Have you noticed those Watchdog websites?
Maybe you have – New Mexico’s got one, after all. The ten state-based sites, which are funded by the free-market group The Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, bill themselves as a “network of independent state-based journalists who investigate and report on state and local government.”
Since its launch late last year, many in New Mexico have noted that the reporting on the New Mexico Watchdog is thin and the motives behind the “scoops” it peddles to the mainstream media have seemed…well…partisan at best.
But it hasn’t stopped the site’s main purveyor, Jim Scarantino, from boasting that he’s the only one with the “guts, determination and courage” to pull off his particular brand of investigation.
Yes, conservative investigative websites are now a trend – one that early on, some government watchdogs had hoped could be a way to keep investigative journalism alive in the face of a declining newspaper industry and the years of professional reporting experience that was disappearing with it.
However, a story in this month’s issue of The Washington Monthly concludes that perhaps the Watchdog clones and a number of other sites just like them could begin to perform that important function…if only the “investigating” on them was up to actual journalistic standards.
Journalist Laura McGann, an assistant editor at the prestigious Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University and former editor of the nonprofit news site the Washington Independent, takes an incisive look at the new trend in a piece called “Partisan Hacks: Conservatives Have Discovered the Virtues of Investigative Journalism. But Can Their Reporting Survive Their Politics?” (The Nieman Journalism Lab’s mission is to investigate and chronicle the changing world of journalism in the Internet age through original reporting, analysis and incisive commentary.)
McGann’s lengthy examination of the conservative investigative trend contains an embarrassing deconstruction of the “phantom Congressional district” story so widely heralded late last year by the New Mexico Watchdog.
From her story:
Last November, the New Mexico site reported that millions of stimulus dollars allocated to the state were disappearing into nonexistent congressional districts, a fact editor Jim Scarantino unearthed by poring over data on Recovery.gov, the federal government’s stimulus-tracking Web site. The national Watchdog site followed Scarantino’s lead, reporting that nationwide more than $6.4 billion was going to such “phantom congressional districts.” The story spread from conservative blogs to regional newspapers, and eventually TV news; ABC claimed the scoop was a network “exclusive.”
But the New Mexico Watchdog story, McGann reports, quickly fell apart under the scrutiny of the Associated Press:
The only problem: the story was, at best, misleading. In a “fact check” feature on Watchdog’s scoop, the Associated Press’s Matt Apuzzo took the step that the Watchdog reporters had not: he checked to see what was happening to the money.
As it turns out, the funds were going exactly where they were supposed to go, not vanishing into black holes as the Watchdog sites had implied. The problem was simply that a handful of the local government agencies and nonprofits that had received stimulus funds had mistyped the zip codes when they entered information about their projects into the federal database.
In other words, all the fuss had been over a few stray typos. “[T]he ‘phantom congressional districts’ are being used as a phantom issue to suggest that stimulus money has been misspent,” Apuzzo concluded.
McGann’s Washington Monthly story looks at a number of conservative investigative sites and notes that they are part of a concerted and sophisticated effort among conservative think tanks to package their messages in a new, more marketable way.
A think tank can turn out heaps of research reports, and most of them will be ignored by the press. But something that looks like reporting, and contains actual news, will get picked up in a hurry, and the ideological leanings of its source will often go unexamined.
Just because an investigation is done by a conservative think tank doesn’t by definition mean the work is not valid, McGann asserts. But it has to be good work.
Unfortunately, she concludes, most of the muckraking done by the conservative think tanks is “thin,” “missing context” and “occasionally leads to gross distortions.”
Her assessment takes on an especially critical tone when talking about The Franklin Center, which funds the Watchdogs sites and attempts to recruit and train fledgling investigative reporters at secretive sessions, including some in New Mexico.
But when the drive to score partisan points swamps normal journalistic considerations, like accuracy and ethics, it can lead to cherry picking, distortion, or worse.
Perhaps the clearest illustration of the promise and peril of the new breed of conservative muckraking is the Franklin Center and its Watchdog network.
Her story goes on to describe several other instances of other non-scoops and dishonest reporting on the various Watchdog sites and concludes:
“This sort of misleading reporting crops up on Watchdog sites often enough to suggest that, rather than isolated instances of sloppiness, it is part of a broad editorial strategy.”
Given all that, does anyone still consider what Washington Monthly describes in “Partisan Hacks” to be the future of journalism?
I sure hope not.