BERLIN — President Trump’s first meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel may have resembled the comedic awkwardness of a Sacha Baron Cohen movie. But an unlikely star was born during the bizarre Trump and Merkel show.
The self-effacing German journalist was thrust into the spotlight Friday, when she stood up at their White House news conference in what became an Emperor-Has-No-Clothes moment. Over the weekend, her instant fame snowballed, particularly in her native Germany, where Dunz’s exchange with Trump has suddenly become a defining moment for Internet memes and late-night TV monologues.
Channeling the angst of an international audience watching the first season of the President Trump show from afar, Dunz — called on by Merkel — asked the tough questions that the U.S. journalists called on by Trump did not.
She asked Merkel about Trump’s “contempt” for the European Union and queried Trump over whether his “America first” policy could backfire on the United States by weakening Europe. Yet the crux of her question to the president was this: How can he decry “fake news,” yet at the same time spread apparently false accusations, including that former president Barack Obama had wiretapped him?
A visibly riled Trump cut off Merkel as she tried to reply first, sarcastically calling Dunz “a nice, friendly reporter.” He defended his trade policy, saying he wasn’t “isolationist,” and declared that any newspapers who called him such were printing “fake news.”
In the United States, American journalists applauded Dunz, along with a fellow German journalist who followed up with more hard questions, for doing what the Americans hadn’t. “The German press shamed us,” Politico’s Tara Palmeri tweeted. Even actress Mia Farrow gave the German press a shout-out.
In Dunz’s native Germany, a country where polls show Trump is exceedingly unpopular, media outlets rushed to interview her. Her bravery was heralded on the “heute-show,” a sort of German version of the Daily Show, whose host joked that by merely questioning Trump so toughly Dunz had risked a declaration of war.
One German Internet meme making the rounds showed Trump as J.R.R. Tolkien’s Gollum, hissing, “Nice, friendly reporterstses! Must not hurt us, precious!”
In an interview with The Washington Post, Dunz, a 25-year veteran of the German Press Agency (DPA), said she was uncomfortable with all the attention. In an era of look-at-me journalism, she’s old school — a hardscrabble professional who’s spent time covering German troops in Afghanistan and believes reporters should never be part of the story.
She suggested that she was simply doing her job, as well as her homework. She worked on the question beforehand and was advised by a colleague in Washington to ask the question in German to avoid being cut off by Trump.
After the news conference, she said, her phone wouldn’t stop making an odd sound. “I thought my cell was jammed,” she said. But she quickly realized they were Twitter and text notifications. Her Twitter followers have more than quadrupled over the past three days.
“I think I hit a nerve . . . because mine was a more general question about his fundamental attitude and about American values,” she said. She added: “He must be afraid of something. . . . The fact that he kept going on about fake news only got him into trouble.”
In Germany, she is something of a social-media folk hero. Klaus Jahn of Stuttgart tweeted at Dunz: “You deserve the Pulitzer Prize for your courageous, unexpected questions. Bravo and respect.” German journalist Silke Burmester tweeted at her, “Let’s make journalism great again!”
But in a country where Trump is as divisive as he is in the United States, others blasted Dunz. Johannes Loew, a self-proclaimed “German Trump supporter” from Bavaria, tweeted: “Trump called all of this fake news. This answers the question. People like you aren’t worth more of a response!”
Yet the incident, more than anything, seemed to shed a spotlight on Trump’s dealings with the news media.
During joint news conferences with foreign leaders, it is not unusual for the U.S. press to ask presidents questions tied to the news cycle — in Friday’s case, on the health-care debate.
Yet reporters called on to speak in such situations are often preselected, and a debate is raging over whether some U.S. journalists, in a quest for access, are currying favor by being less hard hitting.
Dunz dismissed any blanket criticism of the U.S. press, saying the fault is with Trump for squeezing out critical voices.
“One absolutely cannot say . . . that the German press is showing its U.S. colleagues how it’s done,” she said. “U.S. colleagues, including your paper, were pioneers and are role models.”
Perhaps more telling than Dunz’s question was her resulting story. At times, it had the tone of American foreign correspondents covering despotic governments in Venezuela, China or Russia.
“For a while now, it hasn’t been common practice in the White House to answer tough, uncomfortable questions in an open, matter-of-fact way,” she wrote. “Trump is visibly tormented by this kind of openness.”
Although uncomfortable with her newfound notoriety, Dunz is at least happy for one thing: that her DPA news agency, long overshadowed by bigger German names such as Bild and Der Spiegel, is finally getting its moment in the sun.
“I have a problem with this whole famous and hero thing,” said Dunz. “But what makes me extraordinarily happy is that it throws a spotlight on the agency. . . . Agency reporters are always there. They are the only ones who go on every trip. . . . They’re always in the background.”
On Friday, they weren’t.