Winter 1999 - Spring 2000

1998: This Is Watchdog Journalism

By Murrey Marder
[This article originally appeared in the Summer 1998 issue of Nieman Reports.]

[T]here is far too little public understanding in the United States about the role of the press in the American system. And one good reason for that is that the press itself is much too secretive about what it does.

One of the prerequisites for greater understanding of watchdog journalism is to demystify the press. Help the public to understand what the press is supposed to doand why the sweeping writ of "freedom of the press" is in the First Amendment.

Fear of the abuse of power was the galvanizing force in the American Revolution and continues to be the strongest justification for a challenging and thoroughly independent press.

The press, in turn, is obliged to perform honestly, fairly and with civility at all times.

Journalism is an odd mixture of chutzpah and humility. Some of our colleagues tend to mix the two like they mix martinissay, five parts chutzpah to one part humility, as in gin and vermouth. Others stretch that to a 10 to 1 mixture, while our extremists seem to use all gin, with not even a whiff of humility.

In our business, none of us can impose rules on anyone else, especially for behavior. You might say that is one freedom of the press. But we should have the strength of our own convictions to disassociate ourselves wherever we can from crude, discourteous behavior whether by packs of elbowing news people lying in wait for Monica Lewinsky, or by shouting, snarling participants in a television encounter posing as news commentators.

Not surprisingly, what the public sees becomes its basis for judging the press as a whole. If we want the public to see us as sound and reliable watchdogs on the use of power in the next millennium, not attack dogs or lap dogs, then we must cultivate the qualities to command that respect.

That will not come easy. For in my view, 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.

Operating as an instrument of democracy, watchdog journalism need not search for a new role as public journalism or civic journalism. When it functions as it is already fully qualified to do, it is public journalism. It is civic journalism, in the best meaning of those terms.

Question: Could you define "watchdog"?

Answer: If you ask the American publishers: "Do you engage in watchdog reporting?" Everyone's going to say, "Yes, of course we do." And I would think the answer is that, like everything else in journalism, you cannot set down absolute rules, saying this is watchdog journalism and nothing else is watchdog journalism. So I would think that one tries to concentrate on the concept.

Just to take the simplest example: If I go to report a story, I don't operate as though I'm there simply to listen to what someone says. If that's what I'm going to be doing then I am a stenographer. I'm supposed to be, in my judgment, thinking about what this person is saying, whether he is answering my questions, whether I, as a pseudo-surrogate for the public, should be asking other things. One of the oddities of journalism [is] that the longer I engage in it, the less confident I am about my absolute ability to do the most simplest things directly. Now think of this: How many times have you read a story about yourself that you regarded as absolutely correct? The most difficult thing in the world journalistically is to report with reasonable accuracy a conversation between two people. Each has his own perception of what happened in that conversation. That's where the humility comes in.

One of the things I learned here at Harvard was academic gamesmanship, of avoiding questions and confounding reporters. I had met George Bundy, Walter Rostow, young Arthur Schlesinger [all of whom went to Washington as Presidential advisers], and they had a form of academic gamesmanship which I had to learn how to penetrate. This is what so impressed Lyndon Johnson about Bundy, [who would] say, there are four factors involved in this situation. What I learned to do was to listen very carefully and think about what was being said because you thought about it and found out maybe there weren't just four factors; maybe there were five or seven. But he had overwhelmed you.

For me the watchdog reporter is always in a struggle, because he is always trying to extract time to think. The entire Washington public relations process is to overwhelm you with "pseudo-information." It happens to be very difficult, unless you have some secrets that I don't know, to take notes on a complex conversation and think about the questions you should be asking about the holes in what you are being told. The mind actually cannot do two things simultaneously.

Let me just be specific. In my Nieman year, Louis Lyons one day said, "There's a fellow you guys might like to meet. He's a German refugee." And so he brought in someone we never even heard of before named Henry Kissinger. I don't happen to remember anything memorable that Henry said at the time, and I'm sure he doesn't either. Curiously enough, when he came to Washington, he still acted like a Harvard professor. I went to see him at the White House. There was a blackboard, and he started drawing boxes on it. He was diagramming what he told me was going to be the structure of how he would operate in Washington. This exercise went on for about 30 or 40 minutes, and he filled the whole blackboard with boxes and arrows. And he stepped back and said with great smugness, "Do you have any questions?" I said, "What is the purpose of this exercise, to gain control of the bureaucracy?" He looked at me, smiled and said, "Yes." [President Carter's National Security Chief Zbigniew] Brzezinski did exactly the same thing. This is what I mean by watchdog.

In Vietnam, one of the brightest people I knew in the diplomatic service was [Assistant Secretary of State] Phil Habib. He was deeply involved in drawing up the whole governmental structure [for Vietnam]courts, congress, executive branch. Very proud of himself, he explained it and said, "What do you think?" And I said, "Do you think you can do that in somebody else's country? You've created for them a system of courts, a congress and an executive branchcan we do that in somebody else's country?" He said, "Well if we don't, who will?" I said, "Maybe nobody should." He said, "But we always do that." I said, "I know that." He said, "We did it in Korea and Japan and it worked." I said, "Well maybe it won't work here." That's what I mean by watchdog journalism. 

This excerpt is from remarks made by Murrey Marder, Nieman Fellow 1950 and retired Diplomatic Correspondent of The Washington Post, at the dinner of the first Nieman Watchdog Journalism Conference in Cambridge, Massachusetts, May 1, 1998.

6 Comments on 1998: This Is Watchdog Journalism
John says:
October 14, 2011 at 2:44pm
Where is our so-called journalist? United States journalist are quick to report foreign government corruption, government officials being courted by big money corporations and their extravagant sending except in our own house, WHY???? Governors are being paid (money, favors, and donations) by major corporations to strip unions and workers of their bargaining rights and powers. Assembly members, senators, congress men/women, and governors are demanding union members pay more for their benefits, reduce their retirement pensions, stop or reduce work perks, reduce benefits for family members except for themselves, WHY??? Our so called patriotic government official s wants to reduce service member’s wages to minimum wage while they send them into hostile combat. They are giving themselves hefty pay hikes, more benefits and do not have to pay back student loans for their kids. Why are they not setting the example, WHY??? We do not have journalist we have news extremist. They rather go face gun fire and death in a combat zones, report news and conflicts of other countries than face our government corruption than the aftermath fall out to true journalism stories here at home. The last nail on the working people’s coffin was when our supreme court GOP selected justices sold our country’s electoral financial system to corporate America and their foreign partners. The $ does reign king in our judicial and legal system, forget about fairness, morality, and the law. The $ rules.
Politics Matters says:
September 29, 2011 at 8:04pm
On the subject of the Fourth Estate and watchdog journalism, Bob Gibson, Executive Director of the University of Virginia’s Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership, recently said: “If we don’t have a watchdog function, then we have a lapdog function, and that doesn’t serve the voter very well. We need journalism that goes out and challenges what is being given reporters as the facts. We need to look behind the facts and find out where they’re coming from, and what the interests are of the people who are giving us those facts. Local government and state government and the federal government today are even more than ever in the news business themselves. They are putting out news as if it was the entire package and expecting people to buy it and I think Americans have to be a little bit skeptical and have to look behind where those governments are putting out facts.” (Gibson appeared on the Charlottesville, VA, politics interview program Politics Matters with host and producer Jan Madeleine Paynter discussing journalism
Ted says:
April 12, 2010 at 7:29pm
I personally thought it was a good article. Watchdog journalism is definitely an art in itself. Lapdog journalism goes along with the status quo. It doesn't make waves. So how much one get out to
the media is a tough job in itself. The not-for-profits can do it better.
Take a look at Jesse Ventura's "American Conspiracies." It is all watchdog journalism. Thanks for the interesting attempt.
Moosey says:
November 6, 2009 at 9:36pm
Andy, I think you fail to realise that everyone reads, interprets and understands texts differently. Not everyone will get the preferred reading out of this article, so there will never be one uniform response. But that is the beauty of audience theory.
Andy says:
October 12, 2009 at 5:31am

While your enthusiasm and idealism are great, your reading comprehension is lacking...a lot.

You've completely misunderstood the very purpose of this article. This is Marder's take on how "watchdog" journalism should be defined, not an assessment of the successes and failures of it. Clearly, you are not attending Harvard, like Marder, for your journalism degree. But is it too much to ask that, before commenting inanely, by AND large you understand both what you're reading and basic English idioms.


An Engineering Major
liz says:
April 22, 2009 at 10:35am
I think that the notion of watchdog journalism is more of a liberal journalist ideology then a reality. I am studying to be a journalist, so this is hard for me to admit when i am entering the profession for myself but there is too much evidence where journalists have failed to perform their ideological 'watchdog' function in keeping the government accountable.

take for instance the Iraq war, there were plenty of reasons for the press to question the link that the government was making between September 11 and Iraq such as oil and the fact that america contributed to the build up of some of his biological weapons. however, they didn't and more so dropped the role of being critical journalists in scrutinizing the government agenda to become passive messagers or government mouthpieces. if you look at the gulf war it was much the same.

meanwhile the media fails to be a watchdog in non crisis situations also, this is by in large due to the symbiotic relationship between press and government.

overall i felt this article didn't take a realistic perspective on how well the press does this in practice and did not really acknowledge the areas where the notion of watchdog journalism falls short, which it does....a lot.
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