Q & A: Spencer Ackerman

Part one of a two-part interview with the national security reporter

The rise of Web-based journalism has brought forth an explosion of bright, young, often left-leaning reporters and bloggers. But at a time when America is engaged in two wars and faces daunting decisions regarding its role in the world, much of the best work produced by this new generation is focused on domestic policy and politics.

The trend would be more pronounced were it not for Spencer Ackerman, who’s carved out a space for himself as one of the leading national security reporters among the younger set. Ackerman, who has worked for The New Republic, Talking Points Memo, and The American Prospect, now writes for The Washington Independent (aka “The Windy”), a non-profit “fleet-footed webpaper of politics and policy” sponsored by the Center for Independent Media. He also writes his Attackerman blog at FireDogLake.com.

Ackerman took some time Friday to discuss the relationship between counterterrorism and counterinsurgency, the course of U.S. policy in Afghanistan, and the benefits and drawbacks of Internet reporting with CJR assistant editor Greg Marx. The second part of this interview is here. This is an edited transcript.

Greg Marx: Why national security reporting? How’d you get into this beat?

Spencer Ackerman: I graduated from college in 2002, and I grew up in NYC. 9/11 was, of course, a seminal moment. And knowing that I wanted to be a journalist, I wanted to cover what was the most important story as I could understand it—which was the changes that the country was undergoing in the name of national security, how national security would take a kind of domestic focus that it hadn’t previously enjoyed, and make that understandable to a wide audience, particularly an audience on the left.

It also just was a matter of opportunity—I went to work at The New Republic, and there were a lot of really amazing reporters and writers who focused on the economy, who focused on domestic politics, and the field was kind of crowded there, whereas this was something I was interested in, and there seemed to be an opening for developing a beat that didn’t really exist at the magazine.

GM: Was there particularly an opening because you were looking to write for a left-leaning audience?

SA: I think there’s something to that. There weren’t that many people that I saw who were writing about national security from a liberal perspective, as opposed to writing about foreign policy from a liberal perspective—there’s a lot of people who did that at the time and were excellent at it. What I didn’t see enough of, and the blogosphere would eventually fill this gap, were people who were writing and reporting on discreet military developments and intelligence developments and how they played a greater role in foreign policy thinking, not just from the Bush administration, but from its opposition, and from people who were simply trying to understand what America’s new policy would be.

GM: Why the Windy now? What does this particular publication afford you the opportunity to do?

SA: Just absolute freedom in how I can cover national security. The Windy is trying to take a new approach to storytelling and maximize the modularity that the Internet can provide for a reporter in terms of developing a narrative. Throughout my coverage, you’ll see me take stories and develop them both in discreet blog posts with information I’ve acquired, or information others have acquired, with some added context and analysis and explanatory capability, and also build out toward larger pieces of anywhere between 800 and maybe 2,000 words. And [then I’ll] sort of go back to the smaller blog post to keep advancing that story.

So, unlike a newspaper piece which is a kind of finished product when presented and doesn’t take another form until it’s followed up maybe a day or a couple days later, I can, as the story changes and as new developments happen, just constantly update, and I can keep adjusting the story line as the circumstances merit, and add to it either in continuous blog posts or in broader pieces that build out from that. So as the story advances, we get to play with it and transform our coverage in reaction to it, rather than have the strictures of our format dictate the way that we cover things, and invariably that creates problems in representation.

And there are of course imperfections with this model, and it’s still new and we’re still figuring out how to maximize it. But I worked at Talking Points Memo before I came here, and I saw just how much value added the Internet could provide in terms of a story being developed.

GM: What are some of the imperfections with the model?

SA: I think there’s a bit of a sense that because the story can be constantly updated, that any particular piece of it is a bit of a work in progress, and I need to think more thoroughly about how to avoid that perception. We don’t want to be updating and changing each particular blog post. We want to let the work have its own end point and have a reader expect that the next post will add to it, rather than each post should be expected to change when circumstances merit. At a certain point, you’ve got to cut off any story. But the Internet still allows you the ability to build rather quickly and adjust your coverage as necessary.

One of the things that I wonder about for online reporting is the degree to which the correction is your friend. It used to be that a correction was a kind of black mark. And there’s no excuse for factual inaccuracy, but what the Internet has done is allow you to say in a more transparent and comfortable fashion, ‘There’s some more information here’ or ‘There’s some more context I should have added’ or ‘There’s something I missed that I shouldn’t have,’ and just allows you to update that piece so that it works, in a both transparent and journalistically sound fashion. The correction, I think, is becoming the update, and that is a net gain for everyone.

GM: Are there any particular stories that you’ve worked on that illuminate either the strengths or imperfections of this model?

SA: Last year, I wrote a series that I’m pretty proud of called “The Rise of the Counterinsurgents,” about this new generation of theorist-practitioners around counterinsurgency who had come out of Iraq and Afghanistan and were in think tanks in Washington and certain places in the Defense Department and the State Department and were thinking through what this current era of warfare meant both tactically and strategically. And I wrote ten of those—it was a series that I would also develop on the blog, so I guess I wrote maybe thirty installments of it over the course of eight months. And there was one particular installment whereby I profiled a really prominent counterinsurgent named David Kilcullen, who’s since written a really excellent book called The Accidental Guerrilla, which is one of the seminal texts of this new generation of counterinsurgents.

And I met up with Kilcullen, we were talking around a bar, and he used some kind of hot language to describe the Iraq war. I thought that was just good stuff to quote—the interview was on the record, and so forth. And so I quoted that and I put it in the piece. It was literally just one word in this piece, but it caused him some agitation, and he wrote a post on Small Wars Journal clarifying his views on Iraq, and I read it and thought, ‘That’s a really fair point,’ and I wrote a post explaining not just why I used the word that I used in the quotation, but that in retrospect I was wrong and I shouldn’t have done that, basically because it detracted from the broader story that I was telling and that Kilcullen was really working on.

And it got me thinking about the difference between a hot quote and explanatory capability, and perhaps if I wasn’t so focused on getting this piece to kind of pop as much as I could, I would have not made that judgment error. And what I liked about that was of course not just the embarrassment that that caused me and the difficulties it caused Dave, but that a reader could see the thought process that went into that decision, and could see it change. There’s a lot of times that I think reporters are afraid to say straight up that they made mistakes, that there were judgment calls that they shouldn’t have made, and more importantly don’t explain to their readers what the circumstances were that led to that, and that’s a kind of outmoded way of thinking. There’s an appetite for people who are our readers who’ve been frustrated at the opacity of journalism for years to have a more personal connection with authors.

GM: What are your strategies for dealing with the challenges of not having a legacy brand behind you?

SA: I try to see what’s behind a certain story, or see if I can really get into its guts. That’s something that often a marquee publication won’t always allow a reporter on what can often be a niche beat to really get into. Here, I’ve written stories about the continuation about the provincial reconstruction team program in Iraq. Some publications, and I’ve worked for some, don’t always allow you—for good reasons of considering what their more general audience expects—to do something like a really deep in the weeds piece or post about a particular program.

And at the Independent, we recognize we’re not a newspaper and we’re not a news network, and we’re not an aggregator—we’re not going to be all things to all people. We’re not going to be a news organization that provides you with everything you need to know during the day. What we are going to be is a news organization that provides you with extremely deep, detailed, innovative coverage on select beats, that we think an audience wants to know more about, and particularly wants to know more about in an online fashion. And I think there’s something that was missing before we came along, in terms of really, really deep coverage on these particular topics that have proven to have a resonance and a readership, in particular online.

GM: So if you’re filling a need that hadn’t been filled before, who do you see as your primary competition, either other publications or other reporters on your beat? Who do you measure yourself against?

SA: Who do I shake my fist and say, ‘Oh man, I wish I had that?’ Julian Barnes at the LA Times is doing fantastic work, in terms of covering the military, in terms of covering the Gates Pentagon, in terms of covering its changes. I just gain a tremendous amount every time I read his stuff. He went to Afghanistan recently with Gates, interviewed McChrystal. There are some people who will just take the newsmaker interview and sort of leave it there; he injected a tremendous amount of skepticism, a tremendous amount of context, and his stuff’s great. Yochi Dreazen at the Wall Street Journal does the same thing.

I don’t think you can call yourself a national security reporter unless you’re obsessively refreshing Small Wars Journal. What I love about Small Wars Journal is that I basically get what sources of mine are thinking in real time—I get great ideas for stories. Similarly, you’ve got to read Danger Room at Wired. One of the greatest things Noah Shachtman has done is, for an extremely tech-interested audience, write again and again and again about the limits of technology and warfare and national security. And he does things like run Awesomely Bad Military Patches, which is a wonderful feature. He doesn’t lose his sense of joie de vivre when covering a subject that’s basically about killing people, as much as we can sometimes get around that. DoDBuzz, the guys who contribute to that on military.com. For intelligence, Jeff Stein at CQ, Mark Mazetti at the Times, Dana Priest and Walter Pincus at The Washington Post, anything that Barton Gellman writes. And at ProPublica, anything that Dafna Linzner writes. I apologize to everyone I’ve missed, because I read your stuff voraciously.

For the second part of this interview, click here.

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.