Columbia Journalism Review

Jan/Feb 2002, Columbia Journalism Review

Austria’s Troubling Tabloid

Popular paper dishes out xenophobia and anti-Semitism

With three million readers a day, Austria’s Kronen Zeitung has perhaps the highest per capita circulation of any newspaper in the world. It gained this preeminence with an almost dadaist collage of stories fanning fears that Vienna is being swamped by undesirable refugees, editorials tinged with anti-Semitic innuendo, and articles trivializing the Holocaust.

The tabloid, also featuring bare-breasted pinups, lowbrow cartoons, and opinions in rhyme, has become required reading at the European Union Monitoring Center on Racism and Xenophobia. Beate Winkler, head of the Vienna-based EU center, terms the Kronen Zeitung particularly adept at “emotional mobilization” of the Austrian populace. But she adds, “You need two to tango, both readers and a newspaper that activates them.”

Its small-format pages exude anti-Americanism, and this has become even more pronounced since Washington began its war on terrorism. USA STUMBLES INTO SECOND VIETNAM, blared the cover headline this autumn in one-and-a-quarter-inch boldface type. A letter to the editor published on October 13 gloated that a “brave handful” of soldiers under German SS command had easily freed Benito Mussolini from captivity, whereas the U.S., with the “greatest military operation of all time,” had yet to capture Osama bin Laden. The paper also runs a regular cartoon about a portly figure named Herr Strudl, who muses about current events as he lounges in a Viennese cafe. This Austrian Joe Six-pack has lately voiced schadenfreude over the challenge facing those Yanks in subduing radical Muslims.

On the surface, all would appear business as usual at the Kronen Zeitung, where noxious political coverage sits alongside gardening tips, recipes for goose stew, horoscopes, and ski reportage. But the paper’s management has been in turmoil. Last summer, Hans Dichand, the eighty-year-old publisher and editor-in-chief, rancorously parted ways with his right-hand man, a move that came just weeks after the departure of the lead columnist, Richard Nimmerrichter. According to the tabloid’s American correspondent, Nimmerrichter, also an octogenarian, quit after Dichand rejected a column critical of a leader of Vienna’s Jewish community. The columnist had previously been assailed by the American Jewish Committee for “minimizing Nazi crimes, and appealing to the cruder prejudices of his mass audience.” Included in Nimmerrichter’s commentaries was one that made a play on the name of then New York Times columnist A.M. Rosenthal, referring to him on second reference as Rosenbaum and on third as Rosenberg.

Now a fierce battle over the paper’s fate is under way behind closed doors. What’s known is that Dichand, who shares ownership of the paper 50-50 with a German media conglomerate, wants to install his thirty-six-year-old son, Christoph, as the new editor-in-chief. But this has been rejected by the co-owners, the Westdeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung group. Hans Dichand told staffers last summer that if his son does not gain the top post, “I’ll take him by the hand, and we’ll leave the building together.”

The Dichand accession may be sparking less global speculation than whether Rupert Murdoch is grooming his thirty-year-old son Lachlan as his heir; nonetheless big-time influence is at stake. Any attempt to peer into the paper’s future raises the question: What are its owners after – are they committed idealogues or only out to make a buck? Contradictions abound – every Sunday edition includes a copious evangelical message from Vienna’s Catholic bishop, while each issue contains two pages of classifieds for prostitutes and phone sex services. (Here racism falls by the wayside – AFRICAN BEAUTY MAKES HOUSE CALLS.) And U.S. correspondent Hans Janitschek is an ex-secretary general of the Socialist International whose terraced Fifth Avenue apartment overlooks Central Park.

Although this often incoherent melange brings high profits and keeps co-ownership attractive for WAZ, chief executive offcer Erich Schumann says he does not always condone the content. “There was a time when the anti-Semitic undertones were louder and we complained.” Schumann, who calls WAZ Europe’s largest regional newspaper group, would not say if political differences were behind his declaring a right to veto Dichand’s chosen successor. In October, the two sides reached a compromise whereby the younger Dichand serves as deputy editor for the foreseeable future, Schumann said. “It will become clear if he has the capability” to single-handedly take the reins, said Schumann.

Viennese journalists are uncertain how Christoph Dichand might revamp the paper. “I don’t know his opinions,” says Oskar Bronner, editor of the liberal daily Standard. “I don’t know if he has one.” Christoph Dichand, who in a telephone interview deemed it “slander” to call his paper anti-Semitic, interned at the New York Post and the Daily News in 1995. “You can’t say I’m conservative or liberal,” he says. “I’m as independent as my father, and it’s my duty to fortify this tradition. I wouldn’t change much.”

That would mean continuing to both reinforce and shape popular prejudices. The publication was instrumental in the rise of Austria’s leading far-right voice, Jorg Haider, and has staunchly defended former president Kurt Waldheim against ostracism for his service in a Wehrmacht unit involved in Nazi crimes. Hans Dichand himself served as a German marine in World War Two. “I did not view the Anschluss negatively,” he commented, in a 1996 memoir, of Austria’s annexation by Hitler.

In recent years, the paper has staked out more up-to-date terrain by taking a widely embraced stance against nuclear power plants in Austria’s vicinity. At the same time, its thoroughly nationalistic tone and hostility to cultural diversity ensures the tabloid its reputation among Viennese critics as “the house organ of the Austrian anti-Enlightenment.” Yet even the Kronen Zeitung is wary of treading too far. “The paper uses code words,” says Oskar Bronner. “One can never prove it is anti-Semitic – they are too careful and clever for that but they produce a paper anti-Semites read gladly. Dichand has a keen sense for what the people want and has no inhibitions about giving it to them.” Will his heir apparent do the same?