The Roman satirist Juvenal is generally credited with first expressing the question of who is responsible for being sure the guardians, the watchmen assigned to look out for the rest of us will provide warning if something is amiss. The phrase in Latin, Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?, has been cited for centuries when issues of political corruption arise, a philosophical problem cited in Plato’s Republic.
In the wake of Edward Snowdon’s revelations about the extent of illegal surveillance conducted at home and abroad by the National Security Agency, this question has begun surfacing again among pundits and political observers, e.g. this editorial in the Tampa Bay Times last July. News articles appear daily which implicitly raise this question, like this and this from today’s New York Times. Or this from CBS News.
A long running NPR program, On The Media, examines such issues on a weekly basis, as does its media correspondent, David Folkenflick. For several years in the early 1980s, the PBS weekly series Inside Story with Hodding Carter as chief correspondent looked at contested news stories, in collaboration with the National News Council until that media watchdog organization folded in 1984 for lack of attention and support.
Efforts like these to help citizens better understand how the media operate, under what standards, how they are paid for, and the extent to which they are willing to publicly discuss such issues are critical to a well functioning “fourth estate” assigned the task of holding elected officials accountable in a democracy. More than ever, investigative journalism and programs addressing issues of media accountability require much greater awareness and support for citizens to elect responsible leaders via the ballot box. The Media Stewards Project firmly believes public service media are better suited to perform this important task.