We met up with Pinar Atalay at RTL television’s studio in Berlin. The presenter moved from ARD to the Cologne-based broadcaster in summer 2021. Her first assignment was to present the TV debate between the three contestants in the German elections. We spoke to her about crises and attitudes in journalism and her personal career path.
After 16 years with Angela Merkel at the helm, we have reached a turning point. What do you expect from the new German Government that has taken up the cause of progress?
The war in Ukraine has changed everything. What was a political turning point in Germany after the Merkel era just a few weeks ago is now a turning point in history, as Chancellor Scholz described it in a historic extraordinary meeting of the German Bundestag. The progress for which the government had taken up the cause before and shortly after it was formed is now evolving in an entirely different direction. The government is investing EUR 100 billion for defence, EUR 200 billion for energy and the climate, and all that is apparently just the beginning. All these matters have to be rethought, and so it is a test for this new three-party coalition.
The German federal government had to make decisions within a very short space of time, some of which went against its political nature and called into question things that have been learnt and said.
The war that Russia is waging against Ukraine is a decisive turning point and a major test for the new German Government. There is a war going on in the middle of Europe. What is your perception of this turning point in history and the response of the German Government?
These are challenging times for us as journalists: There’s a war going on in the 21st century, in Europe, just a two-hour flight away. We report on the suffering, the fights in the streets and the diplomatic fights between politicians, always aware of the responsibility we have during these times. Our job is to obtain trusted information, not spread propaganda and continue to question policies. At the same time, there are many refugees arriving in Germany, which will be a mammoth task for the cities and municipalities. The German federal government had to make decisions within a very short space of time, some of which went against its political nature and called into question things that have been learnt and said. The ministers have little time to get used to their roles, it’s a kind of state of emergency.
You presented the first TV debate between the three contestants in the German elections. What was your impression of the three candidates?
That seems so far away now in light of the current situation. Olaf Scholz will go down in the history books as the “war and crisis chancellor”. Then there is Minister of Foreign Affairs Annalena Baerbock, who is suddenly fighting for peace in Europe. These matters seemed like topics from a different world during the TV debate. We did talk about foreign policy, Afghanistan in particular, and I asked what role Germany played on the world stage. And now we’re right in the middle of it. But to briefly address 29 August 2021, when Germany was still in the middle of the election campaign and we broadcast the first TV debate between the three candidates at RTL: I noticed that all three candidates were tense, which is of course not surprising given the special situation of a debate broadcast to millions of viewers. They treated each other fairly backstage. In front of the cameras, Olaf Scholz did not offer any surprises, Armin Laschet took an aggressive stance and Annalena Baerbock tried to use the quarrel between the two gentlemen to her advantage. You could tell that they all had a plan, but we also challenged them, of course.
You also followed Angela Merkel for a long time as a journalist. What is your takeaway from these 16 years?
Angela Merkel represents stability to many people, but also a certain degree of stagnation, and some are beginning to question this type of governance. For this reason alone it is exciting to see the approach of a different chancellor.
What are young viewers expecting from the new government?
I think the younger generation has become far more political and is thinking more about what role Germany is to play in the world. In light of the current situation in Ukraine and the fear of an escalation of the war, politicians have an even greater responsibility and the younger generations are paying more attention.
What distinguishes journalism here at RTL with regard to a younger target group?
Is it about highlighting differences or emphasising connections? There are no similarities without differences. That sounds like a contradiction, but we have to be able to come closer together. A democracy thrives on discussions and the exchange of arguments. But a democracy also thrives on journalists like myself who ask questions and point out differences. I’m a news presenter, I stick to the facts and don’t construe things. Our aim is not to say that something is black or white. Our aim is to help people find the grey area.
I think the younger generation has become far more political and is thinking more about what role Germany is to play in the world.
What did you learn from the coronavirus pandemic?
At the beginning of the pandemic, I realised that, for the first time in my journalistic career, I was affected to this extreme extent in my private life as well. This crisis hit closer to home, we were all in crisis mode. The German Government started to communicate in a different way, the former chancellor suddenly became emotional and appealed to everyone to take care of themselves. However, many politicians made mistakes in their communication. If you can’t remember whether you’re still allowed to sit on a park bench in Bavaria or enter a shop in Schleswig-Holstein because it was poorly communicated and everyone seems to be against everyone else, this becomes a problem that undermines the trust in politicians.
How important is it to portray numerous different opinions?
As a journalist, it is my task to take the opposing standpoint and we have to do the same when it comes to opinions. We had a special broadcast on the coronavirus at RTL where we had Helge Braun, Sahra Wagenknecht and pneumologist Cihan Celik as guests. They have completely different opinions, but we have to permit and show that while always staying true to the facts and always doing our best to offer added value.
You once said that every word carries weight. How appealing is it to work if you have to constantly weigh your words?
I work with language and pay attention to what I am expressing with the words I choose. If I don’t phrase something quite right in an interview, it bugs me later on when I reflect on it. That doesn’t mean that I don’t talk openly any more, I’m just very aware of the effect that my words have.
What is more important for your work – responsibility or maintaining a strong stance or opinion?
I believe that one is not possible without the other. I see myself as a news journalist who has a stance. I have to have a stance, but that should not be equated with me proclaiming my opinion. If you look at my profile on Twitter or Instagram you will notice that I am not constantly assessing the political situation. But I do have a stance and it can be identified whether I’m presenting RTL Direkt or a TV debate.
You recently published a book. The sub-heading is “How I got onto German television as a working-class child”. Why did you consider it important to emphasise this aspect of your background?
There are many career changers in journalism, but when I look around I’m often the only one who didn’t go to university and comes from a working class background. The path wasn’t laid out for me. But this is not so much about me. I wanted to address our prejudices in my book. Why is it that people generally think that a child from a socio-economically difficult household is less capable than a child whose parents are academics?
Your primary school teacher did not want to send you to grammar school despite your good marks. Why do you think that was?
This teacher liked me and I liked her too. In her mind, I was a child from an uneducated household that also had Turkish roots. Children like that were rather sent to secondary schools where you graduate after another five or six years rather than nine. That was the case with my older sister. But when I finished primary school, my parents were one step further and wanted me to go to grammar school because I had the same marks as the other children. It was almost a small revolution.
The problems need to be identified and named, and then we should react quickly enough to prevent them from being drawn out over several generations again.
You opened a boutique after you finished school. Today you say that people belittle you for that. Why do you think that is?
People often bring this topic up and I always sense a degree of arrogance. I didn’t spend all day reading fashion magazines, I ran a business. This experience really shaped me and I am happy that I did it. I had full responsibility for this shop right after I finished school.
What kind of progress would be necessary to ensure that your path through life is no longer an exception?
Even 30 years ago, people were saying that we need better support for children from lower-income families, but there is still no optimum solution for this issue. The problems need to be identified and named, and then we should react quickly enough to prevent them from being drawn out over several generations again.
Progress is the task of society as a whole. How can we get everyone to join in here?
The title of my book is “Schwimmen muss man selbst” (You have to swim yourself). Sometimes it’s good to be thrown in at the deep end. Then I have to swim. But I probably can’t do it on my own, I need a swimming instructor. When my parents were unable to help me with something, I asked the neighbours or my friends’ parents. The neighbourhood and clubs can be extremely useful. Everyone has their own story and their own experiences. We are all different in some way. We’re not a homogeneous society and that’s a good thing. But we should try to get along with one another and help each other. That, to me, is progressive.
Your Turkish background is usually addressed whenever you take on a new function. When will this no longer be a subject of interest in Germany?
I was born and raised here. I am a German with Turkish roots. To me, that’s completely normal. The fact that I’m a child of a working-class family shaped my everyday life far more. That presented me with far more difficulties due to prejudice and for financial reasons. When I switched to RTL, my background was not addressed in any press release or article. However, I do think it’s important to make subsequent generations aware that my path is still not a common one. But the best outcome would be if a person’s background was no longer a topic of discussion at all.
I was born and raised here. I am a German with Turkish roots. To me, that’s completely normal. The fact that I’m a child of a working-class family shaped my everyday life far more.
What would you consider to be the best form of progress over the coming years?
This may sound melodramatic, but my greatest wish at the moment is that there are peaceful times ahead for all of us. For our society as a whole, I hope that we can take conciliatory steps towards each other and not speak of a divided society. I hope we can learn from our mistakes together and maintain a dialogue.
The interview was conducted by Stephan Kittelmann and Cornelius Winter.
Pinar Atalay trained at local radio station Radio Lippe. She then moved on to broadcasters WDR, NDR and Phoenix, where she presented the political talk show “phoenix Runde”, the ARD economic magazine “plusminus” and the main news on NDR. From 2014 to 2021, she presented the ARD “tagesthemen”, one of Germany’s main daily television news magazines Pinar Atalay has been working for RTL as a journalist and presenter since August 2021, where she presents the “RTL Direkt” and “RTL Aktuell” broadcasts.