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A nation must think before it acts.
To call Heidi Tworek’s News from Germany “timely” is an understatement. Throughout her study, the reader is again and again reminded of current debates over “fake news,” and of the weaponization of (social) media for political purposes. In particular, the conclusion of this ambitious analysis offers a few “cautionary tales” which make its contemporary relevance abundantly clear. First, Tworek concludes in her study that democratic institutions do not necessarily guarantee free and independent news media. Second, since profits in the news business are difficult to make and even harder to sustain, they are vulnerable to outside influence, both domestic and foreign. Perhaps less surprising is the insight that communications technology is inherently neither good nor bad. Finally, Tworek reminds us of the difficulties of evaluating the news’ influence: “Beyond what citizens thought or believed, what often mattered more was what elites thought that citizens wanted.”
The book primarily focuses on the “emergence, expansion, and expiration of the news consensus—the widely shared belief among German elites that controlling news could fulfill broader geopolitical, geoeconomic, and cultural aims.” Emphasizing the persistence of this consensus during the first half of the twentieth century—from the late German Empire to the Weimar Republic and finally the Nazi dictatorship—Tworek also seeks to challenge the traditional narrative of the Anglo-American dominance of international media in the twentieth century.
The first two chapters set the stage: Tworek first traces the emergence and development of the “Big Three” news agencies since the mid-nineteenth century, British Reuters Telegram Company, French Agence Havas, and German Wolff’s Telegraphen Bureau. With Wolff often in the role of the “junior partner,” the “Big Three” created a surprisingly stable formal cartel which lasted from 1870 to the outbreak of World War II. Dividing the world into territories, each agency reported on its spheres, and then exchanged its news with the others. More so than its counterparts, Wolff functioned as a semi-official agency: while it was financially independent, it fundamentally relied on government news as well as its technological support. Regarding the reception of news, Tworek convincingly suggests that one should not focus on how consumption of news did or did not affect readers’ opinions, as this question was even more difficult to tackle prior to the emergence of opinion polling in the 1930s. Rather, she directs the reader’s attention to how elites believed that news worked and how they measured its efficacy. As their counterparts elsewhere (and as some still do today), German elites “equated published opinion with public opinion” and naively assumed that the “right” news would lead the reading public to react the desired way. Consequentially, control over international communications would strengthen Germany’s economic and geopolitical position on the world stage.