Haaretz, the Watchdog: But Who Should Feed Him?

Out of all the animals it was possible to pick, why was a watchdog chosen to stop the country from going to the dogs?

About a quarter of a century ago, we had a dog. She was a big, black bitch. We named her Blanche, and in hindsight I sometimes think we created cognitive dissonance in her mind, causing her to be a bit confused. She looked pretty menacing, and sounded likewise. Her bark was sharp, deep and loud, and she would bark at anything within her field of vision. But we knew she adhered strictly to the 13th-century French proverb that "a barking dog never bites."

Her short-term memory was extremely short. Whenever we had guests, she would bark at them until I managed - holding her by the collar - to make them, and her, calm down. But when one of our guests would as much as get up, she would start barking madly at him, or her, all over again.

I've been thinking of Blanche a lot recently, especially when I hear about Channel 1 being overhauled so that its programs' hosts sound politically "balanced"; when I read that Channel 10 under constant threat of folding due to lack of funds; and when I hear about Maariv being sold without its staff, and about this paper, Haaretz, firing dozens of employees to make ends meet.

What has all this got to do with a dog? Well, "It has been said about the press that, among other things, it is a watchdog of democracy" - according to the opening sentence in a talk by Haaretz publisher Amos Schocken, at a Israel Communication Association conference at Bar-Ilan University on April 13, 2003. He qualified that statement immediately, by adding "Yet if we look more closely at that idea, we find that it is not self-evident" (Haaretz, April 17, 2003 ).

I tried to find out who first declared that the press had "gone to the dogs," but, to the best of my knowledge, that metaphor is not attributed to anyone. But this is a worthy subject for a research paper by an aspiring would-be journalist at a media studies faculty. The saying in question is not even considered as a proverb, like "Let sleeping dogs lie" (a 14th-century French adage ); or "You can't teach old [print] dogs new [Internet] tricks" (a paraphrase of a 16th-century English saying ); or "Though the dog may bark the caravan moves on" (J.L. Kipling, "Beast & Man in India," 1891 ).

We do know who originally called the press "the Fourth Estate," however: Thomas Carlyle wrote in 1841 that "[Edmund] Burke said there were Three Estates in Parliament; but, in the Reporters' Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important far than they all." In modern meaning, the three other "Estates," or branches, are the legislative, the judicial and the executive, and the watchdog is - apparently - supposed to ensure that the checks and balances between them function properly.

But why a dog, of all animals? It couldn't be a duck, of course, for no one knows how democracy quacks. But why not a tiger? When Chairman Mao spoke in 1956 about "a paper tiger" - the Chinese equivalent of something whose "bark is worse than its bite" - he was not referring to the press, but to American imperialism. And why a watchdog, of all dogs, and not a hunting dog that follows a trail? Or a guide dog, which leads those who can't see their way? And what are the qualities demanded of a properly functioning and efficient watchdog?

Supposedly, it has to be able to bark - and loudly enough to alert all to a clear and present danger that merits surveillance. And it stands to reason that another quality would be the ability to attack whomever poses a threat. But dogs with such characteristics are most likely not impartial and unbiased. Apparently there is someone who trains them to discriminate between friend and foe. He who feeds the dog has control over it - unless, of course, the dog decides to bite the hand that feeds it.

It should be clear from this discussion that those who were worried enough about the fates and fortunes of both democracy and the press to link them together in a figure of speech did not think through the possible ramifications of using a watchdog as a metaphor for the relations between them. They had in mind, I assume, the Three Estates, and the image of surfing the waves of events with the dog running alongside the stream, and barking to warn them of possible dangers. Three (men? ) in a boat, to say nothing of a dog. Which brings to mind, of course, Montmorency the dog that - much against his will - joins George, Harris and Jerome (K. Jerome ) for a boating excursion on the Thames.

"There is a sort of Oh-what-a-wicked-world-this-is-and-how-I-wish-I-could-do-something-to-make-it-better-and-nobler expression about Montmorency that has been known to bring the tears into the eyes of pious old ladies and gentlemen ... Montmorency's ambition in life is to get in the way and be sworn at. If he can squirm in anywhere where he particularly is not wanted, and be a perfect nuisance, and make people mad, and have things thrown at his head, then he feels his day has not been wasted. To get somebody to stumble over him, and curse him steadily for an hour, is his highest aim and object; and, when he has succeeded in accomplishing this, his conceit becomes quite unbearable."

That reads not very different from a description of a journalist pursuing his daily trade, er, doggedly.

In his 2003 speech, Schocken added: "Without having researched the subject, I am ready to risk the generalization that in democracies, the press is organized as a commercial enterprise, for profit. There is one criterion for examining such an enterprise: profitability and growth over time. Defending democracy is not part of the criterion ... We do not find business people who include the defense of democracy in their commercial goals." I assume that applies to Maariv as much as it applies to Haaretz.

"In Israel," Schocken continued, "there is an ongoing and developing decline in the standing of democracy. If this is in fact the case, if the public is losing interest in democracy, with some people even viewing it as an obstacle, then it is doubtful that the press will want or be able to fulfill its mission as the watchdog of something that is not especially valued."

Those words were written nine years ago, long before anyone had envisaged a university in Ariel (to which an Israeli-Arab student is not allowed to ride a bus ). And before asylum seekers were refused entry and turned forcibly back at the border, while others are hunted in the city streets - to cite just a couple of recent news stories.

In his speech, Schocken quoted many examples of what he saw at that time as an erosion of democratic values, and concluded: "Will the watchdog of democracy lose its bite? In this state of affairs, it looks as though it will."

I read those words then as the sentiments of a businessman who runs a company for profit. He seems to be saying - although not in so many words: "My business is supposed to be a watchdog of democracy. I have to feed that watchdog. I cannot do it alone. It watches over something that should matter to you. Show me that you care enough to be willing to participate in the cost of its upkeep."

Eleven years ago, our dog Blanche got sick. She could hardly walk. The vet ran a checkup and said her days were numbered. Our eldest son took her for a last, slow walk on the beach, and then we sat with her till she passed away. I've thought a lot about her recently.

In many languages - German, Swedish, Russian, Polish and even Hebrew, albeit not English - they say: "Here lies a buried dog" - a rough equivalent of "Ay, there's the rub."