Explore Harvard's Nieman network Nieman Fellowships Nieman Lab Nieman Reports Nieman Storyboard
Watchdog conferences

The Nieman Watchdog Project was created by the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University in 1996, financed by a fund established by Murrey Marder, Nieman Fellow 1950, a retired diplomatic correspondent of The Washington Post.

Prior to the launch of this Web site, the Watchdog Project held conferences and commissioned articles designed to invigorate the media's role in monitoring the activities of organizations and leaders in government and in other positions of power over people's lives.

First Watchdog Conference (Spring 1998)

Keller, a TV critic at the Columbus, Ohio, Dispatch, was a Nieman fellow in 1998.

A talk by Marder at the dinner of the first Nieman Watchdog conference.

Moderator: Daniel Schorr
Panelists: Howard Berkes, Max Frankel, David Hall, Bill Kovach, Anthony Lewis, Robert Manning, Murrey Marder, Jim Meek, Carla Anne Robbins, Dan Stets and Philip Taubman.

Said Taubman: "I'm not particularly concerned that the American people find the press too aggressive or some kind in some kind of fashion. If we get intimidated by that, we cease to do our job."

Moderator: Joyce Purnick
Panelists: Howard Berkes, Uri Berliner, Benjamin Bradlee, Jr., David Burnham, Paul Delaney, Anthony Marro, Carla Anne Robbins, Andre Schiffrin, Melanie Sill.

Said Burnham: "My personal rule of coverage, what I try to do, is [find out] what prevents these institutions from achieving their stated goals: Why aren't the schools teaching? What is it? Is it bad unions? Are they lazy? Are they badly trained? Is it stupid management? Why don't the cops do better in dealing with the crime problem? Are they corrupt? Are they sleeping? Are there inadequate numbers of them? It seems to me that should be an integral definition of news."

Moderator: Richard Parker
Panelists: David Burnham, Bill Kovach, Morton Mintz, Richard Parker, Eileen Shanahan, Paul Solman, David Warsh.

Said Parker, looking back 100 years: "[O]ptimism about government gives the journalistic narrative the opportunity to give Americans a belief that there's a way out of what is seen as the inevitable corruption that goes along with capitalism at the dawn of the 20th Century, and it builds into journalism a kind of distrust of power that remains throughout a good part of the 20th Century, very deeply focused on corporate-based abuse."

Said Mintz: "Big corporations govern directly. When they decide to withhold a safety feature on an automobile, they are deciding whether you will live or die, with some allowance for the odds, and they govern indirectly when they buy the governors, and yet, somehow, their conduct does not get the attention it deserves."

Moderator: George Rodrigue
Panelists: Jon Crewdson, Paul Delaney, Charlotte Grimes, David Hall, Richard Parker, David Welna, Janet Wilson.

Said Wilson: "I reported last year about how a lot of the clothing you donate to the Salvation Army and Good Will is sold in Third World countries for very exorbitant prices. There's a fellow in California who's the world's king of this. He made $78 million off of exclusive contracts with Salvation Army last year. I told one little old lady about this, and she cried. She was very upset, and she wanted to know why, in essence, I was reporting on this, and it was hard for me to hear that, more even than internal criticism."

Second Watchdog Conference: The Use of Sources  (Spring 1999)

Kelly, a Washington Post editor, was a 1998-1999 Nieman fellow.

Marder and Trofimenko offer rich descriptions of the journalists' life for almost the entire length of the Cold War.

Said Kovach: "The Clinton/Lewinsky story has highlighted the extraordinary degree to which American reporting, especially in Washington, has put itself in a position to be manipulated by those who have a vital interest in the outcome of the story."

Moderator: Joe Williams
Panelists: William Rashbaum, Alison Grant, Loretta Tofani

Tofani described a Pulitzer-winning series she wrote on rapes of men in a county jail where they were awaiting trial, explaining how she came to name the victims and the rapists.

Moderator: Murrey Marder
Panelists: Susanne Schafer, Mark Thompson, Roy Gutman, Lars-Erik Nelson

Said Nelson: "We go with the allegation, we make the charge, we accuse the victim of being slow to respond, or imply that there's a cover-up, and to me that's adopting an agenda from sources that we should be treating much more skeptically. As I say, I'm a columnist now, I'm out of this business and I'm watching it from afar, and I must say I'm watching it with great dismay."

Souza, a former White House photographer, said: "I'm just going to show you pictures behind the scenes with Reagan, so you can get a sense of where I come from in terms of trying to cover Clinton today. I'm the biggest cynic when it comes to photographing a president now."

Moderator: Bill Kovach
Panelists: Doug Frantz, David Barstow, Jim Tharpe

Frantz's rules: Rule 1 — Don't Socialize With Sources; Rule 2 — Give Background of Sources; Rule 3 — Don’t Give Advice to Sources

Moderator: Paul Solman
Panelists: Byron Acohido, James McNair, John McQuaid

Said McNair: "Half of what you read from a CEO in the press, unless you're The Wall Street Journal or The New York Times, is a canned quote. You just can't get the CEO to the phone, you can't ask him tough questions. At annual meetings, the PR people will head you off as you make your way to the CEO. So they play that little game.

This is all unfortunate because I think what we're seeing in the business world now gives occasion for more watchdogging than ever before."

Third Watchdog Conference: Are We Asking the Right Questions? (Fall 1999)

Bill Kovach and Andrew Kohut

Said Kovach: "The key point of concern at this conference is the impact of the rush toward a more entertaining journalism that's focused on celebrity and examines issues in the context of personality."

Moderator: Ray Suarez
Panelists: Ronald Faucheux, Lee Hamilton, Gwen Ifill, Geraldine Ferraro, Geneva Overholser, Mike Pride

Said Overholser: "[W]hen I write about media issues I am struck continually by how powerfully readers feel and viewers feel that we are often out to get somebody and often out to drag down the process."

Brill offered suggestions on ways to go about covering elections.

Moderator: Judy Woodruff
Panelists: David Broder, Michael Kelly, Susan Page, Alan K. Simpson, Dale Bumpers, Shelia Tate

Said Page: "The fact is that even if the Washington Post and the Atlantic and the National Journal and USA Today decided there was a certain sort of question we weren't going to ask it wouldn't matter. Because Matt Drudge would ask it and talk radio would ask it. And the world of the news media has gotten so that it is not possible for the press to decide not to pursue these questions."

Fourth Watchdog Conference: How to Ask Probing Questions (Fall 2001)

Said Lewis: "If there is a central message to leave from my vantage point, it’s not what question we ask. It’s the fact that we ask at all. That is the most important issue. I know that sounds ridiculously basic, but so often I’ve seen hundreds of stories that are incredibly important, and they are never attempted.... One of our favorite quotes at the center is from Harry Truman, who said, 'I don’t give people hell, we just tell the truth and they think it’s hell.'"

Moderator: Ellen Goodman
Panelists: David Cay Johnston and Amanda Bennett

Said Bennett: "When you’re working at a paper where there are limited resources, if you can focus the question, you can get a lot more bang for your buck. You can get things past these reluctant editors. You can get things going. You can make a bigger impact if you’re asking the right question."

In an early post-9/11 critique, Lewis said: "Skewed and distorted war coverage regrettably but undeniably has become an accepted, cynical tradition. More remarkable are the new restrictions to basic constitutional freedoms and rights."

Stein said: "Different sources require different approaches. John Fried, a veteran newsman for The Wall Street Journal and The Philadelphia Inquirer, once told a journalism class: 'Start an interview with a tough or sensitive question and it could be over in 45 seconds.' He meant, of course, that some people must be massaged for a few minutes before being subjected to meaty inquiries."      

» Mission Statement
» Watchdog conferences
» Nieman Foundation
» Fellowships
» Nieman Reports
» Staff
» Advisers
» Contributors
» Site Policies
The NiemanWatchdog.org website is no longer being updated. Watchdog stories have a new home in Nieman Reports.