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Berlin 24/7: The German Press Ball in the age of populism

German Press Ball is a high point for society - and politics. That Frauke Petry, head of the AfD party, was not invited will only reinforce her reservations about media, says DW columnist Gero Schliess.

The press is being tested at the moment, and sometimes that testing turns into denunciation. It was with those thoughts that I attended my first German Press Ball this past weekend. I had difficulty getting into a celebratory mood. I wondered how I would react if someone were to scream "Lügenpresse" - "lying press" - in my face. In Dresden, protestors affiliated with the anti-immigrant Pegida demonstrations have regularly done this of late. And the populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party has also taken up this battle cry.

That’s something that affects everyone. And even before the 2,300 invited guests had a chance to cut the proverbial rug at the Hotel Adlon in Berlin, the ball was making headlines. Not because of the ball gowns and spectacular menu but because of an unwelcome guest: the chairwoman of the AfD party, Frauke Petry.

Unwelcome guest

Last year, she and her partner celebrated with the other guests, something that led to heated debates among the nearly 900 members of the Federal Press Conference, the organization that throws the annual ball.

Gero Schliess, Berlin 24/7

Gero Schliess writes from Berlin each week

And though I'm not a fan of Ms. Petry, I have to say: Sorry, colleagues, this looks bad! It's sending the wrong signal at the wrong time. Even as Petry disparages us, not inviting her this year will only add to the AfD's feeling of being left and confirms their prejudice against "those at the top."

Less than ideal communication 

Tthe day before the ball, I attended a press conference held by the Gregor Mayntz, the chairman of the Federal Press Conference, and I asked him why Petry hadn't been invited. I merely got evasive answers. One was that Petry was one of 82 million other Germans who were not invited. Another: Every year the list of invitees is reconsidered. He wouldn't say which criteria were used for these decisions.

That gives the impression that the Federal Press Conference is an organization that isn't accountable to the public. But I believe that journalists that cover government happenings are also a political force. Whether the lack of invitation will only serve to confirm the prejudices against the media is something that remains to be seen. The argument itself may be substantive, said Mayntz, if the AfD were excluded from the press conferences held by the Federal Press Conference, but that isn't the case - which is true. 

"You want to work with the AfD but not dance with them," a colleague exclaimed, drawing laughs. There’s something to it. And I wonder how my editors would respond.

On the evening of the German Press Ball,  opinions are divided. Claudia Roth, vice-president of the Bundestag, the German parliament, is said to have applauded the no-AfD decision. Some, however, like me, were shaking their heads in incomprehension.

The decision nurtures those reservations that go well beyond just AfD supporters. In a survey of Germans, 60 percent of those asked have little to no trust in the media. "Our reputation is at stake," warned Giovanni di Lorenzo, editor-in-chief of "Die Zeit." He referred, among other things, to too much "consonance" in editorial offices.

Demonizing Trump is a mistake

Is that a confirmation of the conspiracy theories that the media is controlled "from the top"? Certainly not. Di Lorenzo means something else. I think about the delay in reporting about the new Year's Eve attacks in Cologne earlier this year, which demonstrated a reflexive identification with Angela Merkel welcome policy towards refugees.

I later discussed the  tendencies of the media to demonize Donald Trump with a colleague, also a former US correspondent. Completely overblown headlines immunized him, making him stronger in the eyes of his supporters and hindering media analysis and fact checks from getting through to readers and viewers. And not only in the US. I recall a "Spiegel Online" article that followed after two of Trump’s advisors were ousted: "Chaos breaks out in Trump's team." Yet such shifts in personnel happened in all presidential transition teams, including Obama's.

Post from Petry

The cry for greater transparency and self-criticism is something that has become mainstream among media people in the meantime. What does that look like in everyday work?

Perhaps the position statement I received from the spokesperson for Frauke Petry says it all. "You can dance without us this year; we would mix up the formation dance that's been long rehearsed." 1:0 for Petry.

 

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