The cold transatlantic relations caused by the Iraq war are thawing. But the recent, chilly atmosphere made for hot reporting on both sides of the ocean. Journalists recently met in Berlin to assess the damage.
"The Bush Warriors" charge onto Germany's top-selling news magazine
In continental Europe, portraits of cowboys and Rambo figures characterizing the Bush administration prevailed. On the other side of the Atlantic, U.S. media produced an equally simple picture by calling Germany and France the "axis of cowards" for their anti-war stance.
But the transatlantic flap begs the question, what is the media's role during times of conflict? Has the media stoked hostilities with simplifications and clichés? Did German media feed anti-American sentiment? Were American journalists too soft on their government?
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
European media outlets depicted the American president as the quintessential macho cowboy. But the American media also made the most of stereotypical images, poking at the "Old Europe" many Americans felt let them down. U.S. media made fun of the so-called "free-loading, beret-wearing, cheese-eating French people" and the "cowardly, peace loving German doves."
American newspapers also ran cartoons critical of Bush's decision to invade Iraq. "We've established a clear link", the quote at the bottom reads.
Some of the caricatures were to be expected, says Annette Riedel, an editor for DeutschlandRadio in Berlin. "For some reason, sexual imagery seems to be working with the public," she explains. "There is the macho type from the USA and then the somewhat obedient type in Europe. Maybe the media can't resist the temptation to play with these images."
Stoking hostile attitudes?
But some say that the simplifications of the Americans as cowboys and the Europeans as cowards go too far and serve to stoke hostile attitudes. Particularly in Germany, where over 80 percent of the population was opposed to the war, the media was quick to jump on the negative.
"If I follow the German news, it’s all focused on what goes bad, almost a triumphant tone, and if something went well, it was played down," Peter Schneider, a German novelist and journalist, maintains.
Christoph von Marschall, an editor for the Berlin daily Der Tagesspiegel, agrees that the focus in the German media was fairly critical when it came to reporting on Iraq. But, he said, this shouldn’t be a surprise.
A cultural byproduct
"Of course journalists are also citizens and the general mood inside our newspaper was more or less how it was in the general public," von Marschall says. "So people were skeptical about the American approach."
According to Annette Riedel, journalists and their reporting are a product of the culture they have been raised in.
An anti-war protest in Heidelberg, Germany.
"People in the positions to write commentary right now are in their 40's and 50's and they are very much a product of the way they’ve been brought up and this is extremely anti-war," she says.
Anti-Americanism or healthy skepticism?
But theoretically, the media is supposed to provide a balanced, objective view of world matters. Most journalists agree this is impossible. But those critical of the German media for their reporting on Iraq say that a line was crossed which became not only skeptical but outright anti-American.
"The German media tends to overlook the positive news coming from Iraq... they accentuate the negative," Don Jordan, an American journalist who has lived in Germany for over 36 years, says, but "I have never observed such overt and covert anti-Americanism."
Of course the German media is not the only one being accused of biased reporting. U.S. media outlets are also being criticized for being too soft on the current administration and the war in Iraq, something Jordan agrees with.
A so-called embedded journalist, who traveled with U.S. troops as they invaded Iraq.
"For the first time, I noticed that American journalists started saying, we, our troops, not distancing themselves," Jordan points out. "This has been a deterioration of American journalistic principles."
A recent mood shift
If the German media was accused of being übercritical in it’s reporting of the war in Iraq, and the American media too soft, things may be changing. Recent editorials in Germany have begun to admit that simply criticizing American politics is not enough. They argue that new, alternative suggestions are necessary as well.
Likewise, it seems the American press has also had a change of heart. "More Americans have died in Iraq serving the vanity of an American president who woefully betrayed them," a recent Los Angeles Times editorial read.
If there is indeed a change of attitude, what has caused it?Some say it comes down to the opportunism of the media. "The fairy tale sold newspapers, boosted television ratings, curried favor at the White House and drummed up invitations from the Pentagon to attend the military costume party in the Persian Gulf," Lewis H. Lapham of Harper’s magazine wrote of the American media’s reporting prior to the Iraq invasion.
Christoph Von Marshall of Der Tagesspiegel feels that in Germany as well a certain practical opportunism is inherent in the media, which originates in the need to sell papers.
When his newspaper went against the grain this year and condemned the German government along with the Iraq policies of the United States, over 1,000 readers canceled their subscriptions in protest.