COMMENTARY: Merkel biography describes news tale worth telling again

By Berl Falbaum

I have some recommended reading for the American journalistic community.

It is not time-intensive or laborious; it is just one page—page 234—in a biography, “The Chancellor: The Remarkable Odyssey of Angela Merkel.”

On that page, the author, Kati Marton, discusses how Merkel’s body was betraying her; she was suffering from severe tremors, very noticeable in public, and so severe that, at times, Merkel, the former German chancellor, could not stand up for a national anthem.

Merkel had served as chancellor for 16 years, from 2005-21, and was deciding whether to run again. She did not; she was 66 at the time. At the peak of her tenure, she was, arguably, the most powerful public official in Europe.

Well aware of public concern, Merkel issued the following statement: “I would simply say, you have known me for quite a while and know that I am able to fulfill my office.  As a human being I also have a personal interest in my health, especially as my political career is ending in 2021, and I would like to lead a healthy life after this one.”

The press took notice and, after serious reflection, made a decision that is journalistically fascinating and hard to imagine ever happening in our own media environment.

Journalists, please read the following carefully:

“Our press association held a meeting,” said Anna Sauerbrey, a Berlin-based columnist, “and we decided to stick to our tradition of not covering the chancellor’s health unless it prevents her from doing her job. She is obviously during her job. We consider this a private matter.”  

The author, Marton, writes, “By American standards, German media’s reluctance to pursue the story of the chancellor’s health seems remarkable. In this unsettling new world, this collective decision by the media to respect the chancellor’s privacy seemed downright quaint.”

Quaint? How about, by U.S. standards, unthinkable, inconceivable, incomprehensible.

I raise this issue given the U.S. media’s obsession with President Biden’s gaffes. In the millions of words written about them, none—and I believe I can use the absolute “none”—has ever reported how they affected either domestic or foreign policies.

No one has taken the time to consider whether they are newsworthy in terms of Biden’s performance. Nor has anyone considered, as one reporter, a stutterer, pointed out that when Biden talks, he not only has to decide what he wants to say but how to say it to avoid stuttering.  That, of course, leads to gaffes.

As Clarence Page, a stutterer, wrote in The Chicago Tribune, “When you bump up against a word that’s not going to let you proceed without a struggle, you just switch to another word.”

The media’s only objective seems to be to get a “good story” and beat competitors to the punch.

Of course, Biden is not the first public official at the presidential level to be a victim of reckless and simplistic journalistic practices.  There have been many and one that still leaves me mystified: Dan Quayle who in 1992, as vice president, misspelled “potato” while at a New Jersey elementary school, adding an “e” at the end of the word.

This error, which had nothing to do with his official duties, hounded him during his entire career, and is ingrained in our political culture and history. Given the massive, relentless coverage, many still remember this faux pas, more than 30 years after the fact.  Incidentally, Quayle was not totally at fault; he used a teacher’s flash card in making the mistake.

If you Google “famous bad spellers,” you will find, among others, Jane Austen, Albert Einstein, Winston Churchill, George Washington, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and William Butler Yeats. All of them performed pretty well in their respective discipline.

An aside on the evolution of our politics: Quayle’s misspelling severely damaged his entire career. Meanwhile, Trump’s thousands of lies, corruption, ugly sexual history, etc., did not stop him from winning the presidency in 2016, becoming the GOP presidential candidate in 2020, and he is poised to possibly winning the presidency again this year despite—let us not forget—having been impeached twice and found guilty of sexual assault in the civil proceeding. Someone explain all that to me.

Then there was President Gerald Ford who stumbled several times while climbing the steps on the ramp of Air Force One. The media ignored the “political relevance” of Ford’s accidents, constantly describing him as a clumsy ignoramus despite the fact that he was probably the most athletically talented president to hold the office, having had offers to play professional football, was an avid skier and decent golfer.

Indirectly, consider the coverage of Katherine, Princess of Wales, as she undergoes treatment for cancer. Understandably, the story needs to be covered; she is after all royalty. But how about substituting some respect, sensitivity, compassion and support for unfeeling sensationalism. The British press, particularly, has been shamefully ruthless.

There are, of course, other absurdities in the coverage of our politics. Would that the U.S. media copy page 234 of Marton’s book, study it, distribute it to all who cover public affairs, and take steps to implement such a policy.

Now that would be news!
Berl Falbaum is a veteran journalist and author of 12 books.