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Bild's Reichelt: Axel Springer under pressure

Sarah Hucal | Christine Lehnen | Maria John Sánchez
October 20, 2021

Bild tabloid Editor-in-Chief Julian Reichelt was fired after The New York Times detailed misconduct toward female employees. The case is now making waves internationally.

Julian Reichelt Chefredakteur Bild Digital
Julian Reichelt has been under fire for his attitudes towards women and many of his editorial decisionsImage: Bernd von Jutrczenka/dpa/picture alliance

Bild, which Julian Reichelt led since 2017, is the daily newspaper with the highest circulation in Germany and has shaped the country's media landscape significantly since it was founded in 1952. Known for courting controversy, the media outlet often receives criticism: For example after launching a front-page attack on virologist Christian Drosten, one of Chancellor Angela Merkel's advisers, at the start of the pandemic. The publication regularly garners reprimands from the German Press Council. 

Behind the newspaper is the billion-euro Axel Springer publishing house, which was founded in Germany in the wake of World War II and initially published daily newspapers and magazines. Today, the company is hardly a traditional publishing house, says media scholar Christopher Buschow of the Bauhaus University of Weimar. Springer is more likely to be considered a media company or digital group, whose central revenues are no longer generated solely through journalism, but also by other investments like the job portal Stepstone.

Looking towards the US market

That Axel Springer aims to further expand abroad makes implications of the current scandal at Bild reach beyond Germany. In recent years, Axel Springer has invested heavily in markets abroad, namely the United States and Poland.

"The company's clear goal is to play on the very big stage," Buschow said. "It's recognized that in a platform-based media world, where the big tech giants make the rules in many ways, the United States is key if you want to have a global impact as a media company." 

This expansion, he added, "is now being driven forward with a great deal of energy and financial resources." Axel Springer this August purchased US media outlet Politico for $1 billion. In 2015, the company bought Business Insider.

According to Buschow, it's therefore logical that the situation at Bild is receiving special attention abroad due to the fact that Axel Springer aims to be an international player. After all, it was the The New York Times which broke the story in English detailing acts of misconduct by Reichelt that finally led to his ousting.

"The fact that you need foreign coverage to talk about some topics doesn't surprise me," said Buschow. "I have also observed this in other cases, in which German media were extraordinarily quiet — although there would actually have been a lot to report." That's usually the case when the media are are affiliated with specific political parties, he added.

"With issues like this, in which the press landscape as a whole is affected or large powerful media groups are affected, you often need an outside view," he said.

Angela Merkel on the cover of Bild with a headline that reads "Merkel at the end of her power"
Bild is Germany's most-read publicationImage: Winfried Rothermel/imago images

Buschow points out that Axel Springer's chief executive, Mathias Döpfner, is also president of the Federation of German Newspaper Publishers (BDZV) — another reason competitors might not want to get mixed up in reporting negatively on the media giant.

Yet The New York Times was not the only outlet to look into allegations. Journalists at Springer's rival publishing company, Ippen, had been investigating sexual harassment allegations against Reichelt, but did not publish their findings.

The New York Times reported they had been pressured by Axel Springer executives not to publish the bombshell report, prompting concerns about press freedom in Germany. Yet the media group denied that pressure from their rival had anything to do with spiking the story, and instead said it was cut to "avoid the impression we might want to economically harm a competitor." 

Sexual harassment in the US media landscape

Earlier this year, Der Spiegel also reported on allegations which did not result in Reichelt leaving his post. Instead, Reichelt filed charges against Der Spiegel. The paper wrote an expose on what it described as "the Reichelt system" — what it called his "pattern” of seducing, promoting and then firing young women at Bild.

The scandal perhaps marks a turning point in Germany's #MeToo movement, which has already been well underway in the media scene in the US. A landmark event on that front in the US was the sexual harassment scandal at Fox News involving the network's head, Roger Ailes. In 2016, Fox News journalist Gretchen Carlson filed a lawsuit which brought about an internal investigation at the network and led to a number of sexual harassment claims against Ailes, considered to be a kingmaker by the Republican party.

The story inspired the 2019 film Bombshell starring Nicole Kidman, who plays Carlson, and Margot Robbie, who plays a fictional character harassed by Ailes as she aims to become a TV news anchor.

Charlize Theron (left) Nicole Kidman and Margot Robbie play journalists at the network
The movie 'Bombshell' is based on the fall of Roger Ailes of Fox News in the USImage: picture-alliance/AP/H. Gayle

In 1996, Ailes was hired by Rupert Murdoch, who was at the time was CEO of media giant NewsCorp. He launched Fox News, hiring outspoken right-wing commentators like Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity. The network has since become known for its inflammatory statements and questionable stances, such as casting doubt on where Barack Obama was born; and, more recently, vaccine skepticism.

His reputation damaged, Ailes resigned in 2016 from Fox News. Political commentator Bill O'Reilly was also fired for sexual misconduct. Fox News and the once-top commentator paid out millions of dollars in settlements to accusers.

Sarah Hucal
Sarah Hucal Freelance Multimedia Journalist