Ben Smith, Bild, and accountability in media

On Sunday, Ben Smith, the media columnist at the New York Times, reported on an investigation that took place earlier this year at Bild, the powerful German tabloid owned by the media behemoth Axel Springer, concerning the conduct of its editor in chief, Julian Reichelt, and his sexual relationships with women at the company. “Documents I saw paint a picture of a workplace culture that mixed sex, journalism and company cash,” Smith wrote. A former trainee who spoke to the law firm that led the investigation on the company’s behalf “said that when she was moved around the newsroom, another Bild editor told her he was tired of having to take on women with whom Mr. Reichelt had had relationships.” Reichelt stepped back as editor while the probe wrapped up, but was quickly reinstated; Mathias Döpfner, Axel Springer’s chief executive, said that Reichelt had made “mistakes,” but he was cleared of any legal wrongdoing. According to Smith, Döpfner messaged a friend around the time of the probe saying that the company needed to be “especially careful” in its handling of the matter since Reichelt, who had recently spoken out against COVID restrictions, is “really the last and only journalist in Germany who is still courageously rebelling against the new GDR authoritarian state”—a reference to Communist-era East Germany.

This isn’t the first time I’ve started this newsletter with some variation on the words “On Sunday, Ben Smith reported”—since he started at the Times last year, his scoopy weekly columns have frequently set the media-industry agenda. The last time I wrote about one of them here was as a result of its huge impact: Smith reported on deceptive practices at Ozy, an American digital-media company, triggering a remarkable implosion that ended, only a few days later, in its closure. (Ozy has since promised to rise again, like Lazarus, but I’ll believe that when I see it.) Smith’s Bild column quickly had impact, too. Less than twenty-four hours after it was published, Axel Springer relieved Reichelt of his duties; in a statement, the company said that he had misled its executive board, and claimed that it had learned new details about his conduct from press reporting, even though that reporting seems largely to have been based on the internal probe that it commissioned. Online, regular US-based readers of Smith’s column marveled at his reporting superpowers. A number of journalists said that if Smith ever called them, they’d immediately hang up—a gambit that Carolyn Ryan, his editor at the Times, said wouldn’t work because “he’ll start texting you.” NBC’s Stephanie Ruhle quipped that Smith has replaced the Grim Reaper as this year’s Halloween costume of choice.

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In the case of Ozy, it seems fair to say that Smith did play such a role—he’s not the only journalist to have reported on that company’s odd practices, but no one was otherwise talking about it at the time (indeed, that was the point of Smith’s column) and he clearly set its downfall in motion by bringing damning new details to light. He brought damning new details about Bild to light, too. But the cause and effect in the latter case strikes me, in other respects, as more complex. Axel Springer was already a big story in US media circles thanks to its growing footprint in the country’s media market and impending takeover of Politico. More importantly, Smith didn’t act alone here, nor did he claim to. (Even if the Times did run with the headline: “Powerful German Newspaper Ousts Editor After Times Report on Workplace Behavior.”)

As Smith noted in his column, Der Spiegel, a German newsmagazine, became the first outlet to report the existence of the Reichelt investigation in the spring, describing “the Reichelt system,” as one in which “the editor in chief was said to have invited female trainees and interns to dinner via Instagram. Young female employees were sometimes quickly promoted. Their fall from grace was similarly rapid.” Reporters at other German titles tried to report on Reichelt, too, only to have their stories killed by higher-ups. Perhaps the most damning revelation in Smith’s column concerned not Bild but Ippen Media, a rival outlet whose investigative arm was getting ready to publish a Reichelt exposé when Dirk Ippen, its largest shareholder, intervened—not on any legal or reportorial grounds, but, a spokesperson told Smith, to avoid creating the perception that it was trying to harm a competitor. After Smith’s column dropped, Der Spiegel published another story containing damning details about Reichelt’s conduct. Its lead author, Juliane Löffler, had worked on the Ippen piece.

It’s unsurprising, then, that the most interesting response to Smith’s column has come not from his readers in US media, but in Germany, where the story has sparked something of an industry reckoning, at least in the short term. As Smith and Melissa Eddy wrote in a follow-up article, the revelation about Ippen has made this a press-freedom story—a regional paper owned by Ippen published an editorial criticizing the company’s decision to kill its Reichelt exposé; a reporter even asked a spokesperson for Angela Merkel, the outgoing German chancellor, to weigh in on the matter. (He declined to do so.) Many media-watchers asked, meanwhile, why it had taken a major American news outlet to force action when much of Reichelt’s conduct was already public knowledge in Germany, which is a very good question. German media never really had a #MeToo reckoning; in early 2017, Kai Diekmann resigned as publisher of Bild, following an allegation of sexual harassment, but a prosecutorial case against him was quickly closed for lack of evidence, and other high-profile examples have been rare. As Caitlin L. Chandler has reported in depth for CJR, this has been a result of both legal and cultural factors; in the case of Reichelt (who has not been accused of any criminal wrongdoing), numerous observers have pointed to an incestuous, male-dominated culture across the upper echelons of German media.

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Some observers likened Smith’s reporting on Bild to the fraud scandal surrounding Wirecard, a Germany payments processor, which was also broken open by a foreign outlet—in that case, the Financial Times. Lionel Barber, the former editor of the Financial Times, noted, in response, that the Wirecard story “was on a different scale” and was global in scope. His point about scale is correct. But we should keep in mind that the Axel Springer story is global, too. It’s hard to divorce the company’s decision to fire Reichelt from its global media ambitions, in general, and Politico takeover, in particular. Indeed, Döpfner stressed to Smith that the company would not tolerate a Bild-like culture in the US, saying that “we aspire to be the best digital media company in the democratic world with the highest ethical standards and an inclusive, open culture.” As Lutz Fruehbrodt, a journalism professor who previously worked at another Axel Springer title, Die Welt, told Bloomberg, Reichelt’s conduct clearly “doesn’t fit the global image the company wants to portray.” An account that appears to belong to a former editor at Bild went so far as to tweet that Axel Springer had treated Reichelt as “a sacrificial lamb” at the altar of “US capital.”

Yesterday, Axel Springer’s takeover of Politico was finalized. In a Wall Street Journal interview ahead of that moment (and ahead of Smith’s column), Döpfner made some eyebrow-raising news about Politico’s future, saying that the site would eventually go behind a paywall (even though he reportedly told staffers, when the takeover was announced, that “we’re from Berlin, we don’t like the concept of walls”) and that its employees would have to commit to the company’s stated commitments to free-market capitalism and Israel’s right to exist, albeit not in writing, as it demands of its German workers. (Anyone who disagrees with these principles, Döpfner said, “should not work for Axel Springer, very clearly.”) It remains to be seen, of course, how these principles might apply in practice to the work of Politico’s journalists, but they are cause for ongoing vigilance and scrutiny. So, too, is Axel Springer’s suggestion, in its statement on Reichelt’s firing, that it is planning to take legal action against “third parties” who “attempted to influence and instrumentalize” its investigation by disclosing transcripts and other “private communications,” presumably to Smith and others. A company spokesperson told Smith that it will “not go after whistle-blowers or anybody who brings forward complaints.” Beyond workers’ rights, reporters have an interest in holding them to this promise. Takedown media columns typically require sources.

Bild and the broader culture of the German media industry demand ongoing scrutiny as well: will the Smith episode lead to meaningful change in the way powerful executives handle sensitive stories, or will this reckoning pass as interest in Axel Springer’s global ambitions becomes less immediate? Ozy (at least for now) is no longer around; Bild very much is, and will continue to exert enormous influence over German and European political discourse even without Reichelt in charge. Axel Springer named as his successor a less controversial figure: Johannes Boie, the editor in chief of the Sunday edition of Die Welt. According to Bloomberg, Boie told Bild staffers yesterday that he wants to “create headlines rather than be in the headlines.” When you have the power to do the former, though, the latter are fair game. Smith and many other journalists, including in Germany, understand that well.

Below, more on Axel Springer and German media:

  • “The new GDR authoritarian state”: Döpfner’s likening of modern Germany to the days of Communism, as quoted in Smith’s piece, excited particular debate in Germany: one high-profile journalist raised doubts as to its authenticity; Axel Springer subsequently confirmed that the quote was authentic but said that it had been taken out of context. (“People use irony and deliberate exaggeration in private dialogues,” a spokesperson said.) Smith, for his part, said that he’d applied proper context and published the full text of Döpfner’s message in the original German. Many German journalists remain outraged by Döpfner’s comparison; according to the Financial Times, “some have questioned whether Döpfner should remain as head of the German Newspaper and Digital Publishers Association (BDZV), a prestigious trade body.”
  • “Tower of industries”: For CJR’s 2019 print issue on journalism around the world, Andrew Curry profiled Axel Springer. The company “has achieved, thanks in large part to digital classifieds, what few other media companies have managed: to adopt a new, online identity,” Curry wrote. “Four-fifths of Axel Springer’s profits now come from digital offerings, many of them developed in-house or acquired in the past five years. Most are job boards, real estate portals, and price-comparison websites. Today, Axel Springer is worth an estimated $6.8 billion, more than the New York Times Company.”
  • Press freedom in Germany: Last month, police in Munich arrested Michael Trammer, a freelance journalist on assignment for taz, a newspaper, while he was covering a protest by environmentalists against a car show in the city. Trammer, who said that he showed police his press credentials, was subsequently charged with criminal trespassing. The Committee to Protect Journalists called on the authorities to “drop the charges against Trammer and issue a public explanation for why he was detained despite clearly identifying himself as a member of the press.”
  • Brought to book: Journalists in Berlin got their hands on a new book about Merkel and it contains, shall we say, some light factual errors.


Other notable stories:

  • A private school in Concord, Massachusetts, invited Nikole Hannah-Jones—a journalist with the New York Times Magazine whose work on the 1619 Project, which centers slavery in the American story, has made her a lightning rod in the right-wing educational culture wars—to speak to students during Black History Month, only to then uninvite her. Hannah-Jones said she was told that the school’s head and board were uncomfortable with her planned visit; in a public statement, the school’s head said he was “concerned” that “individuals from outside our community might inadvertently distract from the insights and perspective that she intended to share.” The Boston Globe has more.
  • The Black Mountain Institute at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, is shutting down The Believer. The magazine will print its final issue in the spring. The institute cited financial challenges and a “strategic realignment,” but a former employee told the LA Times that the decision “feels like clear retaliation” for staffers speaking out earlier this year about a toxic culture at the magazine after Joshua Wolf Shenk, its then editor, exposed himself on a Zoom call. (He subsequently resigned.) Camille Bromley, a former editor at The Believer (and CJR), called the closure “a tragic case of mismanagement.”
  • Nieman Lab’s Laura Hazard Owen has more details on the closure of the Devil Strip, a local news cooperative in Akron, Ohio, that won industry plaudits for its innovative community-ownership structure—then shuttered without consulting its co-owners or staff on the path forward. Yesterday, the remaining members of the site’s board of directors launched a crowdfunder aimed at giving it “a fighting chance” of survival, but some co-owners responded that they would not contribute without more financial transparency.
  • James and Kathryn Murdoch—who have distanced themselves, in recent times, from their family’s right-wing media empire and backed a number of mainstream outlets—are planning to invest in the creation of a new climate-reporting hub at the Associated Press. Per Sara Fischer, of Axios, “the new hub will employ roughly 20 journalists, and will be backed by multiple donors.” Other foundations already support AP climate coverage.
  • In 2000, Jineth Bedoya, a journalist in Colombia, was kidnapped and raped by a group of men who said they had been sent to “clean up the media.” The case still has not been fully resolved, but this week, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled that the Colombian state was complicit in the attack and impeded the investigation into it. The court ordered officials to pay damages and institute protections for female reporters.
  • Recently, human-rights officials with the Council of Europe recommended that the government of Malta implement protections for journalists as “a top priority” following the murder, in 2017, of the investigative reporter Daphne Caruana Galizia. Yesterday, officials pledged to follow through with new legislation; the details remain unclear, but the government has said it will crack down on the proliferation of malicious libel suits.
  • Maati Monjib—a journalist and historian with dual French and Moroccan nationality who was jailed in the latter country on bogus fraud and security charges earlier this year—has gone on hunger strike after Moroccan officials barred him from traveling to France to see his family and receive medical treatment for heart problems. Reporters Without Borders condemned the travel ban, calling it “tantamount to a death sentence.”
  • On Monday, the military junta in Myanmar freed thousands of people who were jailed for opposing its coup earlier this year; according to The Irrawaddy, a dozen or so journalists, including a cofounder of the news site Mizzima and three reporters from Democratic Voice of Burma, were among them. Danny Fenster, an American journalist, remains in prison. Experts see the amnesty as a response to Myanmar’s international isolation.
  • And Showtime cast Uma Thurman as Arianna Huffington in a new show dramatizing major stories from the business world. The first season of Super Pumped will focus on Uber, drawing on a book of the same name by Mike Isaac, a tech reporter at the Times. Huffington served on Uber’s board of directors; Variety has more details.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.

TOP IMAGE: The Bild logo, on a kiosk in front of the Axel Springer skyscraper. Christoph Soeder/AP Images