Politico's Toxic New Owners
German media giant has troubling history of tolerating sexual abuse and demanding ideological conformity
One of the privileges enjoyed by media tycoons is they can treat the 10th Commandment (“you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife”) as a rule that applies to other men but which they can easily flout. William Randolph Hearst (1863-1951), the legendary press baron, was a notorious philanderer, as was his rival Robert "Colonel" McCormick (1880-1955) of the Chicago Tribune. Neither men allowed their own personal indiscretions to stand in the way of the conservative moralizing that filled their editorial columns.
The German publisher Axel Springer (1912-1985) was cut from the same cloth. His right-wing newspapers like Bild upheld traditional values while its owner enjoyed a private life that the New York Times delicately describes as “colorful.” As Ben Smith sums up in a column, “His third wife had previously been married to his next-door neighbor. His fourth wife was the next-door neighbor’s second wife. His fifth wife, Friede Springer, had been the family’s nanny.”
Smith brought up Springer’s bed-hopping past as part of a larger discussion of the existing corporate culture at Axel Springer, where tolerance for sexual harassment seems to runs high. This is a matter of concern outside of Germany because Axel Springer is expanding its global reach, having purchased Politico earlier this year. The company is planning on bulking up its operations in the United States and turning Politico into a high-end newsletter for well-healed insiders.
Smith’s focuses on accusations against Julian Reichelt, a top editor at the tabloid Bild. According to Smith, “The documents I saw paint a picture of a workplace culture that mixed sex, journalism and company cash. The trainee who gave testimony in the law firm’s inquiry 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.” On one occasion Reichelt allegedly showed a phoney divorce certificate to a fellow employee as part of a gambit to have sex with her.
Equally disturbing are reports that Reichelt’s alleged sexual misconduct is tolerated because Axel Springer’s CEO Mathias Dopfner values the editor’s stance against Covid restrictions.
Axel Springer presents itself as a conservative company. They’re pro-Trump and hostile to covid restrictions. They have no compunction about enforcing ideological conformity on their employees. As the Wall Street Journal reported on Friday:
[Mathias Dopfner] also said he expects Politico staffers to adhere to Axel Springer-wide guiding principles that have raised controversy at times at its German properties — though they won't be required to sign a written commitment to the principles like employees in Germany. The principles include support for a united Europe, Israel's right to exist and a free-market economy, among others.
"These values are like a constitution, they apply to every employee of our company," Mr. Dopfner said. People with a fundamental problem with any of these principles "should not work for Axel Springer, very clearly," he said. Mr. Dopfner said he expects Politico and Axel Springer's other U.S. titles will embody his vision of unbiased, nonpartisan reporting.
Politico employees would be well-advised to unionize. That’s the best way they can resist their toxic new owners, who show every signs of bringing with them both a tolerance for sexual harassment and a demand for rigid political conformity to a very narrow view of the world. Both these policy will damage Politico’s ability to sustain itself as a credible mainstream news source.
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I wanted to call attention to the podcast about Dan Savage that ran here on Friday. It initially went out only to paying subscribers but is now available to everyone. It’s a corker of a talk and I’d encourage you to listen.
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