Who Watches the Watchdogs? The Myths of Journalism

In a great essay, Edward Jay Epstein points out, at least by implication, that the Pulitzer Prize committee is not terribly interested in the truth of things:

A sustaining myth of journalism holds that every great government scandal is revealed through the work of enterprising reporters who by one means or another pierce the official veil of secrecy. . .  This view of journalistic revelation is propagated by the press even in cases where journalists have had palpably little to do with the discovery of corruption. Pulitzer Prizes were thus awarded this year to the Wall Street journal for “revealing” the scandal which forced Vice President Agnew to resign and to the Washington Star/News for “revealing” the campaign contribution that led to the indictments of former cabinet officers Maurice Starts and John N. Mitchell, although reporters at neither newspaper in actual fact had anything to do with uncovering the scandals. . . . Yet to perpetuate the myth that the members of the press were the prime movers in such great events as the conviction of a Vice President and the indictment of two former cabinet officers, the Pulitzer Prize committee simply chose the news stories nearest to these events and awarded them its honors.

The Nobel Prize in Biology committee operates the same way, except with the disadvantage that there is not one important (= useful in a big way) biology discovery per year. There are far fewer than that. So almost every year the Nobel Prize in Biology goes to discoveries with little practical importance that are described as having great practical importance. The profession (in this case, biology) is credited with much more power than it actually has.

Why does this happen? One possible reason is that no one points it out. (Epstein’s essay, still relevant today, was published in 1974.) When a powerful journalistic institution does bad things, it is incredibly dangerous (to your career) to point this out. This is why the Murdoch scandal is so big — it went on so long. Spy magazine had a column called Review of Reviewers. It was hilarious because the misdeeds were great. Unlike almost anything else in Spy, the author was anonymous. Brilliant writing that the author did not take credit for because it was dangerous to criticize the watchdogs. Likewise, hardly anyone except Epstein criticizes the prize committees (who resemble watchdogs) so they can be profoundly inaccurate.


One Reply to “Who Watches the Watchdogs? The Myths of Journalism”

  1. None of the greatest scientists – the real top drawer chaps – has won a Nobel, except for Einstein. The reason is that the others worked, and died, too early.

    It almost makes you wonder whether the institution of the Nobel was part of social changes that led to a reduction in the standard of science.

    (P.S. Am I too hard on Planck, Rutherford, Mme Curie?)

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