Friday, March 13, 2009

Who's Watching the Watchdogs

March 13th, 2009
Friday Morning, 11:30 AM

My first Major choice in College was Journalism. See, I grew up in the golden age of Journalism. The profession was romanticized by embedded Journalist in World Wars, dignified by Uncle Walter every night at 6:30, and canonized by two journalist that brought down the President of the United States with a tip from a guy dubbed "Deep Throat". It also helps when Hollywood has two of the best actors of the generation play "Woodstein" in one of the most riveting movies of that decade. This golden age refined the profession and validated the power of freedom of the press in our democracy. At a young age, I was impressed by the majesty of the profession and I held these journalist as nobility. And then I went to college.

I remember being in my journalism class and having daily debates around the power of figures like Marrow and "Woodstein" and the influence that local evening news holds when they literally promote "fear and death" every single night to sell advertising space. My Professor was adamant about making sure we understood the role of Journalism in the marketplace. He made sure that we focused, in classic "Woodstein" fashion, on the power of "watchdogs" and the significance of an independent view when reporting a story. I always respected him for his idealism and always knew that he generally believed in "watchdogs". But, and there is always a but, life and people are not always as black and white as the print that those Journalist stories are published in. People are complex, life is a labyrinth, and commerce comes into play for even the most noble of watchdogs. It's easy to teach nobility in a classroom setting. It's easy to banter about the "right things to do", but what happens outside of that bubble. What happens when someone's vested interest, be it financial or ideological, comes into play? I would always focus on that latter in these discussions.

See, I learned a valuable lesson at a young age from my Father. In the summer times my family used to spend a week down at the "shore". That is strictly a Philly/Jersey term and to the rest of the outside world that would simply mean "going to the beach". During these trips of sun and fun, we would go out in the evenings to go on rides on the boardwalk. I vividly remember on the way to the rides that there would be these toys and stuffed animals hanging from the ceilings of these little shacks offering for someone to play a game to win one of these toy prizes. I would hound my Father, begging him to win a toy for me. I was relentless. In the process I most likely spoiled the night for everyone involved. Each time we walked by one of these shacks my Father would say "no thanks". Fortunately my attention span waned and I found the rides and arcades and my night would be complete.

I do remember one night I would not take no for an answer and my Father caved in. He gave money to the man and and tried to get three softballs into a wicker basket. It looked simple enough. I thought it was layup for Dad. Every night we played catch and I thought he had the greatest throwing arm in the world. The Stuffed Whatever It Was would be mine, I thought. But, the three throws came and went and Dad could not get the softballs to stay in the basket. I was crushed. How could this be? If Dad couldn't do it, then how would I get the Stuffed Whatever It Was. In classic short attention span fashion I wanted to leave then and there. Dad wanted no part of that, it was lesson time. For the next fifteen minutes (for a ten year old boy that is like 15 hours) we stood there and watched the people as they tried to do get the softballs in the basket. With each toss, failure. With each toss, regardless of age, sex, race or creed, no one was winning my Stuffed Whatever It Was either. And then there was a rash of winning. After about twenty different people tried, about three people won, in a row. "Come on Dad, you have to try again." "No thanks," he said.

On the walk to the rides my Father explained to me a number of valuable lessons that I just learned. First, not everything is what it appears to be. Second, not everything is easy. Third, when money is involved, the playing field is always different. And fourth, its probably cheaper to just go to the store and buy the Stuffed Whatever It Was then stand there and try to win an rigged game. Now there may be other lessons in this parable that I am missing but, those are the ones that still stick with me the most to this day. My Father the "Watchdog" & the ball toss "down the shore" episode, has helped me more in everyday life then any other lesson.

So what does this have to do with a Journalism class that I took 15 years ago, "watchdogs" and what is going on in my world today? Well, those lessons always taught me to be mindful and to try to look at things from all sides. It taught me to believe in t he power of doubt, just as much as the power of trust. In Journalism class you had the ones that believed in the profession as not just an institution, but as an Utopian right which was draped in the fabrics of our Constitution. You had those that saw it as a means to Commerce and as a business. You had those that believe in the power of controlling the word and influencing the word and in turn, peoples worlds. Then you had people like myself, the skeptics, picking and choosing parts of each of those. And then you had our Professor who looked at this prism from all angles, constantly asking what is the role of the watchdog is in society and what that means for all of us.

In hindsight, his was another valuable lesson I took with me to the working world. A world which turned out not in Journalism. The money was bad, really bad and I didn't have the passion needed for it. Plus, I don't think I would have been a good journalist "watchdog". I could never take the "me" out of the story or edit out my opinion. That is a special trait and skill that I truly believe there are not many out there who do this today. I went on to be a Business and Political Science Major and then went on to work in the Computer field (go figure) where I take his lessons of leadership and accountability into every meeting with a customer or every conversation with one of my colleagues. To me that is what a "watchdog" is, regardless of the business.

Doubt, trust, leadership and accountability, what do these qualities have to do with "the now"? Well, I thought about these last night while I was watching TV. At 11pm last night, I watched a multi-millionaire get fleeced by a not-as-rich-guy. In a past life one was a trained Financial Trader from Philadelphia and one was a trained Stand-Up Comedian from New Jersey. Now they are both "entertainers". One sells laughs and one sells crystal ball advice. In the grey lines of "Journalism" in the 21st century, they both have news/entertainment shows. What struck me was the guy from the fake news show, was being a "watchdog" while the Trader was being attacked for poor leadership, lack of accountability and changing the rules of the game for their own benefit, just like that Softball Toss Guy. I sat there thinking "why wasn't a trained Journalist doing this?", "when did the fake news comedy show become the thought leaders in 21st century journalism?", "thank God someone is doing this, stepping up and showing leadership.", "I wonder if my College Journalism Professor is watching this and what he thinks?"

The lines between Journalism and Entertainment are obviously blurred as we stand here in the America of March 2009. I understood this all along, but last night solidified that for me. It's important to always know which corporation or entity is behind the news you are reading, to know what their political or social interest are and who those interest benefit. As "Deep Throat" said, "follow the money." My minds eye says that this will lead people even more to the Web or Social Networking for their tools and news. This on-line revolution will continue even more with the current Financial Crisis and people will demand accountability.

The Blog world evolved dramatically during the last Presidential election. People like Nate Silver and Andrew Sullivan dominated and streamlined the election news coverage last year. Sure there were the great articles done by the Washington Post on the Vice President and an "entertaining" interview Katie Couric did with Sarah Palin, but the work of the Web Reporters overshadowed the MSM by leaps and bounds. The youth of today, the 18-34 demo, obtain much more news via the web or their laptops or their iPhones. They obtain news in real-time. This is why the newspapers are dying in print form and why they will survive in web form only within 3-5 years. The "fishwrap" buyers are dying and not being replenished by the young. Game over.

With this game changer in place, the lines of Entertainment/News will continue to be blurred. It will be harder to find the independent product, but it will be there and less filtered. I for one firmly believe we will receive a better product. You will just have to "Digg" harder for it. It won't be severed up to you by Uncle Walter on the six o'clock news. It won't be spelled out for you in some Corporate Op-Ed page. It will be posted in real-time by the frontiers of an industry, embedded to your iPhone by a friends email, and talked about on Twitter or Facebook. We, will have more control and hopefully the public can tell the difference, through the blur, between the Trader who got caught "moving your cheese" yesterday and the Comedian fighting for your rights today.

Watch for yourself and give me your thoughts. I will reach out to my Professor soon about this and hopefully get his take on the situation. What do you think? Let me know your answers to some of the other questions that came to mind when we watched The Daily Show last night. Questions like:

- Does a Comedy Show count as much as the Murrow trained nightly news talking heads?
- Have we learned our lesson in all of this Finical Meltdown mess?
- Why don't Independent Analyst have their own show on CNBC?
- Have our traditional news outlet failed, while they lose millions daily and are overwhelmingly outmaneuvered by their more nimble on-line counterparts?
- Where do you get more of your news from - NY Times or your Daily Shows?
- Who's watching the "Watchdogs"?


  1. Awesome Post! true trained journalists are lost in the noise of the multiple streams of media today. Traditional newspapers are fighting for their life and editors are pressed to publish content that sells papers, therefore the investment by a newspaper/magazine in a long investigative report to potentially uncover a fraud like Madoff is not there like it was in the past. We are left with news entertainment, and there is a lot of bad entertainers, and even worse news. The question to me is how do you monetize the web effectively to lure a real journalist to go it alone, and get back to what the basics.

  2. Thanks Jim. Great points. I added a couple of paragraphs based on your points. I do think that the web is winning and people are doing it alone. Read Sullivan, read Silver. I think Obama won mainly because he used the web better then the old man.

  3. A great read on this -