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Why German media's relationship with far right is difficult

April 22, 2024

How should Germany's traditional media report on the far-right Alternative for Germany Party (AfD)? Some want to ignore the opposition party, while others want to expose them.

Microphones from various TV stations such as ZDF, RTL and NDR are placed in front of a wall with the blue, white and red logo of the Alternative for Germany (AfD).
German mainstream media often face a dilemma in how they cover the AfDImage: Hendrik Schmidt/dpa/picture alliance

Tino Chrupalla, co-chair of Germany's far-right populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, was the main guest in an evening political TV show on public channel ARD on Sunday. He got plenty of space to present himself as friendly and well-meaning, denying any knowledge of leading AfD politicians being on Russia's payroll, of racism and misogyny in his own party.

Political commentators for other traditional media were outraged.

As the far right continues to poll as the second-strongest party in Germany well ahead of the center-left Social Democrats (SPD)led by Chancellor Olaf Scholz, how to deal with far-right politicians is posing a major challenge for Germany's traditional media. 


It's more often the moderate AfD politicians like Chrupalla who get invited for interviews. Far-right hard-liners like Maximilian Krah, the top candidate for the European Parliament election in June, and Björn Höcke, the regional leader of the AfD in Thuringia, are usually talked about, rather than talked with.

Björn Höcke and Chrstian Voigt during their debate on the Welt TV channel on April 11, 2024
A first on German TV: Far-right AfD politician Björn Höcke (left) and center-right Mario Voigt faced off in a pre-election TV debate on April 11Image: Martin Lengemann/WELT/dts Nachrichtenagentur/IMAGO

Earlier this month, however, there was a controversial premiere on German television: Höcke took part in a live debate with one of his opponents, Mario Voigt, the top candidate for the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) for September's election in Thuringia. The private broadcaster Welt-TV had scheduled 45 minutes for this prime-time debate. In the end, the exchange of blows lasted well over an hour. 

"For the first time, positions that are discussed on a daily basis in pubs, sports and shooting clubs and in the workplace were all raised in a debate," the Berliner Zeitung wrote afterward.

Between enlightenment and spectacle

The debate was a constant topic in the media for days before and after the event. National weekly Der Spiegel warned this was a mistake: "Of course, after these 71 minutes, Höcke will appear a tad more normal and socially acceptable to many than before."

Political scientist Oliver Lembcke from the University of Bochum begged to differ. "The permanent running away, disinviting and marginalizing of the AfD with the same demonizing phrases over and over again has allowed Höcke to develop his image as a kind of magician or dark lord," he wrote in the country's main tabloid Bild.

How much do neo-Nazi views influence Germany's AfD?

The German Journalists Association, the DJV, has argued that German media should readjust their reporting on the AfD when the entire party is classified as "proven right-wing extremist" by the domestic intelligence agency, the Office for the Protection of the Constitution. This is already the case in three out of 16 federal states, including Thuringia. DJV Chairman Mika Beuster has argued that "this must appear in all our articles similar to the health risk warning printed on cigarette packets."

In 2017 and 2018, the Otto Brenner Foundation, which is financed mainly by the Metal Workers' trade union IG Metall, researched the challenge posed by the AfD to the country's political discourse. 

In the 2017 publication, media scientist Bernd Gäbler was quoted positioning himself against a blanket exclusion of far-right politicians.

However, he argued, this should not mean "that AfD politicians have to take part in every forum or that they should be asked for interviews in the same way as all other politicians," he wrote. But in a TV or radio program featuring the views of all political groups represented in a parliament, AfD representatives should also have their say if they are represented there, he suggested.

Ulrike Winkelmann, editor-in-chief of the cooperatively financed left-wing alternative daily newspaper taz, has argued that it doesn't help to refuse to give a platform to far-right politicians because the AfD has long had its own media channels.

"It has created a large part of its significance through social media, the 'parallel-world' platforms on the internet, which are full of doom-mongering," she said.

Tino Chrupalla during a press conference which is strqamed live on social media via mobile phone applications
The AfD is way ahead of Germany's other parties when it comes to social media usageImage: Michael Kappeler/dpa/picture alliance

'No need for journalism tailored to the AfD'

Winkelmann also recommends a more modest self-critical look at the motivations of traditional media.

"We should accept that there are always material interests — clicks and reach — prompting us to get caught up in the loops of interpretation and outrage," she said.

The national daily Süddeutsche Zeitung points out that Björn Höcke has long since created a big stage for himself on social media, such as X, Tiktok or far-right online portals, where nobody contradicts him. This was different in the live TV debate when his opponent Voigt and the hosts of the program managed to expose Höcke's weaknesses.

When he was confronted over his racist attack on the Hamburg-born Vice President of the Bundestag, Aydan Özoguz, arguing that she had no place in Germany, Höcke claimed to be unable to remember, although the quote was taken from his own book published in 2018. 

"There is no need for journalism specifically tailored to the AfD," media scientist Gäbler concluded in 2017. "The AfD is merely a new challenge to revisit old journalistic virtues and the classic tools of the trade."

This article was originally written in German.

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Marcel Fürstenau
Marcel Fürstenau Berlin author and reporter on current politics and society.