reads Uwe Vetterick’s paper, the Saxon Newspaper. Yes, she says, I subscribe, reluctantly.
INTERPRETER FOR DORIS: My husband likes to read it but, if it were up to me, I’d have cancelled it a long time ago. They are part of the lying press. A lot of people stopped getting the Saxon Newspaper because they’re against us, and they hardly ever report the truth.
ILYA MARRITZ: After we part ways, a shout goes up through the crowd.
CROWD: Merkel muss gehen, Merkel muss gehen. Merkel muss gehen…
ILYA MARRITZ: Merkel, that's Chancellor Angela Merkel, has to go. Uwe Vetterick told me when these demonstrations started, he was completely caught off guard.
INTERPRETER FOR UWE VETTERICK: And then, after maybe three or four weeks, it was clear to us that this was an unbelievably a dynamic movement, and a movement directed at us, which was something new.
ILYA MARRITZ: Us, the establishment press, in general, and this newspaper, in particular. And, at this point, Uwe Vetterick switched very briefly to English.
UWE VETTERICK: On a lot of Mondays, for nearly 30 minutes, you will hear a chorus of “Lügenpresse, Lügenpresse” or “Schämt euch, Schämt euch” lying press and shame on you.
ILYA MARRITZ: And Uwe Vetterick, the editor-in-chief who almost became a minister, he's trying to figure out how to talk to people who seem to be speaking a completely different language.
INTERPRETER FOR UWE VETTERICK: Turn on your brain. Why do you think people want to come here? How come no one from here wants to go live in their countries? Because this is a great system you're living in. It draws people from around the world. Of course, every system can be abused. There is a migration crisis. I’d agree with the PEGIDA people on that point, no question. I say, let’s write about it, and I’m confident it'll change.
ILYA MARRITZ: In March, the Press Council voted to keep Section 12.1 of the Ethics Code. It was a unanimous decision. In July, the Saxon Newspaper officially broke with that guideline. The editors explained the paper will always report the national identity, if that information is available. Quote, “Not giving the nationality of criminals and criminal suspects can create room for rumors, which often harm the people we wish to protect.”
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ilya Marritz is a reporter for WNYC.
Now, there's a twist to this tale. As he mentioned, this rule discouraging the media from using the race and ethnicity of a person in a story is decades-old. But Ilya, hello.
ILYA MARRITZ: Hey!
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What prompted this rule?
ILYA MARRITZ: This story is so weird and surprising, especially to me, a guy who has lived in Germany a bunch and, and known a lot of Germans. Most of the quirks of German life seem to be explained around the year 1945, end of World War II, and I just assumed that this guideline dated back to that time. No, it dates back to the early 1970s, and it has everything to do with America, oddly enough.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Huh!
ILYA MARRITZ: Yeah.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Why?
ILYA MARRITZ: So I got this story from Maria Höhn. She is now a history professor at Vassar, but in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s she was a teenager living in West Germany, in a little village on the edge of a huge US base. And what she told me is she remembers so clearly seeing this change in the black American servicemen. It seemed to happen just overnight.
MARIA HÖHN: You know, who wear Afro hairdos, who would raise their fist and who had these – their handshakes. We were, of course, totally fascinated by all of this, as you can imagine. But you also saw this incredible tension between white and black soldiers.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, this was when the Vietnam War was on.
ILYA MARRITZ: Exactly. There was a draft, as you know, and a lot of the conscripts came from the South.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: We’re talking the Deep South.
ILYA MARRITZ: Deep South.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: White young men from the Deep South.
ILYA MARRITZ: Correct. And the Army, keep in mind, had actually only been fully integrated like a little over a decade.
MARIA HÖHN: You know, white young men who were very unhappy about these African-American GIs, who maybe came from Chicago or New York, who they considered to be too cocky or too self-assured, whatever. So there was a lot of fighting between the soldiers.
ILYA MARRITZ: There was a massive spike in violence involving US military personnel over in Germany. Of course, that caught the attention of the local press.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Soldiers having fights with soldiers.
ILYA MARRITZ: Fights with soldiers, also, in some cases, getting involved in altercations with locals. It was a time of so much stress. Of course, German newspapers were going to be covering it, and when a fight broke out, a typical newspaper might report it something like this.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And here’s Maria again.
ILYA MARRITZ: Yeah.
MARIA HÖHN: It’s just like ten Americans are fighting and three Negro soldiers, that kind of language that right away sets the black soldiers apart.
ILYA MARRITZ: The NAACP thought this was important enough that they flew to Germany to do an investigation. And what they found was that black soldiers had a hard time renting apartments. Many bars were closed to them. And in 1971, an umbrella group of German-American friendship organizations decided that the problem had to do with language, and they petitioned newspapers to leave a soldier’s race out of their reporting, unless skin color was directly relevant to the crime, their theory being if you set these black soldiers apart, it makes people perceive them differently.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But that just applied to soldiers.
ILYA MARRITZ: Yes, [LAUGHS] correct. But they went to Germany's Press Council and said, hey, we have this problem. And the rule that the Press Council wrote applied to any kind of minority, whether it be Gypsies or Roma, homosexuals, whoever. It’s been tinkered with over time but the basic principle was unless the suspect’s nationality or race is really important to the crime in some way, it doesn't belong in the article. And what could be more American than that?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Right.
ILYA MARRITZ: [LAUGHS] Yeah.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: WNYC’s Ilya Marritz. Thanks very much.
ILYA MARRITZ: You’re welcome.
[MUSIC UP & UNDER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That’s it for this week’s show. On the Media
is produced by Meara Sharma, Alana Casanova-Burgess, Jesse Brenneman and Dasha Lisitsina, who leaves us this week to travel America. Goodbye Dasha. We’ll miss you, and good luck.
We had more help from Emma Stelter, Isabel Cristo and Micah Loewinger. And our show was edited by me. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineer this week was Casey Holford.
Katya Rogers is our executive producer. On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios. Bob Garfield will be back next week. I’m Brooke Gladstone.