Influence on History

As the creator of this picture of self-immolation, which shattered the Western world, Browne transcended the role of the witness; he became an agent of history. The picture was credited with changing public opinion toward the Vietnam War. Browne’s obituary in the Washington Post insinuated a causal connection by arguing that his “photograph drew unprecedented attention to U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Within months, the administration of President John F. Kennedy abandoned support for the Diem regime” (Schudel 2012b).

Although Walter Cronkite was better known as a narrator of history, he also received graces of having affected the course of history early in his career: “In 1977, his separate interviews with President Anwar el-Sadat of Egypt and Prime Minister Menachem Begin of Israel were instrumental in Sadat’s visiting Jerusalem. The countries later signed a peace treaty” (Martin 2009). While the author did not directly attribute the peace treaty to Cronkite, he imputed a causal connection.

Commemorated German journalists’ role in history was much less dramatic and event-centered, but rather conceived in terms of how they influenced public discourse. Friedrich Karl Fromme (discussed above) is an example, whose work was perceived as having strengthened the public influence of Supreme Court decisions. Rudolf Augstein, as the founder and leader of the main source of investigative journalism in post-war Germany (Der Spiegel), also fit this category. Even the ideologically opposed FAZ acknowledged that

“under his leadership, Spiegel became the most important investigative paper after the war” (Unsigned 2002b:20). Leading politicians were quoted with making stronger claims in another obituary:

President Johannes Rau acknowledged the deceased as “perhaps greatest publicist of the federal republic”. Augstein’s life work had made him an important part of German history. ... Chancellor Gerhard Schroder called Augstein a fervent defender of democracy and the rule of law. Without him, the policy of detente towards the East would not have been enforceable. (Unsigned 2002a)

An overall difference is how history as a concept was understood, at least in terms of how it operated in the professional imaginary of journalism: US articles emphasized specific historic events while German articles emphasized historic processes. Even though there were journalists in the sample that would have been suitable, a list of the following kind was highly unusual in German articles: “Mr. Newman helped cover numerous historic events, among them the shootings of Robert F. Kennedy, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., George Wallace and Ronald Reagan. He announced the death of President John F. Kennedy on NBC radio” (Fox 2010). To take another example, the Times described Tom Pettit’s “most famous report” as having witnessed the killing of Lee Harvey Oswald as “the only reporter providing live coverage” (Unsigned 1995). Apart from a lack of political assassinations, there was certainly no shortage of key events in post-war Germany.

German journalists were contextualized historically rather in the following way, here exemplified by the former SZ chief editor, Hans Heigert: “His whole career is that of an almost classic German post-war publicist: a faithful but reform-minded and idealistic catholic, a liberal but social conservative as well as a consequent Nazi enemy and tolerant democrat” (Burger 2007). The focus was on ideological positions and issue debates Heigert had helped shape rather than specific political decisions he had influenced.

To take another example, Joachim Fest (FAZ) was described as an important commentator in post-war Germany, above all in the Historikerstreit (historians’ quarrel): “As a political feuilletonist and conservative intellectual he continuously took positions on contemporary history and was also engaged in the ‘Historikerstreit’ about the assessment of atrocities committed by the Nazis in the mid-1980s” (Stolzenberg 2006). However, Fest was also blamed for clearing Albert Speer’s reputation from complicity with the Nazis. An otherwise sympathetic obituary discussed this implication:

He provided midwife-services for Albert Speer’s memoirs whose line he certainly fell for—documents proved that Speer could not have been as clueless as he understood to make Fest believe. Fest corrected his mistake—too late. He was haunted for his life by the suspicion to have sympathized with Nazi bigwigs. (Matussek 2006)

Not only did these articles illustrate the contentiousness of historiography in West Germany in the second half of the twentieth century but also the position of journalism during this era: shaping this historical period through reflexivity and the defense of democratic values. US journalism actively changed the course of history by changing perceptions, witnessing significant moments and revealing injustices.

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