Posted by Torben
On prime river-view property in the heart of Berlin's government district is an otherwise nondescript office building bearing the name of the organization it houses in white letters across its front: Bundespressekonferenz. The term Bund in German roughly translates to "federal," as in Bundestag, the federal parliament, or Bundeskanzleramt, the federal chancellery. You would be forgiven for mistaking the Bundespressekonferenz, as many Germans surely do, for another federal agency. The fact that it isn't points to a significant difference between the United States and Germany in how government press conferences are organized: When the president's press secretary steps behind the podium in the White House briefing room, the journalists are his guests. When the chancellor's spokesman takes his seat at the Bundespressekonferenz, the journalists are the hosts.
Both the American and the German constitutions guarantee a free press, but they don't stipulate press access to the institutions of government. Nonetheless, in both the US and Germany we take a fairly high degree of government transparency (mediated by a free press) for granted. To this end, it is vital that the accreditation of journalists at, say, the White House and Congress, not be dependent on the whims and wishes of government officials looking to cherry-pick those correspondents they feel will report (or not report) what they want them to. This tradition has recently been called into question: Fox News's Sean Hannity has let it be known that he feels President-elect Donald Trump should revoke the White House press credentials of the New York Times, the Washington Post, and other news organizations after he is sworn into office.
Since 1880, it has been left to the journalists themselves to determine who gets credentialed with the US government. The Standing Committee of Correspondents, whose members are elected by their peers, governs access to the Congressional press galleries, and the committee's decisions are generally recognized by the White House and the Supreme Court. The standard the Standing Committee applies to applicants for accreditation is, broadly speaking, whether they are professional (full-time) journalists based in Washington D.C. who work for a serious news outlet and maintain their journalistic independence, that is, they "must not be engaged in any lobbying or paid advocacy."
This system is not without its problems, of course. The Standing Committee as a body of daily newspaper reporters was slow to accept journalists working in other media, sometimes necessitating government intervention. It was Congress that initiated gallery access for radio reporters, for instance, and to this day, Congress maintains the idiosyncracy of dividing its press gallery according to what medium its correspondents are working in. The stipulations of the Standing Committee were put to a more sinister use by keeping black journalists -- who tended to work for weekly publications, not dailies -- out of the press gallery until 1947; women had a hard time getting credentialed as well. More recently, the highly regarded SCOTUSblog, which covers the Supreme Court, has been denied accreditation. This reflects the difficulties the Standing Committee has in responding to a new media environment: SCOTUSblog is sponsored by a law firm and doesn't fit neatly into the traditional classification system of the various news media.
Like with the Congressional press galleries, to be credentialed by the Bundespressekonferenz (or the Bundestag or the chancellery for that matter) candidates have to be full-time, professional correspondents working at the seat of government for a serious news organization. The Bundespressekonferenz also requires that its members be German citizens or work for a German news outlet. But what is the Bundespressekonferenz exactly and what makes it special?
In Germany, of course, we do not have a long-established and uninterrupted tradition of press freedom. Government censorship was common under the Kaiser. Later, Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels found that a far more effective method of eliminating critical coverage (one that largely obviated the need for censorship) was to choose very carefully who was allowed to operate as a journalist in the first place. Even after World War II, it took a long while for reporters working out of the West German capital, of whom many had enjoyed brilliant careers in the "Third Reich," to view press freedom and press independence as the basic prerequisites of a democratic, pluralistic society.
Germany was not entirely bereft of a democratic tradition, however, and some customs from the Weimar Republic could be revived. When the Federal Republic was founded in 1949, reporters in Bonn were faced with a new government unsure of how to relate to the press. In light of the country's recent history and aware that they had to tread lightly as representatives of a not-yet-sovereign state under close observation by its American, British, and French occupiers, government officials had made no provisions to hold regular, professional press briefings. Reporters decided to fill this void on their own initiative by establishing, in the tradition of the Reichspressekonferenz of the Weimar Republic, the Bundespressekonferenz.
The latter is an association of correspondents the sole purpose of which is to organize press conferences. Spokesmen of the chancellor and the various ministries provide thrice-weekly briefings, and representatives of the parties represented in parliament appear regularly as well. Ministers, union and church officials, members of state and foreign governments, and other public figures also receive invitations. The chancellor herself is a guest at least once a year (although she makes herself available to the press more regularly, of course).
What makes the Bundespressekonferenz unique is that the journalists are in charge: The journalists decide who will be called upon to ask questions, not the official being interrogated; the journalists decide what topics will be covered, not his press secretary; and the journalists decide when the press conference ends, not the chancellor or her ministers. And while foreign correspondents cannot be members of the Bundespressekonferenz, they do have every right to participate and to ask questions.
In 2000, the German transportation minister Reinhard Klimmt, facing intense questioning regarding questionable sponsorship contracts he had signed as the president of a soccer club, broke the rules and left the Bundespressekonferenz early; a day later he was forced to resign. In 2011, the German defense minister, Karl Theodor zu Guttenberg, under fire for plagiarizing his dissertation, sent his spokesman to the Bundespressekonferenz while at the same time reading a statement to select journalists at the ministry. When they learned of Guttenberg's statement, reporters at the Bundespressekonferenz walked out in protest. Guttenberg, too, had to resign.
Of course the Bundespressekonferenz will only remain effective as long as the consensus holds that refusing to appear before it is unacceptable for a public official. As of this writing, 142 days have elapsed since President-elect Donald Trump has held a press conference, distinguishing him from presidential candidates and presidents-elect that came before. This comes as no surprise, as Trump takes pride both in his antagonistic relationship with the press and in flouting convention. But it does bring into stark relief just how reliant journalists are on convention: If the president doesn't make himself available to the press, he is defying tradition, not the law.
On both sides of the Atlantic, an erosion of trust in journalistic institutions is undermining the Fourth Estate. The suggestion that what is derisively called the "mainstream press" does not provide accurate reporting is belied by the journalistic standards the mainstream press holds dear. The problem, however, is less that the results of solid reporting efforts are wrongly decried as false, but rather that the question of whether a news piece is accurate or not is increasingly becoming irrelevant. Years ago, Stephen Colbert coined the term "truthiness" to describe deeply held notions that are treated as fact because you believe in them so much they must be true. Just last week, I heard a reporter on NPR talk about the relative importance of "accurate facts" in news reporting. As opposed to inaccurate facts? Fact-checking as a journalistic enterprise has become a big deal in the US. But the way fact-checkers operate -- measuring the veracity of a statement on a sliding scale and thereby implying that facts are negotiable while at the same time reducing an issue to a summary judgment that elides all complexity -- strikes me as deeply problematic. And clearly there is little if any fallout for politicians who are regularly found to have their "pants on fire."
In Germany, the odious term Lügenpresse or "lying press," which has a long and ignominious history, has been adopted by members of the xenophobic "Pegida" movement centered around Dresden for the simple reason that reality -- as it is presented by the press -- doesn't conform to their world view. Since Trump's election, Lügenpresse has been used as a slogan by the so-called "alt-right," probably because an umlaut makes any word look more adorable (think Fahrvergnügen). Lest I imply that this is only a problem on the right, it is worth pointing out that there are large segments of the German left that show themselves similarly immune to facts. The term gefühlte Wahrheit is bandied about, meaning "the truth you feel." Thus, the supposed risks inherent in vaccinating children are propagated despite a wealth of evidence to the contrary and a world view is espoused that equates the United States with Russia.
That false equivalence, masquerading as objective reporting, regularly creeps into news coverage. Correspondents in Berlin rightly face the same criticisms as their colleagues in Washington. Along with the tendency toward false equivalence you often find a too cozy relationship between journalists and the politicians they are covering (the incestuous White House Correspondents Dinner -- the German version is the Bundespresseball -- is, according to Mark Leibovich and Bob Garfield, a particularly obscene manifestation of this). The deference German reporters accord public officials is in many respects greater than that shown by their counterparts in the States, and freedom of information legislation was passed late in Germany and has thus far proved anemic.
But while criticism is warranted, in both countries the Fourth Estate continues to function as an important check on those in power. How much longer will that be the case? A significant segment of both the American and the German electorate is increasingly indifferent to the findings of journalists who deserve that designation. And as trust in news organizations declines it becomes that much easier for politicians to ignore the conventions that have developed over decades between journalists and the government, making us even less informed and opening the door to corruption. Laws don't have to be changed, a revolution doesn't need to happen. All it takes is for us to stop caring.