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The News Dissector In Berlin: Media Mergers And Personal Memories


Danny Schechter

In

my travels to the "Old World," I often discover how "old"

some of my own ideas are. In Berlin last week to speak at a media conference, I

learned about Tobias Peucer who, as a student at the University of Leipzig,

wrote what may have been the world’s first media analysis 310 years ago. Back in

1690, Peucer saw the way commercial pressures drive newspapers to run rumors and

rely on sensation, noting that journalists "do not think their work can be

approved and become popular unless they sprinkle them with lies."

My

thanks for the history lesson to our MediaChannel affiliate Media Tenor [LINK:

wwwmedien-tenor.de], a German media monitoring organization tracking our

coverage of the American elections. Thanks also for hard empirical data showing

that many of the same programming trends I have been complaining about in the

United States are rearing their profitable head in Germany. One of Media

Tenor’s content studies, for example, notes how news reports about foreigners

in Germany are mostly one-dimensional, treating them largely as criminals.

"German TV is becoming more like TV in America," a veteran German

journalist who spent eight years in Los Angeles told me over dinner. "We

used to be known for TV reports offering background and analysis. That is

changing." She also mentioned a recent report by a German correspondent

covering the Elian Gonzalez case in Miami. "He was standing outside of the

house and had the camera pan left and right. There was nothing to see so he told

us what was there. I don’t know what that was supposed to be, but it was not

journalism."

Private

TV stations that offer what a sociology professor here calls "stupid,

unwatchable" shows (many overdubbed U.S. programs among them) challenge the

public service broadcasters ZDF and ARD in the marketplace, which then tend to

go further down-market to compete. Nevertheless, the professor insists that

there are still at least 15 hours of excellent programming on TV weekly. I am

not sure if we Americans–with so many more channels–can make the same claim.

Even

that oasis of excellence may be at risk, thanks to a big story announced while I

was out being shown the "New Berlin." My tour included sections of

East Berlin, the once-dilapidated Communist enclave, which has been refashioned

as a capitalist showplace with giant new tourist attractions like SONY City and

Daimler City, with movieplexes and even a Tony Roma ribs joint like the one that

used to be in our Globalvision building in New York’s Times Square. (I had

wondered where the restaurant went when the company that owns it changed themes

and cuisine. Now I know.)

East

Berlin may have lost its country but, in the end, it may have won the Cold War

in the sense that it has become THE hot and hip mecca for music, clubs,

restaurants and even new media businesses. I visited one of the latter, AtVision

[LINK: www.atvision.de], which is pioneering broadband video channels with an

imaginative Internet startup. They have more fiber optic cable in their building

than we have on my New York block.

When

I was last here in the 1960s, that ugly Wall still divided the town and

ideologies were polarized. I covered the anti-war movement, marching through the

streets led by German SDS. Today. many of those activists who remained active

are in the Green Party which is in government; others further to the left are

still in prison for terrorism. Today, with reunification, signs of those

turbulent times have been erased. New walls are going up on gleaming businesses

like the shop selling pricey Rolexes across the street. I am staying in a

monument to globalization, the luxurious U.S.-run Westin Grand hotel, built by

the Japanese for the German Communists to host an International Money Fund

meeting in 1988. It sits across the street from what had been the headquarters

of the Berlin Communist Party, which is being rebuilt into a government center.

Signs on its walls include posters for upcoming Dylan and Tina Turner concerts

and a sex expo ("Erotik").

I

visited the Reichstag building, which has been reconstructed as unified

Germany’s new parliament. In an ultramodern cupola on the roof is a display of

photos of its own tragic past, including the mysterious Reichstag fire. I was

pleased to see that it does not gloss over the Nazi years, when swastika-wearing

Hitlerites attended sessions in their brown uniforms; Adolf considered himself

too important to goose-step into the legislative chambers. I also learned that

in 1932 the people of Berlin dissented from Germany’s nationalist fervor and

voted against the Nazis.

From

the roof, you see a fabulous panorama of the city complete with a view of a

giant, rotating Mercedes symbol as well as the headquarters of the Axel Springer

media empire right next to where the Wall once stood. For years, the Springer

press was a screaming tabloid megaphone for strident anti-Communism and enmity

against West German progressives. When my friend Rudi Dutschke, a leader of

Germany’s New Left Students for a Democratic Society, was gunned down in the

street in a 1968 political assassination, thousands of his friends and

supporters rioted outside the Springer building, blaming Germany’s Murdochian

mogul for inciting the violence.

Ideological

passions have long since cooled as business here reverts to business. While I

was out remembering the media past, the media future was busy being born. One of

Germany’s biggest businesses, already a major force in global media, became

quite a bit bigger April 7 with Europe’s largest media merger to date.

Bertelsmann, known mostly for its publishing interests, has also always dabbled

in TV. Now, in what has been characterized as the continent’s response to

TimeWarner AOL, it has merged with England’s Pearson PLC to create a

still-unnamed entity with a $25 billion market capitalization. The new company

will be 37 percent owned by Bertelsmann, 22 percent by Pearson, 30 percent by an

investment group in Belgium and the rest by smaller investors.

The

new company owns more than 10,000 hours of TV programs, the best-known being

"Baywatch" and "The Price is Right." With production bases

in 35 countries, it controls or owns part of 22 TV channels reaching 120 million

viewers across Europe. It is also an online power, with more than 70 web major?

sites. The Pearson people, who also recently acquired the U.S. publisher Simon

and Schuster, will be programming the new TV venture, which intends to expand

soon into the U.S. England’s Guardian predicts that the new combine will seek to

combine with France’s Canal Plus for some of its rights as well. In short, the

media war for market share and "mind share" now has a new and powerful

global protagonist. Germany’s Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung reports that its

principal German competitor, the Kirch group, is not fazed because it already

has cross-border production deals with companies led by Rupert Murdoch and

Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi.

Two

years ago, I met with Thomas Middlehoff, the Bertelsmann CEO who pulled off this

deal, to see if they would have any interest in independently produced social

issue documentaries. He kindly passed on my inquiry to RTL, his TV company in

Europe known for light entertainment. He could have saved the stamps. The word

back was quick and predictable: Thanks but no thanks. More TV power in the hands

of the company, led by Marjorie Scandino, who has given the world “Baywatch,”

is not exactly promising from the point of view of those of us who believe that

TV should elevate the public discourse. As I recently noted [LINK to Dissector

3/22], Pearson’s Channel 5 in Britain is infamous for its three-F focus: films,

football and fucking. On that channel, “Baywatch” might well be considered a

children’s show. The media editor of the German magazine Der Speigel told me

that when Bertelsmann officials were asked about the "trash" on their

RTL 2 Channel, they responded by claiming they were not responsible. "We

are only the owners," one executive reportedly said. The German newspapers

did not remind their readers that Bertelsmann is coping with charges of

collaboration with the Nazis.

German

artist Hans Haacke is generating as much debate in Berlin, where he just won

narrow approval for a public art work reminding Germans that they are a diverse

nation now, as he has in New York for his exhibit at the Whitney Museum [LINK]

comparing Mayor Giuliani’s police to Nazi storm troopers. Following another

controversy, Berlin will soon have a Holocaust memorial and "house of

memory." (Gypsies and others protested that Jews were not the only ones to

have died in the Nazi furnaces.) A popular tourist attraction is the Checkpoint

Charlie Museum, which sits on what used to be a main border crossing between

East and West and chronicles resistance against the Berlin Wall. A jumble of

exhibits detail the heroism of those who escaped to the West. To my delight, the

museum is more than an orgy of crude anti-Communism, but also showcases

nonviolent resistance from Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. to Solidarity’s

Lech Walesa and the monks who burned themselves in protest in Vietnam in 1963.

It even includes a sympathetic statement by East German border guards who say

that many refused to shoot to kill citizens running away. Perhaps because of its

independent stance, the museum had been threatened with closure and enjoys no

official support.

My

friend Larry Levin, who reported from Germany for several years, observed that

while glamorizing those who escaped FROM East Berlin, it is silent on those

dissident West Germans who "escaped" TO East Berlin from other parts

of a conformist country, lured by its vital artistic community as well as

government financial subsidies. Escapism remains a big deal here. It exhibits

itself in an annual "Love Parade" bacchanal that rivals Mardi Gras in

New Orleans and the Carnival in Rio.

I

was in Berlin to speak to RIAS [LINK: www.riasberlinkommission.de], the

successor to a Cold War radio station in the American sector that promotes

exchanges between German and American journalists and encourages more reporting

in America about Germany. They were holding an awards ceremony honoring radio

and TV shows that promote intercultural understanding. One award winner, a CNN

correspondent, gained applause when it was announced that he would donate his

award to an orphanage caring for victims of the war in Rwanda. Another honoree,

American independent documentary film maker Lisa Lewenz, said she wished she

could afford a similar contribution. Her $8,000 prize was going to help pay off

the credit card debt she contracted in making "A Letter Without

Words," a film chronicling her grandmother’s home movies in Germany through

the Nazi period [LINK: http://thinksmall.org/aletterwithoutwords/]. It

ultimately got on PBS after 17 years of effort.

So,

in the end I went all the way to Berlin to be reminded just how broke and

marginalized most U.S. indie media makers are. Europeans seem to appreciate the

work more than Americans until, that is, Americans get to see it.this sentence a

little inexplicable? Where are we gonna "escape" to? If there is a

merger partner out there, please get in touch.

 

Danny

Schechter is the executive editor of Media Channel.org and author of

"News Dissector," a new collection of his columns and writings which

can be downloaded from Electronpress.com [LINK: www.electronpress.com/dschecter.asp].

  

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