Uwe Krüger in an interview
The Dangerous Proximity of Journalists to Power

The Leipzig communication scientist Uwe Krüger
The Leipzig communication scientist Uwe Krüger | Photo (detail): © Uwe Krüger

How independent and objective are German journalists? The Leipzig communication scientist Uwe Krüger has studied the networking of leading editors with elites in politics and business – and found a disturbing closeness between them.

Mr Krüger, we would like to think that journalists are neutral and objective reporters. How close are we to this ideal in Germany?

t’s very difficult to give a blanket answer. The demands on journalists are extremely high and many German journalists honestly try to depict a very bewildering news situation as carefully and objectively as possible. Yet we have problem.

Which is?

Many of the German mainstream media are so closely networked with elites in politics and business that they fail to question sufficiently the definition of problems and the fundamental terms established in these circles – including the interests that lie behind them. Journalism can be objective and neutral as a medium in small things and yet overall be closer to the discourse of an elite than to that of the general population.

What evidence do you have for this thesis?

I’ve examined over many years the personal connection data of all the leading editors of German mainstream media: who has contact with whom in which organization, as member but also as members of the executive board, advisory board, steering committee? As it turned out, every third member in at least one organisation had connections with elites. And then too – and this was for me particularly disturbing – leading journalists in foreign policy were heavily involved in organizations representing the interests of NATO, the EU and the German federal government.

Which organizations do you mean specifically?

For example, the German Atlantic Association, a declared lobby organization for NATO. Or the Trilateral Commission, a confidential forum of elites in politics, business and other sectors in North America, Western Europe and the Asian-Pacific region. Shut away from the public gaze, it negotiates business and political interests in the Western world. The journalists present at its meetings are pledged to remain silent about the proceedings, although they are supposed to be the advocates of the public.

Is that even allowed?

In Germany, no standard has been established that would prohibit journalists from being members of such committees or commissions. Unlike in America, for example. The New York Times, for instance, has a code of ethics according to which journalists may engage only in organizations that have to do with journalistic education and training, but not with politics and business.

Many people rely on the so-called mainstream media

What does the closeness to elites mean for journalistic objectivity?

Journalistic objectivity suffers. Take the case of the coverage of the Ukraine. If we’re honest about it, we have to do here in the case of many of the major media with a bias in favour of alliance – EU and NATO – policy. In the geopolitical wrangling over the Ukraine, Russia is scrutinized very critically and the West viewed very uncritically. The result is a highly value-charged image of “good versus bad”, although a sober assessment along the lines of “interest versus interest” comes closer to the truth.

But there are other media that take this perspective. We can keep ourselves comprehensively informed as citizens, can’t we?

Well, you can argue that the tendentious coverage is cushioned by the so-called “external pluralism” of the system or the plurality of suppliers. The only question is what benefit does this have for the individual citizen? Who has the time and media literacy to survey the entire spectrum of opinion every day? Many people rely on the so-called mainstream media and assume that they provide the most objective information possible. Therefore “inner pluralism”, or diversity of content within a medium, is also important.

You could also argue that it’s necessary for journalists to gain access to elites in order to do their job. Is a certain proximity to elites therefore the price that must be paid for exclusive background information?

I admit there’s a dilemma. If you want to report on elite discourse, you need to gain access to elites and so a certain intellectual proximity to power. But much more interesting is the question: How much do I really need information from the boardroom? Don’t I need rather sources at the middle level of administrative bodies and other organizations - speakers, for instance – who are less guided by interests and more expert than the top bosses? American journalists have the excellent rule of thumb: “The higher you go, the less you know”. Much more important than describing the elite discourse in as much detail as possible is to question it constructively.

Could you give us an example?

In many commentaries and editorials of large newspapers I’ve found the thesis that the finance crisis, immigration and pandemics are relevant to security policy. This is at bottom lobbying for the extended concept of security favoured by the consensus of our elites and on the agenda of the federal government, the EU and NATO. It also implies the application of military logic to non-military subjects. Now in my opinion the special value of journalism here would be not only to present this idea or even promote it, but to question it critically.

Widespread sense of a sync between government politics and the media

How do you assess the current media critique of groups critical of democracy such as Pegida?

We have to do here with a loss of trust, which the established media should take quite seriously. Even if slogans such as the “lying press” are utterly exaggerated, there is a widespread sense of a sync between government politics and the media, and this isn’t an accident. The working and selection routines of many editors are geared to follow the elite discourse like shadows. What is needed is more channels and more freedom, to seek news more openly rather than slavishly following the agenda of centres of power, and to show your own position more strongly.

More diversity of content would be the solution?

It would be an important step, yes. I think the reader really benefits only when unusual guest writers are frequently allowed to express divergent opinions and critical views. Or when the head of a news desk, who has been attending the Munich Security Conference for years, looks in on the Munich Peace Conference, or in addition to taking part in the World Economic Forum in Davos, drops in on the World Social Forum.

Uwe Krüger: Der Einfluss von Elite auf Leitmedien und Alpha-Journalisten – eine kritische Netzwerkanalyse (i.e. The Influence of Elites on Mainstream Media and Alpha Journalists – a critical analysis of networks) (Herbert von Halem-Verlag)