Fritz Ferdinand Pleitgen (21 March 1938 – 15 September 2022) was a German television journalist and author. He was correspondent in Moscow, East Berlin and Washington. Pleitgen was a supporter of Willy Brandt's Ostpolitik. In 1988, Pleitgen became editor-in-chief of television of Germany's then-largest public broadcaster, Westdeutscher Rundfunk (WDR), and was director of WDR from 1995 to 2007. He is regarded as one of the most influential German journalists and media makers. In 2010, he was the manager of Ruhr.2010, a project of European Capital of Culture.

Pleitgen was born in Duisburg-Meiderich[1] on 21 March 1938,[2] the fifth child of a technical draftsman working at Krupp.[3] He grew up in Bünde in East Westphalia[4] and left high school without completing his programme, because he was already working for the Bünde local editorial office of Bielefeld's Freie Presse [de] as a sports and court reporter.[4] In 1961, he volunteered to become an editor.[4]

In 1963, Pleitgen began working as a journalist at the German broadcaster WDR;[4] he started as a reporter for Tagesschau.[2] His duties included reporting from Brussels and Paris covering the European Economic Community and NATO. In 1967, he broadcast from the Middle East on the Six-Day War between Israel and its Arab neighbours.[5] From 1970, Pleitgen reported as ARD's foreign correspondent from Moscow, where he accompanied Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev on trips abroad.[4] Without his own camera crew, he needed approval from the Soviet Foreign Ministry for almost all reports.[6] Under constant KGB surveillance,[7] he was the first Western journalist to have an interview with the General Secretary of the Communist Party.[8] He also established contacts with dissidents like Andrei Sakharov,[9] Lev Kopelev, Yuri Orlov, and Andrei Amalrik.[4][10] From 1977, Pleitgen served as correspondent in East Berlin,[4] but his work was restricted by the Stasi.[4] His predecessor was expelled from the GDR.[11] Erich Honecker invited Pleitgen to hunt rabbits in 1981,[12] in contrast Pleitgen was also in contact with the dissidents Stefan Heym,[13][14] and Robert Havemann.[10][15] From 1982, he reported as ARD studio chief from Washington and New York and excelled in critical reporting on Ronald Reagan.[4]

In 1988, director of WDR Friedrich Nowottny called Pleitgen back to the parent company in Germany to be editor-in-chief of WDR television in Cologne, and in 1994 he became director of radio.[16][17] He moderated for ARD television Weltspiegel [de],[18] ARD-Brennpunkt [de], and Presseclub.[2] Known for his work during the Cold War, he became the television face of reunification.[10] Pleitgen was director of the WDR from 1995 to 2007,[a] succeeding his former boss Nowottny;[4] from 2001 to 2002, he was chairman of the ARD.[20] His motto was "Durch Qualität zur Quote" (through quality to ratings).[21] He played a key role in the launch of the event and documentary channel Phoenix.[17][22] One of his tasks was the establishment of regional studios.[23] During his tenure, the surreptitious advertising scandal occurred.[24] From 2006 to 2008, he was head of the European Broadcasting Union.[17]

Pleitgen in 2010
After leaving WDR in 2007, Pleitgen took over the management of the European Capital of Culture 2010 project in Essen (Ruhr.2010)[25] and officially retired in 2010.[10] He took moral responsibility for the Love Parade disaster.[8]

Considered one of the most influential German journalists and media makers,[2] Pleitgen interviewed Ronald Reagan, Erich Honecker, Egon Krenz, Mikhail Gorbachev, and Helmut Kohl.[26][27][28]