No Reunification for German Papers
People in the eastern part of the country have not embraced news publications from the west. EUROPE: MEDIA
BERLIN — IN less than two years, the West has almost completely taken over the media in what used to be East Germany. But despite this, the media here still have a distinct identity, especially newspapers."The Wessies, they are very self confident and their papers are very confident," says Thomas Leinkauf, a senior editor at the Berliner Zeitung, a survivor of the communist era. The east Germans, on the other hand, "are not so very confident," he says. "They want a paper which thinks and fears as they do." None of west Germany's newspapers, except for the tabloid "Bild," have caught on in the east. The newspapers in the east stick up for their readers. They are full of tips on how to handle distinctly "east" problems: how to apply for housing subsidies to pay for skyrocketing rents; how to pay taxes under the new system; how to walk through the insurance maze. They are quick to criticize Bonn and full of indignation when they believe that east Germans are being treated as second-class citizens. With a few exceptions, the national press of the former East Germany has not survived, and even the exceptions are tottering. This is because these publications were first and foremost propaganda channels. The regional press, however, actually reported on events - however selective and slanted the coverage - and these papers have become the backbone of the east German press today. "We thought the regional papers would collapse, just like the national ones," says Mr. Leinkauf. "But they haven't, because people obviously want local reporting." Out of financial necessity, the regionals owned by the communist party were all sold to investors by the Treuhand, the government agency set up to privatize east German concerns. In total, 15 papers were sold, primarily to west German publishers, but also to big names in western publishing, such as Rupert Murdoch and Robert Maxwell. Leinkauf says that since the Berliner Zeitung was bought by the west German publishing house of Gruner & Jahr and Robert Maxwell (they each own 50 percent), the paper has a new look and enough money to pay decent salaries, increase the staff, and launch an advertising campaign. The new publishers do not interfere with editorial content, Leinkauf says, admitting, however, that this is probably because Gruner & Jahr and the paper itself sit on the political left. During the revolution, says Leinkauf, the paper tried to advocate a "third way," for East Germany, which would be neither communist nor capitalist. "But this became more and more difficult as we moved closer to unification, until, after a while, it wasn't even discussed anymore," he says. In short, reality overtook ideology, and although much of the pre-revolution staff is still employed at the paper, Leinkauf says they now do their jobs like journalists in any democracy: "we investigate, we follow leads , we research background." Compared to the print media, broadcast in east Germany is much further behind in its development. It is undergoing massive reorganization: from a centralized system employing 14,000 people, to a decentralized one that will employ roughly 3,500, plus contractors and freelancers. As stipulated by the German Unification Treaty, the central system must be dismantled by the end of this year, when control of broadcasting will fall to the regions, as it does in west Germany. Were market forces at work, the reorganization might be proceeding more efficiently. But radio and television in west Germany - which is the system the east Germans must adopt - are primarily public, not private, and have a structure all their own. Networks are set up by regional governments, funded in large part by user fees and advertising, and then directed by advisory boards made up of representatives from political, ideological, and social groups. Tracing the east German system from this template has been very difficult, chiefly because the process has become highly politicized. While the southern half of east Germany has a large enough population to support one regional network, the northern half - except for Berlin - is sparsely populated. The most logical alternatives were for the states in the north to either join with Berlin (and gain a large enough population to bring in the needed user fees), or join with one of the established, neighboring networks in west Germany. As of this month, the northern states had not yet fully decided how they would team up. "The state is supposed to be far removed from broadcasting.... but here, politics is playing a big role," says a frustrated Matthias Gehler, spokesman for the office specially set up to oversee the decentralization of East Germany's broadcast network. The northern states are led by opposing political parties and people want their own feifdoms, whether it makes economic sense or not, says Mr. Gehler. The power plays of the last 10 months have left just two months in which to organize everything if the December deadline is to be met, he laments. "Only time will tell," Gehler says, whether east German broadcasting will have a distinct identity in the end. An indication of how things might turn out can be found in the southern half of east Germany, at the Leipzig headquarters of Mitteldeutscher Rundfunk (MDR), which is well on the way to meeting the year-end deadline. At MDR, which covers the southern states of Saxony, Thuringia, and Saxon-Anhalt, the west has the upper hand - at least in management. The chairman of MDR is a western import, Udo Reiter, an affable man who used to be radio director of Bavaria Broadcasting. While the deputy directors at MDR are east Germans, seven of the eight-member board of directors are westerners. This was necessary, Mr. Reiter says, because these people all have experience with Germany's national network - to which all the regional networks contribute and belong. The national network will determine programming slots for MDR, pick correspondents for the national new s show, and pass budgets that affect MDR. Reiter says that "people here need the impression that this is their broadcasting network," and that's why he wants east Germans "behind the microphones" as reporters, interviewers, and program hosts. He plans to retain a few of east Germany's programs, such as the beloved children's puppet show called "The Little Sandman," televised ballet, and one east German talk show. He also wants to introduce new shows geared to MDR's listeners and viewers. He has in mind a political talk show that focuses on east German issues, and a television drama based on families from Saxony and Bavaria.