We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
There’s another German reporter on the phone for American University (AU) Professor Christopher Simpson. One of dozens of such callers over the past few weeks, the reporter just wants to ask him a few questions.
As a professor of communications, Simpson studies the impact of high-tech advances like the Internet on journalism. But the reserved, unassuming intellectual has found himself the star of his own media event, embroiled in a controversy that began in the dusty corners of academia but has spilled over onto the pages of the New York Times, the International Herald Tribune, and German news magazines like Der Spiegel.
The trans-Atlantic interest in the case attests to its undeniable drama, in which a professional debate escalated into a dirty war that has jeopardized Simpson’s very livelihood. On one side there is Simpson, a young scholar who has severely damaged the reputation of one of his field’s formerly unassailable icons. On the other is 80-year-old Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann, a leading German pollster and political theorist, influential author, and an old friend of Chancellor Helmut Kohl.
Last year, Simpson wrote an article that linked Noelle-Neumann’s mostly unexplored Nazi connections with works written throughout her distinguished career; moreover, he asserted that her “scientific” findings were often shrewdly manipulated propaganda peppered with a totalitarian ideology. Simpson’s article delivered a double whammy of charges: Not only is Noelle-Neumann a figure with a shady past, he wrote, she is also a shoddy pollster.
This probably would have remained an academic dispute, but last spring, supporters of Noelle-Neumann tried to sabotage Simpson’s effort to gain tenure at AU through a propaganda campaign. Their attempt ultimately failed, and the aftermath has left Noelle-Neumann tarnished: The media, especially in Germany, has seized on the smear campaign as an example of what Der Speigel terms Mobbing-Verdacht, ganging-up or back-stabbing. Noelle-Neumann has denied involvement in her protégés’ tactics, and she has denied the charges made by Simpson. However, she has yet to respond to the article with her own published rebuttal, the usual form of discourse in academic circles.
“I don’t present myself as a big hero or big victim in all this,” says Simpson. “In the real world, about the only person that really cares whether I get tenure or not, other than myself, is my mother.” And yet he doesn’t downplay the significance of his battle, which even included a showdown of sorts, when he confronted Noelle-Neumann on a panel at a conference last spring. “Sometimes you have to stand up to bullies,” he says. “You just have to do it, and particularly if you’re right.”
In the late ’80s, Simpson stumbled onto an item while researching a paper on the history of communications. Scouring the German Who’s Who, he noticed that Noelle-Neumann included in her entry that she was a member of the Deutsche Verlag, which means “German publisher.” As the author of two books on the Holocaust, Simpson recognized this as the newspaper holding company run by the Nazi Ministry of Propaganda. “[Deutsche Verlag] is about as innocuous a name as you can come up with,” says Simpson. “She disguised her role in a rather clever way. At that stage, I knew that she worked in some fashion for the Goebbels ministry, and [that later] she was using this sort of double-talk to hide it.” As it turned out, Noelle-Neumann was a reporter for a Goebbels-run newspaper, Das Reichnot the sort of job she wanted on her résumé.
In ’91, an article in Commentary by communications consultant (and contemporary of Noelle-Neumann) Leo Bogart officially exposed a great deal of the pollster’s Nazi past. It caused a controversy, but, for the most part, she quelled the subsequent backlash by simply denying the charges, claiming that she had written “under orders” from the Nazis. Stoked by Bogart’s article and by his own findings, Simpson simply set out to investigate a further question: Could Noelle-Neumann’s association with the Hitler regime have colored the theories of one of postwar Germany’s leading pollsters and commentators?
Simpson delved into Noelle-Neumann’s works, especially her influential ’84 work, The Spiral of Silence, which posits a theory of how public opinion worksthat due to a biological impulse to conform, most people adhere to a perceived “popular view” whether they really agree or not: The process creates a silent majority cowed by a loud and powerful minority. As Simpson put it in his article, “She contends that the mass of humanity is fated to live in ignorance and powerlessness, trapped by ’emotionally loaded stereotypes’ and a bone-deep fear of social isolation.” Simpson found eerie similarities between the Nazi rhetoric of her early work and the xenophobic themes of her later writings. “There are threads of thinking and threads of logic between what she was writing at the height of the Hitler erafor which she was granted prestige and Nazi pats on the backand what she writes now,” he says.
In his article, which appeared in the Summer ’96 issue of the Journal of Communication, Simpson cites a deluge of documentation, including such examples as a statement made by Noelle-Neumann in ’37 that condemned race-mixing as a “danger to the maintenance of national character.” He compares that Nazi-era pronouncement to passages from an interview in 1993, when Noelle-Neumann discussed German violence against Turkish immigrants: “This steady stream of refugees has fueled Germans’ sensation of being threatened, of not being at home anymore, and of confronting people whose behavior and values are very different from their own.”
Simpson’s article packed a much bigger punch than the Commentary piece, not only because it appeared in the leading journal of the communications field, but because Simpson was able to make a case that Noelle-Neumann’s unsavory history was not fully behind her. “No one else had brought this out before,” says William Solomon, professor of journalism and mass media at Rutgers University. “It’s one thing to find the original documentation, and it’s another to go and make links between the Nazi stuff and her postwar research. One is bad enough, but the two taken together potentially [are] highly injurious.”
“It is very rare that a scholarly article creates such a furor,” says Mark Levy, a University of Maryland journalism professor and former editor of the Journal of Communication. “But Simpson has made a very strong and compelling case, and it clearly has touched sensitive nerves around the world.”
According to Simpson, the anti-democraticeven totalitarianthemes of Noelle-Neumann’s theories have remained consistent, even if some of the specifics have changed. He points to a Noelle-Neumann article published in Das Reich in 1941, in which she wrote, “To reach into the darkness to find the Jew who is hiding behind the Chicago Daily News is like sticking your hand into a wasp’s nest.” In the article, she claimed that a Jewish monopoly controlled the media, which had swayed American and British public sentiment against Germany. “One of her themes is that the media is very powerful and is to blame for most societal ills,” says Simpson. “During the Nazi period, the explanation was that it was the Jews’ fault…but she doesn’t blame it on Jews now. She blames it on the liberals, saying that newspaper reporters are all liberals.”
Simpson’s more devastating critique of Noelle-Neumann suggests that her methodology, which she has championed as a “breakthrough technique” of gauging public opinion, is faulty and deliberately misleading. “There is a pseudo-scientific garb,” he says. “On one hand, [her method] has to do with making a content analysis of the media, and on the other hand measuring people’s responses to public opinion polls. The problem with this is both content analysis and public opinion polls are really very subjective things. Minor, minor differences in the way a question is asked will lead to completely different results.” Simpson says that Noelle-Neumann’s famed Allensbach Institute cranks out “dubious research” that she molds to fit her political ideas.
After the article appeared, Simpson soon realized the impact of what he’d written. The six-year assistant professor was up for tenure; during the process, AU officials began to receive letters and faxes attacking Simpson. Several maligned not only his findings but his character and status as a researcher. “The author is no defender of science and journalism, rather [Simpson] is a symptom of their decline,” charged one missive. “Both within the realm of science and without,” the letter continued, “there have always been and will always be criminals by conviction, who are willing to sacrifice all truth to their beliefs.”
In August, the controversy made the pages of the Chronicle of Higher Education and has since exploded in the mainstream press here and abroad, fueled mostly by revelations about the smear campaign against Simpson. “This is shocking,” says Bogart, who has taught at Columbia and New York University, among other institutions. “I don’t know of anybody in [contemporary] academic life who’s ever encountered anything like this….The ruthlessness with which they did this is reminiscent of what they did in German universities in the ’30s, in the heyday of the storm troopers. We’re not talking about people who were trying to ruin careers. They were killing people.”
Noelle-Neumann told the New York Times that she had played no part in the campaign to discredit Simpson. (Noelle-Neumann did not respond to phone calls and a fax from Washington City Paper, but she told the Times that Simpson distorted her work as a pollster and theorist.) Bogart says Simpson’s article is “a solid, professional, methodical approach to the subject. He didn’t come to it as someone who was trying to do a hatchet job.”
“Simpson has shown a great deal of courage, because he has behaved in the best tradition of scholarship,” says Solomon. “He’s got her on the documents, but his interpretation is also a reasonable one, and that’s why it’s so upsetting to her supporters and explains the fury of their attackbecause they can’t easily dismiss it.”
Despite the ordeal, Simpson eventually got his tenure, and the AU administration remains supportive. Simpson believes Noelle-Neumann’s assertion that she wasn’t involved in the smear campaignbut only because it wasn’t necessary. In fact, she remains a respected pundit for the German conservative movement, particularly Kohl’s Christian Democrat party. “She’s a very powerful force there,” says Bogart, a former president of the American Association for Public Opinion Research. “She is a major adviser to Helmut Kohl, who’s been in power longer than any other chancellor in Germany since Bismarck….It’s scandalous for someone to enjoy the kind of standing that she has without acknowledging what her past has been. It’s her denial that’s the issueher failure to admit and confront the truthfar more than whatever original viciousness was present in what she wrote.”
Simpson says the “real foot soldiers” in the controversy remain her protégés, hungry for the patronage of the 80-year-old pollsterand her legacy. “They are presenting themselves as the defenders of her reputation that has been wounded by Simpson,” he says. “I would say they’re not defending her reputation, they’re exploiting it.”
“The viciousness of the response says something about the people who surround Noelle-Neumann and the mentality of the leadership of her particular network,” Simpson suggests. “This is not a left-wing issue or a right-wing issue. If we’re going to have academic freedom, it’s necessary for people to stand up against these type of Goebbels-style tactics, secret denunciations, and whisper campaigns.”CP