The philosopher Richard David Precht and the social psychologist Harald Welzers The fourth power ("The fourth state power") came out at the end of September. The book, which has topped the bestseller lists in Germany, analyzes how the majority's opinions are created by the media.
Initially, the idea seems simple: The political journalismone in Germany's "Leitmedien", media with a strong influence on public opinion formation and other mass media, is being "colonized" by "Direktmedien" such as Twitter. Social media destroying democracy! So another criticism of the mediocrity?
The book concentrates on the media coverage of crisisr: the immigration crisis, the corona pandemic and most recently the war in Ukraine. When unexpected problems arise without definitive answers, it is particularly interesting to study how public opinion is created.
When crises and disasters occur, the tendency to hunt for scapegoats increases.
Germany has a quality press and state-funded broadcasting. But Precht/Welzer want more "well-intentioned dispute" about views, not social media's definition, personorientering and arousal production. When crises and disasters occur, the tendency to hunt for scapegoats increases. Here, the quality press must hold its own!
During the pandemic, there was too much herd mentality, 'Schwarmverhalten'. At first they were in favor of compulsory vaccination, but then against. It is normal to change your position when the situation changes. But the moral rigorism towards those who do not at all times take the same position as oneself was created by the media. Journalists must allow different voices to be heard. Instead, they become more and more activist. For example, Olaf hesitated Scholz long in delivering tanks to Ukraine. When the decision is difficult and no one can know whether the arms deliveries will lead to an escalation or an end to the war, the media should not appear as warmongers, the authors claim. The task of the press is to control politics, not to force politics in a certain direction, write Precht and Welzer.
But in the past the press was partisan, something the authors hardly comment on. Can one "control" politics without influencing it in a particular direction? The difference between campaign journalism and reportage is big. But the press has never just reported the facts – as if that were possible!
Although the book's media criticism has resonated with right-wing populists, the authors distance themselves from the notion of a 'press of lies': the government is not behind the media and pulling the strings. The right-wing populist 'Querdenker' who are skeptical of the mainstream media (MSM) and official truths will probably be disappointed by Precht and Welzer's book. When their views are nevertheless clashed with those of the right-wing populists, it is because the leading media are not used to criticism, the authors claim.
The Ukraine War: Politics and Emotions
The authors prefer reason to emotion in politics, clearly inspired by the German social philosopher Jürgen habermas. Habermas' analysis of social media was published in the German journal Leviathan last year and has now been published as a book by the publishing house Suhrkamp with the title (translated into Norwegian) "A new structural transformation of the public and the deliberative policy". Precht and Wenzel also criticize the agitated German reactions to his article in the Süd-deutsche Zeitung on 28.04 April, which was quickly translated into Norwegian in the weekly newspaper Dag og Tid. Habermas' Ukraine plan (see below) has already been commented on in Norway by philosophers and Germany connoisseurs such as Helge Høibraaten, Karsten Aase-Nilsen and Trond M. Høirem.
Habermas criticized Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock's emotional involvement in the Ukraine issue and advocated a more detached stance: You could not win a war against a nuclear power. The following day, the feminist Alice Schwarzer and 27 other intellectuals published an open letter to Chancellor Olaf Scholz in the magazine Emma, in which they called for a halt to the delivery of heavy weapons to Ukraine. Then the media hysteria was a fact, and the insults were unleashed. By mid-November, however, half a million had written under this appeal.
When emotions are boiling, it is difficult to distinguish between matter and person. Excitement rarely leads to constructive debate. On the other hand, citizens and politicians are people who, in addition to reason, are also equipped with emotions, imagination and prejudices. Emotions have been part of political rhetoric since Aristotle. It therefore becomes too easy to simply demand rational argumentation from the actors. Here both Habermas and Precht/Wenzel fail.
When a number of intellectuals in Germany urged to stop the supply of tongue arms to Ukraine, the media hysteria was a fact, and the insults were unleashed. By mid-November, however, half a million had written under this petition.
Since we cannot get rid of the emotions, the authors should have discussed the relationship between sense og feelings. Precht and Wenzel make use of metaphors in some places, not always with equal success. They hang out a fanciful journalist who wrote that "the Russian anaconda" crawled across a river in Ukraine. But when they themselves talk about "the media's emotional nursery", they are hardly only guided by reason. However, such turns are not typical, and their arguments are not based on metaphors.
In the discussion of Ukraine- war, it has been common to draw parallels to the Cuban Missile Crisis. Historical analogies can be used in many ways: In Afghanistan, the Russians eventually withdrew rather than escalate to nuclear war. Is Habermas therefore right that you cannot win a war against a nuclear power?
Sahra wagon boy from Die Linke has used another analogy: Saudi Arabia is at war with Yemen, but Germany is fueling the conflict by supplying weapons to an authoritarian state. But when Russia starts a war of aggression against Ukraine, you get in a moral quandary. Analogies can go in many directions – and are common in foreign policy argumentation. But are they 100 percent rational?
Reactions to the book
The book has been met with everything from total rejection via hesitant acceptance to detailed criticism. The objections are lined up: The authors cut all quality media with one comb. They generalize too quickly from too few examples. When they image a Twitter message, they don't even know it was posted on Instagram. A long critique of the book's factual errors and inaccuracies has been published on uebermedien.de by journalist Stefan Niggemeier, who also discussed with the authors at the Frankfurt book fair. Had he been as sloppy ("schlampig") as Precht & Welzer, Niggemeier would probably have been out of business a long time ago!
Another objection is that the authors themselves are an example of what they criticize: Both are frequent talk show guests, and Precht has been making podcasts together with the well-known talk show host Markus Lanz for over a year. In February, the magazine Cicero ranked Germany's 500 most important intellectuals. Peter the Philosopher sloterdijk came in first place, followed by the author Peter Handke and Jürgen Habermas. Precht was in 17th place, and Welzer was number 22. The authors present themselves as outside critics of the media, but do not realize that they themselves are part of the problem.
The main point of the book nevertheless stands firm: In crisis situations where people feel threatened and there are no clear solutions, panic reactions are imminent. Therefore, the media must keep a cool head and ensure that as many sides of the case as possible are covered. If the journalists instead flock, they throw fuel on the fire – and important voices are marginalized.