Abuse of Power

September 2, 2004 • Ethics and Quality • by

Werbewoche, Nr. 30, September 2004

A concerted action of publishers has turned the unspeakable reform of German spelling into an even more unspeakable filler for the summer news slump. It is with this kind of campaign that the media discredit themselves.

Year after year, in the summer news slump, the media “discover” issues and sensationalize them – be it the Loch Ness monster, dangerous pit bulls or the Eastern German flood catastrophe, which pushed aside all other issues in the election year 2002 and considerably influenced the outcome of the elections to the Bundestag. The only suspense is about what journalists and their secret sources, the PR strategists and media advisers, put on the agenda and exhaust for weeks on end. At least the choice of issue is unpredictable.

Recently, first in Germany and then in Switzerland, the issue was the reform of German spelling rules. This spring, it was still inconceivable that it would upset people anew – especially considering all the other problems that had to be dealt with on either side of the Rhine. However, influential publishing companies such as Springer, Spiegel and the Süddeutsche Zeitung declared their return to the old standard and by doing so staged – together with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (who had rejected the reform from the beginning) an unprecedented media campaign.

The Bild-Zeitung, for example, featured the headline “Away with this awful spelling reform” and claimed the majority of the German people wanted to return to the old rules. As proof, however, the paper did not give a representative survey. Rather, they felt it was enough to list statements from soccer stars and other celebrities whose proficiency in either the old or the new standard is open to doubt. For weeks, the Frankfurter Allgemeinen Zeitung filled its pages with articles and editorials concerning the issue. An entire features page was set aside for an article illustrating how – with the example of China (!) – a misguided spelling reform can be reversed without losing face.

Certainly, the spelling reform was – and still is – the work of regulation-crazy bureaucrats and politicians. On the other hand, the changes have only accelerated a process that in modern societies can hardly be stopped anyway: the need to follow spelling rules is decreasing, while uncertainty about spelling is increasing. In some ways the rancorous and tardy resistance to the reform seems utterly grotesque. It resembles, according to publicist Ansgar Fürst, “the pluckiness of a man who determinedly throws himself behind a moving train”.

The protest also has a highly questionable aspect. It is annoying to witness the abandon with which newspaper companies and their journalists use the cumulative power of published opinion as soon as their own interests are touched. One can only guess how unscrupulously TV channels and publishers would represent their positions if “real” vested interests were involved. Therefore, the superfluous reform is less alarming than the audacity with which newsrooms outmaneuver parliaments to politicize their own interests instead of concentrating on their role as “observers”.

Some time ago, the publicist Roger de Weck warned that, in the future, the true dangers of populism would not come from the Le Pens, the Schills, or the Möllemanns of this world, but rather from the media. This summer’s ballyhoo about the spelling reform was above all a defeat of serious, distanced journalism which respects the separation of news and opinions. It is high time to remember the dictum of the late “Tagesthemen” host Hajo Friedrichs: “A good journalist does not associate himself with anything, even if it’s a good thing.”

(Translation: Jasmin Bodmer)

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