It’s been a good month for Brooke Williams, who’s listed as a journalism fellow with the investigative journalism project at Harvard University’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics. In that capacity, Williams, whose expertise lies in data journalism, can pitch her best ideas to the country’s premier journalism mills.
That’s how she ended up sharing a by-line on a much-discussed Sept. 6 New York Times investigation into the practice of certain foreign governments to seek influence in Washington by sliding funds to U.S. think tanks. It showed how research organizations like the Brookings Institution, the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Atlantic Council get such funding and also produce deliverables that “typically align with the foreign governments’ agendas.” Impact has ensued, with Rep. Jackie Speier proposing a bill that would require think tankers testifying on Capitol Hill to come clean with their funding sources.
To New York Times subscribers unfamiliar with the Edmond J. Safra Center’s personnel, Brooke Williams appeared just like her co-byliners, Nicholas Confessore and Eric Lipton — as a New York Times staffer, that is. The story carried no tagline indicating that she was a Safra fellow.
Philip Corbett, New York Times associate managing editor for standards, told the Erik Wemple Blog, “Brooke is an experienced, award-winning freelance investigative journalist, who got a byline just as any other freelancer might in this situation. I don’t think her temporary or part-time academic affiliation seems to warrant any special disclosure in this context.”
The Boston Globe last year didn’t quite view Williams as “any other freelancer.” According to sources, Williams was deep into the reporting of a big investigative piece for the Globe, and the paper pulled out of the arrangement. Brian McGrory, the Globe’s top editor, confirms the tip: “We had partnered with Brooke a while ago on a story — yet to be published — about a specific think tank. Over the course of the reporting, we saw the potential for a conflict of interest, or at least the potential for the perception of a conflict. This did not directly involve Brooke, but the Safra Center, where she serves as a fellow. We think very highly of Brooke, and regard her reporting abilities and values as impeccable, but felt it better, on this story, to part ways.”
On May 1 of last year, the Safra Center became something more than just a freestanding center of contemplation. Lawrence Lessig, the Safra Center’s director, launched an organization named Mayday Citizens’ SuperPac. According to one account, the idea behind Mayday was to get behind “candidates who want to reform campaign finance.” A laudable goal, perhaps, but also one that puts Lessig, who is also a Harvard University law professor and an influential thinker on technology, in the national political maw.
Even though Mayday is a creature of Lessig’s and not tied to the Safra Center, the political agenda of the center’s director created a perception problem for Williams and other Safra fellows. It’s here that Ron Suskind enters the picture. Author of several books, including the Obama White House-upending “Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington, and the Education of a President,” Suskind started as the senior fellow at the Safra Center in the fall of 2012.
As Suskind tells it, this year he began having discussions with Harvard Law School Dean Martha Minow about focusing academic resources to the study of what the author calls the “public narrative.” Having written volumes on the U.S. financial meltdown (“Confidence Men”), the war against terrorism (“One Percent Doctrine”) and education/opportunity (“Hope in the Unseen), Suskind had become fascinated with how “narratives” are forged. “The people at Harvard recognized that I was essentially shaping through the reportage public narratives,” says Suskind.
Voila! Suskind is now supervising the Safra Center fellows under the aegis of something called the Project on Public Narrative. In due course, this organization will grow into something bigger under the slightly different title, The Center for Public Narrative, which will be affiliated with Harvard Law School (as is the Safra Center). Though the title is a bit highfalutin for the plain language-adoring Erik Wemple Blog, the implications for people like Williams relate to ethical insulation: Under Suskind’s “narrative” tutelage, Williams no longer reports up to the super PAC-piloting Lessig; the Project on Public Narrative, says Suskind, is structurally “alongside” the Safra Center, meaning that Lessig doesn’t make hire/fire decisions or spending decisions.
The idea is to avoid the perceptions that flow from Lessig’s work with Safra and with Mayday. “For the first day or two when and after the story runs,” says Suskind, referring to the projects of his fellows, “it’s important for Brooke and others that they have a solid and airtight structure when and if the institutions [criticized in their stories] start to play the games they play.”
Williams’ title is now journalism fellow with the Project on Public Narrative.