Columnism - Ulrike Meinhof

Ulrike Meinhof's critique of columnism from 1968.

Submitted by wojtek on January 8, 2013

The columnist functions as a pressure release valve. Columnists can write what they want the way they want. This creates the impression that any journalist can write what they want the way they want in their particular newspaper.

In a daily paper, the column can refer to the lead article. However, while the lead articles of daily papers tend to be written by the editors, in other words, by those who do the dirty work, and in some ways determine the content of the paper, and while daily papers have to deal with heaps of news items every day so that the editors’ opinions are often restricted to the editorials (though the fact that news items and opinion pieces are not strictly separated in German dailies is a topic in itself), and while the lead article and the editorial column in daily papers may complement one another, columnists are editorial outsiders. Columnists have no influence on the remaining content of the paper, and the editors have no influence on the columnists. Columnists are relatively well-paid; their names are printed in bold. Columns are luxury items; columnists are stars. They are the big fish in their own tiny pond.

The investor expects two things from columnists. They should develop their own personal reading public, preferably readers who would not buy the paper if they weren’t in it. That is the profit factor. Columnists who cannot achieve this will sooner or later lose their job. Then there’s the prestige factor. The columnist’s fenced-in but independent thinking gives the whole paper the aura of independent thinking. The columnist’s outrageousness gives the paper the aura of outrageousness. The columnist’s occasional and courageous expression of unpopular ideas gives the paper the aura of courage to express unpopular ideas. By investing in the columnist’s originality, non-conformism, and independent thinking, the publisher pays for appearances – in order to publish his paper not only for profit, in the sense of the classic definition that the press is a business “that produces empty space for advertising which can be financially offset by an editorial section.” If, on occasion, an advertising contract is cancelled because of the views expressed in a column, this is viewed as proof that the paper is nonconformist.

The other side of this story about the columnist’s freedom is the editor’s lack of freedom. Articles are painstakingly edited; they must be saleable. The readers’ needs must be satisfied. For konkret this means “Sex-Appeal, Horror-Appeal, Crime-Appeal, Opposition-Appeal, Human-Touch.” People work with deadlines: one week for an article on communes, an account of the court cases in Tehran for tomorrow, a quick summary of Wilhelm Reich, citations from Mao mounted onto sex photos, a few words with [Wolf] Biermann. Good journalists are hot-wired: they can do this, and that, and they write even if they haven’t finished thinking; they write without having read the necessary books. Good journalists turn the topic into the object, and do what they want with this object. Anybody who is shocked by what they read about themselves in the press simply has no idea about journalism, damn it, it all has to happen so fast. As for those left-wing students, they’re enough to make you sick! They don’t show up for meetings, they go on and on, they don’t get to the point, full of ifs and buts, why don’t you just stop gabbing, say what you have to say! The typesetters are waiting, the print shop is waiting, the distributors are waiting. The columnists have their stuff in on time. Not a word about the fact that columnists, at some point, went through all that too, but got the chance to write themselves free of it. Not a word that they too spluttered and failed to meet deadlines, but managed to stay afloat. Not a word that the columnist is the editor’s best lackey, the one who brings in the money and the prestige, and behaves as though it were possible to have an opinion on any topic in the world, expressed in a text that is always the same length, and all that. Columnists are the blacks of the State Department, the women in the federal government, the fig leaves, the tokens, the alibis, the excuses.

The columnist is free of the editor’s authority. The form of the column itself is authoritarian enough; not much can go wrong.

The publisher assigns the columnist the role of leading the readers. [William S.] Schlamm is meant to keep the right-wing readers with WamS. I do the same with the left-wing readers and konkret. [Sebastian] Haffner’s job at Stern is similar, but somewhere in between. Columnists cannot give their space to their readers. If they knew someone who could do a better job, they cannot ask that person to write in their place. That would frustrate the readers, who have, after all, grown accustomed to the one.

Columnism is a personality cult. Through columnism, the left-wing position that was developed by many and came to prominence in the move from theory to practice in the summer of 1967 and the winter of 1967-68, is reduced to the position of one individual, an isolated individual, to the views of an original, outrageous, nonconformist individual, who can be co-opted because in being alone they are powerless. In the spring of 1968, a few experienced people from the anti-authoritarian camp wanted a couple of pages of konkret to themselves – the way I have my page and Haffner and [Günter] Wallraff have theirs. But when they appeared as a collective, as a group of writers, a group to be dealt with ([Bahman] Nirumand, H.M. Enzensberger, Peter Schneider, Gaston Salvatore, Eckhard Siepmann and other experienced left-wing authors), the project failed. konkret did not want to give up any more pages to any more people; konkret wanted to work with individuals, engage with each one individually. We are powerless on our own and the publisher is powerful. This way, the owner’s paper remains untouched and so does the writer’s loyalty to their paper; that is, the writer remains dependent on the paper, not the reverse. Should there be a programming slot for the extra-parliamentary opposition on Sender Freies Berlin? konkret says yes! Should the editorial practices of the BZ and Bild be made more democratic? konkret says yes! Should ten pages of konkret be made available to the extra-parliamentary opposition? That’s going too far.

Fenced-in freedoms for the columnists, editorial schemes to satisfy the readers’ needs, reader participation in the form of readers making choices at the news stand à la Springer – clearly these are not just the despicable interventions of the publishers; they are driven by the laws of the market. They are mechanisms that conform to market conditions. My criticism is aimed at the way publishers internalise the conditions of the market, and at the way editors internalise the publishers’ focus on profits. We are not looking for saints. We simply want an oppositional stance. We do not want our subjugation to market demands to be presented as free journalism, or the art of meeting deadlines to be confused with the art of presenting people with the truth. We do not want editorial democracy to grind like sand in the gears, and we want the columnists’ freedom to be recognised for what it is: a prestige and profit factor, a fraud for the readers, self-deception, a personality cult. You have to be a columnist to be allowed to describe the freedom of the columnist as the other side of the editor’s lack of freedom. To prevent theory from turning into practice, we pay for the luxury of columnists: powerless individuals, outsiders, stars.

You cannot say it all in three columns of text. You can only sketch things out, and so have to expect misunderstandings, one-sidedness. What if this paper were to really open up to discussions, really listen to how people across the land are criticising its articles, fearless and unedited? It is opportunistic to claim to be struggling against the conditions that one is actually reproducing. It is opportunistic to use the methods that stabilise a system and claim to be seeking change. It is opportunistic to clamp down on editorial freedoms and the extra-parliamentary opposition and cave in to the market, i.e., to profits. It is opportunistic to limit the anti-authoritarian position to the authoritarian form of the column. konkret is less a left-wing paper than an opportunistic one.

- Ulrike Meinhof (Bauer, ed., Everybody Talks About the Weather…We Don’t)



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Submitted by wojtek on January 9, 2013

Novara: Series 2, Episode 24 - 'On Columnism' with Laurie Penny. January 8th 2013

This week's discussion features James Butler (@piercepenniless) Laurie Penny (@PennyRed) and Aaron Peters (@aaronjohnpeters) as they discuss Ulrike Meinhoff's essay 'on Columnism' and it's relationship to the limits of contemporary journalism and dominant media practices. James Butler has also written an accompanying essay which can be found here.