|Some years ago The New York Times editorial page expressed the complacent notion that "great publications magnify the voice of any single writer." The statement is misleading. The instruments of the media multiply or amplify a voice, serving much the same purpose as a loudspeaker in a ballpark or a prison. What magnifies a voice is its character, its compassion, its honesty, or intelligence.—Lewis Lapham
I suppose in the end newspapers cannot be free, absolutely free in the highest and best sense, until the whole social and economic structure of American life is open to the free interplay of democratic process.—William Allen White
Financial stories bore me.— Ted Koppel
Any half-decent American reporter at one point or another has imbibed of a legend about the profession that goes something like this: Once upon a time, back around the dawn of this century, there were journalists called "muckrakers," guardians not just of the public purse, but the public trust, indeed of democracy's Sacred Grail itself—the public good. They ferreted out scandal, corruption and injustice without fear or favor. They exposed the trusts, the slum landlords, the sweatshop owners, the union-busters and the politicians in their pay.
They fought for the Little Guy, for America as Democracy of the Common Man, for our country as a hope open to all equally, for the ultimate triumph of America as Emma Lazarus's "beacon to the world." And in their efforts—despite all manner of frustration and setbacks—they were surprisingly successful, fueling public consciousness and leading to a host of new laws, regulations and court rulings that transformed the once-untouchable reign of the great Robber Barons and their petty cronies in business and politics forever.
The names of the heroes (and heroines) of that legend, for most journalists, still come tripping off the lips: Ida Tarbell, Lincoln Steffens, Upton Sinclair, Ray Stannard Baker. Even the press's owners in those distant times could sound heroic, compared to their modern-day peers: Pulitzer, Scripps—even Hearst for a time—were famous for fulminating against America's economic and political injustices, and for insisting that the press's purpose was to "afflict the comfortable, and comfort the afflicted."
Now fast forward a century to the present, to The Columbia Journalism Review. Here's Senior Editor Mike Hoyt's take on the state of "watchdog economic journalism" at the end of the same century:
|Cheaters are bilking Medicare. It's Your Money! Deadbeats aren't repaying the Small Business Administration. It's Your Money! An expensive courthouse in Hammy, Louisiana, is mostly empty. It's Your Money!
And yadda yadda. Why am I yawning here? Watchdog journalism is good, no? Why then does the attention wander when Peter announces this very regular "Your Money" segment on ABC's World News Tonight or when Tom introduces its first cousin, "The Fleecing of America," over on Nightly News on NBC? Hoyt explains that he's "yawning" because America's electronic version (at least) of watchdog economic journalism isn't so much absent, but nowadays amounts to little more than "a regular, mantra-like insistence on one skinny focus, wasted tax money." That focus, Hoyt complains, is balefully "combined with TV journalism's general unwillingness to explore the forces and practices and assumptions and fleecings that create my real money problems...." Nowhere, Hoyt insists, do TV's watchdogs dig past the easy story about one or another wasteful government program to how the much larger private economy is eroding the American Promise, with its downsizing and reengineering, stagnant wages, overpaid executives and record personal bankruptcies, stories that, he believes, define our present era. Nowhere, Hoyt seems to say (without ever mentioning their names), can we find our own Tarbells, our own Steffens, our own Sinclairs, to match the venerable ancestors.
Assume, just for the moment, that Hoyt is right. Is it proof that watchdog economic journalism has died, the ink-stained Tarbells and Steffens done in by the bouffant-haired, high-priced electronic Toms and Dans and Peters and Connies and Barbaras at the end of the millennium?
If so, then how do we explain last year's widely discussed (and, by many, much-praised) New York Times series on "The Downsizing of America"? What about The Los Angeles Times's more recent detailed (and deeply wrenching) series on the causes of global hunger? Did we all miss William Greider's PBS series "Who Will Tell the People?", or the repeated investigations into executive pay or downsizing or growing income inequality that appear with surprising regularity in magazines like BusinessWeek, not to mention The Atlantic, The New Yorker, or Mother Jones?
And what about two enterprising reporters, Donald Barlett and James Steele, who in 1991 crafted a nine-part series for The Philadelphia Inquirer that detailed what they saw as the myriad injustices of the private economy that CJReditor Hoyt says network TV won't touch? Not only did they win Pulitzer Prizes, but 30,000 requests for reprints poured into the newsroom, prompting a best-selling paperback version—plus two equally lengthy follow-up series since then.
Is the Problem Then Just Television's?
So perhaps then 1 loyt is right about television. But surely, given the works just mentioned, we should adapt Twain's adage and conclude that the death of watchdog economics reporting—or at least its print version— has been "greatly exaggerated." Or should we?
Howard Kurtz, media critic of The Washington Post, like most veteran print reporters, rarely rushes to the defense of TV journalism. Consider then for a moment what he says about print and the performance of its own watchdog function:
|Within America's newspapers there is a fatal disconnection, a growing gap between editors and reporters on the one hand and consumers of news on the other.... My incestuous profession has become increasingly self-absorbed, even as its practitioners wring their hands about why fewer people seem to be listening. I hear this depressing talk every day, in newsroom meetings, in casual conversations, in my colleagues' bitter jokes about toiling for a dying business....
Yet we in this business have gone a long way toward squandering our natural advantages.... Where once newspapers were at the very heart of the national conversation, they now seem remote, arrogant, part of the governing elite. Where once newspapers embodied cultural values, they now seem mired in a tabloid culture that gorges itself on sex and sleaze....
Kurtz goes on to cite one failure after another by the print press to grapple with the "big" economic and political issues of our times, then concludes:
|The paradox for those of us laboring behind the word processors is this: Newspapers in the '90s are better written and better edited than at any time in history, and yet our efforts have fallen far short of what readers demand in an information-saturated age.... It's not that people aren't reading—magazine circulation has climbed steadily in recent decades—but that they ain't buying what we're selling. The blunt truth is that tinkering and hall-measures will no longer do the trick. There is a cancer eating away at the newspaper business—the cancer of boredom, superficiality and irrelevance—and radical surgery is needed.
Kurtz's accusation is a powerful and robust charge, with echoes found in dozens of other forms and voices, and nowadays so extensive that it feels impossible to ignore.
And yet barely a quarter century ago. The Post's own Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein seemed the embodiment of a new generation of "muckrakers," symbols of its renewed energies and inspiration to a generation of younger reporters. What's gone wrong then—if indeed both Hoyt and Kurtz are right? Have we in fact left watchdog economic reporting so far behind that the legacy of the Tarbells, Steffens and Sinclairs is nothing more than that: a distant legacy, honored in memory, and nothing more?
Is It Really Worse Now? What Nieman Once Found
The danger facing this story of downfall—the ever-present danger of belief in a lost Golden Age (for watchdog journalism, as for other fields and faiths)—is that much about such reporting, at least in economics, seems to have grown better in the interim, right up to the present. In 1991, for example, the Nieman Foundation devoted an issue of Nieman Reports to asking "What's Right, What's Wrong, About Economic Coverage?"
The consensus of the issue's dozen or so contributors wasn't that the Tarbells and Steffens of legend were forever doomed to lie tormented in their graves. Instead, it was that while much regarding modern economic reporting needed to be done, much in turn had been accomplished. As Paul Solman, economics reporter for PBS's NewsHour, observed generally of modern reporting on business, "It's much more sophisticated than it was, of course, even 15 years ago. Given the time and space limitations, I don't know how to do it any better."
Solman, though, more disquietingly then followed his approving observation with the following: "But much of it is extraneous and some arguably insidious...." Insidious, he wrote, "because the core clientele of business journalism are America's investors," not the broader audience of America's citizenry and their leaders.
Another Nieman contributor, the former chairman of public relations giant Hill & Knowlton, however, demurred from Solman. To Richard Cheney, journalism's service to investors was far from ideal because even they
weren't being well served. Reporters, Cheney wrote, were too often more intrigued by the entertainment value of the country's corporate buccaneers, or caught up in zealously detailing their maneuverings—afflicted not by indifference, but by values more appropriate to "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous." "How often," Cheney asked, "did we read in news stories the connection between the high-priced lifestyle of business leaders and what went on at their companies? How often did anybody dig into the impact of a billionaire's fortune on the world around him?"
But a decade after the heyday of Ivan Boesky, Michael Milken, Boone Pickens, Charles Keating and Carl Icahn, it's harder to point to such "colorful" and celebratory reporting as defining the genre. Mergers have quickened their pace since the '80s—last year they totaled almost a trillion
dollars, a nearly 10-fold rise since the early '90s—but now tend to be the bland intercorporate accomplishments of business figures who lack the profile of latter-day Jay Goulds. Meanwhile the Boeskys, Milkens and Pickens of the world have been scrutinized repeatedly with far from adulatory eyes by the press, Jane Mayer's coverage in The New Yorker only one of dozens of examples.
If we're concerned—as Cheney was seven years ago—about relations between high-priced CEO compensation and their companies' performance, we have only to reach for BusinessWeek's annual review of executive compensation and corporate performance. There we surely may wonder why such executive pay has quintupled in the past two decades while average workers' wages have stagnated, but hardly claim to be denied the facts.
Even Nieman contributor Morton Mintz (a veteran watchdog reporter for The Washington Post), while denouncing what he called the press's too-frequent "pro-corporate tilt," acknowledged that in recent years there had been "superb reporting of many grave episodes of corporate misconduct," singling out "60 Minutes," "20-20," "Frontline," "All Things Considered," The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Detroit Free Press—and in particular The Wall Street Journal—for special mention.
But if today we in fact have a good deal of above-average watchdog economic reporting, isn't it being drowned in a sea of "infotainment," as many believe? If public impact is the measure, though, one can't reasonably claim that watchdog economic reporting—as distinct from the daily coverage of stock market, Consumer Price Index, or Gross National Produce fluctuations, or the malfeasance of individual corporations—has gone unnoticed by the American people. Over 70 percent say they're aware that income and wealth inequality have grown worse in the last quarter century. Seventy-nine percent consider corporate CEO's "overpaid." Forty-five percent worry about downsizing, 48 percent worry about the inequities of low-wage global competitors, half doubt their children can hope for better lives in the future. Asked what should be "top priority" for American foreign policy, 77 percent say "protecting American jobs."
Indeed, in an era when many in both the press and public regularly bewail the media's focus on "infotainment," O.J., "The Killer Nanny"—and the President's private life—something else must be getting through: Americans have steadfastly told pollsters "the economy" was their premier concern for 22 of the last 25 years.
Are the Problems Therefore Minor?
One might be tempted to assume from such polling evidence that critics like Hoyt and Kurtz are over-dramatizing, that (warts and all) modern watchdog economic journalism is healthy and thriving— albeit far from always quite up to the standards of the profession's Progressive Era avatars.
Certainly, if we give credence to academic studies of the issue, U.S. economics and business reporting generally has been on an upward path in the last 20 years, whether measured by the volume or quality of reporting, or by the sheer number of outlets offering such information. While a decade ago, Jeff Greenfield, then with ABC, could joke that "economics reporting was once the blind date of journalism: better than staying home, but not by much," nowadays the claim seems stale and dated.
Most newspapers, for example, have made substantial improvements in their business sections, while the number of business and economic periodicals has soared. Television meanwhile now abounds with business/economic shows and even channels devoted to the topic. With hundreds of thousands of Reuters, Dow-Jones and Bloomberg terminals, and now thousands of Internet sites dedicated not just to near-instantaneous reporting of market movements, but their larger meaning and context, insisting that we suffer from too little information about economics and business conduct seems malign.
But concluding that therefore all is well with the world of watchdog economics reporting requires a Panglossian stretch of decided proportion. "Information"—the ambiguous idea of the sheer quantity of knowledge available— isn't the right metric by which to judge journalism's (let alone watchdog journalism's) success, unless one assumes that a telephone book is no different than a daily newspaper. Both are surely dense with information, but no one confuses them, because their uses and purposes—their rationale, their underlying logic—diverge.
Yet the idea of a purpose or rationale behind not only journalism, but especially watchdog journalism, has been peculiarly neglected in recent years. The last decade's onslaught of computer-based "information"—whether on disks, hard drives, or now most importantly the Internet—has moreover, in a sense, deeply confused that distinction to our common detriment.
By fueling a soft-minded bacchanal about the end of the century as simultaneously the "dawn of the Information Age" (somehow, we're assured, analogous to the earlier Industrial Age), it has drawn our attention away from both the audience for, and purposes of, such "information."
Yet if journalism still has some role to play in sustaining an engaged public-conversation about democratic life, our preoccupation with the information Age" has poorly reflected it.
For purely occupational reasons, of course, journalists have had good reason to focus on all the talk about the Information Age. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, journalists and their publishers were in high dudgeon, as figures such as Nicholas Negroponte of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology pronounced the "end of journalism as we know it." In the new Information Age, he and others promised, everyone who wanted to could become a "journalist," with his or her own Web page offering up a personalized version of the news.
In slightly more moderate moments, it was said that "old-fashioned" news (i.e., crafted by recognizable professionals) would disappear from the morning doorstep, replaced by "me news," the on-screen presentation of reality pre-sorted to give you just what you wanted, drawn electronically and instantaneously from thousands of sources around the world, as "professional" or not as you preferred.
Television news, it was said, would change just as dramatically. Gone would be the network evening news; in its stead, you'd sit down whenever you chose to news bites assembled (again by computer, but now on your 60-inch or 90-inch or 200-inch combination TV/PC screen) from satellite feeds drawing "information" from the global ether. In a digital TV world of a 1,000 channels (500 apparently was technologically passe 15 minutes after it was announced), you could scan the dial (or pre-program it) for everything from reggae festivals in Kingston to Chinese cooking classes in Canton, from on-the-ground battlefield action in Afghanistan courtesy of mujahadeen combatants carrying miniature helmet-mounted cameras, to the latest floor debates in the Greek or Israeli or Indonesian parliaments.
In due course, it was claimed by some, if for whatever reason you somehow preferred a more "traditional" presentation of all this "information," that too would be made available. With the click of a mouse, advanced video graphics would create a "virtual" Walter Cronkite or Peter Jennings, with animatronic lips narrating your choice of visuals in a splendidly soothing, yet synthesized, voice.
Calming Down—and Looking Back
In the last year or two, some of this feverish concern about the disappearance of "traditional" journalism has cooled, the sense returning that somehow the profession will endure—just as it did years ago, after first radio's enthusiasts, then television's, foresaw the death of print. But harder to find has been a return to examining why a daily newspaper and phone book are different. Or why, for journalism's ongoing health in an age of "infotainment"—when the difference between the news hour and the sitcom following seems less different year by year—watchdog reporting is important, who its audience is, and why it needs to be done.
Back in the era when our ancestral "muckraker" titans walked the earth, no such doubt about purpose seems— from our distant vantage point—to have existed. As one historian of the era has put it:
|What distinguished the reforms of the new century from those of the old were the range and depth of its proposals for organized solutions—often political and administrative solutions—to problems long recognized, but seldom systematically attacked. The writers of 1900 spoke no longer of charity but of minimum wages and workmen's compensation, less of social work and more of social security, slum clearance, employment agencies, and tax reform....
The spirit that inspired those writers—who, incidentally, faced their own competition from the "infotainment" of vaudeville, music halls, the first movie houses, and screaming tabloids—wasn't simply to report objectively and informatively on America's ills and inequities, but something else, something more.
The nation almost a century ago, we sometimes forget, was anguishing over conditions that sound eerily modern today. Theodore Roosevelt—who coined the term "muckrakers," borrowing from Pilgrim's Progress—warned his countrymen, for example, that "neither the Republican nor the Democratic platform contains the slightest promise of approaching the great problems of today either with understanding or good faith; and yet never was there greater such need in this nation..."
Exemplifying the age's "great problems," Roosevelt pointed to the popular disillusionment with government, to the challenges of a new global economy, to the bitter fruits of business's search for maximum efficiency, to growing wage and wealth inequalities and to the immense disruptions posed by new technologies. Against these problems—and the power that stood behind them—Roosevelt left no doubt a century ago that his was a call for combat.
"Surely there was never a fight better worth making than the one in which we are engaged," he told anxious Americans. "I hope we shall win, and I believe that if we can wake the people to what the fight really means we shall win. But win or lose, we shall not falter.... To you who strive in a spirit of brotherhood for the betterment of our nation, to you who gird yourselves for this new fight in the never-ending warfare for the good of humankind, I say: We stand at Armageddon, and we battle for the Lord!"
Roosevelt's muckrakers shared his thunderous vision—if not always his own political ambitions or agenda. Like T.R. and hundreds of other reformer-politicians, they were for remaking America into something better, something of which all could be proud, something in which the American people themselves held final sway.
But they also saw themselves as far from revolutionary. As Charles Spargo, one of the early muckrakers, put it:
|The things we were advocating were not advocated with a view to overturning the capitalist system. All that we wrote might as well have been written by an earnest Christian trying to apply Christian principles to a very definite and serious human problem.
Finley Peter Dunne's Mr. Dooley conveyed their purpose more colorfully when he described the explosive impact of the "mookrakers" and their "journalism of exposure" on the times:
Why Is Our Age Different From the Muckrakers'?
|Th' noise ye hear is not th' first gun in a rivolution. It's on'y th' people iv the' United States batin' a carpet.
So what then has changed since the Progressive Era that makes the current era seem to lack the driving persuasive force or vision behind the watchdog journalism of that earlier era?
Despite the popularity of the argument, it can't simply be the inanimate force of technology: for one thing, to insist that the modern Information Age, for example, represents a somehow incomparable leap in the speed with which information moves simply ignores the scale of transformation underway a century ago. It was the telegraph in the late 19th Century, spanning not just continents but oceans—and not the computer in the late 20th—that marked history's most singular advance in information's transmission speed, reducing the delivery time of news from New Delhi to New York to a matter of seconds—from what had been measured in months, if notyears, across the span of earlier history.
Nor does today's sheer overwhelming volume of information—best symbolized by cable TV's 100-plus channels, or more recently the Internet—seem so novel, when we remember that a century ago, each day the average New Yorker could choose among 15 different newspapers rather than today's three, or that more American newspapers appeared in a language other than English than all the dailies available today, or that the thousands of libraries then being constructed each contained thousands (if not hundreds of thousands) of volumes that vastly exceeded an individual's ability to absorb even a fraction of the knowledge therein.
As for impact on human beings of the sheer pace of technological change—and our much-debated sense of "information overload"—how should we imagine the effects on individuals of a world in which electric lighting, the automobile, the airplane, the telephone and wireless, motion pictures and the phonograph, all almost simultaneously appeared in a few short years? If Bill Gates and the microchip today somehow seem monumentally revolutionary, how shall we measure their impact against Thomas Edison's or Henry Ford's?
If Not Technology, Has the Audience Changed?
Another hypothesis: perhaps then the clue lies not in the speed, volume, or sheer choices our new technologies bring, but in the time we as audience have available to absorb them. Recent books with titles like "The Time Bind" or "The Overworked American" document how over the last 20 years work time has increased dramatically, especially for women, leaving less and less time for home and family life for all of us—including time to absorb our "new" cornucopia of information. Innumerable press critics have noted the lamentable decline in newspaper readership, or more recently the collapse in viewership for prime-time evening news, and ascribed their decline in large part to this loss of available "leisure" time.
But compare our present situation to the 60-, 70-, even 80-hour, six-day workweek of most Americans a century ago. If today too many of our children suffer from inadequate daycare, education, or latch-key neglect, what of the children of the Progressive Era, 80 percent of whom never went on to high school, or the hundreds of thousands of 12- and 13-year-olds whom reformers like Lewis Hines found working in mines and sweatshops? If today we suffer from too little leisure and family time, what was the suffering a century ago? If the average American comes home tonight, too tired and too burdened to do more than glance at a newspaper or turn on a TV game show or sitcom, where was that vaunted "free" time at the dawn of this century?
A subtler version of the "time" hypothesis has interwoven two other elements about diminished audience "capacity" for news, including watchdog reporting. This argument has focused on two dramatic and widening gaps among Americans at the end of the century, one hinged around income and wealth, the other around education and the ability to use sophisticated new information technologies such as the Internet. In its more melodramatic forms, the argument contends we are in danger of dividing into a nation of information "haves" and "have nots," while in its more muted versions, into something like the ranked order of a new "information feudalism."
Its proponents say they see (or foresee) a world in which the MBA, lawyer or MD taps into a world of instantaneous, global and interactive information, trading currency futures with Singapore or supervising (even performing) surgical procedures in a hospital a continent away (and growing wealthy thereby), while millions of McDonalds cashiers or Visa data-entry clerks toil for a pittance at the peripheries of the same electronic world.
The attractiveness of such arguments is that, at least in part, they let us explain the simultaneous presence of seemingly excellent watchdog journalism with a larger public indifference to the message it bears. Here then National Public Radio exists alongside Rush Limbaugh or the banalities of "all-news" AM radio, "Frontline" juxtaposed against "Entertainment Tonight," or The New York Times against The National Enquirer, one serving "hard news" to an affluent and well-educated minority, while the latter offers up a diet of "infotainment," overheated (and ill-informed) opinion, plus murder, car crash, Hollywood drug abuse, or the latest heart-tugging case of a child's battle with life-threatening disease to the masses as the "news" of the day.
But like the others, this argument fails a key historical test: just such a differentiation has marked American journalism since the Jacksonian period, and the first appearance of the mass-circulation "penny press." In the Progressive Era, for every McClure's that embodied a signal watchdog journalism, there were dozens of Hearst-style papers with their "yellow journalism" stew of tabloid sensationalism, imperialist jingoism, and eugenic-inspired racism, in many ways the one as "typical" of the period as the other.
Discovering and Inventing The Modern Era
If then the standard explanations aren't the answer, we face a problem: what has changed, if not the observable phenomena we've examined associated with technology, the available time for reading or viewing "information," or the variety of press styles catering to a differentiated audience?
One possibility is that the problems of the current era just aren't really significant compared to those a century ago. Workhours have declined, incomes and the standard of living have improved measurably, education and health care is much more widely available—isn't it simply the case that watchdog economic reporting today has less worth reporting on?
The problem, of course, is that human beings rarely reason in such terms, but rather by comparing themselves with both their contemporaries and with their imagined possibilities and dreams. The present is an improvement over the Progressive Era for most, just as the Progressive Era was equally an improvement over the Middle Ages, the Renaissance an advance over the Roman Empire, Rome an advance over the Neolithic; few care to judge the present by any of these past standards. Moreover, most Americans share a strong sense of having advanced little in their own lifetimes, and of losing faith in many of America's institutions. The precipitous decline of public confidence in almost all institutions and professions is well-documented. With Washington awash in a sea of campaign money, for example, few draw comfort from hearing that Congress is less corrupt or incompetent than a century ago.
In a sense, the answer to why watchdog journalism seems to lack the persuasive force or significant impact compared to a time like the Progressive Era likely lies rooted at a deeper level, one that seminal figures such as Weber, Simmel, Michels, Sombart, Tonnies, and Durkheim had begun to explore in Europe even as the Progressive Era unfolded in America.
Weber, like the other social scientists of his generation whose lives crisscrossed the end of a pre-capitalist order and the emergence of the modern age, saw in capitalism at the beginning of the 20th Century a new era of consciously rational control by institutions and rational behavior by individuals. It was the historical moment when thinkers, as one critic puts it, "discovered the modern."
Steeped in the effects of a near-simultaneous explosion of science and technology at the end of the 19th Century, they both remembered a world from childhood that was rural, agrarian and deeply customary—and saw firsthand as adults its break-neck displacement by a new world of urban, industrial power embodied in the giant industrial corporation. That new world, they saw, required for its successful operation not merely what Keynes famously called the "animal spirits" of entrepreneurs, but the skillful construc-tion and operation of a rational economy and society that was symbolized not merely by the appearance of the assembly line, but by the bureaucratic management structures of the great corporations themselves.
Weber particularly saw that religious beliefs no longer could adequately tie such complex communities together, nor could the charismatic role of mon-archs, revolutionaries, or statesmen who triumphed through the power of their personalities and personal visions of national order. Only the anonymous bureaucratic organization of society itself would suffice, with its characteristic organization charts, layers of managers and subdivision of authority along branch, regional and product lines.
Moreover, Weber shrewdly understood, such change would force deep changes in personality, expectations, group behavior and our deepest beliefs about norms and ideals on all fronts.
Could Democracy Become Modern?
But nowhere more than in the United States at the dawn of the 20th Century—as Weber knew from his travels here—did such economically and scientifically inspired bureaucratic organization seem more at odds with the nation's idealized vision of the diffused power of democratic government, of small-scale economic production, and the underlying assumption of a rural and independent citizenry that undergirded both.
The tensions between two such different models of human life—the one privately owned, centralized, bureaucratic and tightly structured into a web of unequal dependencies (in which the vast majority were industrial or office workers, subordinated to the direction of managerial and stock-owning elites), the other based on the public vision (however fully realized, one must add) of a prosperous but semi-subsistent rural economy, in which the political role of an equal citizenry coexisted peacefully alongside the "natural" but limited economic inequalities that grew out of differences in individual energies and abilities—were inescapable and, by the end of the 19th Century, deeply drawn.
For a time in the 1870's and 1880s, Social Darwinism had glossed the changes by offering the comfort of a "scientific" and "objective inevitability" to those who benefited most from industrialization and deepening inequalities. By the century's end, however, a different interpretation of both "science" and its celebrated "objectivity" was on the upsurge, in reaction to the deeply plutocratic (and far from conservative, in the sense of tradition-preserving) consequences of America's new economic revolution.
Within the tiny but burgeoning world of university-based social science, the dividing lines were harshly drawn. On one side were the men who supported the new "marginalism" of Alfred Marshall, and the legacy of Ricardo and Adam Smith: the calculus, assuming the rational self-interest of all individuals, they argued, provided deductive mathematical proof that free markets, and free markets alone, functioned best.
On the other were men such as Richard Ely, Lester Ward, Simon Patten, and John R. Commons, whose own instincts were, in analytic terms, radically empirical and in prescription, socially reformist. None in the latter group came close to being a Marxian; most, by Europe's more radical standards, were barely Fabian. But all insisted that analysis and prescription were inseparable, and that over-attention to mathematical modeling devalued the inherent moral dimensions involved in the study of human beings versus inanimate or non-human life forms. Indifferent to the early models of physics and mechanics that so entranced the marginalist economists, they sought in biology—and in a Mendelian understanding of life's infinite plasticity and adaptability, not the Spencerian vulgarization of Darwin—the key to conscious and purposive control over social change.
Their concerns fed into a widening stream of alarm that was spilling out into America's classrooms, pulpits, foundations (an American innovation of the time), and—most important for us—the press. In the American press— especially since the dawn of the penny press in the 1830s—there had been no lack of voices raised about growing inequality and economic power, about the conditions of labor and the organized suppression of unions, about the state's "capture" by powerful economic figures, and the adverse impact of 19th Century fiscal and monetary policies on small farmers, businesses and workers. Greeley of The New York Tribune, Godkin at The Nation, Harper's Weekly, Collier's, journalists such as Henry Demarest Lloyd, Edward Bellamy and Henry George, had all won national fallowings for their exposures and denunciations of the Robber Baron era.
No less important (or less reported) was the growing alarm, as millions of new immigrants arrived to fill up American factories and towns, not just about the human conditions in which people lived, but their effects on the tenderly nurtured and still-new vision of American democracy itself. The fear was explicit: these "new Americans," unschooled in older virtues and views, threatened to overwhelm (and ultimately destroy) what Winthrop had foreseen as "the city on the hill" and Tocqueville and others had celebrated as the essence of America's "civil religion."
Thus in the early 20th Century, watchdog journalism took on new urgency and explicit form, as enterprising reporters came in contact with a new world of university social scientists, government statisticians and foundation-funded researchers who could give both empirical detail and quantitative summary to these concerns. Moreover, this newly invigorated and newly conceived journalism discovered a mobilized and attentive audience among burgeoning segments of the "older" middle class and "native" working class who saw in the economic condition of millions of both "new" and "old" Americans not merely cause for charitable or compassionate alarm, but a deepening threat to democratic aspirations and social order.
Would Journalism, Now A Profession, Help Modernize Democracy?
Historians have toiled for years to explain this upsurge of what some have called the "Professional Revolution" in the midst of the Industrial Revolution and its stunning concentration of power and wealth among the new manufacturing, merchant and financial classes. Influenced by Weber and others, they have pointed to the opportunities that the urbanizing and industrializing world gave to such men and women—the need to train a workforce, the need to administer laws and regulations, the demands for scientifically based medical care, and even to oversee and adjudicate (via government) if not always the fundamental issues of economic distribution, at the least the inherent challenges posed by competition and concentration the Business Revolution posed for itself.
Journalism itself was ripe to join this "Professional Revolution." For a host of reasons—ranging from increasingly mass circulation to a new-found dependence on advertisers for revenue, from faith that science offered new ways to interpret the world to new forms of American party politics, and not least a new pool of status-conscious college-trained writers—the press sought a new sense of its "professional" identity.
Ink-stained veterans, not surprisingly, fought a rear-guard action, complaining about the changes, most importantly the new "professional" call for "objectivity" in place of party, regional and class partisanship. One reporter famously called objectivity "The Grocer's Bill: facts, facts, nothing but the facts. So many peas at so much a peck; so much molasses at so much a quart... It was a rigid system, rigidly enforced." But the protests were to no avail; journalism was to be part of this new American class, and would subscribe to its ambitions, values and worldview—but with a then-distinctive understanding of "objectivity's" progressive meaning, that linked reporting to an underlying intention to promote ever-possible democratic and scientific progress.
How New Narratives Shaped A Once-New Era
In terms of its journalistic impact, perhaps most important was that this loose new professional alliance—ofwhich watchdog reporting was only one, albeit a critical, element— identified and elaborated three vital and controlling "narrative" structures to sustain its energies.
The first was historical: it celebrated a rich and inspiring symbolic past—an America of small towns, a frontier of endless opportunity and a rough democratic equality of condition and income that stood critically as the historical baseline against which to measure modern change. In this redemptive national story, the Civil War—no more distant from the Progressive Era than the '60s is from ours—had sanctified and rededicated those earlier values, moreover, it had sanctified them in blood, Lincoln's death (and that of 600,000 fellow citizens) the price America paid for their defense. To abandon those values in the face of industrial challenge, went this new history, meant a betrayal of all that Americans counted as sacred.
Second, alongside a "new history," they described a new, and optimistic, understanding of "scientific rationality." This was to be a "new science"— freed from Social Darwinism—that not only relied on empirical fact-gathering to document social and economic conditions, but made remedy of the ills revealed by such investigation responsive to a newly conceived rationality subject to the same sorts of criteria. "Science" was understood radically: it was not simply a value-free analytic tool, but the explicit engine of social progress, a progress moreover that carried with it universal benefits for all classes and individuals, and that far from standing aloof or apart from America's earlier democratic ideals, would serve to enhance and strengthen them.
Thirdly, they conceived a new institutional instrument for this optimistic rationality: democratic government itself—but with a newly interpreted assessment of its role in national life. Shedding their inherited 18th Century notion of a small, and diffused, structure of governance meant to block the historic European abuses the Founding Fathers sought to keep out of America, the Progressives defined a new and much enlarged notion of government power.
To forestall those old abuses, it was to be a new kind of government, run by a new kind of leader. America, by 1900, of course could count plenty of experience with more traditional sorts of governance, of the kind still alive today throughout the world. But the all-too-common (and well-reported) scandal of Tammany-and-Tweed-style government "by crony and kickback" was now—argued Progressives—meant to give way to a government-by-expert, the dispassionate civil servant who in both person and policy embodied the optimistic "public rationality" the age foresaw.
Journalist Walter Lippmann at the time famously captured this vision by calling the new "scientific thinking" the "twin brother" of democratic politics, while the president of the American Economic Association sweepingly proclaimed a future for academic social scientists that "lay not in theories, but in practice, not with students, but with statesmen, not in the education of individual citizens, but in leadership of an organized body politic."
Crucially, Big Business—the power and wealth it represented, and the massive dislocations it entailed— weren't to be overthrown in this new view (as Marxists and many others had already declared essential). Rather, it was to be checked and tamed (in much the same way Americans imagined they had tamed the continent's vast natural power and wealth), its vast energies consciously directed to assure economic benefit for all, and to preserve (indeed strengthen and expand) the fundamental democratic structure of citizen government that had been the goal of the American Revolution.
A new government of dedicated experts and social scientists would thus set out to assure that trusts and unfair competition would be outlawed and minimum wages, maximum hours and safe working conditions established. Child labor would be abolished, tenement housing conditions reformed and public health criteria set, while education—in both technical skills and civic virtues, aimed not least at the "new" Americans—would be vastly expanded.
In such a government, a professional civil service would replace party cronies and "scientific" bureaus and commissions established to constantly investigate and recommend regulation; the U.S. Senate would now be directly elected by citizens, and initiative procedures introduced to assure the public's direct right to setting public laws that timorous or corrupt legislators feared. Government revenues would draw from new income and inheritance taxes on the wealthiest and a corporation tax on the largest enterprises. The revenues would not only sustain "scientific governance" but provide compensating expenditures either where private enterprise failed to operate well, or where the distributive consequences of such enterprise left too many behind.
How Shared 'Narratives' Created Watchdog Opportunities
For watchdog economic reporting, the point to underscore is that its success in the Progressive Era—the visible and measurable effect of the Tarbells, Sinclairs and Steffens— lay not in the heroically idealized role of the lone citizen-scribe standing up to power, but in the very embeddedness of such work in this larger worldview and its narratives.
It is this impact and its context, not simply the voice of such watchdog reporting, to which we must be attentive to understand how such reporting gains importance. Otherwise not least we're bound to forget that "watchdog economic reporting"—in the sense of a press that provides ongoing monitoring of power's abuses and inequities in the name of "the people," had already been well established long before Tarbell, Steffens and Sinclair.
The Credit Mobilier scandal, for example, of the 1870's; the railroad financiers' corrupt capture of innumerable state legislatures in the 1880's; the appalling condition of inner-city tenement life; the nauseating excesses of the Gilded Age—all had been carefully reported throughout the country and provoked great outcry.
Equally important, however, such earlier reporting had provided little effective cure for the ills it had identified. Stock market regulation 30 years after Credit Mobilier was still non-existent; public oversight of the railroads, even with the Sherman Act, the Interstate Commerce Commission and state-level regulatory boards, was still broadly ineffectual; the number of urban Americans in poverty in 1900 was growing, not declining; the wealth of the very wealthiest continued to multiply astronomically, virtually untouched by income, inheritance, or corporation taxes. Not until the Progressive Era were all the elements in place that, in a sense, could make useful purpose of watchdog reporting. Without interwoven narratives—plausible, persuasive stories that could be told, understood and acted upon—about the contemporary relevance of America's early ideals and values; without an interpretation of "scientific" rationality decoupled from Social Darwinism and bound to beneficent change; without a vision of government as an instrument that guaranteed that such change would be widely spread (and without much-feared revolutionary dislocation); and most important, without a deeply mobilized and committed element of the non-big-business elites, centered in the burgeoning "professional" world of the university, the ministry and the foundations (plus a deeply threatened small business community), could "watchdog economic journalism" expect to have significant impact.
The Lost Narrative Thread In the 1990s
Compare those conditions with America today. The country's founding revolution—and its ensuing debates about a core national purpose and ideals—are now twice as faraway, while direct experience of the rural, agrarian, pre-capitalist economy that undergirded them is utterly unknown to the vast majority of us. The saga of revolutionary ancestors has lost immediacy and relevance, located somewhere vaguely distant in our limited awareness after Columbus and before the Civil War.
Most Americans nowadays have grown up knowing nothing but the urban-suburban world, with the defining presence of the corporation the source of our work and consumption (and, to some great degree, identity). Talk about returning to a rural life—as many still did in the Progressive Era, when half of America still lived on farms—and today you would draw nothing more than bemused smiles, inviting the idea perhaps that you were some sort of nature poet (or something equally harmless).
Meanwhile public faith in science— in particular the canonical Progressive Era belief in a public "scientific rationality" linked to endless and uniformly uplifting improvement—today seems vaguely naive, even fraudulent. While most Americans have hardly become post-modernist "debunkers" of science, the effects of growing up under the shadow of atomic war, worrying endlessly about pollution, or experiencing first-hand the appropriation and subordination of science by other more powerful institutions, seems to have drained no small part of the once-simple popular enthusiasm for an independent "science" and objective "scientific rationality" as a certain solution to the ills of modern life.
Our faith in science is hardly shattered, but neither is it heroic or inspired. Instead, ours is often today a deeply troubled faith, racked by a foreboding about Mephistophelian tradeoffs, wondering whether, for example, genetic manipulation or global climate change foretell a darker, not a brighter, human future. But if the popular prestige of science has suffered over the years, it pales in comparison to the precipitous decline of government's prestige in the last quarter century. When it comes to believing that somehow "government-by-expert" and "scientific" formulations of public policy can save us collectively from the "crony-racked" and interest-driven corruptions of politics—let alone the manifest errors of the "policy" process itself—one need only glance at the public mood over Washington's failure to reform the power of money in campaigns, or the sour consequences of America's latest national "policy debate" over universal health care, to dispel such facile hopes.
No opinion poll fails to underscore that collapse, whether Gallup, Roper, or the academic National Election Survey. Forty years ago, for example, 76 percent of Americans said they basically trusted government "to do the right thing" most or all of the time. By the mid-1990's, it was 22 percent. Perhaps even more alarming—and arguably underscoring a core modern problem when compared to the Progressive Era—is the erosion of confidence in government among the very professional class that once made up the muckrakers and reformers. Among today's professionals, distrust is higher than for the nation as a whole, at 80 percent; among those with college and post-graduate degrees, the distrust is even worse: 83 percent.
Right alongside collapse of public confidence in government, of course, has gone loss of respect for journalists—as well as the other professions which formed the core, and provided the activists, of Progressive Era reform. If the American public distrusts government nowadays, it accords even less respect to the profession that claims to monitor government in their name: polls routinely show that only one in five Americans claims to have confidence in, or respect for, journalists.
Can Watchdog Journalism Recover Democracy's Lost Narratives—and Thereby Its Own Effective Role?
Ferreting out the causes of this decline has become something of an academic and journalistic mini-industry in recent years, without firm conclusion. What is clear, though, is that our current era seems to have forsaken belief in the very narratives that a century ago, taken together, so inspired the avatars of modern watchdog journalism and the audience and era for which they wrote.
But should we then conclude that watchdog economic journalism will never again have the influence it once did? Are we. in a sense, instead of celebrating Ida Tarbell's cracking Standard Oil, doomed to watchingGeraldo's cracking Al Capone's safe, or in place of seeing reporters challenge the financial power of the Morgans and Rockefellers, must we content ourselves with TVs news "I-teams" breathlessly revealing excessive A'l'M fees?
In fact, far from needing to embrace disillusionment or despair, there are at least three compelling reasons to argue against such a conclusion.
The first is to understand that, however successful, the work of Progressive Era reporters and reformers was never uncontested, never unchallenged, never undiluted. Those whose own power and wealth were threatened most certainly resisted, but so did competing visions of reform, not least among labor and socialist groups who viewed muckrakers and their supporters as hopelessly naive about American power. Gradually, too, the ranks of muckrakers and reformers divided, producing fissiparous debate and divisions that ended in the movement's effective collapse with World War I.
The second reason is that, for all the changes between then and now, a surprisingly resilient faith endures in the public's own vocal beliefs about America's existing—versus desirable— arrangements of power, wealth and influence. When Time magazine not long ago surveyed who Americans thought had "too much influence in Washington," more than 80 percent of respondents named "large corporations" and "the wealthy," while barely 5 percent named "the middle class" or "people like me." When the National Election Survey similarly asked Americans whether "government is run by a few big interests or for the benefit of all," 76 percent responded "big interests."
Seventy-five to 80 percent of Americans encompasses more than what Washington elites (including Washington journalists) have grown fond of referring to as "tax-and-spend liberals." Indeed, of necessity, it includes liberals, moderates and not a small number of conservatives from both Democratic and Republican parties, as well as America's largest political party—those who no longer vote at all.
One is reminded by such polls of G.K. Chesterton's remark, written well before the Progressive Era, that "America remains democratic, not in the literal sense of being a democracy, but in the moral sense of consisting of democrats." One is also reminded that—contrary to the contemporary elite view that Americans' cynicism about government is rooted in our historic distrust of its power—how rapidly that cynicism and distrust have arisen. As recently as 35 years ago, three out of every four— versus one in four today—thought government was run for the benefit of all Americans. By even stronger percentages, Americans once trusted Washington to "do the right thing" all or most of the time.
The third argument against the immutability of the present is to recognize that the issues the Progressive Era faced were in many ways no different from our own—and that the arguments then against the chances of their successful, and democratic, resolution were in many ways no different either.
Despite all our concerns and talk about the inevitability of the "new global economy" and its "unprecedented" impact on American living standards, for example, economists such as Paul Krugman and Robert Lawrence constantly remind us that in 1910 as much of U.S. Gross National Product was in international trade as it is today. The technological reinvention of our economy likewise was at least as vast then: Henry Ford introduced the modern assembly line in 1910, electricity and the telephone were as novel as the computer and Internet today and brute managerial-led "efficiency" as a universal standard—for the public sector as well as the private—just as much the watchword of the era then.
Income and wealth inequality has grown over the last 25 years, yet we know not only that economic inequality grew more swiftly around the beginning of this century, but also that it was, in absolute terms, dramatically worse. Inner-city life before World War I (as innumerable studies showed) was appalling, crime rampant, drug use of national concern. Education was narrowly available (fewer than 5 percent graduated from college; less than 20 percent from high school), immigrants were feared.
What Is to Be Done?
There are in such situations, of course, a number of practical measures that might be taken to strengthen modern watchdog economic reporting. Among the more elemental are:
1. Improving journalistic education: A recent study of America's journalism schools complains that the schools have grown too "academic," with classes too often focused on abstracted "mass communications theory" rather than the
practical elements of professional training—including watchdog reporting. Working journalists themselves, meanwhile, are the first to lament their own lack of formal training in "economics."
But even "model" training programs—such as Columbia's mid-career Bagehot Fellowships—seem to lack a well-developed sense of "watchdog" responsibilities as a crucial form of economics reporting. Their textbook, for example, is densely concerned with reading balance sheets, distinguishing between cash and accrual accounting techniques and uses of sources such as the Securities Exchange Commission— certainly all useful. On academic economics, however, it lacks a sophisticated and up-to-date understanding of changes (it talks of Samuelson and Friedman as "contemporary" rather than as giants a generation ago).
Perhaps more importantly, it barely considers the "muckraker" legacy or the context that made it influential— surely elemental to enlivening modern watchdog reporting.
Here one could easily imagine a new course design—applicable both to new and mid-career programs—that integrates not just business and economic theory, but, important for journalists, the tensions inherent in incorporating both into fundamental democratic political concerns. Such a course could in turn easily use, for example, the history of previous struggles as case studies to introduce contemporary problems— and as antidote against the ever-present tendency to imagine the present as uniquely new.
2. Rewarding and recognizing watch dog journalism: In a profession nowadays awash in awards, this perhaps gilds a tarnished lily. But what if the Nieman Foundation or some other organization set out explicitly to recognize out standing examples of modern watchdog reporting? What effect would a Tarbell or Steffens award have on the profession? Would it be greeted as hopelessly out of step with the times, or serve to force the times to confront its own shortcomings? When the award was given, would the presenter only honor the journalist-recipient—or use the occasion to underscore the social and political context in which the original muckrakers worked, and remind today's reporters of what remains to be done?
3. Persuading editors and reporters of watchdog journalism's importance— and the complexity of its role: Over the last few years, "civic journalism" has arisen to argue that the low public respect, the internally reflected disillusionment, and sense of irrelevance that many journalists experience today can be solved by a new "attentiveness" to "the public's concerns." This isn't the place to assess its merits and liabilities, so much as to reflect on the divided response "civic journalism" has evoked.
On the one hand, a sizeable minority of print and broadcast outlets have embraced the experiment—at newspapers in Charlotte and Wichita and other medium-sized cities, at public broadcasting outlets in dozens of cities, to name a few. Critics have arisen as well, warning of the loss of journalistic autonomy and independent judgment, fearful that "civic journalism" is at best "goo-goo" reformism, at worst a new poll- and marketing-driven imperative that will accelerate the worst of the "news you can use" personalism already present in much of journalism.
Strengthening watchdog economic reporting, in a sense, requires acknowledging why civic journalism has arisen, but also recognizing why in its present form—sharply focused on electoral political coverage—its implications are still tangential (though important) to watchdog economic concerns. It's at that very tangent that editors and reporters might find rich new terrain to recover the public's trust—and give new energies to watchdog reporting.
Should Watchdog Reporting Ask a Different Question?
What if those committed to watchdog economic reporting took not as their question "Why isn't there more good watchdog reporting," but rather "Why, given substantial evidence of such reporting— and a well-documented public awareness of its concerns and conclusions—hasn't more in American life changed in response to what we know?"
Here watchdog reporting would find itself engaging the same issues that engaged the muckrakers: if our own period has been an age transfixed by the power of "The Market," and conviction that "The Government" is corrupt or ineffectual, so too were the years leading up to—and including—the Progressive Era.
But watchdog reporting would find itself facing a "missing link" that wasn't the same problem for the Progressive Era.
The missing link involves solving the deeper puzzle of the public itself. If, in recent years, dozens (if not hundreds or thousands) of watchdog articles and series have minutely explored the human face as well as the economic impact of global competition, corporate downsizing, growing income and wealth inequality, an uncertain retirement security, and diminished hope for the future of the next generations, how many journalists have sought to ask Americans directly: What is inevitable about all this? What must change? What about American economic and political life must be different for you to recover trust in our institutions and leaders?
In other words, might it be time for watchdog economic reporting's advocates to expand some of its traditional focus from the familiar terrain of flawed institutions and systems
to investigating the audience
for such reporting— and thereby beginning to search for the new "narratives" that will modify or replace the tattered inheritance with which we now live?
Rather than reporting again on a quarter-century of wage stagnation for the average worker, for example, would watchdog reporting better serve all of us by asking Americans what they'd consider a reasonable or fair wage and benefit structure? What would we learn if we asked Americans what—in their opinion—blocks achievement of such a structure, and what would have to change for it to be achieved?
If four out of five Americans consider corporate CEO's over-compensated, what do they think is the alternative? If European and Japanese executives are compensated at much lower levels, are these goals—or does America's uniqueness justify something extra? If so, what?
If Americans today tell pollsters they're working too hard, spending too many hours to sustain the American Dream compared to a generation ago, or worry constantly about their health and retirement benefits, what kinds of hours would make sense to them, what sorts and features of benefits do they need to give themselves real security?
Importantly, one could learn from asking members of the professional class about their doubts not only about government, but also about their own fellow professionals. A century ago, it was professionals who formed the vanguard of Progressive Reform, supplied its research, drafted its programs, investigated and informed the nation. Is it simply that the class itself has grown so large, so entrenched and relatively powerful in its own right—whether in the public or private sphere—that reforms no longer make up a part of its common agenda, or is something else at play?
Note here that such a focus doesn't require reporters or editors to give up their commitment to objectivity, to shift to a value-laden reporting that presses one party's or one ideology's hidden agenda. What it requires is a shift in focus—from the documentation of what troubles Americans, to asking them to weigh solutions, their benefits as well as their costs. It is thereby, arguably, that journalists (and others) can begin to construct new narratives that will look once again at the problem of how to construct a viable American history, a vision of an American future, and a debate over the instruments that will lead us forward that once so occupied the muckrakers and their generation. If modern-day watchdog economic reporting seems flawed, it is in the too-simple assumption—albeit an ancient one—that alone "the truth will set us free." Truth-telling, especially when done by lone reporters or small teams working to document the abuses of power and privilege, without understanding or even reflection on what the audience already knows, fears, doubts, or dreams possible, utterly misses the lessons of the past.
The success of the Progressive Era wasn't built simply on truthfully exposing corruption and abuse, unfairness and inequality, but on communicating interconnected "narratives" to an American public that reconnected journalist and audience alike to redemptive values rooted in our history, that posited a vision of an equitable and generous public life, that argued for the use of collective democratic power and for the constraint of private privilege and power that opposed the search for a common good.
Intervening decades have frayed Americans' confidence in the ability of a "rational public science" to identify such a good, but not in the idea of a common good itself. Trust in government as the perfect instrument of such "rational science" has suffered enormously in the last quarter century—yet its past high regard argues against the immutability of the current era's attitudes.
Max Weber was among the very first to understand the powerful limiting, as well as creative and liberating, forces of the modern age. Yet understanding in Weber never gave way simply to acceptance or resignation. Perhaps we ought again listen to Weber, as he rebuked colleagues for their own pessimism a century ago:
|We shall not succeed in banishing that which besets us—the sorrow of being born too late for a great political era—unless we understand how to become the forerunners of a greater one.
Then we might begin once again to do the real work of reporting for—and thereby nurturing—a democratic society.
Richard Parker is Senior Fellow at the Shorenstein Center on Press, Politics and Public Policy, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University.