Watchdog’s new executive editor, John Bicknell, has been a journalist for more than 30 years. He came to Washington, D.C. in 1999 as an editor at Congressional Quarterly, where he led the production team for CQ Today and was a team editor for the publication. When CQ merged with Roll Call, he continued as national security editor, co-editor of the 2012 edition of “Politics in America” and eventually became editor of the opinion pages.
Bicknell’s hiring marks the latest step in the Franklin Center’s plan to expand beyond its 16 state bureaus, while growing staff in key states. As executive editor of Watchdog, he will work closely with our extensive network of investigative journalists and develop relationships with other media outlets.
Bicknell recently took a break from working with reporters to answer a few questions about his path to journalism and the state of today’s media:
Franklin Center: How did you first become interested in journalism, and what has kept you working in the industry for 30 years?
John Bicknell: I grew up in a family very interested in politics and the news. And I always knew I wanted to be some kind of writer. So, while I didn’t major in journalism in college, it was always in the back of my mind that I might go into journalism. I’ve survived for 30-plus years by always looking to do something new, something different every few years.
FC: In addition to journalism, you’ve written a book about the presidential campaign of 1844 and have another one in the works. Clearly you’re a history buff, so how does that inform your approach to journalism and today’s rapid-fire news cycle?
JB: Studying history helps provide a long-term view of issues. When somebody says “this is the dirtiest campaign ever run,” or “this is the most important election of our time,” knowing something about history can provide perspective, as well as a way to debunk such claims. My new book, for example, is about John C. Fremont’s 1856 presidential campaign, the first Republican campaign and the first in American history to involve women and blacks in a substantial way. It was contested in perhaps the most violent peacetime atmosphere of any U.S. election, and though Fremont lost, he set the template that Abraham Lincoln followed four years later in winning.
FC: What is one issue or story you wish more Americans were paying attention to?
JB: It’s hard to narrow it down to one, and I have a different answer every other day. I think people are generally paying attention to issues of national security, probably immigration, maybe even the debt. So today let’s say it’s the decline of the notion about what it means to be an American, the idea of citizenship with responsibility. That might have something to do with studying history closely and seeing how much progress we’ve made in 200 years. Too often, I think, people ignore progress because they benefit from the culture of complaint.
FC: What is the biggest obstacle or challenge facing journalists today?
JB: The biggest challenge facing journalists today is a self-inflicted problem: too many activists with bylines posing as neutral observers, and they’ve been found out. Once you’ve destroyed your own credibility, it’s very difficult to get it back, and we see that in many, if not most, legacy newsrooms.
FC: What opportunities are you most excited about as you join Watchdog’s network of investigative journalists?
JB: As I said, our opportunity is to fill the wide, wide space left empty by legacy journalists who believe their job is to defend the status quo at the expense of reporting facts and explaining why things happened the way they happened.