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Journalists as Political Instruments

From the perspective of political actors, the intention behind backstage talk is often to use media for informational press maneuvers (Sigal 1973): making politics or career moves by leaking information or attacking opponents anonymously. Although it occurred frequently, reporters drew boundaries against journalism which lends itself to such purposes. One LP reporter talked about this issue euphemistically, while admitting that it is a reality: “I think you also have the responsibility to give snipers among fellow party members not too big a platform” (Interview, LP reporter, November 10, 2011). He most likely referred to intra-party conflicts in the CSU, which tend to be especially intense. Reporters denoted this as a form of instrumentalisiert werden (to be instrumentalized), while not linking it to specific journalists in their own ranks.

Many LCA journalists, on the other hand, drew boundaries between good and bad journalism in reference to tabloid journalists for letting themselves be used for anonymous political attacks. On a pragmatic level, one former spokesperson and consultant described tabloids as “contract newspapers,” which means that “if they make a decision, you not only get the story but you also get the editorial, you get the Op-Ed, you get the photograph, you get the graph ... you get the whole thing. That’s a good thing to have on your side” (Interview, LCA spokesperson, June 28,

2011). He also added how harmful it could be when the contract was not in your favor. One senior journalist defined how good journalism dealt with anonymous sources in opposition to tabloid practices:

We have different standards in terms of using anonymous quotes and gratuitous comments. ... I don’t think the Post is necessarily being fair in using these anonymous quotes from who knows who these characters are, these alleged “high-ranking Democrats” or “person close to the Cuomo camp” or “person familiar with Shelly Silver’s thinking.” To say nasty things about someone in an anonymous quote is, I think, below the belt. If you want to say that “we’ve learned that an investigation is going on according to someone close to the investigation,” that’s different. But if you say “we’ve learned that Alan Hevesi is one of the lowest scum balls in the world according to someone close to the investigation,” that’s different. You know what I mean? They don’t distinguish. They’ll use either those things. It’s just as fine with them. I don’t approve of that. I don’t think most journalists would do that. So that’s the difference. (Interview, LCA reporter, May 5, 2011)

Significant portions of this interview focused on this issue and particularly Fred Dicker’s sourcing standards. While it is not the intention here to point fingers, it is necessary to devote some attention to the New York Post and Fred Dicker, who had been a reoccurring reference point for professional boundary drawing by his competitor-colleagues.

The journalistic style of the “dean of the Albany press corps” was characterized in a front page New York Times portrait as follows: “Mr. Dicker’s distinctive brand ofjournalism—old-school beat reporting, searing commentary and a sizable dose of showmanship—has helped him endure for more than three decades in Albany.” He was further described as “pummel[ing] politicians with such bipartisan brutality that people seem unable to turn away,” while the portrait also pointed out that “so far he has been gentle with Governor Cuomo in columns that extol, not excoriate” (Peters 2011).

An earlier portrait in the New York Observer wrote: “To Mr. Dicker’s admirers, his relentless reporting, with its heavy reliance on anonymous sources and its utter lack of boundaries, is a healthy antidote to Albany’s clubbiness. ... His competitors blend an admiration for his scoops with a suspicion of his methods and a resentment of his open disdain for some of them” (B. Smith 2005). Dicker is frequently the subject of metadiscursive news coverage. During the research period, the focus was on his good relationship with Governor Andrew Cuomo (King 2011; Smith 2011), which has since deteriorated. Allegedly, the falling out led to the cancellation of a book deal, which Dicker acquired with HarperCollins (see Chap. 4) for a biography on Cuomo in spring of 2012 (Kaplan and Bosman 2013; Tracy 2013).

As discussed in Chap. 4, Dicker served as a boundary actor within the LCA, and his professional ethos is best described as hybrid journalism. To his competitor-colleagues, much of Dicker’s journalism was political advocacy. It is indicative in this context that Dicker is characterized in the story quoted above as the “fourth man” to the allegorical three men in a room— the Governor and the leaders of the two legislative bodies (B. Smith 2005). Even if LCA reporters did not mention him by name, it was often clear they were referring to him, like in this instance of a broadsheet reporter who expressed his disdain for tabloids quite clearly: “There are people here who write stories where they have just decided they are advocates or on the side of a certain politician. Sometimes kind of blatantly so, I think. Unfair journalism is bad journalism” (Interview, LCA reporter, January 21, 2011). The following lengthy quote is a more extreme example of boundary drawing against Dicker, even though or precisely because it derives from the opposite side, a spokesperson of a former Governor. The intensity of his comments may be a consequence of not permanently having to deal with the LCA anymore at the time of the interview:

Fred Dicker allows himself to be used for personal attacks and you never have to give your name to be in Fred Dicker’s article. You can just attack somebody and say a quote ... Every Monday he has his column that is some anonymous source quoted, lobbing a grenade at somebody ... and very rarely it is actual journalism or is it actually uncovering something; it’s just attacks. And, again, I’m not gonna lie: we did it too. Part of the reason I felt that things started to turn around a little bit with [former Governor]

... is because we started using Fred Dicker. We didn’t talk to that guy for a year and a half and he killed us every week. And then we started talking to him, giving him red meat, and he let off. Yeah, he still went after us every once in a while but it was a little bit more balanced. We got our shots in too. ... We started fighting dirty like that, like everyone else does, and it helped. It helped the Governor’s coverage. Is that right? No! (Interview, LCA spokesperson, February 28, 2011)

Even though he worked for the ostensibly most powerful man in New York State,11 he felt trapped in a game mainly governed by Fred Dicker. He criticized the press, rather than political actors, for allowing itself to be used in that way. In his opinion, this was one main reason for the purported “dysfunction of Albany,” which was underrepresented in public discourse relative to the recurring narrative of corrupt lawmakers and undemocratic procedures:

Again, I blame the rest of the LCA for that ... Part of the dysfunction of Albany is that you have a press corps with some very very powerful newspapers there, with huge amounts of circulations, and they are led around by the nose by Fred Dicker who is the worst journalist there is and I don’t think that he is even a journalist. He is as bad as they come. He is as unethical - Again, I have not a single good thing to say about him. And it’s not even a personal thing it’s his business. And it’s what he does and it’s the way he allows himself, happily I might add, to be used as an attack dog for whatever person he feels like attacking at that time. (Interview, LCA spokesperson, February 28, 2011)

Dicker described himself as an “equal-opportunity prick” in one portrait (Smith 2005). It meant that, while he gave a forum to everyone, he did not form lasting alliances and turned against anybody whenever he pleased. This was often conditioned by his own stated political positions. What soured relations with the Governor in early 2013 were Cuomo’s gun control measures (which Dicker opposed) and his long indecisiveness concerning hydraulic fracturing (which Dicker favored), which ultimately led to a dismissal.

To sum up, there were three ways in which Dicker was perceived as an actor who blurred professional boundaries between journalism and politics: (1) He was an active facilitator of political conflict and maneuvering, (2) his political opinions played an evident role in his work, and (3) powerful informants who granted Dicker continuous access were rewarded with favorable coverage, at least in the short term—the proverbial honeymoon.

In contrast, there was no such common representative of professional boundary blurring in the LP. The only comparably consistent reference point of relatively minor normative transgression was one LP representative who tended to report on extracts of upcoming bills in advance. Many of his competitor-colleagues perceived this practice of turning half-baked and incomplete information into news as problematic. In Albany, this was so common that it was not even worth discussing.

The most consistent concern LP reporters expressed in regard to blurring boundaries between journalism and politics was party membership. One LP reporter carefully assumed that most of his colleagues sympathized with CSU:

I think—I can’t say for sure since journalists don’t talk about that among themselves—but I would assume that the majority tries to be fairly neutral, at least in news coverage, but are themselves probably rather.. - a narrow majority in the Landtagspresse is CSU-near, with the exception of Bayerisches Fernsehen [the TV branch of Bayerischer Rundfunk], which is completely pervaded by the CSU. (Interview, LP reporter, November 24, 2011)

Party affiliation was never discussed directly in my field research in Albany. This was connected to political-cultural differences of what it meant to be a party member. In Germany, furthermore, political divisions were more diverse and much more dominated by political parties. Not even Fred Dicker, whose political positions were mostly conservative, was automatically associated with the Republican Party. One LP reporter, on the other hand, told me that several of his colleagues of his newspaper were party members, which he found irreconcilable with being a journalist because it meant “giving up your independence and also losing part of your credibility” (Interview, LP reporter, December 1, 2011). The same journalist told me, as did some other LP reporters, of the most extreme example of transgression of professional boundaries in this respect and a danger that he thought was particular for press corps:

The risk of [the relation between media and politics] being so close is that folks start to feel as a part of politics. There are colleagues who heckle during committee meetings, who slip notes to politicians with the questions they consider appropriate. I would never do such things. I try to maintain distance, which is important if you want to report objectively and honestly. And some lose that [distance]. (Interview, LP reporter, December 1, 2011)

In the USA as well as in the German case, backstage talk was an inevitable and, for the most part, desirable practice for journalists as well as political actors. There were dangers involved in having this conversational culture in place. Part of the danger lied exactly in the mutual trust—above all in the maintenance of confidentiality and validity of information, respec- tively—which not only opened opportunities for breaking that trust but also involved constraints of different sorts: gag orders, fear of losing trust

(and thus access to information) and solidarity, which countervails the public responsibility of journalists to ensure accountability.

 
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