German media distortions: The Relotius Case and Israel
German media distortions: The Relotius Case and Israel

Sometimes events seemingly unrelated to Israel have an angle which makes them most relevant to this country. A media scandal in the major German weekly, Der Spiegel, which came to light in December 2018 is one case in point. A young star reporter, Claas Relotius, was found to have invented some of his articles and falsified and created protagonists for them. Particularly painful was an interview with the last survivor of the ‘White Rose,’ a resistance organization in wartime Nazi Germany in which he inserted invented passages.

When all this was discovered, the editors of Der Spiegel stated that they are obliged to tell the truth. They promised to clarify the Relotius case. The paper wrote, “In all we publish we aim for reliability and exactitude in analysis, reporting, in the news, as well as in comments. Credibility is our highest good. The case of Relotius lays open the fact that we have not succeeded in our ambitions. This case confronts us with our weaknesses.”  

The paper added, “Starting from the case of Claas Relotius, we will investigate what we have to change in our procedures, our obligations for documentation and our organizational framework. This will be necessary to renew the reliability of our research and verification and in this way to reestablish the journalistic power of our newspaper.”

The paper established a commission to do all of these important things. As to the question of whether Relotius falsified articles for other papers, Der Spiegel responded that this could not be excluded. As a freelancer, he wrote for a number of leading papers in Germany and Switzerland including the German Financial Times.

There are, however, far more large scale methods to falsify reality than by inventing facts and personalities. The Relotius case is miniscule in comparison to the bigger picture of false media reporting. To demonstrate this one may look at a number of statistics concerning how Israel is viewed in Germany.

In 2015, the Bertelsmann Foundation published that 41% of adult Germans agree with the statement that Israel is acting toward the Palestinian Arabs like the Nazis acted toward the Jews. A study in 2007 by the same foundation reported a figure of 30%. The University of Bielefeld investigated the same issue and received somewhat different responses. In 2014, 27% of Germans agreed with this statement.  In 2004, it was 51%. Even if we go by the lowest figure of 27% we are speaking about well over 15 million Germans who believe this demonic view of Israel.  

There are also statistics available on the percentage of the adult German population that agrees with the statement that Israel conducts a war of extermination against the Palestinian Arabs. This question was asked three times in the past 15 years by the University of Bielefeld. The lowest figure was reached in 2014 - with 40% of the adult population. That is tantamount to at least 25 million Germans. In 2011, the figure was 48% and in 2004, 68%.

If Israel really behaved toward the Palestinians like the Nazis acted toward the Jews, which half of the German population believed in 2004, by now virtually all Palestinians would have been exterminated. Yet to the contrary, the Palestinian population has significantly increased over the past 15 years.

Who caused this demonization of Israel? In Germany, dissimilar to many other Western European countries, left-wing parties are usually careful not to come out with statements that make the population believe the satanic views of Israel found by the polls. Social media can strongly skew opinions, but not shape the diabolic picture found over fifteen years.

The major source of this demonic image of Israel can only be a combination of multiple German media sources. The media did not do this by publishing fake news, but by a mirror process. This did not even have to be done systematically, only frequently over the years. The media simply minimized the focus on the major corruption and criminality interwoven with the fabric of Palestinian society.

Unlike Relotius, who reported fake facts, many major German media continue to underreport - in a major way - the extreme hatred for Israel and the Jews emanating from the Arab and Muslim world.
Unlike Relotius, who reported fake facts, many major German media continue to underreport - in a major way - the extreme hatred for Israel and the Jews emanating from the Arab and Muslim world. This hate mongering comes from political and religious leaders as well as journalists and many others. Sometimes the underreported hatred is even genocidal.

The 2018 Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA) study found that antisemitism is most problematic on social media in Europe. It also stated that “real” media do not fall much behind.

As far as Israel and the Palestinians are concerned, many German media outlets do not aim for reliability and exactitude in analysis and comments. If credibility were to be their highest good, it is found greatly wanting. Assessing how they have behaved toward Israel confronts them with their structural weaknesses.

Der Spiegel is going to establish an independent commission on the relatively small Relotius case in order to investigate what has to change in their paper. Investigating the role of the media in demonizing Israel in Germany requires a far more powerful commission. The findings would also be relevant for German Jewry which is confronted with three antisemitic incidents per day, a number which is probably underreported. Many of these antisemitic attacks are related to hatred of Israel which is redirected against Jews.