Presidential Election Coverage: Heike Slansky

September 5, 2012 —

Heike Slansky is the Deputy Bureau Chief of ZDF German Television in Washington, DC. She has held this position for as long as President Obama has held his: her first assignment as Washington correspondent for ZDF was to cover Obama’s inauguration in 2009.

Reporting from North America comes naturally to Slansky who spend her teenage years in Vermont and Canada. She got her start as a reporter at McGill University’s radio station in Montreal and later worked for CNN in Frankfurt, Germany, before becoming a freelancer at ZDF television in Mainz, Germany, in 1987. She has worked for ZDF ever since.

Founded in 1961 in an attempt to diversify the post-WWII broadcast media landscape in Germany, the public broadcaster ZDF is now one of Europe’s largest television networks.

IWMF: As a foreign correspondent, what aspects of the presidential election are you most interested in reporting?

Slansky: What I find particularly fascinating about the 2012 presidential election is that – in comparison to the elections of the recent past – this election is not just a choice between a Democratic and a Republican president, it is a choice between two fundamentally different directions for this country: Obama is trying to change the course of this country to become a more modern and progressive nation, while Romney is preaching the return to “old American recipes”. I am curious to see how the American people will decide.

IWMF: Issues of particular interest to women, such as the various aspects of women’s reproductive health, are playing an increasingly important role in this year’s election campaigns – Todd Akin’s statement about “legitimate rape” being the most recent example of that. If at all, how do you report about this particular controversy and how are these reports received by your audience at home?

Slansky: This controversy and the media attention it has been getting underscores how different U.S. election campaigns are from those in Europe. Topics such as abortion and same-sex marriage rarely come up during election season in Germany, yet in the US, they remain “hot” topics. Explaining to our home audiences why these issues play such a significant role in the political debates here in America is actually one of the greatest challenges for us as foreign correspondents.

I also think that the broadcast media are sometimes prone to moving certain issues from the sidelines to the center stage because their controversial nature makes them an easier sell to the viewers. And other times, the political campaigns actually push these issues into the spotlight themselves as part of a diversion tactic. At ZDF, we try to focus more on the political questions of this election, for example the candidates’ economic and foreign policy agendas.

IWMF: Presidential elections are very polarizing. Reporting for a foreign media outlet, how hard do you find it to put your personal political opinion aside and report on the presidential elections objectively?

Slansky: This is a very fundamental question for journalists. Nobody, and certainly no journalist, is free of personal experiences and certain opinions that are formed by these experiences. But as a professional journalist, I strive hard for objectivity. Journalist or not, everyone should want to be the bigger person and at least try to understand where somebody with an opposing view or radical opinion is coming from. It’s all about fairness and I find it offensively unfair when the campaign aides of both candidates manipulate sound bites by knowingly taking them out of context and feeding them to the media. That’s not what journalism should be.

IWMF: Some believe that televised presidential debates do little in changing the outcome of presidential elections while others are convinced that debates do more to sway voters than all the ads money can buy. What do you think?

Slansky: I think the significance of these debates depends on the candidates – and this year, the debates can make quite a difference. Americans are very performance-oriented people: in order to qualify for a leadership position, candidates are expected to perform well all the time. In this year’s presidential debates, I believe that Obama has an edge over Romney because of his natural talent as a public speaker. Romney sometimes seems more clumsy in his choice of words. The presidential debates will show if Romney is able to dispel that impression.

IWMF: Until this year, only one woman has ever moderated a televised presidential debate in the United States – and that was 20 years ago. In your opinion, why do women have such a hard time breaking this glass ceiling in a progressive country like the U.S., and in the 21st century?

Slansky: To be honest, I was surprised to hear that because I have never felt that women journalists are particularly disadvantaged in the U.S. This year’s choice of a female moderator for one of the presidential debate highlights what’s so great about this country: change can happen very easily. A public campaign of three high school students in form of a petition is all it took to rectify the lack of women moderators in high-profile debates. I think Candy Crowley is a fantastic journalist and every bit as talented as her male colleagues, as are many other female journalists in this country. She is a great choice to moderate the presidential town-hall debate next month.

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Candy Crowley | Chief Political Correspondent, CNN
Martha Raddatz | Senior Foreign Policy Correspondent, ABC News
Maria Elena Salinas | News Anchor, Univision
Sheelah Kolhatkar | Features Editor / National Correspondent, Bloomberg Businessweek
Eleanor Clift | Contributor, Newsweek
Nadia Bilbassy-Charters | Chief U.S. Correspondent, MBC TV