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Understanding the German Media System with the Help of Bourdieu and Elias: Historical Sociology of Press-Political Relations in Germany

Published onNov 19, 2023
Understanding the German Media System with the Help of Bourdieu and Elias: Historical Sociology of Press-Political Relations in Germany


A scientist’s work in and about a foreign country implies a distancing from his or her own analytical routines. This paper aims to present a reflexive approach toward the use of “French” media studies patterns on a German case, and the heuristic gains of mixing them with the German ones. Starting from a sociological paradox and the surprising lack of research on German journalistic institutions, the aim of this paper is to show that the academic socialization of a French researcher can make heuristic contributions to research on Germany. This paper is based on a long-term historical sociology book (starting in 1918) on interactions between press and politics in Germany, and especially the continuum of both the political journalists’ association (nowadays: Bundespressekonferenz) and governmental spokesperson agencies (nowadays: Bundespresseamt). The paper first briefly presents the two national analytical traditions as starting points which have to be overcome in this specific research on Germany. The following section deals more precisely with the new framework of the research on the relations between journalists and politicians. The aim, finally, is to show how this method of bringing together French journalism and political sociology (influenced by a constructivist and historical approach) with the systemic German media studies approach can lead to specific advances in our understanding of the structure of the national public sphere.

Introduction: German Specificity in an International Comparison

Twenty years ago, Raymond Kuhn and Erik Neveu wanted to challenge “the effects of analytical routines on the approach to the study of political journalism by political communication researchers.”1 A scientist’s work in and about a foreign country implies a distancing from his or her own analytical routines. The comparative approach is not only a theoretical one, it is a practice and a journey in various foreign environments, in several countries. To be engaged in non-standardized international research is a permanent intellectual rearrangement,2 a practice of different academic cultures, and of immersion in academic fields that are not all homologous. A scholar writing about Germany from France (and vice versa) always carries with him ideas, prerequisites, and analytical traditions from which he engages in his work. This is all the more true when the two research traditions are very different.3 The research project described in the current paper grew from a sociologist’s enigma.4 This paper proposes a reflexive approach toward the use of “French” media studies patterns on a German case, and identifies several heuristic gains of such a mixed approach.

German journalism appears to be an almost singular case. One image is strongly anchored: In Germany, distance between journalists and politicians is the dominant mode. In national5 or comparative international studies,6 German journalists commonly declare that they are the least subject to competition and the pressures of commercialization, and their professional beliefs are often permeated by a strong critical sense. Moreover, the political conception of their work is one of a professional commitment to democracy.7 However, as soon as the research shifts from perceptions of the journalistic role to understanding them through practices, the picture becomes much more varied.8 In March 2014, for example, the Constitutional Court issued a judgment criticizing the over-political nature of appointments to the board of the public channel ZDF, as this distorted the distribution of editorial jobs, which are otherwise arranged systematically as a “ticket” with one journalist close to the government party and one deputy from the opposition party.9 Comparing the German and American press corps, Matthias Revers observes that German journalists seem to be much less confrontational with politicians than their North American counterparts.10 Wegmann and Mehnert underline that “beyond personal acquaintances, there exists a structural connection between politics and the media.”11 However, this conclusion is not particularly widespread in the literature. Niklas Luhmann’s critique remains very systemic, and not empirically based,12 and critical media studies are historically rare in Germany,13 whereas in France the critical sociology approach (sometimes quite normative) is widespread. Recently, this criticism has been most strongly and almost exclusively voiced inside the political field by extreme right-wing populist movements.14

The German specificity does not end at this paradox. At the governmental level, a centralized and hierarchically important government spokesman’s department was set up at the end of the First World War. This department has been ongoing since then. Despite its high degree of brutality, which has no comparison with current institutions, the Reichsministerium für Volksaufklärung und Propaganda, the institution headed by Joseph Goebbels from 1933 to 1945, is part of a state apparatus continuum.15 In the political information field, since the postwar period German journalists have had a central instrument for the regulation of news production under their own responsibility: the Bundespressekonferenz (hereafter, BPK). Founded in 1949 together with the Federal Republic, the BPK gathers all parliamentary journalists working for the German media and shares its building with the Association of Foreign Journalists (Verein der ausländischen Presse—hereafter, VAP). This unique institution gathers journalists covering politics from the federal capital. They are correspondents sent by their editorial offices in Berlin, Frankfurt am Main, Hamburg, Munich, Cologne, or Mainz. The BPK has been reproduced at the level of each state, as the “Landespressekonferenz.” The reason for this replication is the high level of autonomy of the Länder (states) in the federal system. The governments of the Länder have significant powers, and the regional press is particularly influential. Another specificity is that the BPK is run by journalists. The government is only invited to explain its policy to journalists three times a week. It is represented by the State Secretary responsible for the spokesman’s office and ministerial spokesmen. With lower attendance, ministers can take direct part in these press conferences (forty-four times in 2016 and twenty-eight times in 2017), and very seldom the Chancellor (one time in both years).16 The conferences are opened, moderated, and then closed by a member of the BPK’s administrative board, with no say from the State Secretary. Over time, a gradual construction of corporatist institutions has been observed: political journalists’ associations such as Verein Berliner Presse and Reichsverband der deutschen Presse under Weimar and Bundespressekonferenz (BPK) for the FRG; the German Journalists’ Association representing and defending journalists’ professional and democratic role in the FRG (Deutsche Journalistenverband (DJV); and spokesperson’s offices (Vereinigte Presseabteilung der Reichsregierung under Weimar and Bundespresseamt in the FRG). Such an institutionalization of press-political relations is highly unusual compared to the situations seen elsewhere in the so-called consolidated democracies.

Rather surprisingly, these places (and particularly the BPK) have not been the object of specific investigations.17 Comparative work focuses on the Länder level,18 while few studies focus on federal communication over time.19 The only exception is the period of National Socialism, which is particularly well-documented.20 However, the strong institutionalization of press-political relations surprised observers of press departments as early as the interwar period.21 But the German case is understudied relative to other countries. In the UK, the parliamentary press gallery is where the framing of the political situation is co-produced.22 The rapid expansion of a business sector of communication and the liberal organization of the press reinforced the trend towards the emergence of a so-called public relations democracy.23 Washington is a priori similar to Berlin/Bonn: a federal capital strongly structured by the proximity of interactions, made up of interpersonal relations and revolving doors.24 The press corps shares important sociabilities.25 However, observers point out that there has been a significant escalation in the control over and distancing of journalistic mechanisms by press officers in the US.26 Press-political relations are much more clearly defined by tension and competition with politicians (and among journalists) than in Germany, where journalists tend to seek collective group management via their press associations, without one media holding a dominant position over another.27 The strong presidentialization of the American and French political systems, as well as the economic competition for news, reinforces the phenomenon of personalization and the game-frame in the journalistic coverage of politics, in contrast to German parliamentarism.28 Japan seems to be the polar opposite of this press-political relationship, with absolute control over sources and freedom of the press seemingly not the goal, according to a comparative study of Germany and Japan.29 Press clubs (kisha kurabu) operate formally in the same way as press galleries in the UK or Australia.30 But the combined effects of a one-party government in power for nearly sixty years, the very closed functioning of elite circles in Japan—where press, industry, and political leaders go to similar private schools and clubs—and the extreme concentration of the media structure exchanges in a way that is not favorable to journalists.31

The situation most akin to that in Japan is probably to be found in Brussels.32 Journalism has been institutionalized through the press corps meetings at the European Commission’s Berlaymont building. Relations are founded on the principle of a peaceful co-production of information. But this system was established by and for the Commission, and journalists are driven by a faith in the European federalist project.33 The structure of the European bureaucratic field has made it more difficult to voice political opposition and to seek competitive information from political rivals.34 Moreover, political journalists are part of neither a specific national nor a European journalistic field,35 unlike German parliamentary journalists. Contrary to their colleagues in Brussels, they do not have to justify their interest in reporting on government policy.

At this stage, it is both the institutionalization of these exchanges and their corporative functioning that distinguishes Germany. Hallin and Mancini have described German journalism as corporatist-democratic.36 Indeed, journalists prefer a cooperative management of relations with sources to a competitive struggle between colleagues. The point here is not to say that journalists are not competing for news access, but that they are particularly aware of the value of maintaining the collective. Everything seems to indicate that actors agree to preserve a monopoly on and control over the political game, which is usually regulated by transactions, profit sharing, and a collusive desire to regulate competition, to limit how and where conflicts are expressed and, sometimes, to protect the positions of opponents.37 However, Hallin and Mancini’s model is only based on indicators. It says nothing about the sociohistorical roots of the institutions and how they actually operate in such a model.

The aim of this paper is to show—with these analytical gaps and the lack of a socio-historical explanation in mind—that the academic socialization of a French researcher can make heuristic contributions to research on Germany. The structure of the paper is, first, to briefly present the two national analytical traditions as reflexive starting points which I tried to overcome in my research on Germany. The following section deals more precisely with the framework of my research on the relations between journalists and politicians. The aim, finally, is to enumerate some specific ways in which this framework can advance our understanding of the structure of the national public sphere and to show this reality in practice—mixing Habermas with the more specific French uses of Norbert Elias and Pierre Bourdieu. I stress the advantages of combining French journalism and political sociology (influenced by a constructivist and historical approach) with the systemic German media studies approach.

Overcoming Two National Analytical Traditions

Looking at the national academic routine, this article cannot, of course, reflect the full diversity of those studies in Germany or in France, but is rather a reflexive examination of these two academic communities. It is built on twenty years of comparative research on journalism and political communication in Germany, a dual PhD in political science in journalism at Sciences Po Strasbourg and the Freie Universität Berlin,38 as well as a two-and-a-half-year experience as a lecturer on these subjects at the Europa Universität Viadrina (Frankfurt/Oder) from 2013 to 2015. However, it is within this dialogue between two academic worlds that my “particular” approach has been built. A second factor completes and complexifies the analytical work: the intersection of political sociology with communication sciences in France.

Journalism and Political Studies in France and Germany

It is precisely at the intersection of these two approaches that I have attempted to build my research program. A first comparison of German and French traditions indicates that, while they both focus on questions concerning the democratic public space, the methods and traditions of media analysis can hardly be compared.39 As the historical perspective offered in Lisa Bolz’s contribution to this special section illustrates, there is a modelled and tendentially disincarnated relationship between groups of actors (media, politicians, and public opinion) in Germany; whereas, in France, there is a more qualitative (and critical) understanding of the exchanges between these groups, which tends to overlook the public to focus instead on journalists, their characteristics, their resources, and their professional organizations. If these major questions are equivalent to those of the German Journalistik, the latter is distinguished by a more abstract production, on the one hand seeking to characterize these transformations in the form of models and systems, and on the other hand using a more quantitative and internationalized empirical approach which serves to establish statistical laws. This permanent quest for a democratic balance between public opinion, politics, and the media is as much the result of the history of university reconstruction (and its funding methods) after World War II as it is a strictly theoretical question. The weight of the Allied presence (especially the US) in the funding of universities, the intense pressure of the Cold War, and the anti-communism of the founders made it difficult, if not impossible, for critical thought to emerge, and it was confined to the Frankfurt School and a few marginal places after 1968.40 The German research community intends to model this triptych of public, political professionals, and journalists in the form of a system.41 In 2011, Hans-Mathias Kepplinger stated in his introduction to the “challenges of journalism research” that:

Mass communication represents a highly differentiated and highly interconnected sub-system of the society system, which is highly distinct from its environment. The other subsystems are politics, economy, science, etc. . . . A basis [for this systemic autonomy] is the recognition by the Constitutional Court that freedom of the press is constitutive to democracy.42

More than in France, one of the issues for the Journalistik is to determine which of the three components has the greatest influence over the other two, and a second is to be able to measure it. These contributions from a more systemic approach have undoubtedly influenced my way of working on this subject. And this is all the more true as the discipline has more systematically comparative, quantitative, and internationalized approaches than those in France. Conversely, the sociology of the journalists’ work and of the actors in their organizations is less developed there. In France, works based on a sociographic approach to journalism abound. The main research on the profession is carried out through large surveys of press card holders. Though the contours of German journalism have been regularly observed since the 1980s, the data are rarely studied from the perspective of their social attributes, and the notion of habitus derived from Bourdieu is rather flexible and used to describe professional roles rather than to articulate social positions and attitudes.43 French work highlights the heterogeneity of the ways in which journalism is practiced, while the universalist vision of journalism is what is mostly sought by the Journalistik.44 It assumes its methodological openness and its very clear inter- and transdisciplinary character (between communication science, political science, and sociology).45

More generally, French research has adopted a more qualitative approach, more systematically using interviews or ethnographic observations. The objective is to understand journalistic production as a collective action, involving journalists’ work with and against their sources (and to understand the struggles between sources), their colleagues in the newsrooms, as well as their specialist colleagues. One very important text for journalism studies in France was the translation of Philipp Schlesinger’s text in the journal Réseaux in 1992,46 which is still regularly referred to today to argue for more clearly constructivist and structural approaches to understand the exchanges between journalists and sources.47 Consequently, from my sociological perspective, the perimeter of political communication has changed and expanded hand in hand with contemporary transformations of the political process.48 Observations of economic or technical changes are made as closely as possible to the daily work of journalists. In Germany, the observation of editorial structures is somewhat unusual. Despite an early tradition in newsroom observation that has been mostly published in German,49 and despite Frank Esser’s contributions showing how editorial organization influences the management of publishing and commercial choices in German and British newsrooms, this approach has not been pursued.50 Moreover, although Germany is described as a model of a democratic and corporatist country, few studies have focused on its professional associations’ struggles to define the contours of the labor market, in contrast to France, where many studies have explored the evolution of practices over a long socio-historical period.51

A look at the textbooks of both countries provides information on this difference. In Germany, the systemic approach is often represented according to the “onion model.”52 The media system is structured in four layers: media actors (the role context), media statements (the functional context), media institutions (the structural context), and the media system itself (the normative context).53 When in 2007 researchers published Journalism Theory: New Generation, they did not challenge these systemic conceptions. The authors sought to explore new approaches in order to bridge the gap between the micro- and macro-sociological aspects.54 Conversely, in France, Erik Neveu devotes two chapters of his Journalism Sociology to “the field of journalism today” and to “journalists at work,” and Rémy Rieffel devotes a long chapter to “media professionals” in his Media Sociology.55 More systemic and comparative models are only rarely present in these works. When they deviate from a theoretical and/or quantitative approach, German scholars claim to be using “non-standardized methods in communication science.”56 Ironically, the authors of this 2016 textbook have close academic collaborations with French scholars.57

The Sociological Turn of French Political Science

With regard to political communication, recent French textbooks also claim to be based on political communication sociology.58 At the beginning of the 2000s, several researchers at the intersection of sociology, media and communication studies (sciences de l’information et de la communication (SIC)), and political science advocated a sociology-based approach to these topics in order to separate research from publications by professionals in communication.59 New journals were created to complement this approach (Questions de communication in 2002 and Politiques de communication in 2013). For these authors, the goal is to focus on both the dissemination of knowledge and the generalization of the professional tools related to political communication, but also—following a processual approach to the phenomenon, and using the vocabulary of Norbert Elias—on the complexity of the interdependence chains that link the different participants in the political process today. This work pays particular attention to historical contexts, social structures, and interdependencies between the professional worlds of politics, the media, and academic research. These elements together condition the perceptions, the action logics, and the practices of political communication.

A particular aspect of this research program is its emphasis on a more explicitly (micro)sociological perspective. This research agenda has been inspired by major contributions from the history and the sociology of situations, actors, and institutions to the understandiong of political processes. Indeed, unlike German political science, which also tends to focus on the formulation of empirical answers to normative questions,60 French political science underwent a significant sociological shift from its public law and institutionnalist perspective at the turn of the 1980s.61 Scholars use Max Weber, Pierre Bourdieu, and Emile Durkheim as much as Norbert Elias, to which we can add the translation of the text by Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality, in 1986, which was immediately adopted by a section of political sociology. In 1988, Politix: Journal of the Social Sciences of Politics was launched. Today it is one of the leading mainstream journals of political science in France, alongside the Revue Française de Science Politique.62

Politics is defined in the broader sense proposed by Pierre Bourdieu—that is, as the character of “any action aimed at transforming perception categories.”63 These studies stress the professionalization of the political function, complementing Weber with Bourdieu’s analysis.64 Political agents live both of and for politics. From a more Durkheim-inspired perspective, the academic discipline starts from the presupposition of a social division of political work. In order to function and thus to calm, if not pacify, social conflict, this power relationship presupposes the broadest possible acceptance of the political order. In order to obtain the consent of the governed to this specific arrangement of relations between members of society, this research seeks to understand how authority tends to monopolize “legitimating discourse”65 by exclusively claiming the authority to state the basis of the social order in order to make it appear rational, desirable, and sacred. Introductory classes in political science are traditionally dispensed as part of political sociology in law faculties. The first few hours are devoted to the emergence of the modern state, based on Marx, Weber, or Elias, while the functioning of institutions is left to law professors in constitutional law classes. The perspective of historical sociology has entered fully into the social sciences of politics (notably through the journals Les Annales and Genèses: Sciences sociales et histoire, founded in 1990),66 while in Germany it has been largely abandoned by sociologists, political scientists, and media researchers alike, and reserved for historians.67

These studies acknowledge that the political process and its degree of acceptance by the governed vary greatly and that the problem of communication is not addressed in the same way in different social environments. Contemporary democracies are not just a regime of checks and balances.68 Founded on the avoidance of physical violence and on the ideal of representative government, these regimes are rooted in three principles: election and independence of the government; freedom of opinion and public expression of the governed; and the testing of political choices through discussion.69 Having said that, participants in the political process cover a very broad social spectrum, since in principle all persons or groups of persons engaged in the defense of an interest or cause are—at least legally—in a position to make their voices heard in the public debate and to influence public decisions. In this movement of rationalization of political activities, “political communication” can be analyzed as a continuous process whereby political entrepreneurs are equipped with cognitive, technical, and instrumental qualities with the aim of reducing the uncertainty of the conquest and/or the exercise of power.70 Following Weber, by selecting news, the journalist is already “a type of professional politician”71 and not a representative of a power separated from politics.

This implies that one ought not to analyze press-political relations in terms of degree of (in)dependence, but rather to consider them as being interdependent, and to situate them in the particular social figuration in which they evolve.72 In itself, this approach is not specifically French, but it is part of a more general paradigm at the intersection of sociological and historical institutionalism73 which is more common in France and defended, in particular in the US, by authors with a Bourdieusian filiation.74 As Benson writes, “the challenge is to bring the same sophisticated analysis to bear on understanding media as an independent variable, as part of the process of political meaning making rather than just a convenient indicator of the outcome.”75

Any research on journalism in France, even if it is German, inevitably requires considering the object from this “national” academic perspective, as it is also the case from the sociological-political dimension of the object. But having been integrated for two decades into the German scientific field, the epistemological approach is inevitably influenced by its own specific perspectives (for instance, the weight of Luhmann and Habermas in the field of communication studies).

Journalists and Politicians as Associate-Rivals

Thanks to these academic traditions, I observed the long process of institutionalization of the rules of information exchange between the two groups. This paper refers to my research based on a series of fifty-one interviews held with journalists who are active or retired members of the BPK, politicians (including Bundestag members, parliamentary group president, and/or ministers), and communication staff and spokespeople for parties and ministries between 2003 and 2015. In addition to these interviews, it is informed by my observations of Bundespressekonferenz meetings in 2010 and 2015 and of the communication staff of various parties during the 2017 federal election campaign.76 Its analysis also draws on the archives of the Bundespresseamt (Bundesarchiv Koblenz) 1949–1985, the Vereinigte Presseabteilung der Reichsregierung (Bundesarchiv Berlin) 1918–1933, the Bundespressekonferenz (Berlin) 1949–1985, the Verein der ausländischen Presse 1970–1975, and the administrative documents filed in the documentation department of the Bundespresseamt. The 1985 cut-off date was the maximum access limit for open archives according to the thirty-year limit at the time of the investigation and according to the classification of these data by the institutions (BPA and BPK). Some more recent documents could be consulted, when they had not been sent to the archives, and the interviews largely made up for this period.

In order to investigate the work done by the journalists of the BPK and the Government Communication Service (BPA), I established a first theoretical principle. In Berlin, like everywhere else, professional politicians and journalists need to meet and spend time with each other. This type of interdependence, where one needs the other to exchange information for publicity, is consubstantial with a social space of practices that is strongly heteronomous, and that is commonly referred to as the public sphere.77 One of the central issues for politicians involves access to the market of symbolic political goods over which they compete with journalists. The means of access to this public sphere are structured very differently depending on the social and political configuration. These factors have been mentioned by Hallin and Mancini. But one must also consider more rarely studied factors such as external constraints (military occupations, peace negotiations, wars) and internal contestation (revolutionary strikes, attempted putsches, demonstrations, terrorism, etc.) which have weighed heavily on German national politics since 1918. In other words, the approach that I am proposing takes us out of a widespread media-centrism to focus more particularly on the coproduction of political discourses.78

Understanding the Co-production of Symbolic Goods

Researchers usually refer to these exchanges using a dance metaphor. These scholars are interested above all in the strategic dimension of these relations, seeking to understand the interplay of influence,79 the strategic calculations,80 as well as the representations of one group by the other.81 They observe these interactions in order to understand the process by which journalists distance themselves from their sources, and the framework of these interactions. These investigations focus on various places in France and in English-speaking countries: the corridors of Parliament,82 the backstage of political83 or military campaigns,84 or the rooms of European summits.85 They show that interactions between journalists and politicians are neither random nor driven solely by professional ethics. They are subject to permanent negotiations at the limit of what is sayable, feasible, and newsworthy. But these studies focus on these relationships from a solely strategic and generally ahistorical perspective.

My first theoretical choice was to postulate that journalists and politicians are associate-rivals, contributing together to the symbolic production of politics. Following a more interactionist analysis, this oxymoron has the advantage of naming and explaining the “types of non–zero sum social games, made of intertwining and entanglements” in which journalists and politicians get involved. They are in a “competitive-cooperative” relationship, typical of certain power relations.86 As associates, they contribute to the visibility of politics, its rules and frameworks, as well as the issues that structure the political game. As rivals, they follow divergent interests and expectations: for politicians, the desire to ensure high visibility, a positive image, an advantageous framing; and for journalists, the desire to keep their independence in this framing, their critical sense, up to the possibility of carrying out investigations. But this relationship is not only made up of interactions and strategic coups, it is structured by different factors:87 a multipolar configuration (competition between political actors, between departments within an editorial office, between media and types of media, etc.) framed by different watchdog audiences (press council—the German Presserat, ethics council, legal bodies, etc.) that can “to a greater or lesser extent impose compliance with ‘obligations,’ particularly moral ones, and, in so doing, stretch their relationships.”88

During these exchanges, the role of all public institutions, companies, political parties, associations, and trade unions with respect to the media is, on the one hand, to capture the media’s attention, to promote their worldviews, to share positive representations of their “values,” and, on the other hand, to define the limits of the visible and the invisible and to prevent the dissemination of information that might contradict official messages. The permanent tension surrounding these exchanges owes much to public debates and to the way these debates are shaped by an ever-evolving definition of what is acceptable. The work carried out by sources and journalists is analyzed by this paper in equal parts.

Institutionalizing Press-Political Relations: Codifying the Off-the-Record

Looking at these relations and, especially, the off-the-record rules, Germany is again somewhat particular. The highly formalized separation between confidential information and official information is based on the institutionalization and codification of the procedures of exchange. From an international and comparative perspective, the most surprising thing is that these procedures are respected to such an extent. The question that arises from all of this is the following: How can we explain that the collective benefits of calculability and predictability linked to codification ultimately prevail without discussion over the individual interests of journalists and political actors to break the rules?89 If individual journalists have various ways of accessing information, here the question focuses upon those collective moments of transmitting such confidential material (BPK meetings, dinners, etc.). Indeed, from a rational point of view, it may be in their interest to publish information in the name of citizens’ right to this information, of economic competition between newspapers, or of the quest for mediatization of politicians. But they don’t do it. These relationships are institutionalized through the enactment of a set of rules, the complexity of which is based on the fact that their practical principles are embedded in moral principles.90 It is, as we have said, a set of meetings and exchanges of information and conversations (more or less formal) in a non-public context, but which imposes a moral constraint on its users: to maintain in secrecy a practice that is potentially suspected of complicity and regularly denounced.

The codification process works in two ways.91 First, the definition of public arenas: Each place has its type of interaction, type of information provided (public vs. confidential arenas), and roles played by the protagonists. Journalists and politicians or PR people emphasize the contractual and procedural dimension of these interactions. The second way of regulating this social space involves a codification of the publication of press releases. Unter drei corresponds to situations where confidences may not be published under any circumstances. It is numbered three because it comes after two other regulatory mechanisms laid down in the BPK’s bylaws, all subject to sanction by means of exclusion from the group.

§ 16 (1) Information is given at press conferences: unter 1 [under 1: on-record], for general use; or unter 2 [under 2: off-record], for use with no mention of source or name of informant; or unter 3 [under 3: background], confidential.

(2) Informants may state how their information is to be handled. Association members and press conference participants are bound by this classification of the information. If no statement is made, the material is considered to be for general use. Any breach of these rules concerning the classification of information may lead to exclusion from the association or withdrawal of accreditation as permanent guest.92

The recurring question for a journalist, then, is if and when information can be divulged. In French media, off-the-record information is rarely unter drei: It is given by a politician in the hope—or at least the knowledge—that journalists will release it, while the politician simultaneously seeks to cover themselves so that, if a controversy blows up, they can say that it didn’t come from them. An impossible task, of course. Most of the time the breach of the off-the-record rule is tacit, since the actors know—i.e., have internalized—the boundaries of what is possible, and also know each other. But in order to be certain, journalists often get together after off-the-record conversations to agree on what they have heard and whether it can be released, as long as a colleague seeking a competitive scoop does not release it first. But in Germany, for a journalist, the threat of exclusion is a sword of Damocles. What maintains the symbolic order is the fact that this exclusion is the work of journalists alone. That is how BPK journalists protect the procedure and maintain a refined system of inclusion and exclusion, selecting new entrants and excluding undesirables—i.e., those who do not follow the rules. Within archives and internal notes, I have noticed that the code has nearly always been complied with. Breaches of confidence in these circumstances have consequences for both the culprit and the group. Trust can only be guaranteed because the organization ensures that these spaces are relatively independent by bringing “into play new, impersonal, motives for action.”93 So breaching this trust amounts to unravelling the “internally guaranteed security” provided by the organization that enables politicians to associate with journalists.94 In other words, to avoid reintroducing mistrust, journalists’ reactions are constrained by the need to maintain the proper functioning of the organization.

The culturalist idea of a typically German conformity to the rules is hardly satisfactory. The explanation for this very strong codification instead lies in the very limited figuration of parliamentary politics in the confined space of federal politics, as Norbert Elias noted when writing about court society.95 German journalists do not talk much about politics behind the scenes, and they are much less able to demonstrate political strategies and tricks than their counterparts in other countries.96 In this way, German journalists can maintain a framework of trust within this federal area—described as a spaceship—where all is known and observed. This codification of the inner circle symbolically guarantees the independence of both groups. Since 1918, journalists and politicians have sought to build and maintain a stabilized frame of interaction. During the National Socialist period, Goebbels’s Reichsministerium für Volksaufklärung und Propaganda transformed the Reichspressekonferenz into a brutal top-down institution,97 but contributed to this state apparatus continuum by maintaining bureaucratic offices and an institutional budget and by delegating leadership to a civil servant.98

Based on what Goffman called keying—i.e., the transformation of a set of conventions of a given activity (here, governmental press conferences) into something patterned99—this interactional frame has always had to demonstrate its filiation to democratic theory (in particular, respect for the division of powers) in order to reach its goal of legitimizing politics and political journalism. This codification of exchanges was, at the same time, the guarantee of a pacification of exchanges between the two groups with their intense political relations, notably during the Weimar Republic. All the efforts by journalists’ professional associations were focused on gaining the necessary latitude to regulate these interactions solely under the control of journalists. The symbolic tour de force of the Bundespressekonferenz in 1949 succeeded in building a corporatist monopoly for managing press-political relations.

Understanding the Structuring of the National Public Sphere in Practice

By choosing to observe interactions from the perspective of their long-term institutionalization, the focus shifts. Journalistic and political actors do not, simply through strategic calculation, have a sufficient structuring force that is independent of the socio-political context. This would be tantamount to arguing that, over the full period, each actor perceives the separation of powers and democracy issues in exactly the same manner. Thus, my second theoretical choice: finding the sociogenesis of these exchanges and understanding the place occupied by the instruments designed to control the expression of opinions.

Habermas Revisited: The Invention of the Öffentlichkeitsarbeit

Understanding the legitimization of politics requires analyzing and grasping the structural transformations of the national public sphere. Both the state and journalism are institutions that have been socially constructed as a result of a long-term process.100 The democratic issue is at stake in the structuring of this public sphere, in order to defend it against external or internal political threats, and to convince citizens and journalists of its validity. I chose to observe these relations in the realm of historical bifurcations in order to clarify their genetic constitution, to think about the paths taken—in other words, to understand what the structuring of these exchanges would have been like or against what backdrop they were built.101 In line with this constructivist approach, no distinction was made a priori between the practices of “propaganda,” “Öffentlichkeitsarbeit,” public communication, and public relations.102 It is obvious from our archives that these labels differ less in essence than in how they (de-)legitimize a practice.

Rather than seeking the normative and dialogical dimensions of the democratic structure, this paper attempts to place this public sphere in its material and historical configuration. In 1962, Habermas showed the contemporary degradation of the public sphere by stressing the erosion of the critical capacity of citizens, the commercialization of information, the double rise of the state and of the great educational and economic bureaucracies which threatened the private sphere and perverted the original principles of a dialogical public sphere undergoing the colonization of the lived world by the mass media.103 This sphere was structured by political actors and a public of practitioners (journalists, associations, interest groups) and citizens who challenged governmental work. But Habermas’s thoughts are all about the affirmation of a “re-feudalization of the public sphere,”104 subordinated to the influence of propaganda and commercial advertising. This public sphere (Öffentlichkeit) was affected by its historical formation after a lengthy process of imposition of worldviews and material investments. This work on the public sphere—Öffentlichkeitsarbeit in German—was the concrete action of the actors engaged around Adenauer within the state apparatus. Habermas’s critical and normative expression must be understood in this critical context, shared by many intellectuals in the early days of the FRG,105 whereby German democracy à la Adenauer was a form of “enlightened absolutism” in which journalists should have taken a more critical stance, looking for more factual and investigative information. The fear was that this Öffentlichkeitsarbeit was merely a continuation of Goebbels-style propaganda in a new guise of democratic respectability. Political parties led the first campaigns showing strong distance from the National Socialist regime, which was omnipresent and cumbersome.106 The governments all had in mind the “necessity” to act on public opinion. This was part of the organizational continuity of the state apparatus. Thus, successive governments in 1953, in 1968, and in 1977 intended to create a new Ministry of Information and Communication. But political and journalistic opposition rendered this impossible, or even taboo.107

In this respect, although no new ministry was created to control public opinion, democratic Germany is a rather unique case because of the (relative) persistence of its structures and its state apparatus in charge of the legitimization of power. In contrast to France,108 neither parliamentarianism nor authoritarian propaganda seems to have been an obstacle to the institutionalization of state thinking and a state apparatus in charge of the enactment of symbolic goods. Journalists, on the other hand, established themselves both as a competing group, identically claiming a monopoly on the diffusion of symbolic goods, and as an associate in the defense of a form of “State Reason” guaranteeing the freedom of the press. Nothing in that period, however, could allow one to predict the result of this competitive struggle—namely: which group would succeed in imposing its definition of the situation, or which group would contribute its own sense of social stability.109

After the Empire, the first German democratic experiment took place in the context of a “rudimentary State,” according to Elias,110 with a fragmented public sphere that was highly competitive and divided, and where journalists contributed to these very high political tensions.111 In this configuration, a “thought of the State” (as Bourdieu would say112) emerged around two emergencies for legitimizing the new regime: on the one hand, the need to persuade the citizens, and on the other hand, the necessary enrollment of spokesmen for this opinion (namely, the journalists). Achieving this enterprise meant registering these relations in a network of strongly pacified interactions. This idea of the “threat” to or “defense” of the regime was strongly anchored in the generation of political and journalistic agents active between 1920 and 1950, and lent sociological sense to the continuities that were observed between 1918 and 1949.113 In this period, the context of revolution and then totalitarianism, as well as the failure of the first democratic experience of Weimar, were both constraints and conditions of success for the establishment of renewed forms of press-political relations after 1949. The experience of a totalitarian and brutal practice from 1933 to 1945 made the establishment of a dedicated ministry symbolically unthinkable ex-post, or at least gave journalists moral arguments to declare these projects immediately illegitimate.

Courtization of Individuals in a Federal Capital

This paper proposes to reconsider the concrete mode of functioning of this public sphere, at the mesosociological level of organizations.114 It is possible to understand these relations not primarily from the point of view of the democratic theory of the separation of powers but rather as a social construction of actors objectively interacting and subjectively engaged in these relations. In particular, it is a matter of analyzing the social mechanisms by which such a figuration produces what Elias calls a courtization of the agents in competition115—in other words, more or less pacified interactions between groups that are competing but constrained by their co-presence. Press-political exchanges do not take place in a theoretical public sphere but perform this public sphere “whose places, spaces, forms, scenes and moments must be analyzed respectively.”116 Power is as much staged as it is embodied by men and women in interaction and who are interdependent.

Moreover, the structuring of (political) activity “has to be explicated in terms of its spatiality as well as its temporality,” experienced by actors themselves.117 This approach was thus also nourished by the recent findings from the so-called “spatial turn” of the social sciences in order to shed light on the historical articulations of a world of relations, which also occurred in a specific territory that could be objectified.118 Spatiality is not only an outcome; it is also a part of the explanation.119 In contrast to a state-national construction, like those of Paris and London, centralized around a royal court and a state nobility in a geographical space that concentrates both the political-administrative elites and the economic power, “Berlin is a young city.”120 In our case, one of the specificities is that, in the course of its history, both groups—journalists and politicians—sought to settle in a dedicated place at the heart of power. This location in the capital is more than anecdotal because it changes the interaction settings every time. In concrete terms, the question arose as to whether political and parliamentary journalists should move into a common building (or not), and whether they should procure it or build it for the Pressehaus under Weimar or the BPK. This was not self-evident. It required negotiations to obtain funds or land to set up the journalists’ group as close as possible to the political institutions. Moreover, only those political journalists covering federal politics from the federal seat can be members of the BPK. This material dimension gave a different meaning to the corporatist system by installing it spatially. Here again, these socio-geographical figurations and the presence of journalists and politicians in precise places were not spontaneous or “natural”; they were the object of a construction in the proper sense of the term: that of a desired and physically identifiable proximity.

If the Weimar figuration was characterized by an extreme polarization of press titles,121 the strategy of the government was to create what we will call the conditions for pacification by coalescence. The rulers of 1918 (mainly) and the political agents after 1949 had only one idea: to create a dense network of interdependent relationships where rapid access to each other would allow the construction of what the actors themselves would end up calling a politics of the short paths,122 the only one capable of pacifying these exchanges, involving proximity and permanent exchanges. The embedding of the interactions within particular institutions—i.e., the courtization of the actors of this parliamentary democracy—allowed the preservation of a regulated and disciplined game, in spite of everything.123 It was also necessary to provide these representation professionals with distinctive places—the government quarter (Regierungsviertel) and its multiple reserved venues or moments—where this parliamentary etiquette could be practiced and where journalists and parliamentarians could rub shoulders. This is made analytically possible by the cross-referencing and discussion of Elias’s and Bourdieu’s theories in French political sociology, notably used by French media scholars like Erik Neveu.

After 1945, with the Allied presence on German soil and the fear of international reprimands, the idea gradually took hold that all the actors in these institutions (including the opposition and journalists) had the same sense of “responsibilities” and the same respect for the “democratic frames” fixed by the Fundamental Law and guaranteed by the Karlsruhe Court. This demonstration was achieved, on the one hand, through the ritualization of press conferences within the BPK, and on the other hand, through the codification of the framework of exchanges, which closed the border between the private world of informal relations and the public world of television interviews, for example.

Revisiting Field Theory: An Interstitial Field Within the Federal State

Working on these figuration changes also required a reconsideration of the generality of field theory.124 As mentioned, the sociogenesis of press-political relations in Germany led to the construction of an autonomous space within the field of federal power, that of the production of symbolic governmental goods for the general public. It is indeed a field—a structured, relatively autonomous space—of objective relations, which cannot be reduced to the interactions between social agents competing for the definition of a situation and constrained by “the mediation of the representation that people have of the structure.”125 This field is based on the durable constitution of a state sector (and its apparatus) dedicated to the production of symbolic goods for the public. It is the object of a permanent struggle for the delimitation of the legitimate actors who can participate in it, as well as the ways of acting and speaking within this space designed for positions and stances. Like parliamentarianism, it is a space for the expression of a certain consensus, or rather for the disciplining of the legitimate expression of dissensus.126 The historical originality of this construction rests on a corporatist-democratic system, that is to say, concretely, on a monopolization by the journalists’ organizations in charge of the coverage of parliamentary politics (Verein Berliner Presse, Reichsverband der deutschen Presse, and Bundespressekonferenz) of the expression and transmission of governmental information, protecting itself against competitive struggles between editorial offices.127 This forces the state apparatus all the more strongly to organize a relatively unified production of government statements in return. It is these “relational and dynamic properties, in their own historicity and temporality,”128 that lead us to speak of the field of governmental symbolic politics. This term is more appropriate to that of the political/media field, which is too imprecise to describe the effects of circulation of political statements on the media space and the relations that structure them. These relations between the spaces and the effects of intersectoral conversion have to be studied.

However, this field is neither independent nor autonomous. In many ways, it is a field that can be described as weak or interstitial.129 This term describes an empirical reality and inscribes these relationships in a larger social structure. It is a “systemic” concept that refers to the way the field of power functions.130 The concept of the interstitial field implies that multiple fields are in competition for the control of these practices. The weakness of this field lies in this interstitial position, where the actors are caught up in the logics of action of their own fields, but where goods, norms, and knowledge are exchanged and capital and positions are converted from one field to another. After having carried out prosopographical work on the trajectories of journalists and government communicators, one can show that the actors are sufficiently bound by these relatively autonomous rules of the game to speak of a field, but no profession or professional group is able to impose its rules and precepts to structure its center of gravity.131 Parliamentary journalists are very largely dependent upon their inclusion in the national journalistic field. On the other hand, the national journalistic field alone does not cover the area of political journalism, which is practiced from the headquarters of the editorial offices and is scattered throughout the Federal Republic. The functioning of parliamentary journalism is constrained by the logic of the parliamentary game. The work of the spokespersons is also doubly dependent on the rules of the political and bureaucratic fields and their interconnection, especially because bureaucratic appointments are linked to electoral contingencies.

Finally, it allows us to rethink the theory in its institutional anchorage. The centrality and independence of this field of interaction is relative, because it owes much to the federal organization of political institutions and editorial offices. Federalism weakens the magnetic centrality of this field, because not all political and journalistic careers take place in Bonn or Berlin, and not all cursus honorum are oriented towards the federal center.132 Paradoxically, it is also this federal logic that allows this field to remain autonomous, by guaranteeing the closure of this field. The concept allows us to describe the logics in terms of career as well as the reconversions of capital, resources, and knowledge that can take place in this field and can then be reinvested in other fields (journalistic, but especially bureaucratic and political). The concept gives meaning to the institutionalization of press-political relations.


Understanding interactions between the press and politics hence requires an understanding of the space of co-production of political discourse and its structuring, the interdependence and the rationalization of the political work oriented towards the media as a relational arrangement between these two groups of actors (at least). One of the issues at stake in this pacification of exchanges concerns access to the market of symbolic political goods over which the political authorities compete with journalists and over which different state sectors compete with each other. The tour de force of the state-national constructions of modern states is to have been able to concentrate the instruments of legitimization and to develop (or attempt to do so) a state apparatus to support this process.133 This sociology of political communication is part of a historical sociology of the State, where it is understood that journalists participate in the field of power.134

This approach is a dominant one in French political communication studies. Adopting reflexive thinking on my own French media studies routines, I tried here to present the benefits of both national approaches. Far from rejecting either the French or the German approach, this investigation was only made possible by taking advantage of each. My objective was to propose a sociology of the mediatization of politics that would combine the comprehensive sociology of journalistic work and the political sociology of federal (and above all parliamentary and governmental) power, observed over time, and integrate contributions of media studies in France and Germany and French political sociology, largely influenced by a constructivist and historical sociology approach. The more German perspective of a comparative and more institutional analysis of politics led to an exploration of the functioning of democracy and parliamentarianism. The more French approach of the sociology of journalism has placed journalists and politicians in a process of interdependency rather than independence. Finally, the weight of historical political sociology provides a path to follow the construction and evolution of media systems in relation to those of political systems.


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