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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
…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.