Barking dogs and sinking ships: Journalism’s search for metaphor and meaning
By Robert Jensen
Published in Texas Observer · March, 2014
The Watchdog That Didn’t Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism
by Dean Starkman
Columbia Journalism Review Books
$24.95; 368 pages
The fundamental failure of Dean Starkman’s The Watchdog That Didn’t Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism—and of mainstream journalism more generally—is hidden in plain sight in the title’s metaphor. Starkman explains why journalists often aren’t alert watchdogs, but he can’t see why limiting the profession to the role of a barking dog is, quite literally, a dead-end.
To explain that rather harsh judgment, allow me to mix metaphors: The best the journalistic watchdog can do these days is bark at people rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, and meanwhile the train has left the station.
That’s not clear? Let me throw in a few clichés: Because Starkman is committed to “dance with the one that brung ya,” he can’t see the forest for the trees, and as a result he takes his eye off the prize(s).
Still not clear? Here’s some help decoding: The prizes we should be after are social justice and ecological sustainability in a meaningfully democratic society. The trees are the crimes and misdemeanors of various evil and/or incompetent executives and politicians. The forest is our vaunted corporate-capitalist system, the predatory essence of which makes those crimes—and worse—inevitable. The dance is the implicit bargain with powerful people and institutions struck by journalists, who agree not to point out that the whole system is morally indefensible, politically incoherent, and ecologically destructive.
Representative democracy yoked to a capitalist system driven by hyperconsumption is no longer sustainable (that’s the train that has left the station), and if we refuse to grapple with these realities the system is going to go down (that’s the Titanic).
In such a world, do we want journalists who only know how to bark at, or even nip the backsides of, the crooked and corrupt? Or should journalists take a more proactive role in critiquing not just the abuses of officials but the deeper crises of our social, political, economic systems?
The Watchdog That Didn’t Bark analyzes the banking crisis and the broader economic meltdown of the 2000s without ever delving far below the surface, and on the few occasions that it does acknowledge a deeper critique, evading the implications. The book is an excellent account of mainstream journalistic failures, as those failures are understood by mainstream journalists, but such an account leaves us splashing in the shallow end of the pool.
OK, enough with the metaphors. Stated plainly, Starkman’s approach is the best mainstream journalism has to offer, and it’s not enough. A former Wall Street Journal reporter and current editor at the Columbia Journalism Review, Starkman has written a book that is engaging and informative when describing the few successes and many failures of mainstream journalism in covering the financial crisis, but that fails to offer prescriptions or a theory to guide journalism into the future.
THE “GREAT STORY”
If Starkman’s reliance on the conventional watchdog metaphor sends him down the wrong track, the book derails on his “Great Story” theory of journalism. Promising to rebut “facile criticisms” from the right, left, and digital-news advocates, he sets for himself the task of writing “the story of the Great Story.” The model for this kind of journalism is the early 20th century muckrakers:
Their strength was a certain journalistic purity: They had no political axes to grind; they were after the Great Story and were, in fact, master storytellers. They had a journalistic ambition that was sweeping by today’s standards. They combined the Victorian era’s faith in science—a scrupulous fidelity to true facts—with its unabashed moralism. As moralists, the muckrakers recognized the importance of human agency and didn’t shrink from holding power to account—by name. And they crafted what can be called American journalism’s only true ideology.
This valorizing of a journalism that pretends to transcend political judgments is at the heart of the book’s problem, and we’ll come back to that. But for now, let’s stay focused on greatness.
Starkman explains that while not every story journalists write needs to be “Great,” the core mission of journalism is built around the Great Story “that holds power to account and explains complex problems to a mass audience, connects one segment of society to another.” This kind of journalism, he writes, “is also the one reliable, indispensable barometer for the health of the news, the great bullshit detector.”
Holding power to account and detecting bullshit are certainly admirable goals, and Starkman correctly points out that journalists who practice what he calls “access journalism” are unlikely to achieve them. Access journalists, as the label suggests, play the insider game and cultivate access to powerful sources. At best, access journalism can give ordinary people a glimpse of what happens behind closed doors, but on terms set by those who close the doors.
Starkman makes the case for the necessity of “accountability journalism” in the muckraking mode that is confrontational and accusatory, and that “provokes the enmity of the rich and powerful as a matter of course.” The access and accountability schools, he writes, “represent radically [emphasis added] different understandings of what journalism is [emphasis in the text] and whom it should serve.”
The book’s thesis, simply put, is that the news media’s poor performance during the financial crisis can be explained by the prominence of access journalism and the lack of hard-hitting accountability journalism. Here’s Starkman’s summary of these two styles:
Access reporting tends to talk to elites; accountability, to dissidents. Access writes about specialized topics for a niche audience. Accountability writes about general topics for a mass audience. Access tends to transmit orthodox views; accountability tends to transmit heterodox views. Access reporting is functional; accountability reporting is moralistic. In business news, access reporting focuses on investor interests; accountability, on the public interest.
Starkman is correct to point out the limitations of access journalism and the greater value of accountability journalism. But are those our only choices? Let’s hope not, because both approaches fall short of the demands of our historical moment, in which we struggle to understand not only the specific malfunctions of our social, political, and economic systems, but the cascading collapse of those systems.
Journalists should report on abuses by the powerful, of course, but within what underlying analysis of the larger system? Are illustrations of these failures used to deepen our understanding of the unjust and unsustainable nature of a capitalist system? Starkman doesn’t take up the question, but his answer seems to be “no,” since he expresses faith in “effective journalism and uncompromised regulation,” which “operate independently but together create a dynamic that generates information, public awareness, and, ultimately, reform.” That seems to be where the process stops for Starkman: fine-tuning reforms.
If we look closely at accountability reporting, we see that such journalists do talk to dissidents, but dissidents who almost always accept the basic structure of the existing social, political, and economic systems. Journalists transmit heterodox views, so long as those views accept the assumptions of the existing systems. Journalists can be moralistic without ever questioning whether the existing systems are moral or can produce truly moral outcomes. That leaves an obvious questions: Just how “radically different” are these two approaches? And if accountability reporting cannot or will not challenge existing systems, then how exactly does it serve the long-term public interest?
Like virtually all mainstream journalists, Starkman doesn’t step back from the crisis of the moment to examine the deeper crises of consumer society, representative democracy, and capitalism. He exhorts journalists to look at “systemic problems” within the financial system, but takes the existing social, political, and economic systems as a given. Journalists’ task, by this measure, is to police abuses of the existing rules without ever asking if the system itself is sane, just, or sustainable.
Starkman points out that journalism cannot change the world by itself, that “without effective regulation, journalism can have all the resonance of one hand clapping.” But if journalism never challenges the assumptions of the system, and accepts the efficacy of regulatory agencies that are creatures of the system, we might as well ask about the resonance of dogs barking on a sinking ship.
THE INEVITABILITY OF POLITICS
Readers who have turned on their bullshit detectors have no doubt discerned that there is a left/anti-capitalist politics behind my argument. That assessment is correct, but anyone tempted to reject my argument out of hand on the basis that it’s politicized and therefore somehow inappropriate should think about what kind of bullshit needs detecting. If my critique of Starkman can be dismissed as political, then so can Starkman’s own argument—along with every other possible position on this question.
There is no escape from political judgment, and mainstream journalism’s claim to be non-ideological and apolitical simply means the profession has absorbed the political assumptions of the dominant culture. That’s not rising above politics; it’s sinking more deeply into an unreflective politics. The appropriate question isn’t, “Is there a politics to your approach to journalism?” but “Can you defend the politics of your approach to journalism?”
I do not believe there is a decent human future possible within capitalism, which is inhuman, anti-democratic and unsustainable (more on this here). Most of mainstream journalism assumes such a future is possible. Whichever position proves to be most prescient, both points of view—an overt challenge to capitalism or the belief that capitalism is stable and/or just—are political to the same degree. The main difference is that an anti-capitalist position challenges the position held by powerful people/institutions and appears politicized, while a pro-capitalist position lines up with power and hides behind the illusory claim to not be political but simply working within the way things are.
This is not a contest between journalism based on facts and journalism based on values; all journalism should struggle to describe the world accurately and all journalism comes with value judgments. Nor is it about neutrality versus advocacy. Starkman supports a journalism that assumes regulation can solve problems in the financial system, and I support a journalism that questions the assumptions inherent to the financial system. The real questions are: Which kind of journalism does a better job of fitting the facts about the world into a coherent picture of how the world works, allowing us to imagine a better world? Readers can disagree with any particular position, but no position can be eliminated from the discussion simply on the claim that it is “politicized.”
JOURNALISM’S STUNTED POLITICAL IMAGINATION
To be clear about a couple of things: First, Starkman is an excellent journalist within the rules of the profession. My concern is not with the quality of his reporting and writing but with the stunted political imagination of the profession.
Second, I’m not arguing that every news story should be an anti-capitalist polemic. But all stories are based on claims about how the world works, reflecting a moral/political viewpoint, and those claims should be discussed openly rather than buried under the conventional wisdom. Like all humans, journalists tell stories within a certain framework, and even when recounting simple facts, the frameworks come with assumptions about how the world works and visions of how to change it.
Starkman is not unaware of this kind of critique, but he evades its implications. Citing Ed Herman and Noam Chomsky’s book Manufacturing Consent, he notes, “Many of the media’s severest critics reject the notion that conventional newspapers could be an effective check on established power.” He offers a concise summary of their model but then dismisses its relevance:
Whatever the validity of the critique (and there’s a lot to it), more reporters, I think, would argue that what happens on the margins isn’t trivial since that is where accountability reporting usually operates. And what Herman and Chomsky don’t take into account is that the margins, over time, move; they expand and contract. Indeed, the short history of the U.S. business press shows that the boundaries can move a considerable distance and that their expansion has provided considerable benefits for the chicken workers, day laborers, and slum dwellers who appear in the stories or, at least, for the curious middle-class readers who, for a few moments, were connected to them. Indeed, the expansion of the boundaries made a democratization of business news possible. Where to draw the lines becomes a source of fierce newsroom debate, with some journalists, depending on their own values, defending the boundaries and even seeking to narrow them; others push against them. Looking over recent investigative journalism, it is surprising to see how far the boundaries of what could be covered were stretched in American journalism, business news very much included.
Herman and Chomsky don’t discount the importance of stories that uncover abuses and improve people’s lives, and they recognize that the space for critique opens and closes, typically depending on the success of social-justice movements’ challenge to power. But the boundaries in mainstream journalism have never stretched far enough for conventional newsrooms to embrace—or even take seriously—a fundamental critique of capitalism.
So, Starkman “refutes” the Herman/Chomsky propaganda model without explaining how it fails and ascribing to it a hard determinism that the model rejects. Apparently in the quest to offer some scholarly heft to his argument, Starkman says he prefers the “field theory” of the French sociologist Pierre Bordieu, conceptualizing journalism as one of the semi-autonomous fields operating in larger political field. Starkman explains:
Society, then, is an ensemble of relatively autonomous spheres of play that can’t be collapsed under any overall societal logic, like capitalism, postmodernism, or some larger theoretical model. Altering the distribution and relative weight of different forms of capital within a field is tantamount to modifying the structure of the field. Therefore, fields have a historical dynamism about them; they have a malleability that avoids the determinism of the classical structures, such as class-based models. Fields change over time.
I am not sure whether I agree with Starkman here, because I am not sure I understand what that means, or if it means much of anything. But in a quarter-century in academic life, I have observed that when people want to ignore difficult questions about basic power systems—such as capitalism, white supremacy, or patriarchy—they often create or invoke such arcane theories. But academic word-salad doesn’t eliminate the question: Is capitalism consistent with our moral principles, commitment to democracy, and the ecological sustainability required for a large-scale human presence on the planet?
I am not arguing that unless Starkman accepts my political views, his account of journalism has no value. But when that account is so limited as to either ignore obvious questions or dance around the views of those trying to raise them, we should be skeptical.
I’m also not arguing that within a free press, every journalist and every story would raise these critiques. But when such critiques are effectively off limits, we have to question what “free” means, which leads to a troubling question: How great can the Great Story be when the Great Storytellers operate in a semi-autonomous zone that is only semi-free?
GREAT STORIES, GREAT MEN, AND THE DISTORTION OF HISTORY
In the Great Story theory of journalism it’s difficult not to hear echoes of the Great Man theory of history attributed to the 19th century Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle, who argued that “universal history, the history of what man has accomplished in this world, is at bottom the history of the great men who have worked here.”
Starkman isn’t naively imposing Carlyle onto journalism; although he spends considerable time recounting the accomplishments of Great Journalists, Starkman is arguing for accountability reporting to be deployed by more than just a few heroic reporters. Starkman wants that ethos to saturate reporting at all levels, extending the Great Man idea to Great Institutions such as journalism and regulatory agencies.
But both these theories, Great Man and Great Story alike, downplay the political agency of ordinary people working through popular social movements. This distortion of history is at the core of Starkman’s myopia, evident even when he chastises journalists. Reflecting on journalism’s failure to cover mounting problems in the financial system adequately, he writes:
…when the public is caught this off-guard about something this big, journalism needs to wonder if there was something, somewhere that it did wrong, something it didn’t do. In this case, what wasn’t done was accountability reporting. What journalism had done for more than a century, it could not muster when it was needed most.
What exactly did journalism do for more than a century? Many good things, of course, but accountability reporting didn’t put journalism at the forefront of any progressive change or any serious challenge to concentrated power. At best, journalism has given publicity to some popular movements—typically once those movements have won enough political battles that ignoring or maligning them has become impossible—but just as often journalism has played it safe by subordinating itself to power.
Consider the 20th century that Starkman references. Were mainstream journalists championing the rights of the early labor organizers who faced intense and often violent resistance from corporations? Were mainstream journalists leading the challenge to white supremacy posed not only by radical black-nationalist movements but even by the more moderate civil rights movement? Were mainstream journalists out in front supporting the dissidents who questioned U.S. wars of aggression? Were mainstream journalists honestly self-reflecting on the pathology of patriarchy that feminists highlighted?
In all these cases we can find an occasional journalist from the mainstream who stands out, but the profession as a whole—including practitioners of accountability journalism—were unwilling to take, or incapable of taking, the risk of challenging concentrated power or reactionary public opinion.
But wait, the defenders of journalism will say: It’s not the job of journalism to participate in political movements. I agree—journalists should not be active participants. The question is, what are the moral and political assumptions on which journalists base their work? If journalists can’t step back to identify, let alone critically examine, the ideological claims of capitalism, their reporting will be pro-capitalist, not neutral. If journalists can’t question the United States’ claim to be a benevolent force for freedom and democracy in the world, coverage of foreign policy inevitably will bolster U.S. imperialism. If journalists can report on the activities of anti-racist and feminist organizers but not reflect on how white supremacy and patriarchy shape the larger society and the institution of journalism, coverage of these issues will be inadequate.
Many people will disagree with these political judgments and reject the implications for journalism. But everyone has to defend their political judgments, and no one can claim to transcend politics and work from a neutral position. The sooner we recognize that, the sooner we can ask what we really need from journalism at this moment in history.
WHAT IS THE RIGHT METAPHOR?
The search for a metaphor beyond the barking dog should start with an uncompromising understanding of the state of the larger society, which brings us back to the Titanic. Although often dismissed as alarmist or hysterical, serious concern about the viability of contemporary systems is supported by evidence that is piling up faster than we can avert our eyes. Let’s start with the question of ecological sustainability.
All crucial measures of the health of the ecosphere in which we live—groundwater depletion, topsoil loss, chemical contamination, toxicity in our own bodies, the number and size of “dead zones” in the oceans, accelerating extinction of species and reduction of biodiversity—suggest that our high-energy/high-technology society is unsustainable. Because we live in an oil-based society and are rapidly depleting the cheapest and most easily accessible oil reserves, we face a huge reconfiguration of the infrastructure that undergirds our lives. Desperation to avoid that reconfiguration has brought us to the era of “extreme energy” in which even more dangerous and destructive technologies are employed (hydrofracturing, deep-water drilling, mountaintop removal, tar sands extraction). Additionally, of course, there is the undeniable trajectory of climate disruption.
Scientists these days are talking about tipping points and planetary boundaries, about human activity pushing the planet beyond its limits. In a recent study, 22 leading scientists warned that humans likely are forcing a planetary-scale transition “with the potential to transform Earth rapidly and irreversibly into a state unknown in human experience.” That means that “the biological resources we take for granted at present may be subject to rapid and unpredictable transformations within a few human generations.”
That means we’re in trouble. And that trouble plays out in a world structured by the inequalities that flow from deeply entrenched hierarchies, both within individual countries and between the so-called developed and developing worlds. Because ecological crises exacerbate existing problems rooted in the unjust distribution of wealth and power, our troubles are likely to grow more troubling.
Is it realistic to pursue business as usual? If not, then journalism as usual is, again, a dead-end.
What is the role of journalists today? In a society that is in deep denial about the impediments to achieving social justice and ecological sustainability—denial that is especially deep in the relatively privileged sectors where affluence insulates from the immediate consequences—perhaps journalists should not be barking at people who break the rules of existing systems, but sounding an unpleasantly loud alarm that we have to change our existing systems in profound ways.
To alert society to such threats, journalists have to face—and tell—the truth about how our social, political, and economic systems operate.
To do that, journalism first has to face—and tell—the truth about itself.