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Archive for April 5th, 2005

The toothless watchdogs?

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I tried to explain to the freshmen in my newswriting class today why the press enjoys constitutional protection against interference by government.

I told them that the Founders traded that protection of the press for its role in the republic’s system of checks and balances. Without an independent — meaning extra-governmental — watchdog, I said, government might be willing to cheat, lie and abuse its powers of taxation (among others).

I teach journalism freshmen about property taxes. That’s because a principal role of government at any level is to collect money from the governed and spend it on their collective behalf.

But money, like power, corrupts even those with the best intentions. So the people need a competent, independent, fearless watchdog.

That, it would seem, would be the press. But increasingly (opinion follows), that press is less than competent, independent or fearless. The once-sharp teeth of the watchdog have been worn down to mere nubs by a few decades of concentration of media ownership and reduction in the size of newspaper editorial staffs. Witness the recent revelations of staff cuts to come from the Boston Herald.

Said a Herald shop steward: ”Obviously, you can’t cut 35 people from your news staff and not have an impact on your product.”

Reread that phrase: “an impact on your product.” It’s been voiced time and time again as news staffs across the country get whacked to protect shareholder value. But that “impact” is rarely articulated.

This is what the “impact” is: Ownership erodes the ability of the press to serve that constitutionally protected role as watchdog. Each staff cut, each business decision that dispenses with the ability to poke and probe into government erodes the worth of the press in fulfilling its watchdog role.

And that’s not all.

The watchdogs are owned by giant media corporations that seek favors from or to instill fear in the government. That gives the press’ ownership little incentive to poke and probe into government.

The Fourth Estate has become the Co-opted Estate. Our watchdog is less reliable these days than the Founders would have liked.

That’s where a new LJ community enters the fray — The Fifth Estate. If those of us who are governed are not satisfied that their traditional watchdog is keeping track of the governors, then we’ll have to do the watchdogging ourselves.

Visit the Fifth Estate at LJ regularly.


Written by Dr. Denny Wilkins

April 5, 2005 at 3:16 pm

Posted in Uncategorized