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?