Media Struck by Hunting Fever

February 2, 2012 • Ethics and Quality • by

A comparison of the media’s scandalization of Hildebrand and Wulff.

Let us start with a false prognosis: Immediately preceding Swiss National Bank president Philipp Hildebrand’s public resignation, I predicted to a small group of students that – from a researcher’s perspective – German federal president Christian Wulff would be the first to resign in light of recent scandals. This misjudgment was induced by a recent study in which Hans Mathias Kepplinger, a researcher from the University of Mainz, explained the differences between a scandal and a media conflict. According to Kepplinger, scandals and media conflicts are similar due to the media’s tendency to denounce “actual or perceived grievances.” In the case of scandals, after a short period of time, “a broad consensus concerning the causes of the grievances and the responsibilities of their originators begins to form.” In the case of media conflict, there will be a public dispute over “how the causes of the grievances and the responsibilities of those being accused by the media should be treated.”

In comparing the Hildebrand case in Switzerland with the Wulff case in Germany, the original failures of both presidents can be judged as more or less tantamount. The financial advantage gained from the speculative deal of Hildebran’s wife was slightly higher and the insider transaction was also closer to the core business of the president of the Central Bank than the borrowing of cheap money from Wulff’s “friends and family.”

However, the procedures through which the media went about publicizing the scandals were very different: In Switzerland, the media conflict was localized between the populist right wing Weltwoche and the rest of the press, with a few publications providing different tones in between (the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, for example). In the Swiss online journal Medienwoch, Karl Lüönd, one of Switzerland’s best known media critics, wrote that the media’s initial reaction to the scandal had not been stimulated by “normal journalistic reflexes,” but rather by utilizing  a “common agenda” against the populist right wing politician Christoph Blocher, whose political friends seem to own and instrumentalize the Weltwoche. Indeed, concerning Hildebrand, the Swiss media exhibited a peculiar reluctance to bite. Such inhibitions would have been unthinkable in the U.S. or the United Kingdom, or any country operating with an Anglosaxon journalism culture, for that matter.

To the contrary, in Germany the media reached a consensus. A broad sweep of journalists – from the leftist-alternative taz, the conservative FAZ, Bild, the Frankfurter Rundschau and the public broadcasters –demanded Wulff’s resignation. However, this concord may be due in part to previous mistakes committed by Wulff, who’s done a mediocre job in attempting to hush one detail after another.

Kepplinger, who researched the scandal processes in the media for decades, summarizes that a media conflict primarily needs to be clarified by “how the verdict should look.” Yet conversely, in a scandal “the verdict is agreed upon after short time. The only remaining question is how and when it will be executed.“

Thus, I was surprised by the demission of Hildebrand who failed to await the final verdict of the Swiss media. Meanwhile, the scandal in Germany reached a new stage. The media wages the “war” which Wulff originally declared (miscalculating his own power completely) against Springer publishing and the editor-in-chief of Bild-Zeitung. The media continues feeding the frenzy with new and increasingly ridiculous details distributed daily. The campaign turned into a distasteful fight for power which would be unthinkable in Switzerland.

However, there is common ground between Swiss and German media in handling the scandal, as Nick Lüthi observed in Medienwoche, “The media’s own behavior has not been reflected on by the media thus far.” This can be said, with few exceptions, about the mainstream media. However, the media is already losing control over the discourse dealing journalism, as there is a lively ongoing debate in the German-speaking media where such blind spots (which also provide evidence of a lack of journalistic professionalism) are discussed.

Even if researchers should be cautious in making a prognosis, there is at least one prediction which can be made with a fair probability: Whether Wulff stays in office or resigns, there will be losers on both sides, as both sides will have lost credibility due to the moralizing of the media which tends to appear only after they’ve hunted prey, and the irrationality of the political class in Germany which trumps that of Switzerland by far.

Post script: Kepplinger provides a plausible explanation for why Wulff has stayed in office: He cannot be “dropped or impeached and therefore needs not to step down,” as long as “he can withstand the moral pressure.” Wulff’s calculus differs from the norm, “When he steps down, he will lose everything (including his apparatus).” If he fights to stay in office, he will “have a difficult time, but he will also ensure that he has enough time to make an acceptable departure.”


Originally published in Werbewoche, Nr. 1/2012.


*Hans Mathias Kepplinger: Die Mechanismen der Skandalisierung. München: Olzog Verlag (to be published in February 2012)


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