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America’s Cautionary Tale for German Media

Julia Jäkel, Gruner + Jahr CEO
Julia Jäkel warns Germany risks sleepwalking into a US-style crisis of confidence in the media. Source: Christian Charisius/DPA

Germany, aghast at President Donald Trump’s battles with the truth and with US mainstream news outlets, has been cracking down on social media this year and is on the lookout for fake news that could sway voters in the September 24 general election.

The country learned bitter lessons about the power of propaganda, lies and incitement to hatred under Nazism, and passed a controversial law in June slapping fines of up to €50 million, or $59.5 million, on Facebook and other sites that fail to take down criminal postings by users within 24 hours.

According to one recent report by BuzzFeed News, 7 of the 10 most successful German-language articles about Chancellor Angela Merkel — with success defined as how often they were shared and the number of comments and reactions they elicited on social media — were entirely fabricated.

Julia Jäkel, the chief executive of one of Germany’s biggest media companies, Gruner + Jahr, recently described Facebook as an “anti-social network” that had turned into a “medium of social division.”

In an interview with Handelsblatt, she warned that Germany must not let its media environment and standards of public debate deteriorate to levels now seen in the United States. She called on companies to help protect serious news outlets by taking a more “responsible” approach to choosing where they place their media advertising.

“If we go too far, we shouldn’t be surprised in five or ten years if our entire media landscape has changed.”

Julia Jäkel, CEO, Gruner + Jahr

Ms. Jäkel, 45, has pushed Gruner + Jahr, a subsidiary of media behemoth Bertelsmann that owns 75 percent of Random House, ever further into digital media in the four years she’s been at the helm. But she also remains committed to print media and regards the established media outlets as bulwarks of journalistic quality in a tide of new Internet offerings.

Gruner + Jahr, a Hamburg-based publishing house with €1.6 billion in sales and over 10,000 employees, publishes magazines including Stern, National Geographic Traveler in Germany and women’s mag Brigitte. It also has a stake in Der Spiegel, the country’s leading news magazine.

Ms. Jäkel pointed out that Facebook will likely earn $36 billion from advertising this year, giving it considerable economic and political power. “Facebook has two billion users, as many as the followers of the great religions of the world,” she told Handelsblatt. “That amounts to tremendous influence, so it’s legitimate to ask some critical questions on occasion.”

Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg, she said, regarded his company as a “kind of supra-national institution.”

“I fear that the arena of democratic public opinion may plunge into crisis. In the US we’re already seeing the regional erosion of diversity of opinion, verbal excesses that are reaching serious TV channels, societal extremism and a president who regularly defames the classic investigative media from the New York Times to CNN,” she said.

“We must draw boundaries and say what we don’t want to happen.”

She urged companies to show what she called “Corporate Media Responsibility” by taking into account journalistic standards when deciding which media to advertise in.

“Take the advertising market which is worth billions — everyone must become a bit more aware of the fact that with every euro they spend they’re taking decisions that affect society. Do they give the money to media that make an effort to research their content and thereby contribute to shaping public opinion — or just to channels that don’t create their own content?

“I’m not criticizing people for advertising on Facebook. Of course not, we do so as well. But I do criticize people who primarily treat marketing money as a purchasing cost item or go too far in apportioning it just to outlets that seem modern right now.”

She said advertisers must distinguish between outlets that provide high-quality journalism and those that disseminate “crude user-generated content.”

The crisis engulfing the German auto industry, hit by revelations of emissions-cheating and facing fines, recalls and driving bans for excessive pollution from diesel engines, highlighted the need for frank and open debate about the state of the media sector, she said.

“We wanted cars to be safe, big, fast and good for the environment at the same time. It got to a point where the technical possibilities could no longer meet the demands of society. But no one dared to talk openly about that. The consequences are well-known.”

Media outlets such as Spiegel, Süddeutsche Zeitung, Die Welt and Handelsblatt should have the self-confidence to remind the public that they’re the ones maintaining journalistic standards in Germany.

“If we go too far, we shouldn’t be surprised in five or ten years if our entire media landscape has changed and we’re left asking ourselves what happened to our critical media.”

 

Catrin Bialek leads a team of reporters covering the IT and media industries. Thomas Tuma is a deputy editor in chief at Handelsblatt. To contact the authors: To contact the authors: bialek@handelsblatt.com, tuma@handelsblatt.com.

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