The Watchdog That Didn’t Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism by Dean Starkman (@deanstarkman) will appeal greatly to anyone interested in journalism, especially in how the field has dramatically changed the past few decades.
The entry point for this highly readable book is the Mortgage Crisis of the mid- to late-2000s, and in particular trying to answer those critics who wondered why the “business news media” didn’t foresee and warn the public about the looming catastrophe. In fact, a few individuals and organizations did see the danger, or at least some part of it — few but those on the inside (and therefore actually doing the harm) fully understood what was happening — but their voices were lost among the ever-increasing noise of information bombarding our lives in the Internet Age.
The author examines the history of journalists and social crusaders digging into the affairs of businesses, starting with the “Muckrakers” of the late 1900s who took on the insidious corporate Trusts. This type of work, which Starkman calls “Accountability Journalism” sought to bring to light issues of concern to the general public, which were often terribly complex and deliberately masked or difficult to unearth, and present them in ways an average person could comprehend. Accountability journalism is expensive and time-consuming, and it is entirely possible once-promising ideas will be found unusable after months of research.
Although not exactly the opposite per se, the other major type of newsgathering the author discusses is “Access Journalism.” In Access mode, a sort of symbiotic relationship develops between journalists and their subjects. Through press releases and “exclusives” granted to compliant journalists, subjects seek to steer the flow of information in a way favorable to them. The benefit for a journalist or news organization is that Access Journalism is cheap to produce and provides a steady stream of content — highly desirable qualities in the Internet Age.
Both types of journalism can co-exist at a news organization but obviously it takes a commitment of resources to work in Accountability mode, resources the industry found itself lacking when the Internet wiped out the once steady influx from advertising. The negative to relying too heavily on Access, of course, is the news media — the titular Watchdog — stops looking for misdeeds and instead feasts on the scraps provided. And although business news is the subject of this book, in truth what is discussed applies to every aspect of a news organization including sports.
I saw and practiced both types of journalism while working for a medium-sized daily newspaper several years ago. My stab at Accountability Mode could hardly be compared to Watergate as I investigated rumors of mismanagement at a county-owned racetrack. I uncovered some interesting facts but in the process generated hostility from some in the racing community (track workers, fans and teams) who thought I was trying to destroy their hobby.
It was an eye-opening experience that left me with a great deal of respect and admiration for those who dig for greater truths. The rise of Access at the expense of Accountability should be troubling to all of us.