After 20 years at The Washington Post, and a few more at The New Yorker, Steve Coll joined the world of think tanks by becoming the president of the New America Foundation. Still a contributor to The New Yorker, Coll takes on questions about the curious relationship between think tanks and journalism including his own transition, why journalists are good for public policy and how the two might form a conflict of interest.
1) Can you describe your own transition from journalism life to think tank life? What did you take into consideration when determining whether or not you belonged in a think tank?
It was not something I had considered, to be honest. After twenty years at the Post, I was happily at The New Yorker, working some for the magazine and some on books when New America came calling. As I considered the possibility, I reflected on my two years of semi-self-employment and worried that I might be getting dumber. I thought about all the ways being around other people’s talent and work in a newsroom had been part of my own way of working. New America has always been influenced by journalism--Fareed Zakaria and Jim Fallows were on the board, and Jim was the chairman when I was appointed. That gave me some comfort. The idea of sliding into an environment that might combine journalism and scholarship also appealed. But it was a bit of a leap of faith. It’s worked out wonderfully--the place has many of the benefits of a newsroom, in terms of all the smart and eclectic people working on interesting projects, but the pace is more manageable and the skill sets are just different enough so that I don’t feel as if I’ve been repeating myself professionally.
2) Although most think tanks have a journalist or two on staff or as a fellow, the New America Foundation has one of the highest (if not the highest) percentages of journalists among think tank staffs. This doesn’t seem to be done by coincidence. Why has this been a priority for New America?
Even before I came, New America was attracted to the independence and impact that journalists prize. One of the strategies then and now has been to seek impact by working in partnership with media organizations. We’d rather have one of our fellows place an important piece in the Post, the New Yorker or the Atlantic or to speak at length on one of NPR’s shows than to just publish our own research paper and leave it in the lobby for visitors to take. We do publish our own scholarship to academic standards, with peer review and footnoting and the rest, and I’m proud of that work, but in this media age, I think you have to work through lots of channels at once. Journalists know how to synthesize complex issues or research and communicate to wide and influential audiences. Some academics do too, and we like to have a mix here.
3) The New America Foundation defines itself as a public policy institute. What tools do journalists have that are useful for good public policy analysis? Most journalists aren’t trained in the field, so how can they evaluate elements such as the difficulties of policy implementation or policy outcomes?
Again, I think the the ethos of independent thinking and free inquiry that is central in journalism is a big help. We value our status as a place outside of ideological lanes and we don’t want to be a government in exile. As I tell my colleagues, “We should be proud of the fact that we have a lot of people here who are not SUITABLE for government service!” That provides a terrific starting point for critical analysis of public policy issues, options, performance, and new approaches. Also, good journalists learn how to educate themselves efficiently about new subjects--it’s part of the job. That reporting process can allow them to evade hoary assumptions and conventional thinking that may have accumulated within a certain bureaucracy or specialty over the years. Journalists can ask if the Emperor is really wearing any clothes, as it were.
4) Think tanks have traditionally provided experts to journalists. Journalists have scrutinized the work think tanks do. If journalists are on the payroll, does it not call into question their ability to remain impartial--especially since most think tanks have an ideological disposition? In other words, do journalists run the risk of being the mouthpiece of a think tank?
Interesting--I hadn’t thought about that before, but it’s a good question. Certainly it’s fair to watch out for conflicts of interest of that type as they might evolve in specific cases. Mainly, I think about it from the other end of the telescope: We’re in an era when there are so many orphaned journalists, young people entering the profession looking for a platform to do serious work, older people cast out of newsrooms before they were done. Institutions like ours just need to fill up some of that gap - it makes us stronger as an institution, but it’s also good for journalism and the public.
5) What are some of the areas of concern when it comes to conflict of interest between think tanks and journalists that you mentioned above? What are the potential “major offenses?”
One thing I’m very conscious of at New America is protecting the integrity and freedom of inquiry and opinion within the institution from any outside influence--especially funders. I watched Len Downie do that superbly at the Post and played a part as his deputy for a time, so I have a sense of how to go about it, how to police and manage expectations. Here’s it’s more like a university than a commercial media company but the issues are essentially the same in newsrooms, universities and think tanks - it is up to leadership to protect editorial independence, or faculty freedom, however you want to describe it. For journalists to collaborate with think tanks or university programs they have to share fundamental values and procedures in this area, even though some of the nuances of the institutional categories differ. A “major offense” would be if a funder used a cut-out institution like a think tank to manipulate or undermine academic research or journalism.
Of course, there are subtle, self-conscious ways in which journalists and scholars constrain themselves if work they are doing independently is likely to offend a funder. My experience of that is it happens rarely and at the margins. At the Post, I don’t recall us launching major investigative series about our big local advertisers, for example. But even that self-constraint can be kept to a minimum and it should be clear to everyone in the newsroom or the think tank that, in principle and in practice, that you are willing, in compelling circumstances, to lose any funder at any time to tell the truth or serve the public interest.