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Home arrow Communication arrow Contemporary Journalism in the US and Germany: Agents of Accountability

Foundational and Controversial Mythologizing in the USA

Events of the 1960s and 1970s were seminal for the professional selfunderstanding of the LCA. Famous instances in which the press successfully pushed back against the state during this period were powerful representations of professionalism to them. Many related to the Vietnam War, referring to examples such as Seymour Hersh’s reporting on the My Lai Massacre or the publication of the Pentagon Papers by The New York Times. One senior reporter told me about an instance when his editor defended him against a former governor—“that’s when you see what the editor is made of” (Interview, LCA reporter, May 23, 2009)—which he related to the heroic stories of Times publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger pushing back against President John F. Kennedy and Washington Post publisher Katherine Graham pushing back against President Richard Nixon. Watergate was frequently mentioned but just as often in a negative as in a positive sense. One reporter of the generation directly influenced by it thought Watergate fundamentally changed political reporting:

I think probably the turning point in America was Watergate, for the reporter coming in saying, basically: “prove that you’re not a crook!” [laughs] ... I think there is an era of journalists who are a little older than me and maybe a little bit younger that got into it because of Watergate. (Interview, LCA reporter, May 17, 2010)

Though he is the interviewee who was most disenchanted about politics and the press, he conceded that he was driven by idealism. When I asked him what public responsibility meant to him, he said: “Because I’ve become so cynical and jaded, it’s hard to believe this: but no, I take it very seriously!” What he and his competitor-colleagues did, he said, was vitally important for democracy and there was no alternative to it. He gave an example of the more obscure kinds of stories he had focused on in previous years and added: “Who else would be doing that? How else does the public find that out? You’re not going to find a blogger to do that unless you get a blogger who’s pro or anti [on the issue in question].”

Younger reporters, of course, were aware of the significance of but not as strongly influenced by Watergate. One of them seemed particularly set out to demystify it:

It’s ridiculous, Matthias, but I came into journalism because I was looking for money. ... I think most of my colleagues would have gotten into this business for a higher purpose. I did not ... So Watergate to me means that journalists can and do make an enormous difference but I’ve had instances in my own life, even though I’m young, where I have tangibly seen the effects of my writing and it has made a difference. (Interview, LCA reporter, May 18, 2010)

Another reporter of the same age brought up Watergate in the context of talking about the need to resist pack journalism and what he termed the “Jimmy Breslin Grave Digger perspective.”9 He meant focusing on stories nobody else focused on: “Watergate is the same thing: Nobody was following Watergate. Two guys at the Washington Post did and they wrote the biggest story” (Interview, LCA reporter, April 5, 2010).

Other journalists took a more critical stance on Watergate because they believed it to be responsible for the journalistic obsession with scandal and bringing down elected officials. One mid-career journalist who had worked as a spokesperson for a while before he “returned from the dark side” led some of journalism’s bad reputation back to that story: “Since Watergate, every reporter thinks that every story has got to slam somebody or expose something” (Interview, LCA reporter, February 23, 2012). Another senior reporter ascribed recent scandals in American journalism involving fabricated stories to it: “This all followed from Watergate and everyone wanted to be Woodward and Bernstein, you know, anonymous source that brings down a president, you become rich and famous, everyone wants to be that” (Interview, LCA reporter, May 23, 2009).

The young journalist quoted above, for whom Watergate did not mean much, mentioned more tangible role models in a follow-up interview. A series of columns by Juan Gonzalez of the New York Daily News about air pollution at Ground Zero had really impressed him:

He was just writing with a baseball bat ... it was just a classic example of what newspapers do best but which so many have forgotten, which is you take an issue and you just keep hitting it and hitting it and hitting it and hitting it until you get change; an issue that is black and white. You know, “here is the story of little Timmy who’s got lung changer,” you just go, go and you write the shit out of it until something is done. And Congress has passed legislation for 9/11 first responders, etc. That type of thing I think would not have happened without such persistent attention paid by newspapers and Juan Gonzalez [who] wrote a lot about that and was one of the first who really kind of carried the torch on it. (Interview, LCA reporter, June 10, 2011)

This example relates to a theme that inspired many US journalists, namely not only pushing back against pressure but also exerting pressure on the state by generating public debate about an issue that demands action.

Besides the 1960s and 1970s, the period after 9/11 was also important for LCA reporters’ professional self-conceptions, though mostly in a negative sense. Particularly, the New York Times and journalist Judith Miller’s reporting were held responsible for creating a favorable atmosphere for going to war with Iraq under false pretenses in 2003. One reporter saw it as an example of overreliance on one source:

[She] ended up, partly as a result of that, printing hugely misleading information and presenting it in a way that ended up contributing to a country going to war. I mean, I’m not blaming her for the whole war but that is one of the most fundamental conflicts of interest that good old-fashioned, small-town, straight-ahead newspapers would not tolerate. . You don’t want people making deals with sources that end up compromising their honesty and you don’t want people having hidden agendas or hidden relationships. (Interview, LCA reporter, March 16, 2011)

He also added that he thought this was symptomatic for journalism in Washington DC.10 Other journalists agreed that the Judith Miller controversy harmed the status of the New York Times as the paragon of good journalism more than any other story in recent history. Particularly regional journalists, who often begrudged the influence of their competitor-colleagues of the Times, made this point. Pursuant to the disparagement of the media elite, the above-quoted reporter highlighted another dominant view in the LCA: The true backbone of journalistic professionalism was local journalism and not the elite. After talking about the competition between New York City tabloids in positive terms, one reporter who used to work for a smaller newspaper echoed this reverence for local journalism:

I think that our paper back there took pains to be accurate, took pains to be fair, didn’t consider that, because we were the only voice in town, that we can say whatever we wanted. And I think there really is in a lot of places that sense of responsibility that real journalists and good journalists don’t abuse. (Interview, LCA reporter, February 23, 2012)

As alluded to above, LCA reporters were concerned about the buildup of fabricated stories because it harmed the public trust in journalism. The Jayson Blair scandal came up frequently in this context. After fraud allegations arose against New York Times reporter Jayson Blair in 2003, his paper investigated his stories and found numerous instances of plagiarism, questionable sourcing and false pretense of having reported on the ground. After concluding the internal inquiry, the Times reported in detail and headlined the front page: “Times Reporter Who Resigned Leaves Long Trail of Deception” (Barry et al. 2003).

Jayson Blair became such a negative archetype that his name was used in plural to signify a certain type of bad journalism. As one young reporter said, “you’ve got your Jayson Blairs out there who make stuff up. I think sometimes we were over-reliant on unnamed sources, which allows the press to be used by those in power rather than holding them accountable” (Interview, LCA reporter, February 24, 2012). Another young reporter said that, despite those “bad apples,” he still thought traditional professional norms were in place: “News operations still to this day operate in the Joseph Pulitzer model of journalism, seeking the truth and presenting the truth. I’m still proud of that, although it gets a bad name by your Jayson Blairs and your Fox Newses” (Interview, LCA reporter, February 28, 2012).

Fox News did not come up as often as I had expected, given that it was commonly perceived as the most extreme negation of impartial journalism: When I brought up the non-partisan press tradition in the USA during my field research in Germany, LP reporters frequently did not even accept the premise by referring to Fox News.