Can the Watchdog Still Bite?


By Mark Massa

Thomas Jefferson, no stranger to being savaged in the press, once famously remarked that if forced to choose between a government without newspapers or newspapers without government, he would surely choose the latter.

That’s how important our third president and author of the Declaration of Independence thought uncensored publication and dialogue were to our overall freedom.

Jefferson made the observation before we even had a First Amendment, in which the Founding Fathers enshrined his sentiment. Their true genius, seen throughout the Constitution, was in understanding human nature and the inevitable temptation of power.

They knew their experiment in self-government could succeed only with an engaged and informed citizenry, vigilant to abuses exposed by a free and unfettered press. The Founders’ protection of free speech and press stands alongside separation of powers (which protects liberty through checks and balances within the government) as their most important and enduring legacy.

Throughout our history, a watchdog press has played an immeasurable role in preserving and expanding American liberty; a private-sector institution – with explicit Constitutional recognition and protection — holding the public sector accountable by freely reporting on its actions, with the people able to weigh those reports at the polls.

In the mid-19th century, the abolitionist press played a critical role in changing public opinion in favor of emancipation. Muckraking reporters and authors in the early 1900s exposed corruption and rallied voters to support political and labor reforms.

In the 1970s, a president was driven from office by enterprising reporters. And in every community large and small, at all levels of government, for more than two centuries, those wielding power have done so knowing someone might be watching, with the Constitution and the courts safeguarding the right to publish their findings.

The people and commercial enterprises fulfilling this watchdog role have evolved over time, in some cases for the better, in others not. Changing technologies, demographics, habits, passions and partisanship have altered the media landscape and pose new challenges to our democracy.

Abraham Lincoln said “let the people know the truth and the country will be safe.” Finding that truth is journalism’s mission, but the mission is harder to fulfill with a polarized citizenry increasingly seeking to be affirmed rather than informed, and with some in news and “infotainment” devoted less to truth than to causes (or ratings).

Americans today can share a common apartment wall, but essentially live in different worlds, depending on their media preferences and viewing habits. Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and author David Maraniss wisely warns against succumbing to the “myth of the idyllic past,” but it’s worth pondering whether there was a time not long ago when there was at least more consensus as to what was fact.

More immediately problematic for democracy at the state and local level is the economic devastation of the newspaper industry and demise of local news. Digital platforms and newspapers’ inability to fully monetize the internet harken an old adage of the garment industry: “you can’t make up in margins what you’re giving away for free.”

Losing subscribers and advertising revenue led to massive layoffs in newsrooms, which in turn has led to less coverage of local government. This might be a comfort to officeholders and public employees who can work in the dark, but the long-term consequences for competent, efficient and ethical government can only be negative.

As Professors Danny Hayes and Jennifer Lawless of George Washington and American universities have noted in their research, “when the content of local news deteriorates – as has happened nationwide in an era of newsroom austerity – so do citizen knowledge and participation…. This development has potentially profound implications,” they write. “To the extent that a knowledgeable and participatory citizenry is a marker of a healthy political system, the demise of local news should raise concerns about the operation of electoral democracy. An anemic news environment makes it more difficult for citizens to hold their local representatives accountable.”

And that, in the long run, is something we can ill afford.


Mark Massa is a former newspaper reporter, state and federal prosecutor, and since 2012 has served as a justice on the Indiana Supreme Court.