"When it started, the majority of the German press didn't even notice it," said West Germany's chief government spokesman, Kurt Becker, about the NATO missiles decision.
Now, virtually every utterance, every official move, every tidbit of information about the plans to deploy the U.S. Pershing II and cruise missiles in Western Europe is recorded by the media here, often with a critical bent or, at best, one generally wary of the alliance action.
More than the public opinion surveys, which show a majority of West Germans still favoring the two-track approach of missile deployment linked to U.S.-Soviet arms limitations talks, the tone of the West German media can be taken as a reflection of the trend in popular feeling here about the new weapons plan.
The country's two leading weekly magazines, Spiegel and Stern, have staked out positions opposing the missiles. The staff of the respected weekly paper, Die Zeit, is divided on the issue.
A number of West Germany's major daily newspapers still support the NATO decision. But among the conservative regional papers, where strong backing for the decision might be expected, government officials are disappointed in their weak endorsements.
"It is amazing today with what reserve the same newspapers comment on the double-decision, the same newspapers that once called it the ultimate wisdom," Becker said during a recent round-table discussion about the power of the press in West Germany.
To what extent the press here is actually leading or just following the West German peace movement is open to argument. Bonn officials do not blame the public's questioning of the new missiles solely on slanted press coverage. West German reporters and editors say their attention to the issue and even their critical judgment is largely a response to a clearly expressed public interest.
But officials and some journalists have complained that an antimissile, and sometimes anti-American bias in some media is fueling the drive against the NATO decision.
A lack of understanding among many West German journalists about the strategic justification for the decision -- and about military affairs generally -- is seen by the Bonn government as one reason for a sometimes emotional, negative media view of the NATO action.
Scrambling now to make its case to a wider group, the Bonn government last month invited 25-to-30 journalists from regional papers for high-level briefings on the NATO plan.
But education alone is not the issue. Even after researching the subject well, leading West German journalists have come out against the new missiles. One of them is Peter Koch, a top editor at Stern, an illustrated weekly.
When Koch decided in February to run a cover story that kicked off much of the public concern here -- the story included a map purportedly showing the nuclear weapons sites in West Germany -- he had little more than a "political opinion" against the NATO decision, he said in an interview.
Since then he has gathered material for a multi-part series now running in Stern about nuclear war.
"Now I have additional information that confirms my point of view," Koch said. "The new missiles are not necessary here. Maybe they should be put on submarines. In any event, we should have a foreign policy based not on nuclear threats but on a positive approach."
At Spiegel, an aggressive, often sassy news weekly, recent critical reports about the new missiles are seen by some Bonn officials as reflecting the magazine's opposition to the coalition government of Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, as well as an anti-American tilt.
The criticism seems to extend sometimes in only one direction, coming down more pointedly on the United States than the Soviet Union. Accompanying his recent, much-publicized interview with Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev, Spiegel's publisher Rudolf Augstein made a virtue of the fact that the Soviet leader gave his answers in writing, while President Reagan offers his views on nuclear strategy and other matters spontaneously.
"This interview was prepared in writing by all departments concerned," Augstein declared. "This cannot be said of the utterances coming from the U.S. president and his administration."
A study done for The Aspen Institute recently concluded that West German television tends to treat the Soviet Union more gently and to exhibit an anti-U.S. bias that reflects a confusion and irritation with Reagan administration policies shared by West German correspondents and public alike.
One senior West German television editor, recently back from a tour of duty in Washington, is now embroiled in a dispute with his staff as a result of his attempt to soften a report last summer on the U.S. decision to produce and stockpile the neutron warhead.
The incident in question seems relatively minor -- it involved a move by the editor, Edmund Gruber of West Germany's first channel, to drop the word "controversial" in a reference to the neutron weapon. But it drew an open protest letter signed by 27 of the station's 62 journalists calling Gruber a censor, and Gruber thinks the whole affair says something about the current state of the press here.
"I was out of the country for a total of 15 years on various assignments," Gruber said, "and coming back I've discovered that German journalism has changed. It is more interested now in emotion, in representing the ideological line."
He accused his colleagues of practicing a "trend journalism."