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Introduction: Textures and Porosities of Journalistic Fields

The secret documents leaked by Edward Snowden about the National Security Agency (NSA)-governed surveillance programs in 2013 not only stimulated international debates about government overreach, surveillance, privacy and state secrecy; journalists took the Snowden revelations and follow-up stories as instances for occupational self-reflection. Discussions centered on news media as stages for whistleblowers, balancing accountability and national security, and contemplations about the future of journalism.

One salient theme was the fine line between journalism and activism with regard to Glenn Greenwald who broke the story in The Guardian. Greenwald appeared as a new archetype of a journalist in these stories. The “Greenwaldization” of journalism was identified as both inevitable and threating to proven ways of journalism. Even though the question whether Greenwald could be considered a journalist was fundamentally about constitutional protection,1 journalists used these discussions to negotiate occupational norms. Aside from the fact that leading US as well as German news outlets dealt with this issue, debates were colored and filtered by lenses specific to each occupational culture of journalism.

In discussing the difficulty to draw a line between journalism and advocacy, Gunter Hack of Zeit Online argued that there was a reluctance to clearly delineate journalism in Germany, which went back to the rigid codification of occupational obligations during National Socialism. Post-war Germany preferred to have this definition “negotiated time and again” and to perceive indeterminacy as a “productive and necessary grey © The Author(s) 2017

M. Revers, Contemporary Journalism in the US and Germany, Cultural Sociology, DOI 10.1057/978-1-137-51537-7_1

area” (Hack 2014). In this grey area, a commentator like Hack firmly argued that it was impossible for journalists not to be actively involved in stories about surveillance. Another commentator of the same outlet and grey area evaluated the role of Greenwald differently days before: “Glenn Greenwald can no longer be considered a journalist. The NSA disclosures are not just stories for him anymore, they are a struggle for freedom” (Biermann and Beuth 2013).

Some German journalists were quick to undermine or dismiss Greenwald’s professional credibility: “Someone like Greenwald—passionately committed to his issue, irritable and a bit vein—inevitably makes mistakes” (Fischermann 2013). Sometimes, this led to Greenwald not even labeled as a journalist anymore: “The blogger Glenn Greenwald, who is not a profound authority on the NSA, obviously falsely interpreted some foreign cases [of government surveillance]” (Leyendecker 2013; my emphasis).

Despite the blow against Greenwald, Hans Leyendecker—a figurehead of investigative journalism in Germany—was generally positive and optimistic toward participatory data journalism (as long as it is practiced by The Guardian). After the release of Laura Poitras’ documentary film about the leak, Citizenfour, German news outlets judged more harshly: “Poitras and Greenwald are certainly not merely deliverers of Snowden’s message, they are also his escape agents. As his apostles, they also have to stay away from the USA to do their work” (Richter 2014).

Influenced by the government backlash to the Snowden leaks, some US news outlets took a much sharper turn by insinuating whether Greenwald should, in fact, be criminally persecuted, most notoriously in a TV interview on NBC Meet the Press (2013).2 When several journalists lent support to this position, others, like David Carr, sprung to Greenwald’s defense by attacking these journalists for “giving the current administration a justification for their focus on the ethics of disclosure rather than the morality of government behavior” (Carr 2013b).

Whenever US news coverage on the Snowden leaks and its aftermath turned its attention to journalism, detailed discussions of practices and norms about a wide range of issues followed—from source protection to transparency, the loss of gatekeeping authority and dissolution of the business model of newspapers through the internet. Similarly, distinctions between journalism and activism were made much more firmly than in the German debate. David Carr disagreed with both positions, that a journalist is or should be a “political and ideological eunuch” and that activists are nothing more than ideologues (Carr 2013a). Carr warned, however, that an activist agenda could “impair vision,” that the “tendentiousness of ideology creates its own narrative” and that its “primary objective remains winning the argument” rather than to “reveal the truth” (ibid.).3

In taking this position, Carr was in line with his former boss, at that point fellow columnist at the New York Times, Bill Keller. The lengthy e-mail exchange between Keller and Greenwald, which was published on the Op-Ed pages of the Times (Keller 2013), epitomizes tensions in US journalism that have grown since the rise of online news making. On the traditional side of the argument, Keller defended impartial journalism, which “in most cases ... gets you closer to the truth, because it imposes a discipline of testing all assumptions, very much including your own” (ibid.). Keller argued, on the other hand, that “journalism that starts from a publicly declared predisposition is less likely to get to the truth, and less likely to be convincing to those who are not already convinced” (ibid.).

Promoting journalism-with-a-stated-point-of-view, Greenwald argued, “all journalism is subjective and a form of activism even if an attempt is made to pretend that this isn’t so” (ibid.). More honest and trustworthy journalism, therefore, needed “honestly disclosing rather than hiding one’s subjective values” to both supply the public with “accurate and vital information ... [and] provide a truly adversarial check on those in power” (ibid.). Greenwald framed the journalistic mission personified by Keller and the Times as “donning a voice-of-god, view-from-nowhere tone that falsely implies that journalists reside above the normal viewpoints and faction-loyalties that plague the non-journalist and the dreaded ‘activist’” (ibid.). The kind of news stories that followed from Greenwald’s mission treated “official assertions [as] stating point to investigate (‘Official A said X, Y and Z today: now let’s see if that’s true’), not the gospel around which we build our narratives (‘X, Y and Z, official A says’)” (ibid.). Clearly, he put the journalism of the Times in the latter category.

Reading through a cross-section of articles in leading media outlets of both countries on this subject, one is struck by a more diverse and lively debate about journalism and advocacy in the US coverage. This is certainly connected to but not a mere consequence of the more rapid and profound weakening of the institutional authority of legacy news media in the USA since the early 2000s. The discussion also drew from specific bases of legitimacy, beliefs, and ongoing debates within US journalism. Even though objectivity and separating news from opinion are working practices in German journalism, this differentiation does not reach as deeply into their conception of professionalism. The dignity of US journalists rests much more on these symbolic distinctions and their public display.

This study is about how German and US journalists define and perform professionalism. It deals with symbolic boundaries of journalism, that is, the criteria journalists use to distinguish between professional and unprofessional actors, practices, relations and pronouncements. It pays close attention to how journalists assert professionalism in performative action, including by displaying symbolic boundaries. The comparative analysis in this book shows that the intensity of performances of professionalism by US journalists does not accrue from particularly strong professional boundaries. To the contrary, I will argue that the assertiveness is a consequence of professional boundaries that are rather porous for deviating and novel norms and practices.

This book examines historically evolved cultural principles of journalism that are formative for the structure of its boundaries and the democracies it serves. The analysis utilizes the fact that self-monitoring, reassuring, renegotiating and adjusting of professional boundaries are constant companions of conversations between journalists, occupational practices, news coverage, and commemorative and celebratory occupational discourses. The main objects of investigation are conversations that I had with members of one press corps in each country, who I followed and observed for over 3 years. I talked to them about occupational norms and values and how they manifest themselves in political environments. The second component of the comparison is an analysis of jury statements of major journalism awards and obituaries of renowned journalists in both countries. This two-level approach allows inferences from discourses to practices. Before contextualizing occupational cultures in their institutional and historical context in each media system in Chap. 2, I will now discuss the theoretical framework that guides this analysis.

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