Tales of Our Times
By JOHN BARTLIT
New Mexico Citizens
for Clean Air & Water
Rely on the Value and Vices of Democracy’s Watchdogs
Our nation is founded on the enterprise of watchdogs. It is why we have three branches of government. It is why the first amendment guarantees freedom of barking, er… speech.
Furry watchdogs, too, are very valuable. They guard a home better than police, alarm boxes, barred windows and gates with passcodes. Furry watchdogs never get distracted, fall behind in their work, or quit working if the electricity goes off. They rarely get disgruntled with the job or the administration.
Their ego doesn’t get in the way and they don’t raise their prices. Watchdogs are not drawn to stockpiling personal credit. They have only one giant defect: They are usually wrong. Nearly all their barks are false alarms.
A very high percentage of barking warns of the mailman, meter readers, friends, passers-by, rabbits, and other dogs. Better to bark at every hint than miss a whiff of intrigue. We do not expect furry watchdogs to be Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot. We know about dogs, so they don’t fool us. When they sound a warning, we take a look for ourselves and size up the situation. We do not consult another watchdog, who will say just what the first one said.
Most of the good that watchdogs do goes unseen. It is miscreants who stay away. It is the no-gooders who retreat when barking starts. It is thieves stuck in jail because a watchdog barked.
The traits of furry watchdogs transfer to the human kind. The news media have the same value as four-footed watchdogs. They also have the watchdog problem of false alarms. As with furry barkers, the media’s value mostly goes unseen. It is the crooks who turn to other lines of work, crooks who desist when the noise starts, and crooks stuck in prison. Loud barking is a powerful brake on corruption.
But humans have other problems that start with their egos. Humans want to be newsworthy. They want to move up in the pecking order and improve news sales. Advancement requires grabbing the crowds away from competing barkers. Big newspapers and newscasters bark out news of people and events, often with a grim cast to the news. A sense for the sinister is what gets noticed in the big news business. Peddling blame and hoarding credit are crafts of the trade.
Dogs have natural powers to sniff the faintest scent and hear the softest step. The media’s senses are not nearly so inborn. The media’s senses are the eyes and ears of informants, who have egos and causes of their own to feed. So the media catch wind of any conceived wrong, from grand larceny to fraud, graft, treading on flowers or murky phrasing.
This is good. This is good IF, I repeat IF, everyone understands what it is. It is a watchdog’s barking. It is not the unriddling of The Maltese Falcon.
Indeed, the news of Watergate and ways of sexual predators help us curtail some big bad deeds. Yet these big finds emerge when they can from a watchdog’s hoard of prospects. The nature of the news cycle makes incidental effects large and unavoidable. To describe news, I would paraphrase a knowing journalist from the old days, “Reading news to see how things are going is like trying to learn the time by watching the second-hand of a clock.”
Alas, the wide world of news leaves no good way for folks to assess the situation for themselves. We have only reports from brigades of watchdogs, er … news staff. For days or weeks on end, the public watchdogs can feature related news that says, “Watchdog Barks!”
Through it all, keep in mind the essential value of watchdogs. Just as clearly, keep in mind what comes from crying wolf. Stay wise to both.