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The Wall and (Dis)comfort of Partiality

Political actors categorized reporters as friends and enemies, according to their outlets’ editorial positions, which affected access and relations with them. Reporters dissociated themselves from these positions and saw unclassifiability and being attacked by politicians from both/several parties as a sign of professionalism. One major difference, however, is that LCA journalists (except few bureau chiefs and one sole columnist in residence) hardly wrote commentary whereas in the LP almost all reporters did.

Some LP reporters conceded that they sometimes compensated for the perception of partiality by allowing more space for “political enemies,” but, in general, it did not appear as a problem for them. As one reporter pointed out: “There are prejudices on both sides, no question. People are sometimes categorized and can never escape that scheme. But that’s like everywhere” (Interview, LP reporter, December 1, 2011). Because party politics is more diverse and central in the German proportional parliamentary system, this particular kind of categorization was stronger than in the USA. Even though US media outlets are categorized as liberal or conservative, they are less associated with respective parties. One reporter was bothered by the liberal attitude she perceived among her colleagues who were devastated when John Kerry lost the presidential election in 2004 and cheering when Obama won in 2008. A German reporter spoke about having a partisan label while pointing out her own allegiances unashamedly:

The whole thinking of politicians works like this: She is for us, she is against us. I think they really divide journalists like this: She is SPD-affiliated, she is a Green. I couldn’t even tell! I have voted Green before and I don’t know whether I have ever voted for CSU. I think SPD is a party you can vote for.

I would not vote for “Freie Wahler.” What do they stand for? (Interview, LP reporter, January 30, 2012)

LCA journalists take pigeonholing less lightly and distance themselves more rigorously from the editorial section of their newspaper as well as any other form of partisanship. This pervasive need of distancing in the USA corresponds to the institutional norm of separating facts and opinion, news and editorial sections, the corresponding division of labor between respective newsroom personnel and, above all, the obligation of news reporters to be objective. The metaphor the wall (one of the reporters said firewall) encapsulated this principle.5

The fact that they represented newspapers with certain editorial positions weakened reporters’ performance of impartiality, however: “If people like your editorial [or] if they don’t, you’re always answering for that, even though you don’t write them” (Interview, LCA reporter, February 10, 2011). They invoke the wall between opinion and news more or less explicitly in interactions with sources to push back against this criticism. One senior reporter I will call “Ned” refused to participate in reporter roundtable discussions on television because he thought it was already too close to expressing opinions, if only by rolling your eyes:

I don’t even read my newspaper’s editorials, because I don’t want to know what they think. I really want that sort of firewall up. I’ll have people come here and [say] ‘your fucking paper’s editorial said that ...’ [My answer always is] ‘uhm, that’s not me. That’s a whole other department.’ (Interview, LCA reporter, May 17, 2010)

I witnessed this attitude in practice when I shadowed Ned one year after our first interview:

I walk with Ned from an outside event back to the Capitol building and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and his spokesperson walk right next to us. When we pass by the fountains on Empire State Plaza, Silver says jokingly that they should hold Assembly meetings out here. In fact, he adds, they should also hold meetings with the editorial board of Ned’s paper’s out here and Ned should suggest that to them. Ned responds quite earnestly that he does not talk to his editorial board. (Fieldnotes, LCA, May 10, 2011).

Even in this jocular context, Ned, who was a person with a good sense of humor, seriously affirmed the existence of the wall. Another reporter—the most extreme upholder of the wall in the LCA—told me that he was not even allowed to talk to editorial writers and vice versa. He even claimed that violation of this organizational norm could cost him his job,6 which was his standard response to politicians asking him about who his paper would endorse in an electoral campaign. When I asked him whether he got labeled according to his newspaper’s editorial positions, he said:

We’re constantly preaching to them. ... The most common thing that’ll happen is they’ll send me something that is meant for [his paper’s chief editorial writer] or vice versa. And I can’t forward it to her. There’s a wall!

I can’t forward it to her. So I will call him up: “Hey, you know, he really meant that for [name]. You know, here’s her address.” - “Can’t you just forward it?” - “No! No communication. And she does the same thing.” (Interview, LCA reporter, September 8, 2010)

Despite the overall increase and diversification of commentary in US media (Jacobs and Townsley 2011) and its diffusion to news sections and social media presences (Lasorsa et al. 2012; Revers 2014b), the wall and the omission of opinion was the most consensual professional norm among LCA reporters. Those few bureau chiefs/state editors who wrote columns in addition to regular news reporting argued that what they offered in their columns was analysis, wit or insider knowledge rather than opinion, while strictly distinguishing between their column and news writing:

I’m usually looking for a comic conceit to put on the week’s news. But that frequently involves criticism of politicians that I am going to be covering at some point on a very straight-ahead basis ... I try to make sure that, whatever the argument that I’m making in the column, that it’s completely bulletproof. That, even when it’s comic and cutting, that it is a fair critique; that it is a critique that no one would argue with. (Interview, LCA reporter, May 11, 2010)

However, all of these column-writing news reporters acknowledged difficulties in reconciling these distinct obligations. Such tensions and associated organizational norms were non-existent in Germany, where newspapers had been ideologically aligned with political parties for about a century before they differentiated. A weaker separation between news and opinion in contemporary German journalism is a remnant of this institutional linkage. Among LP reporters, the personal union of reporter/columnist was quite common. In most cases reporters wrote commentaries and a journalistic form they called Korrespondentenfeature, which tends to be more analytical and critical than a regular news story. Probing for whether this combination of tasks ever got them into trouble with political actors (e.g. getting politically labeled, stigmatized, ousted) was negated throughout.7 They did not seem to have any problems with negotiating writing opinion and “objective” news stories, often even in the same issue of their newspaper (only one LP reporter spoke of a “balancing act” in this specific context).

Quite contrarily, LP reporters objected to the notion of reine Nachricht (pure news) that is connected to the ideal of objective news. As one TV journalist pointed out: “‘Pro and con and then we let the viewer decide’ is not my thing” (Interview, LP reporter, May 30, 2012). Correspondingly, the appearance of impartiality was not a concern for LP reporters. When I asked whether opinion writing impaired their news credibility, many of them did not even understand what I was talking about. One reporter put it quite bluntly: “Look, it’s a craft. It is like: ‘Today I make a table, tomorrow I make a chair.’ It works. ... If you can’t do that you chose the wrong occupation” (Interview, LP reporter, March 23, 2012). I asked spokespeople whether they pushed reporters’ buttons by accusing them of partiality (as their US counterparts did). Similarly, they unanimously negated or did not understand what I meant. While LCA reporters maintained their news credibility by distancing themselves from opinion, the following statement of an LP journalist could not be more contrary:

If I write a news report and it wells up inside of me, where I say “you can’t write this, what he is telling me is baloney” or “it has this or that implication, which he has not considered” ... When I reach this threshold that it wells up inside of me—that something wants out—I write my news report as it’s supposed to be, as objectively as I can, and then I write an additional commentary where I can give my opinion free reign. (Interview,

LP reporter, February 10, 2012)

Only when I broached the subject again, he conceded that there was a possibility that opinion flowed into the news but that analysis and feature writing, like opinion, additionally buffered this tendency. To him, commentating acted as a purification ritual for news writing; writing commentary enabled him to leave his opinion out of the news.

 
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