'Watchdog Journalism Is the Only Function of Journalism That Justifies the Freedom That Journalists Enjoy in This Country.'

By Kovach, Bill | Nieman Reports, Fall 1999 | Go to article overview

'Watchdog Journalism Is the Only Function of Journalism That Justifies the Freedom That Journalists Enjoy in This Country.'


Kovach, Bill, Nieman Reports


Bill Kovach began the conference with introductory remarks focused on coverage of the Clinton/Lewinsky story which, in his view, epitomizes many of the consequences of a shift in how sources are used.

This year, the Clinton/Lewinsky story has highlighted the extraordinary degree to which American reporting, especially in Washington, has put itself in a position to be manipulated by those who have a vital interest in the outcome of the story. One impact of the new technology has been to shift the power relationship toward the sources of the information and away from the news organizations that cover them. Increasingly, sources usurp the gate-keeping role of the journalist to dictate the terms of the interaction, the conditions under which the information will be released, and the timing of publication. This is a power shift so dramatic that I believe it can destroy journalistic independence and certainly it changes the whole notion of journalistic distance.

If you think this is a radical conclusion, we now have the testimony of Michael Isikoff in his book, "Uncovering Clinton," in which he says he realized that he stepped across the line from being a reporter to a participant. "I was trying to influence the action of the players," he wrote of trying to persuade Lucianne Goldberg and Linda Tripp not to negotiate a book deal that would compromise the credibility of his sources. "As a reporter, that's not my job," Isikoff goes on to tell us. "But I didn't realize something else. I was at this point too involved to avoid influencing the players of the story."

Some argue that the ultimate outcome of the story--President Clinton's ultimate admissions--is a vindication of the press's role in the unfolding story. But this "ends justify the means" argument is, as former Washington Post reporter Murrey Marder has reminded us, too self-serving for any self-respecting journalist to make....

For those who are convinced that watchdog journalism--the monitoring of the institutions of power--is the central purpose of a free press, it is vital that We examine the reporter/source relationship and how it shapes our reporting today.

* How much socializing among reporters and sources is acceptable?

* How much information trading is acceptable?

* What about giving advice to a private source?

* What about helping a source financially?

* Can a reporter deceive a source, expose a source? If so, when and why?

It is questions such as these that we hope to explore and examine today. We do so in the hope that with enough thought and enough discussion we can begin to find ways to redress the imbalance of power between reporters and sources that the competitive atmosphere of the new technology and the new economic organization of the journalism business have created.

As moderator of the discussion about reporting on nonprofits, Kovach also explained why it is increasingly important that journalists retain their role as vigilant watchdogs of these organizations at a time when the social service work of large public agencies is diminishing.

Most news organizations do not and have not covered nonprofits. But as the power of government devolves, and it's devolving rapidly to state and local government in terms of social programs, those aspects of public life are, in many cases, being picked up by or left to nonprofit organizations to handle. And in this time of enormous wealth creation during the past decade, an awful lot of money has moved into fewer and fewer hands at the top of the economic structure of our country. More and more of those people who are collecting more and more personal fortune are choosing to withdraw their support from government by investing their profits in nonprofit organizations targeted to things in which they are personally interested.

As broad-based support for public programs dissipates, the power of nonprofits again is becoming more and more important to how our society is structured. …

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