04/05/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Obama-izing Journalism: Can Reporters be Counted on as Stimulus Watchdogs?

We're already into a decade of immense, uncharted, and widely distributed federal spending but with one vital part of the democracy in jeopardy.

At the same time that our President is engaged in a Hail Mary of economic planning, our much-reputed constitutional mechanism for accountability (otherwise known as newspapers, journalism and the engine of information called the First Amendment) is in a weak-kneed trance.

How can we use this moment -- the need for skilled, consistent, ubiquitous journalistic accountability -- to address structural issues that diminish the Fourth Estate?

I was thinking about this while talking with my son, Asher Price, the environmental reporter for the Austin, Texas daily, the American-Statesman. He had just blogged about the money that would rain, under the stimulus plan, on the Texas State Energy Conservation Office.

To get a feel of how much the federal stimulus package could affect Texas, consider testimony today from Robert Wood, Director of Local Government Assistance at the state comptroller' office and Dub Taylor, manager of the State Energy Conservation Office at a House committee meeting on stimulus money.

In any given year, the State Energy Conservation Office gets between $1.8 million and $2.5 million, which pays for energy efficiency and renewable energy projects, "green job" training, and the retrofitting of buildings with efficient lighting, air conditioning and heating system.
This year, according to estimates by the two men, the office could get $233.8 million in federal money.

The members of the Select Committee on Federal Economic Stabilization appeared to want assurance the money would be spent wisely.

"Money corrupts, and this is a whole lot of money," said state Rep. Myra Crownover, R-Lake Dallas.

Reading this, I wondered how journalists would handle watching how Taylor's office will spend the funds. But it's a generalizable question: what kind of reportage should the public want and receive in Texas (or California or Wyoming, etc) to monitor expenditures? To be sure, I was impressed with our President's using his bully pulpit to say that he wanted the public and his own officials to make sure all this money was spent to get jobs (and that the school money went to schools and that the foreclosure relief money went to the right recipients)., the special website set up by the Administration to track the relief spending, is hardly enough of an instrument, though it's part of the answer. I relished the videos of Vice-President Biden turning reassuringly to the Budget Director, Peter Orszag, and asserting that he and other members of the cabinet were going to "follow the money" to see that it was going where it was meant to go.

But as hard as it is to "mess with Joe," it'll take a pretty extensive posse to guard against corruption, waste and fraud as all these hundreds of billions pass through the cruel capillaries of American bureaucracies.

The point is that there's an immense journalistic job at hand and a somewhat dispirited professional cadre out there to do it -- bloggers aside (and that's a big but possibly insufficient aside). It's a classic case of a valuable public benefit that the private sector is unlikely, unaided, to perform in a way that measures up to the need. Newspapers, bleeding dollars, are laying off writers, folding editions, and otherwise becoming victims of technology and their own misdirections, and are now unlikely to invest a lot to cover something that doesn't necessarily produce subscribers and advertising.

The on-the-ground spending of the stimulus money -- the politics at work, the number of jobs actually created, the inevitable floating of no-bid contracts -- can be a defining demonstration of journalism's signature role, one intensively demanded in this moment of potential democratic crisis. But the financing of that role must explicitly be addressed.

Here's a case where the obvious, though controversial, answer may actually be a correct one. The quickest, easiest way to increase capacity of newspapers would be for a sliver of stimulus money -- an accountability expense -- to be set aside to subsidize "accountability journalists."

Abroad, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the State Department (as well as the Gates Foundation and others) already invest in improving journalism-based transparency. And there is the excellent Transparency International, designed partly to protect (as well as possible) the
effectiveness of funds invested in development. We could learn from these efforts.

A concrete proposal: the government should create a $10 million fund for 100 "accountability fellowships" to be administered, say, by the Columbia Journalism Review, the Poynter Institute or some other neutral entity. Think of a journalistic equivalent of the National Endowment of the Arts, and its state counterparts, much more nimble and quick acting, to whom a newspaper, a television station, or an individual journalist or blogger could apply for funds--in relatively small amounts -- for support of important public interest reporting on the stimulus implementation.

Officials don't voluntarily create oversight mechanisms. But in this climate I could see some states or some municipalities taking the initiative and establishing coverage of stimulus expenditures, for local coverage. Both Republicans and Democrats might come together over the idea.

If this government support of a journalistic initiative is unlikely, there are other ways to start.

Foundations like the Knight Foundation should invest in training journalists now to have a Stimulus and Economic Recovery beat: how to trace federal dollars down through states, through banks, through school systems.

Other mechanisms might be created to share fraud-discovery savings with those who unearth skullduggery. Newspapers don't usually try to recover some portion of the value that they save taxpayers, but here's a bit of an outside idea, from the Taxpayers Against Fraud Education Fund: "Qui tam is a mechanism in the law that allows persons and entities with evidence of fraud against federal programs or contracts to sue the wrongdoer on behalf of the Government. The qui tam provisions include strong incentives both to report fraud against the Government and to participate in the resulting litigation."

Some complex set of incentives could provide financial awards to newspapers that, through their journalistic efforts, ensure more efficient use of federal dollars and prevent or uncover corruption or waste and abuse.

Obviously, there are dangers and traps in all of these measures: support that becomes partisan, inquiries that become witch-hunts, funding practices that legitimate bad practices instead of bringing them to the sunlight. But that doesn't mean that the need should go unmet.

Paul Starr makes the case for journalistic watchdog-ism eloquently in a New Republic requiem, "Goodbye to the Age of Newspapers (Hello to a New Era of Corruption)". And a lovely piece by David Simon in the Washington Post, ironically headlined "In Baltimore, No One Left to Press the Police", makes a similar point about journalism and coverage of crimes.

Not all problems can be fixed, but we could do a better job trying. What's needed, especially at this time of waning newspaper morale, is for a group of journalists or papers or supporters of journalism to say, here's a huge public need that is tailor-made for journalism, and here's how we're going to step up to this very technical, very demanding, very complicated plate.