When Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and challenger Edmund Stoiber face off Sept. 8 for a U.S.-style television debate, one of the moderators will be a woman with unusual credentials. Maybrit Illner began her career as a sportscaster in East Germany. Now Illner, 37, hosts popular political talk show Berlin Mitte (Berlin Center), broadcast from a studio in the heart of the city's government district. With 2.7 million viewers a week, Illner is at the center of a historic shift in German politics, in which personalities are becoming more important than parties. Politicians such as Schröder, center-right leader Angela Merkel, and Green Party leader Joschka Fischer "weren't chosen by the elite, they were chosen by the rank and file," Illner points out. By bringing these political stars into people's homes, Illner's program easily manages to hold its own against the lowbrow entertainment in the same time slot.
The Berlin native was dismissed as a lightweight when she hosted a breezy morning program before launching Berlin Mitte in October, 1999. Yet Illner proved herself a match for Germany's political class, always managing to rein in overly talkative or aggressive politicians. "That's not what I wanted to know!" she will say, or "Shall I remind you what the question was?" when too many barbs are launched. She strives to keep the proceedings from getting deadly serious. "Politics shouldn't be painful," she says. In her hands, they are primetime entertainment: A one-on-one with Schröder attracted 3.5 million viewers.
Illner admits she's a bit surprised that a graduate of an East German journalism school should help set the agenda in united Germany. Yet her upbringing in a tightly controlled society gives her a greater appreciation for democracy and helps her avoid the cynicism that marks so much of political journalism. "The things I ask about really interest me," she says. And almost 3 million other Germans as well.