Who’s Watching The Watchdogs?

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By Dan Conover

Goose a few newspaper journalists these days and they’re likely to exclaim something about why Americans should care about saving their industry. And it’s likely to sound something like this: “Without us protecting the public as investigative watchdogs, government corruption is going to run amok!”

Which might be a compelling point, were it not for five little things:

  1. Watchdogging government is hardly the primary purpose of modern newspapers (it doesn’t even make the Top Three in most outfits), and if Watchdogging ever interferes with Job No. 1 (generating double-digit profit margins for shareholders), Watchdogging is right out;
  2. Few newspaper “watchdog” reports are based primarily on original research;
  3. Newspaper editors, for all their posturing about government openness, have roughly zero interest in opening up their own processes and decision-making to public inspection;
  4. The amount of resources devoted to truly investigative, power-challenging, applecart-upsetting, potentially unpopular stories at the average American newspaper is likely dwarfed by the comics page budget;
  5. And finally, this argument assumes without evidence that even if my objections were untrue, newspapers would still be the appropriate place for this important societal function.

So let’s try this another way, shall we? Sure, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with newspapers conducting investigative journalism — in fact, I hope they choose to do more of it. But let’s consider for a moment the possibility that newspapers have done at least as much to encourage bad behavior by government and business as they’ve done to curb it.

Conflicts of interest
Who owns your local newspaper? Who serves on its board of directors? Or even its editorial board? Do you know? Can you find out quickly and easily? No, really, I’ll wait…

No luck? Newspaper companies and media corporations are run not by civic-minded saints, but by business people. And while they love looking into other people’s business, they don’t like anybody looking into theirs. If you run for public office, you’re expected to reveal your financial interests, but buy a newspaper and you can shape public opinion for years without ever having to reveal much of anything.

But what about the “newsroom firewall,” that oft-touted invisible fortress that protects the news judgment of top editors from the economic interests of the company? Might as well call it a Maginot Line. Does anybody seriously believe that editors who refuse to adopt the personality and concerns of top management are likely to reach and remain in top newsroom jobs? Even the best top editors exist in a hellish realm of compromise between their public-minded mission and the “bottom-line realities” of for-profit newspapering.

Color me snobbish, but I like my watchdogs to live by the same rules they apply to others. Call it a quirk.

Taking credit for the work of others
Ever wonder who does most of the public-policy grunt work in America? For the good guys, it’s typically underpaid crusaders at civic-minded non-profit groups, people who care about clean water and safe food and healthy children other such left-wing nonsense. Newspapers count on these scruffy muckrackers, even though they typically distance themselves from their “radical” agendas.

The bad guys, like the American Petroleum Institute, or, say Envron, hire platoons of well-groomed lobbyists, experts and public-relations specialists to sell their stories. And even though they are deliberately engaged in distorting the truth to protect their interests, these people are treated as respectable, credible media sources.

Much of what passes for watchdog investigative reporting is based on studies conducted by these pesky non-profits, or by anonymous government underlings in some state auditor’s office, or the federal GAO, and so on. They produce the proof, editors build stories around their findings, and each year on press awards night, some reporters get plaques that credit them with the whole enterprise.

Is there newspaper reporting, investigative or otherwise, that takes on a public-policy issue and challenges ruling orthodoxy without a boost from an interest group? Probably. But newspapers generally refuse to poke the status-quo without being able to cite some interest group for raising the issue. Wanna know why? Because the status quo is where the money and power are. Do the math.

One final thing about this weird dance of newspaper reporters and watchdog groups. In the old days, each benefited. Today, the only thing the newspaper gives the watchdog is greater exposure — not the ability to publish, not the credibility to contact influencers and decision-makers. What newspaper people won’t tell you is that their value to the original institutional watchdoggers is declining. Rapidly.

Lack of transparency
Your local city council is required to let the public witness all its decisions. What about your local newspaper? Are interest groups allowed to sit in on afternoon budget meetings? Are news decision-makers required to release their notes and e-mails that relate to why they promoted one angle but spiked another?

Editors understand that they take heat sometimes for the stories they publish. The last thing they want is heat for the stories they didn’t publish, or a pubic accounting of the decisions that lead up to framing stories in a particular way.

Are there legal issues involved? Ethical issues of privacy, etc.? Absolutely, and that’s all you’ll hear from the news gang if you ask about this. But here’s the deal: These are problems that could be solved in a variety of ways, if there were any interest in solving them. Which there isn’t.

One final point: Even newspaper journalists who are well-intentioned and without directly conflicted interests can still have interests worth examining. They could be personal, or ideological. It could be something as simple as the knowledge that one high-profile take-down of a bad guy can be enough to make a reporter’s career. Effective watchdogging is a tremendous power, and power without accountability is generally an awful idea.

Starving the messenger
Now that newspaper profits (and most are still profitable, regardless of what you might have heard) are being squeezed, investigative watchdogging journalism is front-and-center in the public debate over print’s future. But we are our choices.

If you’re a reader, ask yourself: What percentage of stories in your daily paper substantially challenge with hard evidence the statements of government leaders or powerful corporations? And no, a skeptical tone in an otherwise he-said-she-said story doesn’t count. How often do you get stories that substantially change the way you understand some complex topic, or reveal some form of corruption?

If you’re a newspaper journalist, answer this question: How big is your “investigative team?” How many stories does it do in a year? Who picks the topics? Who picks the team members? Is your newspaper doing more or fewer truly investigative stories than it was 10 years ago?

Finally, compare the resources devoted to feature-section fluff to your paper’s supposedly sacred First Amendment duty to watchdog the government. How does it stack up? Answers please on a postcard.

Is this the best way?
The Center for Medicare Advocacy defends the rights of poor people and goes around the country finding situations in which government actions fail to match its policies. It studies the arcane thicket of health care regulations to find flaws and inefficiencies that hurt Americans who have no way of protecting themselves from government abuse or indifference. Its lawyers could make more money in other fields. And when they find injustice, they file class-action lawsuits against the feds.

Does anyone think that newspaper “investigative teams” are somehow more reliable and valuable than the work these people do? Or that one of those newspaper teams could pick up a story about Medicare without standing on the shoulders of the CMA’s staff attorneys?

Is a lawsuit always the best way to play watchdog? Probably not. But there’s one important difference between a watchdog story in a paper and a lawsuit in federal court: The attorneys in a lawsuit can compel sources to testify. Those caught lying have committed a crime. A journalist cannot do this, and a watchdog without teeth isn’t much more than a yapping annoyance.

If we are serious about the role of watchdogs in our society, there are all sorts of ways we could not only address concerns about failing newspapers, but actually improve the watchdog function. We could create transparent institutions that conduct research in the public interest. We could write laws that give publicly certified investigators the court-ordered power to compel testimony without filing formal charges.

And even if we don’t want to go that far afield, who is to say that newspapers are, or should be, the sole inheritors of the watchdog tradition? No newspaper can match the cooperative genius of Talking Points Memo and its famous Friday document-dump parties.

In journalists’ romantic private world, they are working-class heroes confronting the powerful on behalf of the powerless, and that happy myth is hard to give up. In truth, they are effectively limited by the compromises inherent in their business and our society. Newspapers simply will not long engage in unpopular whistleblowing, or in watchdogging that hurts their circulation. Medicare watchdogging isn’t sexy, and the people who benefit from it aren’t valuable to advertisers, yet newspaper advocates promote a system that leaves the watchdogging function to a secretive guess about which stories will be the most valuable to the paper, not society. Is this supposedly important role really something that’s best left to such furtive whims?

These systemic failures do nothing to limit government corruption. Rather, the first-hand knowledge of how easy it is to warp press coverage and spin public opinion has the opposite effect. Through our sloppy standards and the overarching greed of our corporate paymasters, my former profession has encouraged generations of corporate and governmental sleaze. We didn’t watchdog President Bush’s claims about WMDs. We didn’t take seriously the voices that had been warning for years about the impending collapse of the subprime mortgage market. If your local newspaper gives the mayor’s denials of proven but complex facts equal weight with the facts themselves, then your city hall is likely rife with sleek, smug injustice. And so on.

What newspapers could do
While newspaper investigative projects are opaque, expensive and rare, there is something routine and unsexy that newspapers can do that has a tremendous positive effect on open government. It’s called beat writing, and there’s a lot less of it today. That’s because consultants told us in the 1980s and 1990s that people were tired of “institutional coverage” and “routine meeting stories.” This was true, by the way, and there was good advice in there: Don’t be boring hacks.

But the lesson that newspapers learned was that routine governmental coverage was expendable, and that beat reporters had to become features writers to earn their keep. Today there are fewer true beat reporters, and not very many long-time city hall experts in local newsrooms. These are the reporters who really understand the systems they cover, and a good one is worth his or her weight in gold… on the day you really need one.

But what about those other days? Well, they’re not worth nearly so much to harried editors whose No. 1 job is to fill the newshole with stories that are easily acceptable to their bosses. And since hard-hitting, status-quo-upsetting stories worry those bosses and require at least 500 percent more effort and time, guess what the message is in most newsrooms?

Today’s mediascape is a remnant of a collapsing 20th century system in which most of the journalistic infrastructure belonged to newspapers. Their current argument for their social value oozes irony because it reverses the way newspapers have valued themselves for a generation — not for their civic-mindedness, but for their bottom line. And if that bottom line is less than 20 percent profit, you can bet they’re laying off reporters, not offering stockholders smaller dividend payments.

Somebody should investigate that.

Dan Conover took a buyout in 2008 after 18 years in the newspaper business. He blogs at xark.typepad.com.

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One Comment

  1. Backroadsnews said February 25, 2009 | Permalink

    Holy cow. Paint with a broad brush lately?

2 Tweetbacks & Trackbacks

  1. petermwilson (petermwilson) on February 25, 2009

    Maybe we won’t lose all that investigative reporting after all, as newspapers die. http://is.gd/kTqQ

  2. CynnamonS (Cynnamon Schreinert) on February 26, 2009

    interesting RT @petermwilson Maybe we won’t lose all that investigative reporting after all, as newspapers die. http://is.gd/kTqQ

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