As almost everywhere on the planet, this year’s US presidential election was a gigantic media spectacle in Germany. As in the US, German euphoria reached the dimensions of an international sports event.
Naturally, after Obama’s Berlin speech in late July, Election Day marked the peak of the hysteria, with all major channels providing all-night coverage (it was 5 a.m. in Germany when Obama was declared president-elect) – which, of course, involved tedious interviews about the historical importance of the election as gap fillers for hours of waiting for the results.
It is arguable that the German news coverage followed a trajectory parallel to that of the US. Comparable to the situation in the US, the internal Democratic war between Barack and Hillary was exploited – disputably far more than necessary – in Germany, Obama drummed up immense admiration and Sarah Palin became the target of boundless mocking right after she set foot onto the political stage (accompanied by a perpetual mispronunciation of her name).
However, what might distinguish German news coverage from that of other countries is the fact that from the beginning, it was clearly partial. Right from the outset, McCain appeared as a gloomy threat rather than a serious contender. After 8 years of Bush, the media played the Republican down as a mere potential continuation of an irrevocable error. Despite the clear tendency towards Obama, the extent to which this one-sided coverage appalled readers and spectators becomes apparent in numerous blogs. I even found several threads in which people expressed regret over the poor level of information about McCain!
This time around, the historical leaning towards the American Democrats was backed up by the desire for a change in transatlantic relations. Germany was deeply concerned about Obama and full of optimism about political change. It seemed to me that everyone was waiting for a chance to bury their latent anti-American sentiments. My American friend spent the days before and after the election in a tiny Bavarian mountain town and had the most conservative German townsfolk congratulate him on the new chances for diplomacy (“Now we have a chance to respect you guys again.”)
As for the cautiously discussed question of race, many Germans expressed their utter amazement at the progressive nature of this year’s election and numerous panels discussed the fact that the unprecedented appearance of a black president marks a historical change for which Germany and other European countries might not be ready yet. This matter, too, displayed a remarkable ignorance towards large chunks of red states which were all but progressive and frequently voiced their skepticism about Obama’s ‘true’ identity.
Another peculiar aspect about German coverage might have been an early criticism of the staging of political affairs. Throughout the campaign, several SPIEGEL articles criticized the superstar-like nature of Obama’s public persona in front of masses of hysterical people. Allow me to illustrate the intercultural differences that triggered this criticism with a hypothetical scenario. Had this election happened in Germany, things would have been very different. I suspect that we might have heard less about the private lives of the candidates. There might have been less fervent campaigning by volunteers, less personality cult – let’s remind ourselves of the secretiveness with which Angela Merkel protected her husband from the lacerating jaws of the yellow press – less display of political alignment in front yards and less piano tinkling in political advertising after the death of granny Obama.
Moreover, at the risk of generalizing too broadly, German political rhetoric tends to be more indirect and serious and, in interviews, politicians use more words to say the same things. Since the emphasis on the common people is less pronounced, I would also venture to claim that the Joe the Plumber episode might have fallen on less fertile soil.
For those who understand German, I have included a brief GESIS press release about their latest research “Wettlauf um die US-Präsidentschaft: Wahlkampf und Politikinszenierung” http://idw-online.de/pages/en/news?id=286816