Home Communication Contemporary Journalism in the US and Germany: Agents of Accountability
While tabloids served as negative exemplars, journalists also referred to positive representations to express professional worth, not least those who were working for such outlets. One LP reporter of the latter category said he was aware of whom he worked for: “It’s important and a reason to be proud of—this is a prerequisite. ... There is a claim to be the newspaper of record. To be the one who sets the direction a little bit and whom others copy. To put it bluntly” (Interview, LP reporter, December 5, 2011). Another reporter who worked for a similar newspaper said:
Of course there is ... a tradition in our paper, which you are committed to ... [In] a newspaper like ours you have access. ... If you are from a regional newspaper you can’t talk to the chairman of the FDP for an hour. He doesn’t have the time for that. With us he has to make that time. And I draw on that. (Interview, LP reporter, April 17, 2012).
I asked reporters about events, institutions or figures in US/German journalism that made them proud to be part of this occupational tradition. Apart from the fact that the term “pride” made German reporters uncomfortable, several of them named FAZ, SZ, Die Zeit and Der Spiegel and well-known journalists from these outlets as epitomes of the best journalism Germany has to offer. In contrast, LCA reporters identified specific stories rather than news outlets as positive and negative representations of journalism. They would refer to the release of the Pentagon Papers in 1971 rather than the New York Times itself, for instance. Most influential news outlets were often subject of envy by competitor-colleagues, especially from regional broadsheets. One young LCA reporter talked about several stories his paper covered, which only became big stories once the New York Times paid attention to them. As his boss put it, “sometimes being first doesn’t matter if you’re not the New York Times or Fred Dicker” (Interview, LCA reporter, May 11, 2011).
The only circumstance in which LCA reporters praised specific organizations was when they were talking about their own organization:
You work for [company], you work for an institution that’s larger than yourself. Or it outlasts you and it precedes you. And you owe something to it beyond just work. Whenever I’ve done road reporting, some story from a far flown locale, it doesn’t matter where. Could be the most conservative town in Alabama. When you knock on their door, saying you are from [company], it means something. People trust it. They value it ... Even if they buy into that whole [liberal media] critique ... It means something and you have to live up to that and you have to always understand the power of that. In the other direction you have to also understand that ... what you write does have consequences and it’s a privilege. You are capable of ruining somebody’s life or career. And that brings with it an obligation to be scrupulous and fair . It really is this sacred trust and everything else kind of filters through that for me. (Interview, LCA reporter, January 21, 2011)
His bureau chief, in contrast, puts it more abstractly and low-key: “I think the [newspaper] has a different mission than, you know, a lot of the other people here” (Interview, LCA reporter, December 7, 2010).
In the LP, such sentiments of envy toward leading news outlets were familiar, but much weaker. This was undoubtedly connected to the fact that there were no individual outlets that stood out and were mythologized as much as the New York Times and the Washington Post in the USA, for instance. In a rare statement to this effect, one reporter of a regional newspaper said: “In top newspapers like the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung you can find an utterly stupid commentary about state politics, which has been written by someone in the ivory tower, from a distance—he knows the wire stories but doesn’t know the people and writes whatever” (Interview, LP reporter, November 7, 2011). Though this statement was as much about journalistic claims from a distance as about a prestigious newspaper, what also resonated in this comment was that: ‘FAZ is not per se better than the rest of us (and sometimes even worse).’
There is no doubt that journalists working for the Times, the AP, the SZ, Der Spiegel or FAZ got more access and exclusive stories than their competitors. Their positions in the press corps hierarchy thus mostly corresponded to the overall influence of their news outlet, despite personal animosities and some dismissive comments about the perceived excellence of news outlets. However, not all positions within the hierarchy of reporters neatly corresponded to the influence of their news organizations. Seniority of reporters, especially in covering state politics, professional accomplishments and the variety of channels a reporter operated all factored into it as well.
To name just a few examples: Fred Dicker worked for the New York Post, a newspaper with very low professional prestige. When I conducted this research, he had been covering New York State politics for over three decades, wrote a weekly news column that often broke news besides his regular reporting, had a morning talk radio show on WGDJ-AM, in which I appeared twice to talk about my ongoing research, and was a commentator for Albany’s local affiliate for CBS News. Even reporters in the LCA who disdained him admired his talent and intellect but wished he would have put it to better use.
Tom Precious of the Buffalo News had a similarly long tenure at the Capitol, enjoyed great respect within the press corps, not only because he constituted a very productive one-person-bureau but also because his competitor-colleagues often perceived his coverage as extremely insightful. His closest Munich pendant was Uli Bachmeier of the Augsburger Allgemeine, who was the chairman of the LP, whose work was very well regarded and who was personally liked by his competitor-colleagues.
Besides Dicker, Elizabeth Benjamin (Time Warner Cable News) represented the most distinctive position in the press corps hierarchy in the LCA. She had been a newspaper reporter for the Albany Times Union and blogging pioneer, having founded the paper’s political blog “Capitol Confidential” before writing for the equally influential “Daily Politics” blog of the New York Daily News. In 2010 she became a news anchor— usually not a position of professional prestige—but still did reporting for the “State of Politics” blog and was regarded as one of the most influential journalists in New York State politics.
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