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Journalism and Politics

LP reporters had more direct contact with politicians outside of work settings. When they produced unpleasant coverage about them, politicians responded by pushing back, just as in the US case, but sometimes by successfully intervening in reporters’ careers. In extreme cases, reporters were transferred or forced out of their jobs. LP reporters talked more openly about their inhibitions to attack political figures and institutions. German journalists were less worried to take political positions, including by expressing their opinions in news commentary, and thus less concerned with establishing symbolic distance from politics.

LCA reporters, on the other hand, were deeply concerned about symbolic distance to politics and used more complex means and performances to establish it. Politics and partisanship on their part represented taboos, which reflected in interaction with sources as well as purification rituals they underwent. Even circumstances that were detrimental for journalists (e.g. being cut off from the information flow of an important office) were valued for their performative value as representations of professional autonomy. Political instrumentalization, which was particularly pervasive in the form of making politics through off-the-record conversations and placing unattributed attack quotes in the news, was a contentious issue in the LCA.

These findings reflect the historically evolved differentiation and the institutional distance between politics and the media, which is partly a function of a more pervasive influence of market power in the US journalistic field. This distance links to the central criteria of professional excellence, especially accountability and adversarial journalism. Despite the existence and practical career opportunity of advocacy journalism in the USA, it is not a polluted category as central in the professional imaginary as it is in Germany. Overall, German reporters engaged in much less dramatic performances of the existent distance between journalism and politics, a consequence of the more detached and matter-of-fact style of purifying the vocation which I have related to a low mimetic mode of civil religious discourse in German political culture.

Despite the requirements of symbolic distance to politics and the celebrated mythical core of the occupational culture, the greater diversity of occupational roles and respective norms in the US case indicate less unitary and more malleable professional boundaries of journalism. It was possible to be a successful state house reporter in Albany by inhabiting a hybrid position between journalism and politics. Moreover, during the transitional period of social media adoption, professional self-conceptions diverged but slowly gravitated toward a diversification of normative commitments on different platforms.

The effective heterogeneity in the US case was accompanied by the distinction between reporters (directly and indirectly). This apparent contradiction—porous professional boundaries but pronounced boundary work— resolves if we consider three factors: The higher mimetic mode of civil religious and consequently professional discourse implies a more accentuated rhetoric of professionalism and unprofessionalism. However, the centrality of market logic in the journalistic field and the culture of pragmatism effectively disrupt the coherence of occupational practices and its guiding principles. Combined with a competitive rather than solidary occupational culture, this raises the possibilities and rewards of mutual distinction, despite the common mythical center.

The pronounced boundary work and dramatic performance of professionalism in US journalism in a way compensate for effectively weak boundaries. Perhaps, these weak boundaries are a function of cultural representations that lack the historical depth of German intellectual and public culture, in spite of its historical breaks. Contrariwise, the reserved performance of journalistic professionalism in Germany is a function of substance rather than weakness of professional boundaries.

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