Results Time and Development in Germany

Conference “Time Zones”

The Transformation of Processes
to the Particular and Situation Contingent

Christiane Grefe (DIE ZEIT) on the accelerated speed of media production and the danger therein for competent polices with a longer duration.

In your invitations it stated that our chief reporter Gunter Hoffmann was planned for this brief statement – but he unexpectedly had to travel to the USA and excuses himself.

Not least because my highly esteemed colleague left me some notes and he is thus metaphysically with his thoughts amongst us, I wish to shine light on the announced question as to the time factor in the German reform debate from the perspective that he suggested – and turn your gaze toward the conflict between media and politics, respectively media and reform politics.

The Attack of the Present on the Rest of Time

Certainly there are other factors that play an even more important role in the half-heartedness and partly repeated failure of reform processes – I want name but a few of those such as lobbyism, inadequate advice, the mistrust of the population that reforms are actually more than just austerity programs without visions, the often missing curiosity, the lack of courage in the media, but also in social actors and politicians as regards alternative solutions. Then, very important: the tendency of many politicians to shy away from conflict vis-à-vis a population allegedly unable to face any kind of burden as well as vis-à-vis interest groups – and last but not least the persistent collective suppression of problems like globalization, shrinking tax revenue and demographic change.

Above all the latter, this shirking away from possibly unpleasant consequences of inevitable developments, can already be described in temporal dimensions: 16 years of Helmut Kohl became a downright metaphor for that and the postponing and viscous protraction of reform processes in many policy fields is nothing but clotted suppression.

But the relationship between media and politics, shorter: the functioning or non-functioning of the public sphere contributes significantly to the activation of the said factors, i.e. to the success or failure of reform processes. And this relationship is perhaps more marked than anything else by Alexander Kluge’ unsurpassed formulation of the “attack of the present on the rest of time”. And to top it off, this present also shrinks to ever smaller time units.

Many Media are ever more Shortsighted

Amongst radio-and television collogues the saying has been making the rounds for a long time already: And are you working still as hard, you will still make only one thirty. It is not new the first thesis, perhaps better, the first speed step – but still true and more explosive then ever: Ever more media are becoming ever more shortsighted

Just after reunification I worked for a few years at the Wochenpost, a GDR-weekly, whose staff was a mixture between East and West-journalists. I remember, how the chief editor, I believe it was in 1991, asked the East German colleagues in culture about three weeks before the Berlinale, what they had intended on this occasion to put into the paper. And then, the expression of amazement in their faces: well, first they wanted to go to the Berlinale, watch as many movies as possible, talk to as many people as possible, subsequently think thoroughly about these impressions, and then publish, maybe in three to four weeks, a well written and thought through resume, therein analyze consequences and perspectives and also reflect upon them in future texts. We colleagues from the West were irritated, since we are used to know exactly long before any such event what will be important, and as far as possible to have already commented before everyone else, what will come. On the Berlinale itself, there will then only be film hit lists, particulars and witty bon mots.

Now, there may be some that maintain that the GDR finally collapsed because of this very same slowness. Because of the lack of speed! But apart from our professional bewilderment, in the end we West journalists felt the need to question ourselves; and many of the old Wochenpost texts, well researched and written in an almost literary quality, spoke for this self-criticism: Were the East German colleagues in the end not more convincing with their thoroughness? And we, with out hectic need to be original, that turned the actual event into a mere backdrop, were we not sometimes pretty superficial?

At the same time, in political news reporting nothing works anymore without a hurried event orientation. In fact, even in the West it is not that long ago, that one reported not merely scandal oriented and in small tidbits, but continuously over a long period of time. Great political projects were announced, examined from all angles, the controversial points thoroughly reflected and finally a conclusion was drawn. Public political debate also was accompanied with a lot of space for a long period of time. A process was reproduced, of what happened over time. Certainly not in all media, but in some and generally more often.

The Transformation of Processes to the Particular and Situation Contingent

Today everyone concentrates on events. The marriage in the British royal family becomes more important then Tony Blair’s G8-Initiative for solar energy in the third world as part of a long-term global strategy; an initiative already for years, that promptly came to nothing, without anybody really noticing it; I am curious, what will happen to his new attempt.

Or: the orange revolution at the market of Kiev seems to have dropped from the sky, since hardly anybody reported earlier what was about to happen in the Ukraine – once the demonstrations are over, the region will be out of focus once again. The great murder and dying in Darfur will only become a theme, should there be an international intervention. The tsunami suddenly mobilizes a one-world feeling that the United Nations in vain tried to create with its Millennium-Goals until the “event” of the review summit – but how long will this empathic impulse and readiness to donate last? Thus processes transform to the particular and situation contingent.

Behind this there is a great coalition of media producers and media consumers. And, one hardly dares to say it out loud, because its sounds as banal as conspiratorial: the speed of the market, the opinion and entertainment market in this case. Since the electronic media is also privatized, advertisement aesthetic and framework delineate the rhythm – entertainment becomes more and more important, and so does personalization, dramatization and above all the need to be the first.

The latter speed competition goes so far, that even the director of the Westdeutscher Rundfunk, Fritz Pleitgen expressed his concern a couple of years ago, that he could not always guarantee the authenticity of the pictures shown in some news programs. Pictures by free cameramen are nowadays available almost simultaneously to the events, the more spectacular, the larger the probability, that everyone airs them, hence one does so too – more often then necessary, and possibly even with stomach aches.

The market also puts pressure, as in all economic areas, on the use of resources and the staff. Ever more medial output, ever fewer journalists; not rarely this comes at the cost of the verification of facts – and thorough preparation. I myself experienced the young colleague, who at a conference interviewed a member of the board of Deutsche Bank on the eco tax, only to later ask her colleague, who she just spoke too. One can hardly blame her, what with all the stress that is the norm in some private radio or television newsroom.

Pro domo I might at this point say, that we at DIE ZEIT have, thank god, still a completely different work environment, that allows long term, thorough research – and with the necessary space, which has been known to cause some reader or the other to lament as to his own lack of time, perhaps you too?

But the trend is that the inverse proportional relation between the complexity of themes and limited air time, between the need for fast news and the possibility for adequate research, is a severe obstacle for the existence of a democratic, public discussion about reforms that about many subjects exists by now only in expert circles. To merely explain alternatives to the highly complex welfare systems like health or pensions, to WTO agreements, or say the system of the United Nations, needs time and space; even more so to discuss it. And even more, with long staying power, to accompany critically the long lasting democratic decision processes between society, parliaments and government, of which, I dare assume, most citizens no nothing.

The Short-Termness of the Media and the Short-Termness of Politics

The short-termness of the media, thus speed step two at the same time corresponds to the increasing short-termness of politics.

A member of the Bundestag recently told me that he wished nothing more, that the old critique that politicians would only think from one election to the next were at least true; in reality they were thinking merely in the rhythm of opinion polls and Politbarometern, their horizon therefore extended for but a mere couple of weeks. Thus political projects are taken up as quickly as they are dropped again and whoops passed – which is reflected in the discussion about the “inadequate craftsmanship” of the government. But politicians too are whoops made into stars only to be dropped again soon later.

At this speed, which is speed step three politics and media permanently hype themselves up.

“Attention” and the competition for it are the central categories for both fields. The media have become containers of attention. Something has to stand out. Politicians have to attract attention. Therefore politicians, but also organizations in society, sometimes simulate unfruitful controversies or conflicts – in order to garner attention; thus they create events, they as it were recreate the laws of the media. For something is only conspicuous, if it stands out. This is being perfected in the talk shows. The most popular guests are those that do not necessarily convince with their opinion but those that provoke, i.e. they create attention, for example: no more hip operations over the age of 80! – or those that are simply prominent. This talk – if it is successful, it is mostly screaming anyway – can be quickly consumed – and just as quickly forgotten.

Pseudo-Democratic Continuous Static

Political public opinion in this light becomes an anachronistic term. It needs time, justification, analyses. Theses must ripe through discourse in order to popularize them. But in the place of such debates steps a pseudo-democratic continuous static, that detracts the senses from what is right and important. Above all from what is complicated. One agrees on solution slogans instead of solutions.

The media insist furthermore, that politics has to have fast effects, at once – in drastic contrast to the long-term nature of systemic reforms. For example when it is argued, that the effects of “Hartz IV” might only show in several years, then often it is immediately said: politics has failed. This has the effect that politicians – often enough at a loss – at least want to serve the media’s wish to do something quickly. For example Wolfgang Clement: Now, with Hartz I,II,II,IV the number of unemployed will be lowered by one million in two years … The tax reform was moved forward with similar announcements: It would show effects immediately … In the public this kindles expectations, that cannot be kept and will only lead to further disappointments. Politics becomes just-in-time-politics: ordered this morning, delivered at lunch time, forgotten in the evening.

The result of all this is a kind of breakneck chattering standstill. What remains, is an uncomfortable, by no means harmless feeling of mistrust against democracy. Yes, against politics generally.

Of course, one must not generalize. Of course there are media that are different and there are resistant politicians that are planning in the long term and also reverse trends. And it is interesting to analyze, how successful political reforms came about:

The Renewable Energies Law for example, legitimized by public support and the anchoring in the coalition contract, was send through parliament by a small group of clever and professional red and green members of parliament at the exact moment when they knew: the public is now concerned with different questions, now nothing will talked to death by the Bild-Zeitung or discussed until its broken by a fluke media market dominated attention.

Christiane GrefeStrangely therefore in our hectic media democracy one wins reforms politically if one opposes its laws. And since irritations are fruitful, I will end on this paradox.

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Die Zeit

Christiane Grefe, Die Zeit

Christiane Grefe writes for „DIE ZEIT“ and is the author of several books, e.g. "Ende der Spielzeit" and most recently "Klimawechsel" (with Carl Amery and Hermann Scheer).