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Staking Out the Boundaries of Professionalism: Good and Bad Journalism

On April 13, 2012 the New York Post announced that its state editor, Fred Dicker, has landed a book deal with HarperCollins to write Governor Andrew Cuomo’s biography (Kelly 2012).1 Danny Hakim, New York Times’ Albany bureau chief at the time, tweeted at 8:12 that morning: “Weeks after protestors called NYP’s Fred Dicker ‘mouthpiece for Gov 1 %’ he signs deal to write #Cuomo’s authorized bio” (dannyhakim 2012) before linking to the story. Ninety-five minutes later, Fred Dicker countered: “Those snooty Times Boys still jealous over that front page NYT profile of me a year ago. Otherwise, why be so nasty?” (fud31 2012). Hakim’s colleague, Nick Confessore, retorted another 49 minutes afterwards: “I think they should also publish Cuomo’s countermemoir: ‘Sunday Nights With Fred: A Kind Of Love Story’” (nickconfessore 2012).

In his comment about the “snooty Times Boys” Dicker was referring to a portrait of him written by former Albany reporter, Jeremy Peters, which appeared in the Times the previous year (Peters 2011). To the surprise of Dicker, who is often referred to (not least by himself) as the “dean of the press corps,” the story had not turned out as critical as he expected. His competitor-colleagues (Tunstall 1971), that is, other members of the press corps who work for different news organizations, were similarly amazed about the neutral depiction of Dicker. This is understandable, considering that Dicker’s public comments about his Times competitor-colleagues were often highly dismissive, especially on his daily talk radio show on WGDJ-AM. Desecrating the iconic status of the Times by revealing how it violated the values it stood for, was a theme that ran through Dicker’s © The Author(s) 2017

M. Revers, Contemporary Journalism in the US and Germany, Cultural Sociology, DOI 10.1057/978-1-137-51537-7_4

criticisms. This happened again when Dicker, obviously furious, went on air after the Twitter confrontation about his book deal:

The low-class nature of some of the people in journalism today just takes my breath away. It’s all about them personality preening, their little tweets, their nastiness. In that same tweet, this guy from the Times says I’m writing an authorized biography. What evidence is there of that? The New York Times is supposed to have such high standards of reportorial judgment. ... This is supposed to be a major, adult publication but too often or so often they are like little petty punks on the Twitter feed. But that’s the journalistic world we live in. (Dicker 2012)

His opponents’ opinions about him are not less critical but less often expressed in public. For sure, Fred Dicker was a polarizing figure at the State Capitol, specifically among his competitor-colleagues. Some rejected everything he stood for journalistically; most were at least ambivalent about him. While listening to Dicker’s radio show, as the majority of his competitor-colleagues did on a daily basis, one reporter remarked: “Oh Fred. I love him, I hate him” (Fieldnotes, LCA, January 25, 2011). Fred Dicker was admired for aggressively demanding accountability from some politicians; on the other hand, he was disapproved of for blatantly advocating for political positions.

Beyond personal feuds, journalists constantly discuss norms and ethics of their occupation. More generally, they are continuously engaged in the “‘relational’ construction of journalistic identity,” as Benson and Neveu (2005: 12) put it. The conflict discussed above may seem petty but was merely a momentary and intensified expression of an ongoing debate that continuously occurs on both the level of direct interaction in private or public (talk radio shows, roundtable discussions on television, etc.) and written discourse in news stories, social media discussions, and so on. I will subsume all instances when journalists discuss their occupational practice and news media more generally as (public or private) metadiscourse.

One important difference between the two case studies is that there was much less public metadiscourse in Munich than in Albany. Partly, this had to do with the multitude of channels and the intensity with which US reporters operated them (Chap. 7), partly with a different degree of press corps solidarity in place (see Chap. 5). It is also related to differences between the two occupational cultures and journalistic fields, which will be taken up in the conclusion of this chapter.

Metadiscourse does not merely serve to assert status and sustain dominant “principles of vision and division” in the field, in Bourdieu’s sense. It enables a journalist to align their occupational self-conceptions and collectively assert and renegotiate professional boundaries. Drawing boundaries, often in reference to each other, are efforts to maintain the purity of and reinforce the commitment to the occupation, which is not only their livelihood and source of social status but also a collective enterprise they are morally invested in. As a moral community, journalists consider themselves essentially as servants of the common good. Even if it may seem cynical, depending on who is speaking, this moral commitment is something all journalists share fundamentally, at least all I have ever spoken to. Views on how to serve that common good differ, however, and are subject of contention and negotiation, which are intensified by changing technological and worsening economic conditions of the occupational practice.

Boundary drawing between good and bad journalism, whether it concerns more general pronouncements of occupational norms or concrete assessment of news stories, frequently occurred in the interviews conducted for this study. When I asked journalists to define bad journalism, they often identified journalistic virtues in turn. They also tended to conflate reportorial conduct and the news it engendered. All expressions of professional and unprofessional journalism I encountered will be analytically dissected in the following sections. This chapter will be structured according to six dimensions reporters drew boundaries around: (1) journalistic missions and organizational identities, (2) craft (how news products are made), (3) reportorial conduct (how reporters conduct themselves making news), (4) autonomy (from sources and other reporters), (5) ethical and jurisdictional boundaries and (6) public responsibility.

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