This Is Watchdog Journalism
Following are excerpts from remarks by Murrey Marder, Nieman Fellow 1950 and retired diplomatic correspondent of The Washington Post, at the dinner of the first Nieman Watchdog Conference in Cambridge, Mass., May 1, 1998.
By a fortuitous coincidence, this first Watchdog Conference opens at a time when the prestige of American journalism is at one of its lowest levels in decades.
I do not use the word "fortuitous" sarcastically, but because it is a rarity for the American press to agree on anything – especially its own shortcomings. For people in the print and broadcast press to concede that they now share a problem in credibility, and respectability, over the so-called White House scandals, goes beyond any of my expectations of how we could get the press to focus attention on its deficiencies in carrying out what we label "watchdog journalism."
You are entitled to know what led me, a working-level journalist, now semi-retired, to sponsor such an endeavor with the bulk of his own resources. The answer is that I am determined to do all I can to prevent the denial of information to the American public that it should have for making its decisions, as it was deprived of often-vital knowledge during four decades of Cold War.
The American press as a whole was very slow to learn that in cold war as in hot war, deception is a major instrument of every nation’s strategy. A democracy cannot deceive its adversary without deceiving its own people – which no official dares to say out loud. Inevitably, the deception that was practiced in Washington in the name of Soviet containment became inseparable from deception often applied to American domestic policy as well. In private the self-serving rationale was viewed as, "How can you separate the two?"
I am convinced that if the American Congress and press had performed their proper constitutional functions of questioning – and counter-balancing – the executive branch, the United States never would have gone to war in Vietnam.
By gross default the executive branch was never thoroughly questioned about its information, its premises, its actions – open and covert – or its intentions, early in the war. Those derelictions occurred in both the Kennedy and Johnson administrations.
A public examination of history alone would have punctured – or at least challenged – the premises on which the executive branch was operating, about China as well as Vietnam. And yet, officials rarely realize that secrecy cuts both ways. When any U.S. administration denies information to the public, it is also denying to itself the collective wisdom of the best brains in the nation. That happens to be the fundamental tenet of democracy – gaining knowledge through open debate in the marketplace of ideas.
As the publication of the Pentagon Papers confirmed, deception of the American public was built into U.S. policy from the very beginning of its involvement in Vietnam, starting in the Eisenhower administration.
What is the relevance of all this today?
The American government, and the press, operate today with the experience and the lessons learned – or not learned – from those four decades of Cold War. We saw that graphically in the Gulf War of the Bush administration, where many of the techniques used in manipulating Vietnam war news reappeared in much slicker technological formats in the Iraq war.
Today, a gentler term is applied to manipulating official information – "spin." But the purpose is the same – to shape information to fit ulterior motives.
In the case of the Cold War the press as a whole was caught completely off-guard – as no one had ever experienced a nonshooting struggle of such dimensions and duration. In World War II civilian war correspondents were in uniform as "part of the team" – sometimes with hilarious encounters.
We can now recognize that an American reporter in a U.S. military uniform can hardly be considered an impartial observer of the war, but I question how much thought was given to that the first time it was done. In any event, the practice had long-term consequences in the subsequent Cold War, which no one anticipated.
I became particularly conscious of that because I was a Marine Corps Combat Correspondent in the South Pacific during World War II. There was nothing ambiguous about these roles – we were Marines first, and correspondents second.
At war’s end my uniform came off, and I was a civilian again, with a civilian reporter’s necessary skepticism about all things, especially the use of power and, particularly, government power.
As the Cold War tensely developed, I noticed a markedly different attitude toward the use of American military power among some of my colleagues who had worked overseas with assimilated military rank as war correspondents. Many tended to accept, with little or no question, whatever they were told by high-ranking official briefers, especially concerning the Soviet Union or other Communist nations.
In fairness to the late Secretary of State Dean Rusk, I can now better understand why, at the height of the Vietnam War, he bristlingly exclaimed to a group of us reporters after a couple of Scotches in his office, "Whose side are you on? I know whose side I am on."
Rusk had been a colonel in the war, and from his perception, there was no distinction between supporting the American cause in World War II and supporting it in Vietnam – or anywhere else American troops were committed. Furthermore, he knew that some American reporters felt the same way. Indeed they did. There were marked disagreements among many reporters on many newspapers, including my own, The Washington Post, about how to report the war.
I raise these rarely-or-never-discussed issues for several reasons. First, because there 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 de-mystify the press. Help the public to understand what the press is supposed to do – and why its natural posture is to question authority.
That is what the founding fathers expected it to do – and 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 martinis – say, five part’s 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 lapdogs, 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.
Q. – Could you define "watchdog?"
A. – 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 was 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 who 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 three, or 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 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 "One." He said, "One? What?" 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] Brezhinski 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 branch – can 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.