The relationship between reporters and think tanks used to be, well, pretty simple. You called up defense expert X for a quote on, say, cost overruns on a stealth fighter jet, and if you were lucky, you’d get something lively. (Free tip to aspiring defense wonks: Try more pop-culture references.) You could attend one of their conferences, listen to one of their panels and perhaps pick up half a sandwich.
Now it’s nearly 2010: Print is dying, newsrooms are shrinking and the media industry is generally in the toilet. The relationship between reporters and think-tanks, at least in the national-security arena, is starting to shift. Think tanks are starting to become full-time patrons of the news business, and they are bankrolling book projects, blogs and even war reporting.
The Center for a New American Security, for instance, has funded a string of first-rate defense reporters through its Writers in Residence Program. The latest launch: The Fourth Star, by Washington Post reporter Greg Jaffe and former New York Times reporter David Cloud. CNAS also signed up New York Times reporters Thom Shanker and Eric Schmitt to work on a joint book project, titled Counterstrike. Longtime Post reporter Tom Ricks, who published The Gamble this year, is a senior fellow at CNAS. (Ricks worked on Fiasco, his previous bestseller, while in residence at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.)
CNAS isn’t the only refuge for national-security reporters these days. New York Times military correspondent Michael Gordon, co-author of Cobra II, is listed as a senior fellow at the Institute for the Study of War. James Mann, author of The Rise of the Vulcans and a bunch of other noteworthy books, was senior writer-in-residence the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Think tanks have hired some excellent in-house military affairs bloggers. And for-profit publications are pairing up with the non-profits on projects like Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, billed as a partnership with the New America Foundation.
It makes economic sense. Tightfisted newspaper publishers aren’t too generous with book leave these days; management keeps cutting bureaus and scaling back travel budgets; and who wouldn’t jump at a writer-in-residence gig, especially when the bean-counters are pressuring reporters to take buyouts?
But what does this mean for journalism? When think tanks are often a revolving door for government service, what happens when reporters who become office-mates of past or future political appointees? How do you keep national security reporting from becoming an echo chamber of the Beltway policy elite? It’s hard enough giving objective analysis of some policy maven’s ideas, after you two have shared a few cocktails together. Now imagine how much tougher that becomes, when the policy maven is in the next cubicle over. Awkwaaaard!
In my earlier posts on the defense-intellectual complex, some bloggers seized on the topic to suggest that think tanks were somehow in the pocket of the defense industry. I disagreed: I think the industry’s support to think tanks is usually a hedge, like advertising and lobbying, not some insidious cash-for-opinions scheme. But I do worry about the susceptibility to groupthink. Defense trends come and go — anyone remember network-centric warfare? — and these policy shops are in the business of selling them. I’d hate to see skeptical, public-spirited reporters be accused of fronting for some policy agenda. (Disclosure: Back in the mid-’90s, long before my current incarnation as a journalist/blogger, I worked at the Hudson Institute as a book researcher for retired Lt. Gen. William Odom. I didn’t do any policy work.)
But I would also hate to see a situation where national-security reporting starts to mimic the tone or the style of think-tank policy papers. Dull and worthy may work for white papers, but it ain’t gonna save print. But then again, maybe what those papers needs is an injection of real writers’ mojo.
At the end of the day, someone has to pay for good, in-depth reporting, and think tanks are starting to look like a more reliable place to get funding. In an excellent New Yorker essay, Steve Coll, a former Washington Post reporter, lamented the death of the traditional model of investigative journalism that was sustained for so many decades by for-profit newspapers.
“There is just no substitute for the professional, civil-service-style, relentless independent thinking, reporting, and observation that developed in big newsrooms between the Second World War and whenever it was that the end began—about 2005 or so,” he wrote.
Coll, incidentally, is also president of the New America Foundation.
[PHOTO: U.S. Department of Defense]