German Mythologizing: Reluctant Invokers But Firm Believers

LP reporters distinguished themselves by persistently demystifying what they were doing in the first instance. Many of them were reluctant to name any concrete examples when asked for influences, role models and formative journalistic events. One senior radio reporter thought Germany was too small and too entangled in world affairs to have its own journalistic tradition comparable to the USA, adding a modest self-description: “We are service providers” (Interview, LP reporter, November 22, 2011). Before mentioning the 2011 HNP controversy (see above), another informant responded to my question concerning role models and showpieces of German journalism in this way: “There are enough instances to talk about quality in journalism, of course. It is not true that good journalism only occurs in trace elements” (Interview, LP reporter, May 15, 2012). He took issue with the complexity reduction of highlighting isolated cases and its inherent disregard of the importance of quotidian reporting.

Striking a similar tone, another reporter said she did not choose this career because of Watergate: “I read a series in Spiegel on social policy ... [in school] and I knew more afterwards than before. That was my motivation. ... To uncover such a scandal [as Watergate] is very remarkable, of course . I would also like to do that but this is not the day-to-day business” (Interview, LP reporter, January 25, 2012). Other reporters specifically referred to regular journalism as an important mainstay of professionalism: “What is utterly underestimated . are stories on a lower level. Especially local journalism and things like that. There, journalism in and of itself is almost more important than those big stories” (Interview, LP reporter, December 6, 2011).

The understated and anti-particularizing way of discussing their occupation is especially remarkable considering that these journalists are in the business of personifying and discussing larger issues through specific stories. They resisted applying these principles to themselves. Unpretentiousness and composure distinguished their performances of professionalism, which easily distracted from the fact that they were in fact performances. I was able to convince some but not all of them to name exemplars of professionalism and unprofessionalism. The media outlet most frequently mentioned was Der Spiegel. One reporter, who said he valued its heritage used the opportunity to criticize Der Spiegel in its current form: “One occupational disease is vanity. Der Spiegel was much more investigative and was much more successful ... when all those articles did not include a byline. Through bylines they pilloried themselves a bit. At that point information channels became traceable” (Interview, LP reporter, December 6, 2011).6

Some reporters referred to FAZ, SZand Die Zeitas well as specific journalists working for these outlets as representations of professional excellence. ARD news anchor Hanns Joachim Friedrichs—we might call him the Walter Cronkite of post-war Germany—also came up several times. One reporter said he appreciated him for being “distanced, getting to the heart of issues, and also for being able to tell stories” (Interview, LP reporter, January 24, 2012). Two reporters paraphrased a famous sentence attributed to Friedrichs, which had become a dictum of journalistic objectivity in Germany and the motto of the endowed journalism award named after him: “You recognize a good journalist if he does not give himself over to a cause, not even a good cause.”7 In his autobiography, Friedrich noted that he had learned from Charles Wheeler, who was head of news at BBC when Friedrichs was working there from 1950 until 1955:

[Charles Wheelers’] maxims included the insight that a respectable journalist keeps ‘distance to the subject of observation’; that he does ‘not give himself over’ to a cause, ‘not even a good cause’; that he does not join in with the loud cheering or sink into public shock; and that he remains ‘cool,’ even when dealing with catastrophes but without appearing ‘cold.’ ‘Always involved - never belonging’, this journalistic motto describes the reporter Charles Wheeler best. (Friedrichs and Wieser 1994:70-71; my translation)

Some LP journalists referred to the German Grundgesetz (constitution), granting freedom of opinion and the press and prohibiting censorship, as a source of meaning and representation of professional autonomy.8 Most importantly, several reporters took political events as formative for their professional self-understanding or even reasons for entering their career. One reporter said that in awakening his political consciousness, the German reunification started his journalistic career. To my question about significant events in the German occupational history of journalism, one senior reporter responded: “What is still inconceivable for me, although we journalists only provided the background music, was the opening of the border to the GDR in 1989” (Interview, LP reporter, November 22, 2011). Although this journalist asserted that LP reporters did not conceive of themselves as members of the state as they used to 30 years earlier, the fact that he took a political rather than occupational event is telling. US reporters did not associate their occupational trajectories with political or civic awakenings in the same way. If they mentioned civic events, for instance, the broadcast of the Watergate hearings on television, these were usurped by professional meanings. To stay with this example, even if Richard Nixon’s resignation followed political pressure and his impending impeachment, it was always connected to journalistic achievements.

One negative reference point for German reporters was the media hype about Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, who resigned as Minister of Defense in 2011 after a legal scholar revealed numerous instances of plagiarism in his doctoral dissertation. One LP reporter described “the rise and fall of zu Guttenberg” as an “inglorious chapter” of the German press and as a negative “textbook example” of “what happens when somebody unilaterally commits to one outlet only, the Bild Zeitung ... it was almost messianic what they established. I found that horrible” (Interview, LP reporter, December 5, 2011). There were rumors of a political comeback during my research. One of my interviewees was irritated by interviews with Guttenberg published in Die Zeit, which were conducted by its chief editor Giovanni di Lorenzo:

Reporter: Take di Lorenzo who still believed, shortly before the resignation, that Guttenberg is a great man, that what he did is forgivable and that we should focus on the matter at hand and not his doctoral thesis. He still wrote that one week prior [to the resignation]. I mean he is just totally biased and the - I have not read the book [containing the full-length interview] and I will not read the book because I don’t want to give him a stage - but the excerpts I read confirm that. Di Lorenzo also tries to push him. I find it unfortunate that Die Zeit lends itself for that, to be honest. I didn’t buy that issue.

MR: I had to, as a subscriber.

Reporter: Well, as a journalist I should actually read it. It is rather unjournalistic of me not to read it but everything in me rebels against that. (Interview, LP reporter, December 1, 2011)

Another current affair, which was discussed frequently and ambivalently, was the resignation of German president Christian Wulff in the wake of corruption charges revealed by Bild, which had covered him extensively and favorably beforehand. Ambivalence revolved around the issue whether the end of Wulff resigning justified the means. For several reporters, it was a textbook example of Kampagnenjournalismus (advocacy journalism), a notion that will be further discussed in Chap. 4. To one TV reporter, it was an instance of journalism “that only aims at destroying people“(Interview, LP reporter, January 24, 2012). Another reporter took the Wulff episode as an illustration of an important story that could not have broken without suspicion reporting. One tabloid reporter referred to this story as a Glanzstuck (prized possession) of German journalism because it showed “what you can write about a president [as a reporter] and not be intimidated” (Interview, LP reporter, March 21, 2012).

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