Home Communication Contemporary Journalism in the US and Germany: Agents of Accountability
Even though mutual dependence usually sufficed to sustain strained source relations, there could be friction for some time. In practice, most of the time this meant a temporary disgruntlement of politicians and spokespeo- ple toward political reporters, accompanied by unresponsiveness to phone calls and disparagement. In extreme cases, all lines of communication were “cut off” and relationships were discontinued for a longer period, sometimes years.
For the most part, political reporters talked about being cut off as a threat scenario and gesture by political actors. A backbencher or even regular parliamentarian had little symbolic leverage in this regard. In Munich, such a threat expressed by the Minister-President, some of his cabinet members or leaders of bigger parties, in Albany by one of the three men in a room, did carry some weight, however. Hardly any reporter conceded to the effectiveness of the threat of being cut off. One reporter in the LP, who had experiences of falling out with a minister once, admitted that the possibility of being cut off an important informant was a serious impediment: “Often times I would like to go farther but then I think ‘well, I better don’t do that because I won’t find out anything anymore’” (Interview, LP reporter, January 30, 2012). No LCA reporter specified similar considerations, even though it is very likely a reality in Albany as well. One reporter, however, acknowledged some weighting involved:
If you get cut off, you wanna have a damn good reason. It’s gotta be like a really big important story. ... you weigh it. The story is what it is, you gotta write the story truthfully and say ‘look, I’m sorry, I hope you’ll keep talking to me.’. So, yeah, there is pressure like that to kinda, you know, if you really pissed off some people they’re not gonna talk to you for a while. (Interview, LCA reporter, April 16, 2009)
There were few reporters in both cases who experienced being cut off for a significant amount of time (months or years). One LP reporter discussed his experience of being cut off as an attempt of manipulation by the official in question:
I fell out badly with a minister once for reporting very critically about a trip I had joined him. He has not exchanged a word with me for two or three months and that made rounds. Of course this is also a possibility to try avoiding such news reports in the future. If I say: “Well, I have lost this informant forever or at least for three years. After three months he may start talking to me again but I have hardly a chance to write him a text message about some confidential information - he would not provide that anymore.” That’s also a way in which you are being manipulated. (Interview,
LP reporter, November 10, 2011)
A young online journalist I interviewed worked for an organization with a newsroom culture in which source complaints are carried with pride. She told me about an instance where a politician she had portrayed felt misrepresented and stopped talking to her for a longer period of time. It was not about factual inaccuracy but quoted characterizations by other sources: “The person felt personally offended, so what!” (Interview, LP reporter, March 26, 2012). Although she felt that way at the time of our interview, when it happened it was hard for her:
I: So he didn’t respond to phone calls anymore?
R: Yes, or putting me down somehow in front of everybody. That happened.
I found it difficult to deal with. At the beginning I thought: “Oh my god! Wow!” I did not expected that reaction. “Let’s argue about it in a normal way.” But it settled. After a while you start working together again and the relationship of trust is the same as before. (Ibid.)
Contrary to the former reporter, everything went back to normal again. There was one exceptional case in the LP of a “reverse cut off,” as it were, where a reporter refused to talk to a politician after being wronged by him. The reporter commented critically about an issue concerning the border between Bavaria and Czech and the general secretary of CSU wrote him an angry letter about it. They talked about it in person a few weeks later and the politician told him it was alright and suggested they should go for lunch soon. What he did not tell him, however, was that he had sent a copy of this letter to the reporter’s boss.
If he would have noted that, it would have been ok. He is entitled to complain about me any time. But he did not do that but did nice to me in my face and complained about me behind my back. I’m in this business long enough and I’m old enough that I’m not going to put up with that. I called his spokesperson and told him “tell him he should find some other idiot to go to lunch with.” ... And there was silence between us for half a year ... you cannot tolerate such things. I always preach to our interns: “The deeper you bow before those in power the higher is your butt that you get kicked in. Work properly, be fair but don’t put up with everything.” (Interview, LP reporter, November 22, 2011)
In spite of not having access to top officials, which constituted competitive disadvantage in any case, those who had endured the hardship of being cut off loved it. Being denied access forced the following senior reporter to operate more independently and creatively, which thereby elevated his performance of professionalism:
I think one of the best things that happened to me was when the director of communication, John McArdle for [former Senate majority leader Joe] Bruno, wrote me off. He said ‘don’t come into my office, don’t call me, blah blah blah.’ And what it did was it improved my reporting so much because ... it forced me to go well beyond him, to develop a source network so that when I finally did call his press office ... I already knew all the answers to all these questions. ... I had reliable information about what was going on and I simply needed to get the official word from him. And then I could decide how to use that official word and determine whether it was a lie or not ... It was really wonderful. (Interview, LCA reporter, May 5, 2011)
Being cut off relieved this reporter from external influence and resonated with professional values of independence and inquisitiveness, which was met with appreciation by his competitor-colleagues. Another senior reporter told me about a similar experience. Not only did he grow professionally because of being cut off but he felt that his readers also benefited from it, which is why it was a recommendable experience for young reporters, he added. However, being denied access may be a real problem, especially for a young reporter: “It could be damaging to your career. I think that’s what they rely on when they say ‘listen, we’re gonna cut you off if you do that’” (Ibid.).
Most LCA reporters had never experienced being cut off but they were all familiar with the concept and the threat, which is used by powerful news sources. Senior reporters believed that it worked to pull their colleagues’ reportorial punches. Heroic stories of these experienced reporters served as examples for young reporters at the same time, however, and bolstered their boundary performances against threats of denial of access:
Reporter: One of the great liberations of an administration that plays really hard ball ... and doesn’t give you anything: you have nothing to lose ... One of the great lessons I’ve learned from [name], a colleague of mine; he was covering [former New York City mayor, Rudy] Giuliani. They, like, shut him down. He said it was the best two years of his journalistic career.
MR: [laughs] Becau.se he didn’t have to walk on tiptoe with him any more? Reporter: He didn’t miss anything. I try to have it both ways, personally. I try to be buddy buddy as much as I can, but I’m still gonna go out and write the story I’m all along am gonna write. And I’m not gonna do nice and take it easy on them. You just got to be a bastard pretty much. That’s part of the job. (Interview, LCA reporter, January 21, 2011)
Since there were not many cases of reporters who had been cut off from a source for a longer period of time, patterns should not be overemphasized. However, what was striking is that the reporters it happened to were rarely journalists from most influential news organizations. One such reporter in the LP said: “They have no sanction possibilities towards me. If they cut me off then they cut themselves off. Who does not speak to me is his own—I mean that’s not a problem for me but for him, I must say”
(Interview, LP reporter, April 17, 2012). While officials reduced access to top news organizations, they hardly denied it completely.
To conclude, while German reporters emphasized the practical impediments of that experience, US journalists accentuated the newfound independence it brought. Thus, LCA reporters assigned additional, performative meaning to being cut off (in the interview and probably also when it happened), namely as an expression of professionalism and independence. This was not only significant for them but also served as a template for other (younger) journalists for not being afraid of biting the hands that fed them, so to speak.
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