Home Communication Contemporary Journalism in the US and Germany: Agents of Accountability
Collective Interpretation of Issues
Besides collective agenda setting, there is another form, or rather a further consequence of pack journalism, which is intensified in a press corps context. Continuous conversations between reporters, with the same sources, at the same location about the same issues promote similar interpretations of these issues. Most reporters denied that it happened as a “conspiracy between reporters,” which is a common stereotype, but in more subtle ways. One LP reporter carefully stated that there might be “similar voicing” of stories sometimes. Another one suggested there was a danger in constantly exchanging views, which can turn into “conformity of opinions” (Interview, LP reporter, June 13, 2012). He added that this also happened through reading each other’s work.
Marginal insiders10 and former members of the press corps expressed more critical assessments of this type of pack journalism. One of them took a more conspiratorial stance: “They sit together, my colleagues, and they say, ‘what are you going to write?’ and there are a few opinion leaders who go: ‘this is the direction’ and then everyone writes that” (Interview, LP reporter, January 24, 2012). Not spending too much time at the Landtag helped in this regard, said another LP journalist: “I have often the impression the Landtagspresse levels and it does not level upwards ... you are most highly respected when you don’t hurt anybody, when everybody is well-behaved and writes the same in principle” (Interview, LP reporter, November 10, 2011).
The highly competitive nature of the LCA attenuated such conspiratorial arrangements. Not even most critical current or former members said this applied to the LCA. However, “in the old days”—this would be the late 1980s and early 1990s—the Albany bureau chiefs of the New York Times and Daily News shared an apartment and decided on their way to work what story they would make big on a given day, according to one former state house reporter (Interview, LCA reporter, May 11, 2011). At the time of my research, the competitive situation at the state house even limited what friends within the press corps would talk about before the editorial deadline. One bureau chief, who was good friends with another bureau chief in the LCA, told me: “I’ll be talking to a friend of mine, you know, at the end of the day, which can be pretty late. And we’ll just be laughing about something and then I’ll go home and I’ll see on the wire that he had this great story that just really beat me badly. But that’s the business” (Interview, LCA reporter, September 13,2010)
As indicated earlier, there were also less tangible ways in which pack journalism occurred, that is, other than conversational alignment of stories. One was collective thinking, which is typical within the self-contained environment of the state house that is often referred to as a bubble, echo chamber or Kaseglocke (bell jar). One-directional thinking, which journalists shared with political actors, involved accepting the ways government works as a given. This led to operational blindness, meaning the inability to assess issues from a critical and social distance. It also entailed becoming an insider, which some news organizations avoided by limiting correspondents’ tenures. One LP reporter talked about “border crossings” by some of his more senior colleagues:
To the point where colleagues stand in the chamber, who walk in there nonchalantly even though this is actually not appropriate—you are supposed to speak with people in front of the chamber. That happens. And that journalist colleagues hit up a representative for some personal matter they have noticed and they pass them a note about what issues they should address. There were instances where too much has been mixed up I think. (Interview, LP reporter, May 15, 2012)
Another way how synchronization of coverage occurred was when one
reporter broke a story important enough to put it on the general news agenda. The first story often defined the narrative frame in which it was told subsequently. Besides the fact that the press corps did not follow up on many scoops, when it did, said one of my LCA informants, “there is probably a collective decision-making, you know, if someone takes a certain tack to start it off it’s a lot harder to reverse that tack” (Interview, LCA reporter, April 5, 2010).
Besides the qualities of a story itself, the power to drive the pack is not evenly distributed among news operations and their correspondents. One might assume the New York Times and SZ were most effective in this regard. This is only partly true. Starting with the US case, the Times did frequently set the agenda, which had partly to do with the fact that if they focused on an issue, public and political attention was likely to ensue to a far greater extent than with any other outlet with the exception of the AP. The Times also had more organizational resources (personnel, legal power, etc.) than other newspapers. This is not to say that the Times did not also have accomplished journalists; it did. However, many stories clearly appeared in the Times because it was the Times. As one senior reporter said: “They get a lot of gifts handed to them” (Interview, LCA reporter, May 17, 2010).
Almost all members in the LCA drove news coverage at times, at least those who engaged in enterprise journalism and breaking news. One side- effect of social media was that more journalists got involved in generating live coverage and the hunt for scoops, which spread the competitive playing field to some extent. Aside from this, Fred Dicker from the New York Post was often the leader of the pack. Specifically his Monday “Inside Albany” column was a driving force of pack coverage for the remainder of the workweek, besides Dicker’s regular news coverage and daily ten a.m. talk radio show on WGDJ. To his competitor-colleagues, a defining feature of the column was that it lent itself for political attacks. One reporter referred to an episode frequently called Troopergate11 in this context:
Since I’ve been here at least two politicians have made extensive use of the New York Post. They just try to stampede the rest of the press corps. You know, give them something for Monday that drives a couple of days of coverage. That worked really well for Andrew Cuomo when he was Attorney General during Troopergate. He wanted the whole thing to have a certain flavor. He was really able to use them with just little bits in the Monday column or even throughout the week. And we’d be forced to chase it because it was part of a law enforcement investigation. (Interview, LCA reporter, January 21, 2011)
Even this reporter, whose job allowed him to ignore most of the minutiae of state politics, was drawn into the pack. Another reporter wondered whether other beats had a similar “obsession with these running stories” as Albany, where nothing is added for a long time but “news” are still being generated. He gave the example of last-in first-out (or LIFO), which is a measure to lay off employees according to least seniority that had been discussed in the field of education: “How many stories have been written about that just because the tab[loid]s will ask a question about it at every press conference because no matter what the Governor says they can write a story about it. That’s probably not productive on the long run but it happens” (Interview, LCA reporter, May 4, 2011).
Pack dynamics in the LP were much less defined by certain news organizations acting as agenda-setters. First of all, the SZ did not have the influence in Bavarian state political coverage that the New York Times had in New York. SZ was very influential on the national scale but its position in Bavaria was largely independent from that. One journalist said he had to “teach” politicians from his region that their voters did not read SZ: “This fixation is detrimental [to them] and many get it by now” (Interview, LP reporter, December 1, 2011). Another TV journalist argued that the importance of SZ was mostly based on other journalists assigning significance to it: “I have producers here of [TV program] that read the [SZ] in the morning and go ‘we’ll go in this direction’ but I may have a very different perception from the Landtag at that moment” (Interview, LP reporter, May 30, 2012).
He mentioned a story the SZ pushed a few years earlier, which turned out to be “souffle, which quickly disintegrated.”
Tabloids, furthermore, had much less agenda setting power in Bavaria compared to New York politics. Only one reporter, Angela Bohm of the Abendzeitung, covered the Landtag permanently at the time of my study. One informant told me that the press association had disciplined Bohm occasionally when she went too far but that he wished this would happen more frequently.
Another important context of pack dynamics was the linkage between state house presses and national implications and aspirations of state politics/politicians. In Munich, there was the exceptional position of the CSU, which only exists in Bavaria (and no other state) and which joins forces with CDU on the national level. During the research period, Angela Merkel’s CDU and the CSU together formed the governing party in Berlin, which means that Bavarian Minister-President Seehofer was also deeply involved in national politics (and used to be a federal minister in previous governments). This peculiarity of the political system seemed to elevate LP reporters’ professional self-worth and the significance they assigned to their work and that of competitors. Among other things, they distinguished themselves from journalists in Berlin who could never penetrate the CSU to the same degree as they could.
In Albany, there was a different interweaving of state and national politics in the study period, which was more speculative and on an individual level. Only 3 months into Andrew Cuomo’s tenure as Governor, he was depicted as a presidential hopeful in the news. This speculation flourished even more after he was credited with passing the first on-time state budget in years on March 31, 2011 and especially after the historic passage of a same-sex marriage law on June 24, 2011. Cuomo’s possible future as a presidential candidate quickly grew into an anticipatory myth and the LCA became obsessed with this story. Questions about it came up time and time again in press conferences, interviews and news coverage, and especially in weekly roundtable discussions between Capitol reporters on television.
I started wondering why the press was so obsessed with this story, beyond the inherent sensation of covering a future frontrunner for the highest political office in the country. A conversation with one of my informants at the end of my fieldwork made me realize that a presidential future of Cuomo may have positive career implications for reporters who had been covering him for years:
Reporter: Yeah, it’s the classic example: You’re a state house reporter and all of a sudden Cuomo becomes president and, shit, big career move, great for [name]’s career - all of a sudden the Washington Post wants the guy who has been covering him for the last eight years to move to Washington, cover the president. Shit, I’m in the White House! Actually, a friend pointed out that this is a—if you want to be completely cynical—this creates a massive disincentive for me to be critical. Because if I knock him down I theoretically diminish his political chances and, theoretically, my star could be aligned with his. Right?
MR: Do you think people consider that?
Reporter: Like anything, Matthias, I don’t think there is one big giant moment but it’s the collection of little, tiny decisions that add up to it. No, I don’t think there is anybody in the press corps who doesn’t see that. It’s a pretty basic read, right? Especially for people who make their living covering politics, which to me is just a total, endless matrix of incentive structures. Who wouldn’t see that? (Interview, LCA reporter, June 10, 2011)
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