Watchdog Journalism and the First Amendment

May 12, 2006
Category: Archive

By Ken Paulson
Editor, USA Today

I’m pleased to share a few thoughts about watchdog reporting and investigative journalism. There’s some irony in having the editor of USA Today address the topic. An early line about USA Today was that our only shot at winning an award was for “best investigative paragraph.” Even today, we keep hoping the Pulitzer Board will consider establishing a category for “best beat reporting without a jump.”

But of course, great watchdog work is not about running long stories or winning awards. It’s about living up to our responsibility to the American people.

A few years back, I took a little sabbatical from the newspaper business to run the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University. In that job, I saw firsthand how Americans take the First Amendment and a free press for granted. These freedoms have always been there, and we assume they always will be.

And yet, what an extraordinary gift that first generation of Americans gave us. In a world in which so many wars are fought over religious differences, a new nation took religion off the table, simply saying “I’ll honor your faith if you’ll honor mine.”

And throughout history, rebellions have been fueled by the frustration of people who felt they had no voice. In this country, we’re free to speak, petition government for change and assemble together in the town square to raise our voices in protest. Americans who want a say have a say.

And in a world in which revolutions have been staged to overthrow corrupt and abusive government leaders, those early Americans insisted on a free press that would keep an eye on the people in power and act as a guardian of our most fundamental freedoms.

It’s no coincidence that the strongest, most influential, most dynamic and most successful nation in the history of the planet is also the most free.

That’s not to say that our watchdog role is fully understood or embraced by the American public. After all, politicians and public officials have stock speeches about media bias and favoritism, all in effect saying: “Ignore the barking. The watchdog is rabid.”

Of course, the very best response to the rhetoric is rigorous and responsible reporting.

When we do our jobs the right way, striving every day to publish reports of integrity and balance, when we ask the tough questions, when we fight to keep the public’s business public and when we provide the kind of watchdog reporting that is the lifeblood of a democracy, we fulfill our promise to that first generation of Americans who believed that one of the best ways to guarantee a democracy was a free and vigorous press. That mission has not — and will not — change.

Ken Paulson has served as editor of USA Today since 2004.