Watchdog Journalism: An Instrument of Democracy
In his introduction to the Nieman Foundation Watchdog Conference held at Harvard University in September, Curator Bob Giles described how and why the Watchdog project was created. He invited Murrey Marder, its guiding force and benefactor, to speak about the purpose and promise of watchdog journalism, with particular emphasis on its need and use during times of national crisis. Marder’s revised remarks follow Giles’s introduction.
Bob Giles: We’re deeply indebted to Murrey Marder, the retired chief diplomatic correspondent of The Washington Post and a Nieman Fellow in 1950, whose generous gift to the Nieman Foundation has enabled us to hold these conferences to examine and reinvigorate the press in its fundamental role of serving the public interest.
In his original proposal in 1997 for a watchdog project, Murrey wrote that the press as a whole is by no means penetrating enough, vigorous enough, public-spirited enough, or courageous enough about reporting and analyzing the most vital needs in performance of the nation across a full range of local, regional, national and international news. A year later, as the first conference began, Murrey described watchdog journalism as an instrument of democracy: “It 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, in professional offices, and all points in between.”
The American press is at the beginning of a time for which it has no adequate experience or preparation. A war on terrorism is unlike any war this nation has ever fought and unlike any that journalists have had to cover. In these times, our nation needs an activist, searching, challenging press and essential to fulfilling this responsibility is asking probing questions.
Last spring, when we were putting together some ideas for this watchdog conference, Murrey sent me a memorandum discussing how we might achieve the widest impact with the information that is going to be developed from these discussions. He told me of a meeting with Gene Roberts at the University of Maryland, in which they discussed how to broadly change the existing journalistic mindset about watchdog journalism. Murrey asked Gene Roberts whether journalism students at Maryland were taught to ask questions. “Not in any comprehensive forum,” Roberts replied. “There are numerous references to question asking, but no substantive focus on it, or guidance on how to ask questions.”
The core of the problem, Murrey suggested, is a lack of penetrating, probing questions to produce accountability for all that impacts the public interest. And his exchange with Gene Roberts set the stage for a discussion about reaching journalism students broadly by offering instruction about question asking through videotape of first-class quality. So part of our purpose here is to think about and to assess how information from this conference could be packaged and produced in such videotape. We have invited a number of journalism educators and people from the documentary field here as participants and observers and, after the conference concludes, we’ll be talking with them about their reactions and ideas for how to broaden our outreach.
Murrey Marder has not only provided the gift that makes these conferences possible, but he is a continuing inspiration for them. During his career at The Washington Post he practiced watchdog journalism, building a reputation for diligence, dedication and integrity. These qualities served him especially well in his assignment in 1957 as the Post’s first foreign correspondent. Dean Rusk, the secretary of state for Lyndon Johnson, in his autobiography once likened Murrey to Hercule Poirot, Agatha Christie’s famed detective: “He’s got a little piece of a story here, and a little piece of a story there, and gradually he pieced the puzzle together.”
Murrey, we’re very thankful to you and pleased to have you here with us. Would you come and talk to us a little bit about watchdog journalism?
Murrey Marder: When we began this particular project no one, especially me, could have anticipated where it would be right now after September 11. Many news people, including me, initially leaped to the metaphor of the Pearl Harbor attack. But the more I thought about the shocking effect, for me it had more of a combination of Pearl Harbor and Sputnik. I don’t know if many of you can remember Sputnik—the Soviet satellite launched in October 1957—but this had profound impact on the American psyche. For the first time the threat was directly overhead, and a foreign power had invaded American air space, in a degree unlike Pearl Harbor, which struck the fringes of American power. Sputnik was right above us, beeping tauntingly, mocking American boasts of scientific primacy.
The impact was profound. It overwhelmed so many concepts of American education, especially the scientific concepts, because at that time the Soviet Union was vastly underrated as a quite backward power. Instead, it had penetrated the shield of American invincibility in a way much like the attacks in September penetrated the shield of our homeland invincibility.
But there the comparisons end. There was nothing mysterious about Sputnik’s origin or purpose. It was a calculated psychological and technological shock in an escalating cold war between two superpowers armed with obliterating weapons. Yet Sputnik cost no casualties, destroyed no facilities, and left no nuclear, biological or chemical aftershocks.
By contrast, Americans on September 11 were not only aghast over the nature and magnitude of the terrorist attacks, but they were confounded by the enmity of an adversary they did not know. American bewilderment was exemplified by the outcry, “Why do they hate us?”
Where were the watchdogs who could have sounded that alarm? Any attentive reporter working in the Middle East during the last decade could not have missed hearing what one U.S. diplomat recently described as “a sorcerer’s brew of anti-U.S. grievances.” Grievance news, however, was little sought and rarely headlined by most American news outlets and least of all by commercial television.
Grievances, in the absence of a major, imminent threat to the United States, were rated as dull, tedious and intolerably space consuming. At the same time, the end of the cold war supplied a convenient excuse for reducing the total space given to foreign news. Consequently, the number of American reporters based abroad shrunk steadily in the last dozen to 15 years, drastically diminishing overseas news coverage.
So as the grievances intensified, the watchdogs decreased, because the American corporate focus shifted to the bottom line. The bottom line was profit and loss. I would suggest that the American conglomerates are looking at the wrong bottom line. The bottom line, now we realize, is not profit and loss, the bottom line now is survival, and that is why the threat is so stark.
The question now is what do we do about it journalistically, and here we face a formidable challenge. Those of us who live in Washington, work in Washington or New York, might have a more acute sensitivity of what we’re going to be up against in trying to penetrate a situation which threatens the nation in many ways, in which the administration has declared that it is going to rely heavily on secrecy. And we really haven’t faced that kind of a direct challenge at the outset of a crisis in the lifetime of any of us.
This administration, unfortunately for us, has a great deal of practice in the use of secrecy. Many of its officials conducted the Persian Gulf War in exceptional secrecy and tied the press into knots as a result.
We are going to have to learn a great many things to cope with the new secrecy. I would think that we’re going to have to go back to basic principles, and when we are foreclosed, as we often are likely to be, from the American version of what is happening around the world, we now have greater access than we ever had before to the outside world’s interpretation of what is happening. So there is going to be a different kind of competition for the eyes and ears of the American public, and we’re going to have to listen to that very carefully.
At some point, our business is going to have to invest far more resources than it is committed to doing now, if it is going to be in a position to keep the American public even modestly informed about the outside world. I am personally appalled by the fact that the administration’s initial quest for legislation to give it authority in this crisis went virtually unchallenged. It got blanket authority. In my time, we used to kick ourselves over the blank check that the Johnson administration got in the Vietnam War in the Gulf of Tonkin.
The blank check the executive branch holds now is the greatest blank check any of us have ever seen because it has absolutely no limitations on it. If any part of the press was courageous about questioning the authority, it has escaped the attention of most of us.
There are things that others can do, too. Harvard can raise the level of education of its students and the rest of us about what is happening in the world around us. We clearly do not know enough about other religions, other cultures, other histories. We’re going to have to awaken ourselves, to a tremendous degree, about the fact that our fate can be determined considerably by others, as we have seen. At the time of Pearl Harbor it was determined in Japan. At the time of Sputnik it was being determined in the Soviet Union. Here it is being determined in Central Asia. It is just impossible to survive in the modern world very long in an island of privilege surrounded by a sea of have-nots. We’re going to have to learn much more about the embittered have-nots of the world and how their fate can impinge on ours.
With that over-long dissertation, I then invite you to help us all learn collectively how we can better inform ourselves and our readers and viewers about our responsibilities in meeting what is certainly not going to be a short-term problem, but very likely the largest one we may see in our lifetime.