The Role of Media Watchdog in Democracies

This is the prayer of the original watchdog of modern democracies, the muckraker. The prayer is attributed to Ray Stannard Baker, one of the progenitors of the muckraking journalists who responded to threat presented to American democracy from unregulated capitalism by proclaiming themselves the watchdogs of freedom and equality (Semonche, 1969, p. 98). Some might well argue—and with good reason—that what American and many other modern democracies around the globe needed than anything in the opening decades of the 21st century was almost spiritual call to do big things. What is most distressing about the latent realization of this need may not be the damage that has been wrought upon democratic ideals due to a lack of muckraking idealists heeding the call of doing God’s work through journalistic integrity, but rather than such journalistic integrity seem to be viewed as old-fashioned, outdated and, worst of all, a really bad choice for those with a career path that focuses on reaching the heights of media glory.

The media has played a starring role in the promotion of justice and socio-economic equality in the transformation of the defining political system of society from monarchy to democracy, although it is very important to assert that this role has not existed in a vacuum in which any crusading journalist can ever be said to have individually kept the freedom of the people intact (Streitmatter, 1997, p. 239). When one defines the role of the media across the span of the history of this political transformation, that definition has usually been characterized as a watchdog. In fact, the role of the media in keeping the world safe for democracy has usually been closer to establishing itself as an instrument of open surveillance camera recording the furtive actions of those in positions of power so as to make the world safe for democracy by protecting it from the structure of democracy itself.

The type of open surveillance that allows the media to play an active and vital role in protecting freedoms offered by democracy from the freedoms abused by democracy is an essential element of the concept of the “public sphere” which can be defined, in at least one sense, as the “various regions of mediated space in which political affairs are reported, analysed, interpreted and discussed” (McNair, 2000, p. 13). The cultural sociologist Jurgen Habermas has asserted that “the modern political public sphere requires these media, if political communication and debate is to extend beyond simple (and generally ineffective) face-to-face interaction” (Baxter, 2011, p. 163).

The creation of modern day democracy with the birth of the United States was founded upon the consolidation of rule within a constricted sphere of representatively elected or appointed leaders. It can certainly be argued that the single most prescient element incorporated into the concept of democracy by the founding fathers who drafted the US Constitutions was the separation of powers that distributed rule fairly evenly across a threefold matrix of executive, legislative and judicial agencies. Those checks and balances can take democracy without corruption or overreach only so far, however and it is vital to the continued functioning of democracies constructed upon such a separation of powers that the press and media ws “conceived in this system as the ‘fourth estate’ and freedom of the press was provided by most Western democracies as a fundamental right and as a key institution within a constitutional order based on separation of powers in which the media would serve as a check against corruption and excessive power in the other institutions. (Kellner, 2000, p. 276).

Media could not become a primary player in this system until the rise of the machine because there would not be much call for the type of watchdog surveillance of the misuse and abuse of the powers afforded by democracy until the Industrial Revolution. The sweatshops, factories, steam engines and various other urban-centric machines that would put way too much power and wealth into the hands of way too few so-called “barons of industry” were the driving force behind the expansion of the media into a genuinely indispensable component of the public sphere required to allow democracy to foster, flourish and revolve (Tichi, 2004, p. 62). The rise of the machines during the Industrial Revolution both transformed nations that had been dependent primarily on agrarian economics and transformed the demographics, resulting in a changes not just on population, but in the way that citizens contributed to and took advantage of that public sphere (Hall, 1990, p. 60). With more opportunity for the freedoms endowed by democratic rule to be abused, so came a greater need for the open surveillance by media watchdogs to keep such abuse in check. Especially when the gaps and crevices holding the rocky foundation of a democracy built upon the idea of separation of power allowed for the furtive abuses to come right out in the open without fear of retribution (Allen, 1993, p. 110).

Unfortunately for those desiring to take advantage of all the power that the Industrial Revolution afforded, the consolidation of populations and technological advancements also helped the muckraker intent on holding them accountable. Muckraking and investigative journalism was only made possible as a result of the urbanization of populations and the ability to print and distribute newspapers with astonishing alacrity (Jillson, 1994, p. 47). The circulation of big city newspapers skyrocketed during the late 1800’s and into the early 1900s as a result of the population shift, but also partly due to the popularity of such investigation reporting that served as watchdog surveillance preserving all the lofty ideals of the democratic theory of governance (Kaplan, 1995). Citizens of the world from small villages in England to the bustling metropolises of New York and Chicago were buying up newspapers not just to read the latest lurid crime reports of murders, but also to revel in the latest bringdown of a formerly respected leader caught with his hand in the till. What the media were doing during the height of the muckraker was more than reportage; they were doing the real job of showing how democracy worked and what it could be at its best.

Merely half a century before the rise of the muckraking journalist as watchdog of democracy, most of the population had not even been capable of reading a newspaper even if they had wanted to. The centralization of the population and the ready available of public education meant that over the course of those fifty years more people were able to read than ever before and the collapse of illiteracy as the norm meant greater participation in the public sphere of political action than ever before (Barnes, 1939, p. 34). Vital to understanding the role of the media as the watchdog of democracy, however, is the much more centrally pinpointed history of the media as shapers of democracy. A century before the muckrakers established their primacy as protectors of the freedoms that democratic ideals espoused, newspapers in England were igniting a spirit for the democratic ideals being practiced across the Atlantic Ocean. The fiery flames of revolution that turned autonomous colonies into United States were actually being fanned by the press within what still remained a very political robust monarchy “through the promotion of certain concepts of liberty, in particular the belief that Britons were all free citizens living in a free state, newspapers encouraged the public to believe they had not just the opportunity, but the right, to involve themselves in the nation’s political life, and to protest when they disapproved of government action” (Barker, 2002, p. 94). If such a reading can be taken to its logical extreme to form the basis for arguing that the 18th century press in Britain was directly responsible for further movement of political capital away from the already outdated and old-fashioned aristocratic system and toward democracy, then it can also be equally supposed that the last great gasp of investigative journalism as media power was responsible for bringing down a democratically elected President of the United States.

Such is the power that proponents of the libertarian press theory cling to as the great hope for the future since above all else the “libertarian concept has its aspect of social good” (Gilmore & Root, 1975, p. 33). The social good, of course, can vary greatly on perspective, but since one of the greatest principles of a democratic government is that almost every perspective is welcome to take part in the deal, this aspect of the libertarian theory of media generally will have little negative consequences. For instance, when it comes to that last great gasp of a libertarian press as the Fourth Estate in charge of keeping everybody else honest, the political perspective carried great weight, yet ultimately proved defenseless against the theory being put into practice.

Ideally, the names Woodward and Bernstein would be on the lips of everyone who wants to go into journalism regardless of their political perspective. While conservatives may take issue with the way that Woodward and Bernstein and the Washington Post turned the quaint idea of objective journalism on its head by going after Richard Nixon and his co-horts in the wake of the Watergate break-in with all the intensity that might have been expected from the Democratic leadership in the Congress at the time, they should also be intelligent enough to realize that libertarian press free to act as the watchdogs of democracy could just as easily go after a liberal Democrat in the White House (Ladd, 2012, p. 78). Should such a creature ever prove not to be extinct, that is. The names of those two reporters whose watchdog approach put them front and center within a much larger public sphere of influence that, in fact, helped to bring down Richard Nixon, transformed remarkably quickly into the kind of out-of-time icons of a meaningless era long past. Something happened in the wake of the brilliant success of Woodward and Bernstein that probably nobody could have seen coming. Nobody except, perhaps, those critics who had loudly proclaimed that “the excesses of investigative journalism, along with the experiments in New Journalism, had undermined not only the authority of government but the authority of truth” (Ettema & Glasser, 1998, p. 66).

One is forced to ponder whether those proclamations of the injury being done to democracy by watchdog media from the critics of Woodward and Bernstein would have been proclaimed so loudly, publicly and overzealously had they seen the future of a constitutional crisis that made the shenanigans and dirty tricks of Richard Nixon look like summer camp hooliganism by comparison. What if the direction of the media and its approach to its job of being the watchdog surveillance camera of democracy had gone in the opposite direction following the high point of “All the President’s Men” instead of in the direction in which journalism is just another name for the entertainment arm of the media?

The ascendency to power by George W. Bush as a result of a stolen election and the subsequent abuses of executive power and the corruption of the constitutional powers still represents the greatest threat to the course of democracy in America since the illegal secession by a bunch of slaveholding states imagining themselves to be a legitimate Confederacy (Campbell, 2005, p. 38). The utter lack of investigative journalism at the highest levels of the mainstream media in America not only allowed the George W. Bush administration to routinely circumvent not the spirit of the Constitution, but almost every one of its letters. Essentially, the Bush White House made a game of rewriting the rules of the game regardless of the game or the consequences (Jacobs, 2010, p. 156). The President of the United States—the chief executive the largest democracy in the history of the planet—routinely rewrote laws he didn’t like or circumvented them through means that managed to be both undeniably legal and of highly dubious ethical standards at the same time (Pfiffner, 2009, p. 71). Ask the average American what those legal yet dubiously ethical means were or come right out and ask them what “signing statements” are and the typical result is likely to be little more than a look nearly as blank as that when Bush is asked whether he lied about anything in order to drum up support for the invasion of Iraq. The blankness on the look of Bush may be difficult to adequately explain, but the blank look on the face of the typical citizen is easy to explain.

When the media should have been engaged in doing merely workmanlike watchdog duties, they were instead spending inordinate amounts of time covering now such forgotten “hot topics” as “the Runaway Bride” and the murder of Laci Petersen by her husband and the disappearance of Natalee Holoway as well as such more memorable, but equally unimportant stories as the death of Michael Jackson and the half-second flash of Janet Jackson’s breast during the Super Bowl halftime show (Monahan, 2010, p. 39). Ask the average person which two teams were playing during that Super Bowl or the name of the “Runaway Bride and it’s blank look time again.

The reaction of the mainstream media to the daily onslaught of lies and half-truths and mistruths and cover-ups on behalf of the Bush administration bears an uncanny resemblance to life inside the political arm of the public sphere:

“when Bush claimed that Iraq may have tried to secure “yellow cake”

to make nuclear weapons, only one person questioned this claim. The

dissenter, Richard Clarke, who was sent to check this fact, found it not

to be the case. As a result of writing about his opinion in the New York

Times, he was punished by having his spouse, Valerie Plame, a CIA

employee, outed by the administration” (Hickson & Powell, 2010).

In essence, what trying to become a media watchdog hoping to retain the essence if not the outline of the democratic ideal in the 21st century get you is not a movie produced by and starring Robert Redford, but losing your job, being tagged a traitor or simply becoming the butt of a jokes. It would be almost approach the sensation of relief if the reason behind such lack of reporting by the media during the Bush administration was entirely related to an excess of power in the hands of those in charge of the political processes. When the political power grows too unwieldly, the result is usually some sort of backlash by the watchdogs.

The reality is that much more frightening than that the idea that political power is controlling the media from doing their job and acting as the watchdogs of democracy is that the media and the political structure have become so inextricably intertwined as to almost be a single entity. The story of 21st century democratic politics can be summed up in a single word: money. A poor man cannot be elected to any position of great power in any of the largest democracies on the planet even if he really did have all the answers to all the world’s problems. The media controls the electoral process because the electoral process controls the media.

Deregulation of media ownership is at the heart of the transformation of journalism from the watchdog into a partner in the political process. This is true whether the democracy in question is America or England (Eldridge, Kitzinger, & Williams, 1997, p. 56). Globalization is one of the culprits, but all the problems of the lack of media oversight as part of the public sphere issue cannot be laid at the door of Rupert Murdoch:

“market sizes and particularities in the organizational cultures of

media systems might be part of the difficulty in constructing a prescriptive

and detailed policy, the lack of any substantial control has only helped

existing players (with considerable access to national political elites) to

expand their operations. An example of this is the Antenna Group, owned

by a Greek media mogul who controls 40 per cent of Greek television

audience, owns radio stations in Greece and has expanded to Cyprus and Bulgaria” (Chakravartty & Sarikakis, 2006, p. 102)

The consolidation of ownership of media companies by a mere handful of transnational conglomerates has impacted the way the relationship between the media and politics in ways that may not become entirely apparent for decades. Lest anyone suppose that the fear of how far this impact can stretch goes, consider just one very small and seemingly almost benign finding of research into that link between media ownership and political will: “newspapers owned by chains were more likely than independent newspapers to endorse Presidential candidates and that chains tended to be homogenous in their endorsements” (Hollifield, 1999, p. 65).

The last thing that anyone should ever want from a free press it depends upon to keep democracy safe from democracy is homogeneity in any form. If conglomeration consolidation of the media can impact something as potentially meaningless as endorsements of politicians, then it stands to reason that their influence on those areas of public opinion that actually do matter may reach deeper than anyone might like to suspect.

Or, perhaps, the real issue should focus less on how malignant such influence gets and more on what qualifies as malignant. For instance, which would be considered a more benign and harmless example of the danger that exists between too much media in the hands of too few very rich friends of politicians: having 500 newspapers across the country all endorse the same Presidential candidate or having five or six television networks all agree not to air video of the arrival of coffins carrying dead soldiers back home from a foreign war?

The numbers would indicate the former would be a better example of the danger of the politicians and the media jumping into bed together. In fact, the handful of networks agreeing not to air video of dead soldiers returning home in coffins from Iraq is almost certainly the more malignant example. After all, how bad can a war really if you never actually witness of your soldiers coming home dead? The censorship of coverage of the Iraq War by the American news networks has been routinely referred to as self-censorship, but the reality is far different:

“When Arab television trotted out a group of dazed, banged-up U.S.

Army POWs, American television refused to air much of this disturbing

and humiliating footage, citing self-censorship factors such as privacy,

respect for the prisoners’ families, and outright revulsion. Yet during

the first few days of the war, American viewers witnessed a parade

of emaciated, surrendering Iraqi army conscripts, their bony wrists

held fast behind their backs with white plastic bands” (Katovsky & Carlson, 2004, p. xvii)

and:

“CBS withheld its Abu Ghraib story at the request of the Defense

Department for two weeks. The network finally aired the story on

April 28, citing other journalists who were ready to break it—a reference

in particular to Seymour Hersh, who was working his prodigious network

of sources for what would become two lengthy investigative articles in the New Yorker. When the story finally aired, over four months had passed since the last of the abuses pictured had taken place” (Bennett, Lawrence, & Livingston, 2007, p. 73).

This final example of the deconstruction of a long tradition of the media as a Fourth Estate charged with being the watchdog that protects the values of the democratic ideals should be the final word. After all, CBS has long been the poster boy for the ill-conceived thesis that an enormously influential liberal bias exists throughout the mainstream media (Groeling, 2008). Of course, it is also worth remembering that CBS was the media watchdog most responsible for bringing down Sen. Joseph McCarthy and bringing an end to the period of outrageously misplaced hysteria known as the Red Scare (Alwood, 2007, p. 143). CBS, that icon of icons when it comes to the ideal of the modern day media watchdog spitting in the face of not only government overreach but corporate control and collusion with the government was every bit as willing to engage in so-called self-censorship during coverage of the threat to the American democracy popularly known as the Bush Administration as any other media entity.

Anyone who is still currently depending on the mainstream media to keep democracy safe from democracy should be afraid.

Very afraid.

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