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Civic Withdrawal and Professional Purification

Another aspect of the social drama of journalistic professionalism in the USA was almost non-existent in Germany: Professional imperatives of impartiality and non-partisanship spill over into journalists’ personal lives, setting off a pollution drama (Douglas 2005 [1966])—a set of taboos and rituals of avoidance. Journalists curtail their own civic duties and engagements to avoid political labeling, including voting in elections, especially primary elections because of the need to register with a party, and even participating on local community boards.

Dash told me he never voted in elections he covers. He argued it would be irreconcilable for him to choose one over the other candidate, which would have to be based on a preference developed beforehand, during a time when he is supposed to do his job covering the election in a neutral fashion. This is an extreme position within the LCA and has been the subject of debate among them. Taking such a stance is telling about how careful the appearance of non-partisanship is guarded by US journalists and seems unfathomable in the German context. Dash was not alone, however, since some national correspondents in the USA had identified themselves as non-voters for professional reasons. Dash referred to Jim Lehrer (former anchor for PBS NewsHour) and Leonard Downie, Jr (former Washington Post editor) as exemplars, justifying his position in front of colleagues who thought he went too far (Fieldnotes, LCA, November 16, 2010).

Next to professionalism, Hess (1981: 89) related the inclination not to vote (which he found to be common among Washington correspondents) to a lack of political beliefs among reporters. My research does not support this. Reporters in Albany engaged in these rituals of avoidance to pre-emptively counter criticism by political actors, who used any seeming violation of non-partisanship as a symbolic device to question their integrity and dismiss their work. Even a disproportion of Facebook friends on each side of the aisle served to question the claim of impartiality.

Even though this was a familiar game, reporters did take it seriously. As Dash said, “the appearance of impropriety is impropriety. The appearance of bias is bias. You can be attacked, that’s the standard to which you have to hold yourself to” (Interview, LCA reporter, May 18, 2010). It was also common, therefore, that journalists refrained from covering certain subjects or organizations they had some form of personal connection to. For instance, if a reporter’s spouse worked for a government agency, she would not cover this agency.

Only one German reporter mentioned and emphasized the incompatibility of political party membership and political reporting. He said he knew “several colleagues” who are members of a party: “I would never do that ... because they give up their independence and also part of their credibility” (Interview, LP reporter, December 1, 2011). Party membership in Germany is a much deeper commitment to a party than party registration in the USA, which is a relatively weak affiliation and mainly implies being able to vote in party primary elections. The main disadvantage for reporters is that records of party registration are publicly accessible.

A common teasing theme in conversations between LCA journalists and spokespeople were their respective professional obligations: spokespeople told reporters that they violated their objectivity principles by taking sides, while reporters told spokespeople how they did not do justice to their job title of “public information officer” by spinning and lying. One day, Dash explained to me a FOIA request for disclosure of documents he just filed with a government agency. He got the spokesperson involved in the process to make sure his request did not get lost: “This is what they are supposed to do - this is public information. She is a public information officer. That is her job and that’s why we [taxpayers] pay her salary” (Fieldnotes, LCA reporter, January 10, 2011). Pejorative remarks of reporters toward spokespeople often rest on their obligation to taxpaying citizens.

Spokespeople can get defensive about this. In late 2010, Dash and “Chuck” were busy digging for information about future hires by the Cuomo administration, which would take office one and a half months later. One day, they talked to a spokesperson who apparently came to the Capitol for a job interview. The two reporters teased him—he used to work as a local newspaper journalist—about his supposed future work for Cuomo. The spokesperson negated by saying that he still believed in public service (Fieldnotes, LCA, November 16, 2010).

Initially, I did not take these kinds of conversations seriously. In conjunction with what US reporters told me in interviews, I realized how thin-skinned they were regarding criticism and how delicate their social drama of professionalism was, especially in the face of economic and professional crisis. As Alexander argued, “the elements of social-dramatic performances are de-fused, not automatically hung together” (Alexander 2004: 547) The meticulous purification rituals discussed in this section are further testaments of how rigorous performances of professionalism are in the USA in comparison to Germany.

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