from Politics, Power, and Preventive Action and Center for Preventive Action

Wonk Writing Today

March 14, 2012

The twitter page of France's Christine Lagarde on a computer screen in Paris (Courtesy Reuters/Mal Langsdon).
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In his excellent book published in 1999, Disarming Strangers: Nuclear Diplomacy with North Korea, Leon Sigal chronicles the Clinton administration’s confrontation with Pyongyang over its nuclear program. Rather than simply providing the play-by-play of the diplomatic negotiations that led to the 1994 Agreed Framework, Sigal explains how the policymaking process actually works, with particular emphasis on how mainstream media reporting and opinion writing influenced and constrained the United States’ ability to choose cooperation over coercion.

In particular, Sigal described the outsized impact that a handful of columnists: “[Charles] Krauthammer…had some effect on policy in 1993, says one official, prompting the administration to shirk from offering inducements to North Korea. ‘Early on, when people were still skittish, he caused major contortions.’”

On op-eds, he noted that only a few foreign policy pieces were published per week by a handful of outlets, predominantly by “authoritative” sources or those with name recognition. Sigal also recognized a familiar editorial pattern, namely that the “need for timely pieces leads them to round up the usual suspects, soliciting pieces from a small stable of commentators they can rely on to turn well-written drafts on demand, quickly.”

Since 1999, the world of policy analysis has dramatically changed. When I worked as a research assistant, wonks were forced to follow a specific process for submitting a 700-word op-ed: send to a single print outlet, wait (or hope) for a response that (usually, in my case) rejected the piece, and then resubmit with a fresh “hook” to another outlet. And repeat. Even more shockingly—particularly to those under thirty years old—wonks used to fax op-eds to editors and follow up with a phone call. Moreover, if you disagreed with a published op-ed, you could only submit a letter to the editor via snail mail.

Today, the volume of information, range of formats, diversity of authors, and breadth of topics have mushroomed. In a matter of hours, anyone can publish something on the Internet, which is then circulated around the world within seconds or minutes. Social media adds another dimension to the wonk sphere, as you can read instant reactions on breaking events from leading policymakers or analysts on Twitter in 140 characters or less.

On the whole, the explosion of foreign policy-related analysis, both for producers and consumers, is a great thing for several reasons.

First, because the amount of foreign news coverage as a whole has decreased, readers are hungry for new sources of information. The number of foreign correspondents for major media outlets fell from 282 in 2000 to 234 in 2010. (Meanwhile, the number of foreign correspondents reporting from Washington, DC, more than doubled between 1994 and 2008.) Blogs have tried to fill this information gap; roughly half of all bloggers live outside of the United States.

Second, a range of platforms have allowed for a greater diversity of voices to be heard. On the whole, authors of Internet content tend to be young and gender balanced.  For example, the largest age cohort of bloggers is 25-34; meanwhile, the average age of a traditional print journalist is 41. According to a June 2010 study, women and men are equally represented among bloggers. (Also, women make up the majority of Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr users.) Compare the data to that of traditional media outlets: women make up only 37 percent of full-time daily newspaper employees, less than 25 percent of op-ed writers, and 16 percent of pundits on Sunday morning talk shows.

Third, an increasing amount of long form journalism or academic articles are behind pay walls. Bloggers or tweeters can highlight the main findings of a journal article for a broader audience, who can then decide whether to pay for the article. In an earlier age, the average reader would probably not have known the article existed.

Fourth, I find it remarkable that heavyweight international relations scholars such as Steve Walt, Anne-Marie Slaughter, and Dan Drezner routinely weigh in on topical debates through op-eds, blog posts, and tweets. As a person who churned through undergraduate and graduate school before everything migrated to the web, it is the equivalent of playing catch with Derek Jeter several times a week. If the Internet was as ubiquitous during the post-Cold War era as it is today, it is conceivable that Kenneth Waltz, Steve Van Evera, and John Mearsheimer would be blogging, rather than publish a series of articles in quarterly journals. Waltz, for example, never published an op-ed (although he did endorse the New York Times full-page ad that accurately predicted an invasion of Iraq would not fare well).

When I’ve discussed this topic with policy or academic colleagues, I hear many complaints about the expansion of work-related content. These arguments can be summarized into three points: there’s too much out there now, it’s not very good, and so what?

I think that the real problem in wonk writing today is less to do with “so what?” and more with the sheer volume that one is required to digest on a daily basis. There is clearly more than enough to meet market demands, and even more is written without a clear audience in mind. Readers are constantly engaged in what the military intelligence community refers to as TPED: tasking is simply deciding what to read; processing refers to how you assess whether what you read can be useful; and exploitation of the content such as by underlining a key passage or administration official quote. If you tweet something that you read, that would be dissemination.

In his landmark essay “Why I Write,” George Orwell presented his four motives for writing: sheer egoism, aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse, and political purpose. Orwell described writing as the “desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after.” Admittedly, all wonks sometimes write for the less noble of these motives. But the immediacy, growth, and diversity of voices and forums mean that just about everyone has an unparalleled opportunity to push the world and shape the foreign policy debate. Now what should I read next?

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