To many people, watchdog reporting is synonymous with investigative reporting, specifically, ferreting out secrets. But there’s another, maybe even more crucial form of watchdog reporting, especially in this age of relentless public relations and spin. It involves reporting what may well be in plain sight, contrasting that with what officials in government and other positions of power say, rebuffing and rebutting misinformation, and sometimes even taking a position on what the facts suggest is the right solution.
Daniel Froomkin, Truth or Consequences: Where is Watchdog Journalism Today?, Nieman Reports
The piece includes these words of words of wisdom from Murrey Marder, former Washington Post reporter and founder of the Nieman Watchdog Project:
Watchdog journalism is by no means just occasional selective, hard-hitting investigative reporting. It starts with a state of mind, accepting responsibility as a surrogate for the public, asking penetrating questions at every level, from the town council to the state house to the White House, in corporate offices, in union halls and in professional offices and all points in-between.
The 10th anniversary this month of the invasion of Iraq will remind most people of a divisive and dubious war that toppled Saddam Hussein but claimed the lives of nearly 4,500 Americans and more than 100,000 Iraqi civilians.
What it conjures up for me is the media’s greatest failure in modern times.
Major news organizations aided and abetted the Bush administration’s march to war on what turned out to be faulty premises. All too often, skepticism was checked at the door, and the shaky claims of top officials and unnamed sources were trumpeted as fact.
We in the newsroom should have no illusions. Our entire purpose is to fill the “news hole,” which is the space left over after the advertisements have been placed on the page.
Theodore Daws in The Fall of Journalism, American Thinker.
Dawes, a long-time journalist, criticizes idealism and naivete in young journalists (in other words: those who think the industry is something other than a business that needs to make money), as well as j-school and false understandings of journalism ethics:
Of course, everyone overvalues the academic training they’ve received. It makes the debt, hassle, and spent time seem worthwhile, or at least less futile.
And imagine the thrill of using “lede,” which is the new spelling of lead, as in the opening sentence of a story. Its use provides the pleasing sensation of possessing specialized knowledge, knowledge well beyond the ken of the average Joe.
That is particularly pleasant to those who know so very little about everything else.
For example, I always ask job candidates a second question: “What is the difference between regulation and legislation?
Only one j-school graduate has ever known the answer. That was because, he sheepishly provided, he had worked as a legislative assistant the summer prior.
Tell me, please. How do you prepare a student for a career as a “government watchdog” and fail to provide the most fundamental instruction in how government works?
As befits their lofty status and lofty purpose, journalists work under a lofty ethical construct. Unfortunately, it is as flawed and juvenile as their journalistic purpose.
On occasion the ethical imperatives are simply incompatible, for example: 1) saving the world and 2) journalistic objectivity.
This illustrates perfectly an important fact: journalistic ethics weren’t arrived at philosophically or accidentally.
As is the case with many codes of ethics, the ethics of those in the journalism industry have as one of their primary purposes the maintenance of the status quo, particularly the economic status quo.
FJP: Would love to see a rebuttal to this.
In the American case, one of the reasons [leakers go to Wikileaks and not US establishment media is that] the legitimacy of the press itself is in doubt in the minds of the leakers. And there’s good reason for that. Because while we have what purports to be a “watchdog press,” we also have — laid out in front of us — the clear record of the watchdog press’ failure to do what it says it can do, which is provide a check on power when it tries to conceal its deeds and its purpose.
So I think it’s a mistake to try to reckon with WikiLeaks and what it’s about without including in the frame the spectacular failures of the watchdog press over the last 10, 20, 30, 40 years - but especially recently. And so without this legitimacy crisis in mainstream American journalism, the leakers might not be so inclined to trust an upstart like Julian Assange and a shadowly organization like WikiLeaks …
These kinds of huge, cataclysmic events [the Iraq War] within the legitimacy regime lie in the background of the WikiLeaks case, because if it wasn’t for those things, WikiLeaks wouldn’t have the supporters it has, the leakers wouldn’t collaborate the way they do, and the moral force behind exposing what this Government is doing just wouldn’t be there… The watchdog press died, and what we have is WikiLeaks instead.