Editorial and Associational Defense Shields

In both countries, reporters told me of politicians complaining about them (or threatening to do so) with their editors, usually for being misrepresented or treated unfairly. This usually occurred behind the scenes and was hardly discussed in public. When I was already conducting field research in Munich, there was an incidence of political pressurizing that became public in Albany. A document by Richard Bamberger, then Communications Director of Governor Andrew Cuomo, leaked to Buzzfeed and initiated the discussion about such practices. The “dossier”—put in quotation marks because this designation was itself subject of discussion—about journalist Elizabeth Benjamin comprised 35 pages of news stories of her with annotations by Bamberger, such as “GENERALLY SNARKY” (Smith 2012). Bamberger acknowledged the authenticity of the document, which he prepared for a meeting with senior executives of Time Warner Cable News. In subsequent discussions among journalists about this story, the leaked dossier was viewed as further evidence for the media adversity of the Cuomo administration.

This was a rare unveiling of this prevalent pressure tactic. Unless there were factual errors, in almost all cases reporters told me about editors sprung to their defense. I refer to this resistance as the editorial defense shield, which reporters count on and use in boundary performances. A seasoned LCA reporter recalled: “In my career I’ve made a lot of people angry over the years and cost some people their jobs and I’ve never faced any pressure by anybody [within my organization] to pull back, ever” (Interview, LCA reporter, May 23, 2009). He explained this by the integrity of his company and the “aggressive tradition of free press in the US.” There was not one LCA reporter who said to have received anything else than support in situations of political pressure. Counting on the editorial defensive shield, reporters signal confidence in their own and their organization’s professional integrity when threatened:

MR: Does it happen that they go higher up the chain and complain with an editor?

Reporter: Oh yeah, it’s happened a few times. My general response is, ‘go ahead! Wanna play that game? Try it. Good luck!’ Recently I got into a shouting match with someone - it was a profanity-laced shouting match - and he said: ‘So I call your editors.’ I said: ‘Go ahead, I make my case to my editors.’ That’s been done. (Interview, LCA reporter, May 18, 2010)

However, if this intimidation strategy was really so ineffective, it leaves the question why political actors bother at all? Besides emotional indignation, they did it to signal readiness to attack and demoralize reporters, hoping they would pull back in the future—something which few reporters conceded. Having to justify yourself repeatedly in front of superiors may weigh you down, however, especially when you are a young reporter. This is probably one reason why they are more often targeted than senior reporters. For spokespeople, furthermore, being tough on reporters is part of their own professional performance. As one former Assembly spokesperson said:

Spokesperson: There were certainly times where I had to get heated with reporters. I try to do it less and less because, at the end of it, I felt like crap because it’s not the way I really like to interact with people. Reporters who I still talk to a lot and respect, I think the good reporters understand that sometimes I have got to go back to my boss ... and say: “I yelled at X.” “I yelled at him about that story.” Even if that doesn’t change anything.

MR: You did your job.

Spokesperson: Right. Sometimes that’s part of the job. (Interview, LCA spokesperson, February 28, 2012)

The editorial defense shield usually worked just the same for LP reporters. Some of them told me about instances when it did not, however, when political pressure was passed on to them or their colleagues. They also talked about much more severe instances of pressure than those I had learned about in Albany, including reporters getting fired or removed from the beat. Most common targets were public broadcasting journalists of the Bayerischer Rundfunk (BR). Political parties and politicians—some of them members of the Rundfunkrat (broadcasting board)—often demanded more (or better) representation in the news by appealing to the public contract of the company. My informant said this happened less frequently than in the past, however. One veteran BR reporter told me that a former Minister-President took issue with his radio commentary and exerted pressure through his superiors to a degree that made him back away for a while:

[Edmund] Stoiber once complained vehemently about me and attempted to interfere in my career here at BR. That came through [to me] and I had a real problem for a while and avoided Stoiber for a long time, at least two or three years, because I didn’t feel free. It never happened as severely afterward. (Interview, LP reporter, November 22, 2011)

My informants also told me about political interventions at newspapers that ended with reporters being withdrawn from their beat, their jobs threatened and, in one case, a dismissal. One newspaper reporter hinted at this while defining public responsibility as maintaining one’s independence:

It starts in the immediate environment, maybe a chief editor or publisher who says “do you have to present the Governor so negatively?” and so on. Well, I could then say “ok, next week I do it differently.” You have to push back against such interferences. That’s my opinion and that’s really important to me now. I had severe problems here [in my company] and thought a few years ago “ok, when I come in tomorrow I won’t have a job anymore.” (Interview, LP reporter, January 30, 2012)

Later in the interview, she described more specifically how pressure was exerted, which requires to quote her in some length:

There was severe pressure from the publishing company. From the publisher - it did not come from the editorial department - but, of course, the chief editor was instructed to discipline me. It concerned stories about the CSU, of course. That was before the parliamentary elections; [it was] very severe. There were emails from the publisher “this and that expression is inacceptable” and they asked me not to do that anymore. I don’t remember the specific wording. I always responded immediately that this was unacceptable. It also concerned a text about a party convention where I referred to [current Minister of Finance] Soder as “overly ambitious,” which is actually totally harmless. “That’s outrageous. He is a minister!” I couldn’t believe it. That case went to the journalism guild. I negotiated with them and was told we could make it public but that I’d have to expect getting fired, having to go to labor court, there would be a settlement, I would get severance pay and I should be aware of that beforehand. And then I told them ... not to report it and I’d see and push back for now. And write what I want. And then I did that. But it was tough. (Interview, LP reporter, January 30, 2012)

Without being able to go into specifics for confidentiality reasons, in this case entanglements of her news organization with the state explained the absence of an editorial defense shield to some extent. However, there were other examples of severe intervention in which there was no obvious organizational connection to the political field. The second editorial defense shield LP reporters had—the press association—also took action at times, as I have discussed in Chap. 5. Although tensions between members of the press and politicians rarely got to this point, it was an established associational practice which its members and political actors were aware of—as protection and deterrence, respectively.

 
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