What Bertelsmann Wants from Obama

Whereas President-elect Obama's disclosure deal with Bill and Hillary Clinton has received close attention from the traditional news media, the president-elect's own disclosure issues -- notably, as concerns his financial relationship with Germany's Bertelsmann Corporation -- continue to be ignored. It is undoubtedly true that the books published by the Bertelsmann subsidiary Random House under Barack Obama's name have sold extremely well. It is, however, equally undoubtedly true that Bertelsmann/Random House invested considerable marketing resources to assure that they would. The German corporation is thus not merely a passive beneficiary of the phenomenon that has come to be known as "Obamamania"; Bertelsmann/Random House substantially contributed to creating the phenomenon.

In any case, Senate ethics rules expressly require members to reveal the financial details of book deals. In a 2006 column on "Barack Obama and the Book Business," Peter Osnos notes that Obama avoided having to comply with these rules by signing his Bertelsmann/Random House deal in the brief window between his election to the Senate and his swearing in.

As suggested in my earlier article on Bertelsmann's "Man in the White House," the issue of Obama's financial relationship to Bertelsmann is particularly troubling, since following the November 4 presidential election the Bertelsmann Foundation wasted no time in announcing that it had prepared a series of policy recommendations for the incoming president. Bertelsmann is no ordinary German corporation. Via the foundation and the foundation's yearly budget of some €70 million, it is a major player in German politics and European politics more generally. The "synergies" between Bertelsmann and various agencies of the German government are numerous and obvious: so much so that Bertelsmann has taken on the trappings of a veritable state within the state. Consider only that Bertelsmann's "10th International Forum" in 2006 was held at the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Participants included German Chancellor Angela Merkel, then French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin, and European Commission President José Manuel Barroso.