When Does the Watchdog Bark? The Answer May Surprise You

However weak-kneed we think our media have been, their questions have grown more assertive, more adversarial, and more demanding over time.

By now the idea that journalists failed to sufficiently question the Bush administration’s case for war in Iraq, and therefore bear some blame for the expanding mess there, is virtual gospel. “An explanation is due for how the U.S. press helped pave the way for war,” Gilbert Cranberg wrote last week for Harvard’s Nieman Watchdog, while Eric Boehlert and James Wolcott billboard their sentiments in their respective books, Lapdogs and Attack Poodles. Whether or not this allegation is actually true (and more on this to come), new research led by UCLA sociologist Steven Clayman suggests that it’s not especially surprising or, for that matter, as bad as people think.

In the last half-century, White House reporters have been consistently gentler with the president on foreign affairs than on domestic matters, according to Clayman’s study of presidential news conferences from Eisenhower to Clinton. Published in the latest American Sociological Review, the work shows that however weak-kneed we think our media have been, their questions have grown more assertive, more adversarial, and more demanding over time. By historical standards, today’s “lapdogs” and “attack poodles” may actually be more like spike-collared pit bulls.

Consider the contrast between this era, when reporters gleefully slash President Bush’s name to “Shrub,” and 1953 when the Philadelphia Inquirer’s John C. O’Brien asked Eisenhower, “for the guidance of our headline writers,” whether he objected to “the use of a nickname in headlines.” To capture this change in tone, Clayman and his colleague John Heritage scored more than 4,500 questions on five measures of aggressiveness including “assertiveness,” “adversarialness,” and “accountability.” The data, gathered from 164 press conferences between 1953 and 2000, was then set in historical context and used to answer a question that is often asked, but rarely tested systematically: “When does the watchdog bark?”

The surprising answer goes against the logic of longstanding Beltway conventional wisdom. Clayman found no “honeymoon” period of smooth sailing for new presidents and no free pass for popular ones. Moreover, the research undercuts the notion that the press turned rabidly anti-war during Vietnam — or any time between Korea and Desert Storm. Far from foaming at the mouth, White House journalists were twice as likely to be “cautious and deferential” on foreign and military affairs, a finding that held through periods of war, peace, recession, and prosperity. Meanwhile, changes in the unemployment rate emerged as the surprise inspiration for the largest jumps in overall aggressiveness. Averaging the results, reporters were 16 percent more likely to ask sharp questions for every 1 percent rise in unemployment, which suggests the so-called elite media are still populists at heart.

So what do we take away from all this? That the American press has been too soft on the president’s foreign policies? Perhaps. Do journalists let patriotism influence their reporting? Maybe too much. But is the situation necessarily bleaker today, as pundits would have us believe? Probably not. Are our journalists more likely to follow their leader than their colleagues abroad? Again, it seems unlikely — a just-completed British media study from the universities of Leeds and Liverpool found that 80 percent of English media followed their government’s line regarding the Iraq war and less than 12 percent challenged it. Similarly, Daniel Hallin’s classic book on Vietnam, The Uncensored War, showed that the American wartime press has operated in a “sphere of consensus,” only challenging government policy when the government itself appears to waver.

Given the Bush administration’s famous dedication to staying “on message,” the times may require a special effort by the mainstream press to remain independent and skeptical on Iraq. Clayman says he is currently working to extend the study from 2000 on, and it will be helpful to have firm evidence of the press’s performance in historical context. Whatever the results — and no one is claiming that the American press has met our expectations — Clayman’s current work is a useful palliative for moderating our tendencies to both idealize the past and exaggerate journalism’s present-day shortcomings.

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Tony Dokoupil co-authors the Research Report column for CJR. He’s a Ph.D. candidate in communications at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism.