Germans Cash In
By Carter Dougherty
Carter Dougherty, a freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C., recently returned from a one-year stint with the German newspaper Die Welt.
It was only a press conference, but it could have been a shopping spree as well. Allison Linn, an American journalist living in Berlin, was covering the announcement by CNN of a major advertising campaign in Germany. Following opening remarks, journalists were invited to shop at the nearby Warner Brothers store--at a 10 percent discount. Linn rubbed her eyes in astonishment.
"American publicists might try to offer you special offers or discounts, but they do it subtly, and they usually know you're not going to accept," says Linn, a freelance writer for publications including Salon.com and ARTnews magazine.
Her German colleagues, however, didn't bat an eye. "It made me wonder what kind of perks their journalists feel free to take," says Linn, who took a pass on the deal.
Claudia Coles, a CNN spokeswoman, says the offer was directed mainly at CNN employees who also attended the event, but that it would have been "churlish" not to extend it to other journalists. CNN does not typically offer discounts to reporters, Coles says.
But German journalists are accustomed to such bonuses. Want a cheap cell phone? It goes with the beat. A discount on a new car? No problem. Deals on hotel rooms? Easy. Press credentials unlock all sorts of goodies in Germany. But the ethical issues surrounding these perks have only recently surfaced.
Perhaps the best known sweetener in the profession is the cell phone. Germany's two largest cellular providers, TeDe Mobil and D2 Mannesmann, both offer substantial discounts for journalists. TeDe Mobil charges no monthly fee, while D2 Mannesmann gives journalists a chunk of free time. Why? A TeDe Mobil spokesman refused to be quoted on the subject, saying he feared that nonjournalists would call and demand the same deal. But D2 Mannesmann was more open.
"In Germany, journalists are simply used to receiving these sorts of things," says spokesman Christian Schwolow. D2 Mannesmann had not planned to introduce the deal, but relented in the face of a "massive" number of journalists who called seeking one. Schwolow denies any intention to influence the press, or that D2 Mannesmann considered the requests a subtle form of extortion.
And the gifts abound. Peter Diesler, a Bonn-based freelance journalist, started a popular Internet newsletter in May, at www.journalismus.com, that thoroughly catalogs the savings available to journalists. For example, Philips Consumer Electronics offers various discounts on television and communications products. And Volkswagen knocks a whopping 15 percent off the cost of a new car, a substantial rake-off in a country where a basic model costs at least $20,000.
Diesler believes that free press trips and lunches are much more detrimental to objective reporting than these discounts and says the advantages help keep lots of freelance journalists in business. But the site has generated a discussion of ethics among those who use it. "We are proud that our Internet work contributes to the fact that [journalists] are now critically examining their own points of view," Diesler says.
If you think perks might be frowned on by the professional organization of German journalism, think again. The German Journalists' Association--the German acronym is DJV--actively supports the quest for these gifts. A 20-year-old corporation that is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the group, the DJV-Verlags-und Service GmbH (DJV-VS), negotiates deals on behalf of DJV members.
The situation is all the more peculiar because DJV is a member of Germany's Press Council (Presserat), a self-elected group that functions like an American news council, reviewing complaints about a journalist's or publication's work. Section 15.1 of the German council's ethics code, however wordy, seems fairly clear: "Even the appearance that the freedom of decision of the publisher and the newsroom could be circumscribed by the granting of invitations or gifts is to be avoided."
Similarly, the Society of Professional Journalists urges American journalists to "[r]efuse gifts, favors, fees, free travel and special treatment..if they compromise journalistic integrity."
DJV spokeswoman Gesine Dähn acknowledges the potential for abuse. "Ultimately, a journalist must, in a concrete situation, decide which perks could have an influence [on reporting] and which ones would not," she says. The role of DJV-VS is "a difficult subject," Dähn says, but adds that the firm works like a labor union. A big group can negotiate better deals for journalists than individuals, she points out.
To its credit, DJV has publicly broached the issue. In the January edition of journalist, DJV's publication, the group questioned whether the perk should be a thing of the past in Germany. Editor Ulrike Kaiser hopes the article generates an honest debate, a goal Diesler, who created his Web site to get the issue out in the open, wholeheartedly supports.
"We demand of politicians that they at least make public [the perks they receive]," Diesler says. "Secretiveness is not compatible with the ethos of our profession."###