Home Communication Contemporary Journalism in the US and Germany: Agents of Accountability
The State House Press
Organization and History of the Associations
The Legislative Correspondents Association (LCA) in Albany was founded in 1900 or earlier (the exact date is unknown) and is one of the oldest press associations in the USA. It is a non-profit corporation and files as a civic league with the IRS since 1989. The association hardly comes into view, except (1) as a space on the third floor of the New York State Capitol, right between the Senate and Assembly, housing members’ offices and (2) an annual political satire show, staged in front of politicians and lobbyists. The first LCA show was staged in 1900, 1 year after 32 years of construction work at the Capitol were officially finished. This makes it the longest running show of that kind in the USA. I attended two dress rehearsals in 2009 and 2011. The idea of the show is that politicians watch themselves being parodied by singing reporters in silly costumes and then get the chance for rebuttals, on stage or in prerecorded videos.
Political satire shows of this sort have tradition in US political culture. “Inner Circle” (established 1922) is the New York City equivalent, which focuses on lampooning the mayor, followed by a rebuttal. At the White House Correspondents dinner (established 1920), a comedian is invited to make fun of the US president and the press, followed by the president making fun of himself and the press. The political satire show is a playful ritual of boundary maintenance, enabling journalists to tell politicians what they really think of them with due ironic distance. This temporary outlet is indicative for the prevalent rituals of avoidance of opinion in the occupational culture of US journalism.
The Maximilianeum in Munich houses the state legislature (“Landtag”) of Bavaria as of 1949 and was built in 1874. The association “Bayerische Landtagspresse” (LP) was founded on January 23, 1957. Its bylaws say: “[the association] has the purpose of facilitating journalistic work and representing occupational interests of its members towards the assembly, state government and [political] parties” (Bayerische Landtagspresse 2009; my translation). What this means is that the association acts collectively on behalf of its members (individuals or the whole group) if they are discriminated or wronged by political actors (more on this in the following section).
Criteria for LP membership are a full-time occupation as a journalist in Munich and continuous reporting duties on Bavarian state politics. The LP, furthermore, expects “that this occupation is carried out based on one’s own perception and information gathering” (ibid.). A condition for membership, in other words, is to be on-location and witness political processes first-hand (“aus Augenschein”) rather than from afar. The LCA membership requirements are full-time employment as journalists and “firsthand coverage of [the annual legislative] session” as the “primary assignment” during that time.6
The LP bylaws also note that the association organizes press conferences and background discussions. Judging from conversations with reporters, however, only the latter happened on a regular basis. About once a month, the LP invited a politician to discuss issues with members (I was not allowed to participate) off-the-record. The idea was to have a communicative space that enables invited guests to talk openly and provide journalists with contextual knowledge. According to some informants, this worked occasionally.
Defending members’ interests and organizing background discussions were described to me as the two main purposes of the LP. Both did not apply to the LCA, whose purpose is “to encourage, demand and protect the full, unbiased and free flow of news regarding the Legislature and all other phases of the government of New York State,” according to the 1984 bylaws. However, while the LCA did not defend individual members against political pressure, there were rare cases in which the association defended collective interests of the press. This happened in 2013, when the LCA president wrote a letter of complaint to the Senate Republicans about excluding the press and protesters from a hearing (McGeveran 2013).
US reporters who had been reporting from the Capitol for decades said there used to be more socializing between sources and reporters.
One virtually had an unlimited expense account (inconceivable for present-day reporters) when he was still a Capitol reporter and used to take sources out for dinner all the time. He also admitted that he got too close and became friends with some of them (Interview, LCA editor, May 11, 2011). Senior reporters in the LP had similar stories to tell about close institutional proximity between journalism and politics. One of them reminisced:
In my beginnings at the Landtag in 1978, older colleagues still saw themselves as a “part of the parliament,” as an exclusive circle. They all automatically received the Bavarian order of merit, just like elected representatives. That’s long gone and it all became much more democratic. (Interview, LP reporter, November 22, 2011)
Another difference between the two press corps was that the ranks of the LCA had thinned much more severely in the years prior, as most other state house press corps in the USA (Dorroh 2009). Seven news bureaus, mostly of regional and local newspapers, had closed at the State Capitol between 2005 and 2011. In the LP, the bureau of the regional paper Donaukurier had closed 2 years before my research in Munich; the one before that (Mittelbayerische Zeitung) was closed in 1999. Both newspapers, however, were still represented by correspondents who reported on state politics part of their time and commuted between Munich and their home newsrooms. Because of this shared experience of staff cuts and economic downturn of newspapers, correspondents in both countries had crisis awareness, though understandably much more so in the USA.
There were also ongoing but subliminal ethical controversies in the LCA concerning the very foundations of their association, which, to my knowledge, did not exist in the LP. Besides the fact that profits were donated, the annual LCA show involved monetary transactions between journalists and political actors, that is, reporters selling tickets to politicians. This had been a contentious issue and was the reason why some reporters and news organizations represented in the LCA did not participate. This included the New York Times, which in 2007 announced through columnist Frank Rich that it will no longer participate at the White House Correspondents dinner because it was a “crystallization of the press’s failures in the post-9/11 era” (Rich 2007). According to one of my informants, this pertained to all such events, which meant that the
Times’ Albany bureau did not partake in the LCA show thereafter (personal communication, January 19, 2014).
Another discussion concerned the space provided by New York State free of charge and its press room manager, responsible for scheduling press conferences, sorting mail, handling security entrance cards for the press, and so on, and employed by the New York State Senate (Hammond 1995). Though most reporters found ethical resolution by the fact that office assignments were made by the LCA itself, this spatial arrangement had caused some controversy in the past. Gannett News Service moved out of the State Capitol to an office building across the street in 1981,7 after publishing a critical story about expenses of former Governor Hugh Carey’s administration and then itself being criticized for receiving free rent at the LCA offices. This spatial rearrangement persisted until the day this book was finished.
Even though this situation led back to this one incidence that involved reporters (and politicians) who were not present anymore, successors in the Gannett bureau still drew meaning from their spatial distance. Former bureau chief, Jay Gallagher, was quoted in Hammond’s story about this circumstance as saying “it works for us, but I don’t want to pass judgment on anybody else ... I feel better about covering the capitol knowing we don’t get free space from the state” (ibid). According to one informant, Gannett never considered moving back to the Capitol and deemed $20,000 annual rent for the office space across the street “reasonable” (Email correspondence, May 22, 2009).
This episode may seem idiosyncratic but aligns itself in a series of instances following Watergate, in which news media gradually refused perks, as one of my senior informants told me. It was then that the New York Times started insisting on paying airfare when traveling with the governor (fieldnote, April 22, 2011). Some media organizations also demanded to be billed when reporters were invited to functions.
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