The lost amour of journalistic integrity: how violence develops and where it can lead

A pamphlet

This essayistic anachronism imagines Böll's novella The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum (1974) as if it were unfolding in contemporary times in an era of populism and rising conservatism, in which female sexuality is still richly milked as a sensational cover for abuse of patriarchal power.

A tattered boulevard newspaper is laying on the ground
Teaser Image Caption
Verification, relevance and depth have been thrown out the window for sensationalism, entertainment and opinion.

How did the 27-year-old domestic come by an apartment worth an estimated 110,000 marks?

Did she share in the loot from the bank holdups?

The police are pursuing their inquiries. The office of the public prosecutor is working round the clock.

More details tomorrow.


Everybody Reads This One

If The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum were written today, Böll’s anti-heroine murderess would have had her psyche invaded in real-time, up-to-the-minute updates.

The Twitterverse would had exploded in pithy speculations less than 140 characters long, Facebook users would be sharing the mug of “the murderer’s moll”, especially if she was “easy on the eye”.

Giving her affidavit to the police who are attempting to apprehend the young radical she’s fallen in love with at a party, Katharina Blum insists on reviewing her transcript, and how her statement has been recorded. She refuses to sign any deposition containing the word "amorous" instead of "advances". For Katharina the difference is of crucial significance: one of the reasons for her separation from her husband was that “he had never been amorous but had consistently made advances.” Katharina is shrewd enough to see the difference, but not cynical enough to see that the difference does not matter. The corrupt press distorts what little facts they have to frame her as a whore, communist and atheist, and right away the next day she begins to receive anonymous phone calls and mailed threats of sexual violence.

Fifty years on female sexuality is still being milked as a foil for abuse of power. And no one cares about the words, the difference between “amorous” and “advances”, if it is in the interests of a young, single woman, unconnected with power, money or status. The words only come into play if and when they have a negative impact on an older, married man, connected with power, money or status (and, in tow, a PR machine and legal counsel). The words only come into play in the sense of whether or not it makes a good and timely story. A major driving force of journalism today is not whether a claim is valid, but how quickly that claim can be reported, nor how relevant a piece of news is but how much engagement it can strike with an audience.

So Katharina’s face is plastered—“huge photo, huge type”—across the populist, conservative broadsheet, the News, modeled after the actual sensationalist tabloid of the-then FDR, Bild-Zeitung, which reads to the Breitbart-hardened modern-day news consumer like a polite, kid-gloved, vanilla gossip rag. When Katharina’s friend brings her several other more objective papers, some of which have not even published her full name or her face, and who have commented on her innocence instead of speculating on her sexual proclivitities, Katharina says simply: "Doesn't matter what the other papers write, everybody reads this one.”

“It’ll never be the same,” Katharina’s friend says to another character later in the book, “never. They’ll destroy that girl. If not the police, then the news, and when the News has finished with her it’ll be the public.”

These days, there is no rest between the police, the newspapers and the public. Destruction is simultaneous and instantly updated.

You Are What You Eat

The Feiler Faster Thesis is a sociological journalistic theory that suggests that the increasing pace of society is matched by (and perhaps driven by) the pace at which journalists report events and the public’s desire for more information.

But when harmonized to the beat of technology’s speed, the public’s desire for information evolves to be indistinguishable from their desire for entertainment. No brakes have been put on the individual human’s ability to consume infotainment, because eyeballs and clicks translate into money, and shareholder profit. Our appetite for consumption has never been tested for health, only constantly engorged.
I had a friend who was doing an anthropological study on obese kids in Indonesia. She showed the mother of a grossly obese kid pictures of children of all sizes, and asked her to pick out which she thought resembled her own child most in size. The mother avoided the pictures of obese children and picked out an average sized child. Then she turned around and gave her child more rice.

A child who is given more and more food does not know that it can say no to sustenance. We have learned that sustenance is essential, that to be a useful human being we have to grow our bodies and our minds, eating and learning more each day. There is no visible weight we put on under information overload. Yet knowing things is not the same as knowledge. Information is capital, but the 24-hour instant news cycle has nothing to do with delivering us more up-to-date information: it has to do with the cutthroat infighting for audience share amongst media conglomerates, and they will do all it takes to get our attention.

Verification, relevance and depth have been thrown out the window for sensationalism, entertainment and opinion. We have endangered truth and cultivated an appetite for flashy, decontextualized headlines. Did we breed that monster or did that monster breed us? Does the medium always have to evolve at the speed of the possibility of technology for fear of losing its footing in the industry? How can we slow down being force fed at this buffet?

Before we decry fake news and falling journalistic standards, we must needs observe the way we consume reportage. Are we guilty, too, of scanning headlines, no longer reading the body text carefully, eyes skipping paragraphs? Do we click on listicles and laugh at them? Do we share news without ascertaining its veracity? Do we jump onto hot-button issues without researching the background and context? Do we check the food labels before we put them into our mouths?

I wouldn’t put anything past her.

Her father was a Communist in disguise, and her mother, whom on compassionate grounds I employed for a time as a charwoman, stole the sacramental wine and carried on orgies in the sacristy with her lovers.

For the last two years the Blum woman has regularly received male visitors.

More details tomorrow.


First They Put Out

Just an average girl
A young tramp looking for thrills?
Your vote, your choice!

This was a reader poll conducted by Fox News, when the 42nd president of the United States was found to be conducting an affair with an intern in 1998.

It wasn’t just Fox News. We can’t pigeonhole the coverage as right-wing, conservative, misogynist.

“A little tart”, was how the Wall Street Journal characterized Monica Lewinsky. The New York Times’ Maureen Dowd called the 24-year-old woman at the center of the scandal, amongst other things, “ditzy” and “predatory”. Maureen’s bullying would get even more specific and vicious: “the girl who was too tubby to be in the high school ‘in’ crowd”. “It appears that there’s one thing Monica has immunity from: brains.”

Maureen won a Pulitzer Prize for her coverage on Lewinsky.

Monica lost her whole life.

Against Maureen, all Monica had was words. She nicknamed Maureen Dowd “Moremean Dowdy”, a bullied girl’s childish taunt, more to comfort herself than to have any real effect on the attacker. Of course, Maureen’s currency was in words too, but hers bore the weight of a columnist of one of the most respected newspapers in the world.

Katharina killed the reporter, who portrayed her as a Red whore, for staining her honor. After all the malicious and untruthful reports, he had arrived at her house for a private interview and said: “How about us having a bang for a start?” As he went for her dress Katharina removed her hand from her purse and shot him dead with a pistol.

The reporter is later described as “a victim of his profession.”

Honor now is a different sort of word as is victim, and fictional Katharina or real-life Monica might have found the support of feminist communities, might have taken to their social media account to make counter-statements of their own. With social networks, feminist blogs and independent media, there are less barriers to entry of getting one’s voice heard, but there are accompanying repercussions the other way around, too: In 2012, Audrie Pott, a fifteen-year-old girl from California, killed herself eight days after she had been sexually assaulted at a party, and three days after the three boys involved in the assault had disseminated her naked pictures on social networks, which led to bullying by her peers.

Katharina was not justified in her murder of the reporter who vilified her, but the ethical misconduct of the reporter, the willful irresponsibility of the populist paper, and the relentless bullying of the public colluded to make her no longer care about the consequences of her action, for she had been given to see that for them, with power, money and resources on their side, there were no consequences, other than the destruction of her very own life.

That old adage, told to children experiencing bullying and name-calling to encourage them to ignore the taunt, refrain from physical retaliation and remain calm, sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never break me, sounds incredibly hollow to the ears of denizens of the 20th and 21st century.

Just a few months ago in October, the Italian actress Asia Argento fled Italy for Berlin to get away from Italian media-bullying following her recounting of Harvey Weinstein’s sexual assault on her twenty years ago, in the wake of many other women standing up to similar acts of violence from the same man.

“First they put out, and then they whine”, a piece in the Libero was titled.

Other Italian newspapers suggested sexual blackmail was merely a necessary rite of passage in the filmmaking industry, and that it was Argento who had made the moves on Weinstein.

An Italian fashion journalist, Daniela Fedi, whom Asia had sent a fax to at the time of the assault, said she remembered the story perfectly because Asia had explained to her why Monica Lewinsky had kept the famous blue Gap dress with Bill Clinton’s semen on it.

“This man is so powerful that nobody trusts me,” Daniela said Asia said, “I’m not like Monica Lewinsky. I didn’t get the dirty dress with me.” Daniela said it was the first time in her life she understood the meaning of that dress.

If this report—since there is such frequent mention of sources—should at times be felt to be “fluid”, we beg the reader’s forgiveness: it has been unavoidable. To speak of “sources” and “fluidity” is to preclude all possibility of composition, so perhaps we should instead introduce the concept of “bringing together,” of “conduction,” a concept that should be clear to anyone who as a child (or even as an adult) has ever played in, beside, or with puddles, draining them, linking them by channels, emptying, diverting, and rerouting them until the entire available puddlewater-potential is brought together in a collective channel to be diverted onto a different level or perhaps even duly rerouted in orderly fashion into the gutter or drain provided by the local authorities. The sole objective here, therefore, is to effect a kind of drainage.

Where The Action Is

Philosophy and journalism see very little interaction if at all, each according the other much suspicion—“too pedantic”, the former might say of the latter; “wiffly-waffly”, the latter might shoot back at the former—but perhaps within this slim novella—a “pamphlet”, Böll calls it—we see an aesthetic and ethical exploration in both form and content to this end.

Both philosophy and journalism can be said to be in some way or another driven by “truth”, “objectivity” and “rigor”. The approaches may differ wildly—the former epistemological and metaphysical, the latter media-driven and human-anecdotal, but there must be a way in which their many differences can be meaningfully brought to bear on the other, in their pursuit of these constructs.

In a layman sense, the easiest bridge between philosophy and journalism might appear to be freedom, but that broad democratic thematic is too slippery now, in the wake of professional figures of divisive falsification in collusion with the rise of neo-populism. More technical and productive approaches may perhaps be found in tracking form and style in The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum. We see Böll putting form and style in the employ of function and ethics. The detached, clinical, third person narration, the attention to detail as regards verifiable sources, the authorial inserts every now and then expounding on the necessity of context, all stand removed from the biased distortions and unethical actions of opportunistic journalism, the exposed hypocrisies of the law and the press, the seemingly-innocuous insidiousness of the news consumer who claims to want information but in fact only seeks entertainment.

We are left, at the end of the pamphlet—a fiction—with the complexity of fact: of truth.

As consumers of information, we contribute, however infinitesimally, to the collective consciousness. In the ways in which we choose to read, share and process news, we can shape, with each click and each comment, a news and social media landscape that condones, less and less, partisan reportage and bullying behavior. For it is the intersection of technology with our collective habits of consumption as a human race that have allowed unconscionable content producers to bring us to this ugly—and uglier by the day—point in the history of news, or, more precisely, its antithesis, fake news.

As producers of culture, we hold tiny but not inconsequential powers of reframing narratives, or using form to throw light on content. Creation in any form, Böll says, involves not only talent, intuition, powers of imagination and application, “but also the ability to shape material that could be expanded to other socially relevant spheres.” I hold that this ability for shaped expansion stands apart from pushing a didactic approach into requiring that all art is political activism; it merely points towards a shared humanity and a willingness to acknowledge—to question, embrace, decry, celebrate—that, in one way or another, in each other.

How can philosophy apply the epistemological basis of truth to the real world, and not only the sangfroid of an academic paper?

How can journalism fact-check its own belief systems and how that influences the charged framework an article?

Check back again.




Amanda Lee Koe is a New York based writer and editor from Singapore. She is the youngest winner of the Singapore Literature Prize for the short story collection Ministry of Moral Panic, longlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award and shortlisted for the Haus der Kulturen der Welt's Internationaler Literaturpreis. Ministry of Moral Panic has been translated into the German and the Turkish.

On the occasion of the hundredth birthday of Heinrich Böll in 2017, Amanda Lee Koe took part in our video series "And what does intervention mean to you?". Watch her response here: