Ideological Positions and Political Entanglements

Obituaries occasionally described journalists’ ideological positions and political entanglements—mostly friendships with politicians—in rather complex terms, while simultaneously asserting that these circumstances did not affect their professionalism. In the rare cases when US obituaries identified political leanings (usually when the deceased journalist had been a columnist), these positions were usually clearly defined. Former New York Times chief editor A.M. Rosenthal, for instance, was described as a conservative and “accused of steering the paper to the right” by the Los Angeles Times (Woo 2006). Such ideological designations were distinguished from blind partisanship, however. Tom Wicker was described as a “southern liberal/civil libertarian” and his credibility quickly re-established by noting that he “had many detractors. He was attacked by conservatives and liberals” (McFadden 2011).

To take up the example of the German publicist Joachim Fest again, though he was identified as a conservative, obituaries complicated this picture by pointing out that he had rejected ideological convictions of any form and that was friends with the ultra-left Ulrike Meinhof before her RAF involvement. One obituary noted:

Despite his affiliation with FAZ and his short-termed CDU seat in Berlin- Neukolln he did not allow himself to be co-opted by any political direction. Because of his critique against local politics in Hamburg he was expelled from CDU when he was still with NDR—and he did not really regret that: “The political involvement was a mistake. I didn’t belong there.” (Stolzenberg 2006)

The Spiegel eulogized its former chief editor, Erich Bohme, as a “homo politicus” (Bickerich 2009) with very clear positions (and position takings), especially regarding the German reunification. Ten days before the Berlin Wall fell, the first sentence of his column read: “I do not want to be reunified” (ibid.). Spiegel owner Rudolf Augstein, who Bohme had a difficult relationship with, commentated one week later: “I want to be reunified or newly unified” (ibid.). Bohme’s political position was defined as follows: “Of course Bohme’s affection belonged to reform policy as it was pursued by [former Chancellor Willy] Brandt. Yet, he reserved his political attitudes for election days; neither in conversation with Bohme, nor in his commentaries was it discernible that he sympathized with one particular party” (ibid.). Another obituary in the left-liberal Frankfurter Rundschau made the relationship with Brandt more explicit: “He was personal friends with Willy Brandt, whom he frequently accompanied on walks. ‘Without taking it easy on him,’ as Bohme later said” (Pragal 2009).

It is remarkable how the sincerity that was expected in commemorating a journalist met the ambition of consecrating the occupation. Ideological positions and affiliations thus had to be accounted for to corroborate professional credibility. Commemorators in both countries accomplished this through separating beliefs and intellectual standpoints and abstracting personal friendships from professional obligations. As one would expect, however, the extent of political entanglement that shone through German obituaries was much greater than in US cases.

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