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[Washington Babylon]

The Hitler Beetle, and Other Lessons from the British Press



I gave a radio interview yesterday during which I extolled the British press for being far more open about the political views of reporters than we are in the States, where everyone pretends that journalists are blank slates, untainted by ideology or belief. The most ridiculous claim of journalistic neutrality I’ve ever heard voiced comes from Leonard Downie Jr., executive editor of the Washington Post. He’s so pure he doesn’t vote–in other words, as a friend once remarked, Downie retains his neutrality even in the privacy of his own mind.

Last night, however, I went out with a friend and was reminded that it’s easy to be overly romantic about the British press. Karl (not his real name) recently returned from a long stay in Europe, most recently living in Berlin, where he had been working as a freelancer. He periodically wrote for a major British daily, but said it was hard to interest this newspaper in stories about Germany. The only sure route to success was to pitch stories that made the Germans look bad–a favored topic, Karl explained, because it harkened back to the World War II triumph over the Nazis, Britain’s last moment of real military glory.

One day Karl sent an email pitching a number of serious proposals to the newspaper, including a political analysis and a piece about the difficulties faced by Turkish immigrants to Germany. As a lark, he added that he could also do an item about the “recent discovery of a new beetle in Slovenia,” which had been named after Adolf Hitler.

Almost immediately after sending the email, his phone rang. “Karl,” said the breathless editor, “we’re quite interested in this story about the Hitler beetle!”

The conversation reminded me of a far worse story I heard in the early 1990s, when I lived in Brazil. An American freelancer I knew well told me he’d just completed duties as a fixer for a British TV crew that had come to Brazil to expose the destruction of the Amazon rain forest. The crew went looking for forest fires to film but couldn’t find any. In frustration, they bought a container of gasoline and started a small fire of their very own and filmed it from various close-up angles that made it appear that a large swath of the rain forest was ablaze. Being responsible journalists, they put out the fire before packing up their gear.

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