Journalists’ role in the political process should be to serve as intermediaries between politicians and the public. The average American does not have the means by which to get the news directly from the White House and other bureaucrats. Therefore, there are reporters, who exist to provide such information to the people. However, the recent influx of attack dog journalism has resulted in less investigative reporting and a misguided definition of news, both of which have serious, negative implications.
Woodward and Bernstein, as portrayed in All the President’s Men, should be the heroes of every news reporter in the country. By tirelessly digging up the dirt on the Watergate, they discovered a government scandal. The pair adhered to their journalistic duty of reporting the details to the public, despite hesitation from others and a warning from Deep Throat that their lives may be in danger. They did not cease their searching once they had enough to publish a story; rather, they kept probing until they got to the bottom of things. According to lecture, their investigative journalism is indicative of a shift from lap dog journalism to watch dog journalism.
Around the 1990s, American journalism lost its watch dog affiliation. Today’s reporters are rarely incited by the whispers of a government cover-up. For example, it took at least eight years for the public to learn that Iraqi detector Rafid Ahmed Alwan al-Janabi lied about weapons of mass destruction in an effort to influence Western war efforts (http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/41609536/ns/world_news-mideast_n_africa/t/curveball-i-lied-about-wmd-hasten-iraq-war/#.UFzwiVGQTE0). Reporters should not be expected to question every government decision. Nevertheless, when the issue at hand is a war, they should be counted upon to look into why exactly one country proposes going to war with another – reporting not only why the government is saying it is time for war, but providing what evidence they are using to authorize their decision. This is an enormous responsibility that is vital to our very democracy.
That is not to say that investigative journalism or watch dog reporting has died out (e.g., http://watchdog.org/about/). Rather, their admirable tactics have been subsumed by the new news norm of non-news. In an effort to attract an audience, countless news outlets have transitioned to offering non-news items as news. For instance, the top story’s headline on one of Tucson’s local news station’s websites reads, “Donate hair this weekend to win tickets to “Disney on Ice.” Another is, “Man jumps off Bronx Zoo train, mauled by tiger.” While a contest and a novel story might be interesting enough for people to tune in, they are undoubtedly not the top stories of the day. One might find the protesters’ overtake of an Islamist group’s headquarters in Benghazi more pressing, especially considering the potential link to the recent attack at the U.S. Consulate in Libya (or perhaps Mitt Romney’s tax release).
The non-news news norm also includes what Larry Sabato referred to as attack dog journalism. That is, “the press coverage attending any political event or circumstance where a critical mass of journalists leap to cover the same embarrassing or scandalous subject and pursue it intensely, often excessively, and sometimes uncontrollably” (Sabato, 1991, p. 6). For instance, Obama’s “you didn’t build that” remark was immediately removed from context and spread by the mass media (so much so that the GOP then referenced it in their “We Built It” slogan at the Republican National Convention). His minor gaffe matters much less than his policy regarding taxes and social services. Even so, the media coverage did not focus on what his point was in the speech in which his misspoke. Rather, the attention was placed on the comment itself. The news should be what the President said he plans to do if he remains in office, not the poor wording choice.
The trend away from watch dog journalism toward attack dog journalism, as well as the warped definition of what is considered news, have serious implications for the country as a whole. The current nature of political news coverage can serve to place importance on non-issues, inspire and perpetuate misinformation, and leaves out what is not easily accessible. By giving so much attention to minor gaffes, rumors, and unimportant issues, the media make such items salient to the public and communicate that they are important. This can lead to skewed priorities, as people might find insignificant items to be much more relevant than they actually should be. Additionally, attack dog journalists’ mongering about Obama’s birth certificate led approximately 25% of the country to believe Obama was not born in the United States – according to 2011 polls, administered two to three years after the rumor’s origin. Finally, acting like attack dogs rather than watch dogs prevents journalists from investigating stories. Reporters might not act as politicians’ lap dogs but by attacking rather than digging, they fail as watch dogs.
Such a sociological shift in news norms and journalistic tendencies is difficult to reverse, but not impossible. In All the President’s Men, Woodward and Bernstein did not act alone. While met with hesitation from most, a few people offered invaluable support, such as their executive editor and Deep Throat. The four of them (Woodward, Bernstein, Ben Bradlee, and Deep Throat) prove that it does not take an army to reveal a scandal. Both the moral of the film and the return to watch dog journalism is the belief that all it takes are a few people impassioned by a desire to get the story and to get it right.
(Sabato’s book is titled “Feeding Frenzy: How Attack Journalism Has Transformed American Politics”)