Managing Editor, CFR.org
Vice President, Global Communications and Media Relations, Council on Foreign Relations
Executive Editor, Foreign Affairs
Adjunct Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations; Clinical Professor of National Security Studies, Marxe School of Public and International Affairs, Baruch College
Daniel Kurtz-Phelan, executive editor of Foreign Affairs; Robert McMahon, managing editor of CFR.org; and Lisa Shields, vice president of global communications and media relations at CFR, discuss the breadth of CFR and Foreign Affairs resources that can be used in newsrooms, and share their take on the most pressing global issues of the day with implications at the local level. Carla Anne Robbins, adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, moderates.
ROBBINS: Hi. So welcome to a continuation of our discussion on how to connect the global and the local with the perspective now of journalists and media people at the Council. And we also want to hear from you in this session and in our lunch discussions to follow on how CFR can work with you as you report and write. We have a pretty high bar after that last conversation, which was pretty fab, so we’ll try to live up to it.
You all have the bios for our panelists, but just a very quick reminder of who’s up here.
We have Lisa Shields, who’s my friend, who’s vice president of global communications and media relations here at CFR, and an expert in crisis and corporate communications. And she has an undergraduate degree in international relations and economics and is a grad of the Columbia J School before she went over to the dark side. (Laughter.)
SHIELDS: True. True that, true that.
ROBBINS: Bob McMahon is the managing editor of CFR.org. You remember that. You heard that a few times in the previous session. He oversees daily news content, as well as production of backgrounders, interviews, and long-form interactives that have won Emmys and Webbys and overseas press club awards. And he worked for the AP as an editor on the international desk, and as a writer and editor in New Jersey, which was also a foreign posting, and covered the U.N. for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
And Daniel Kurtz-Phelan is the executive editor of Foreign Affairs. And this is the first time we’ve met. And before returning to Foreign Affairs in October 2017, he was a member of the secretary of state’s policy planning staff. He’s written for The New York Times and The Washington Post and The New Yorker, and last year he published a book on George Marshall’s post-World War II mission to China.
And I’m Carla Robbins. I’m an adjunct fellow here. I also run a master’s program at the City University of New York. And before that, I had a three-decade career as a foreign correspondent and Washington reporter and editor. My last gigs were as chief diplomatic correspondent at The Wall Street Journal, and deputy editorial page editor at The New York Times.
SHIELDS: Of course, you came over to the dark side.
ROBBINS: And if the news fairy were to come down in the midst of in the Donald Trump area, I would go back to the news business in a second. God, I hope you guys are having fun. It is an extraordinary time.
ROBBINS: Can you start with a very quick overview of where we are and what we do?
SHIELDS: What we do? Yes.
Welcome, everyone. I’m delighted to see you all.
As Carla mentioned, I have my roots in journalism myself. I worked for ten years in news broadcast, television broadcast news at ABC News primetime live, et cetera. So I feel your pain when it comes to what is happening in the industry, and we’ve been watching it very carefully.
I’ve then had the privilege of being here for the last twenty years, building a very robust twenty-four-hour communication shop and amazing team members.
In terms of the Council, I think it’s important that—the Council is a funny organization. It’s a hybrid. There are three main pillars, I would say. There’s a membership operation, there’s publishing, and there’s a think tank. On the membership side, we have five thousand members across the country. About a third are in New York, a third in Washington, and a third are ROTC, I think, as Richard says—the rest of the country—many of whom probably fit that here.
There’s also a term member program, which is for members between the age of 30 and 36 when you apply. It’s our way of nurturing the next generation of foreign policy leaders. It’s an excellent program. It’s a five-year program. And once term members graduate, so to speak, you can reapply for life membership.
We also have a corporate member program, which is also terrific. It’s highly vetted, serious corporate members. There are about one hundred and fifty of them who participate, a lot of CEOs, companies like Google, MX, et cetera, Morgan Stanley—ones that you’ve all heard of. And the membership interacts with each other, and we hold about a thousand meetings a year in this organization, and about 50 percent of those for members, which is probably more like a hundred meetings a year on the record now, which is very different from when the organization was founded. I don’t know if you know this, but Jim Lindsay, who you saw in the last session, has a terrific Twitter feed, and every day he posts this day in history. Today he posted that today marks the anniversary of the beginning of the 1919 Peace Accords in Paris and Versailles. That’s also where the Council happens to have its roots, in something called the Inquiry, a group of scholars who were supporting Woodrow Wilson during that process, which, as you know, didn’t turn out so well for us. Regardless, those scholars decided they wanted to stay engaged and we wanted to stay engaged in the world, and the Council was founded in 1921 as a result of that.
And while our, I would say, membership and the audiences that we talk to have changed over time, the mission really has stayed essentially the same. I was actually looking up the original mission in our history, and it says they founded the Council on Foreign Relations in ’21 to afford a continuous conference on international questions affecting the United States by bringing together experts on statecraft, finance, industry, education, and sciences. So we are still mission consistent, I would say.
It’s very important to know, as journalists, that we are truly nonpartisan. There are a lot of organizations that say they’re nonpartisan but are not. We are indeed. That doesn’t mean that our scholars don’t have opinions, they don’t have very strong opinions, but it’s an organization we do not take positions on any matters of policy. And that’s very important, because people often get that wrong. They’ll say what does the Council think. Well, we don’t think anything. Our scholars think, and we promote the work of the scholars and we have a full range, obviously, of expertise and scholarship here.
Which brings me to the second part of the organization. It’s a think tank. We have about seventy-plus scholars. Maybe half of those are full-time. The other half might be adjunct, meaning they have a second affiliation of some kind. So they work part time for us and part time, say, at Georgetown or some other organization. And the scholars are a robust group of amazingly talented people that hail from all kinds of industries, government, business, journalism, et cetera, and they are actively blogging and tweeting and doing all kinds of things throughout the course of the day.
And then the third pillar, I would say, is publishing. And Foreign Affairs being our flagship publication, which was founded a year after the Council was founded, in 1922, also coming up on its 100th year. And we also publish a number of other things—you know, Council special reports, taskforces, which you’ve heard about in the last sessions. Scholars do quick takes. We publish daily content on ForeignAffairs.com, as well as the magazine six times a year. And I’ll let Dan talk about that. That’s essentially what we do.
We also have a very big education component that’s important, I would say is becoming a fourth pillar, in a way. We’ve created an education department here that is seeking to reach out to students and professors in international affairs, and I think that’s a really important part of the work that we’re doing going forward. And you’ll hear more about that in the coming couple of years. We’ll be launching a whole bunch of really interesting things, one of which is Model Diplomacy, that we’ve already launched. It’s a National Security Council simulation program, among other things. But I can talk a little bit more about the resources later on. I think we can move on to something else.
So, Bob and Dan, I was struck last night by what Fareed said about the Cold War and about how the fear of the Soviets were threatening American security and our way of life, and that made the global local for everyone. So why do you think that outside the obsessions of Washington, that the country hasn’t been seized by the news that the Russians are interfering in our elections and interfering in our Facebook feeds? I mean, how more local can you get than that? I mean, the Russians in the midst of pictures of our kids and our cats, and really trying to hijack our democracy and to sow really fundamental division between neighbors. You know, why do you think that story hasn’t taken the global local, and what can we do to make that story of Russia’s assault on American democracy, and really the democracies around the world, more relevant for Americans outside of the Beltway and for readers?
MCMAHON: Do you want me to start first? Do you want—Dan?
MCMAHON: You know, so for us it’s this ongoing, almost moving target—the Mueller probe, obviously. For a while there it was a lot of noise while we’re trying to just focus on the world as it was spinning and how do we cover it. But really, we’re trying to get more and more into—I think for us and for what I’m gleaning in terms of interest—we’re trying to get into the nuts and bolts of what’s going on, so getting down—I think for us it could be—and maybe it’s relevant for you as well—is just the nature of what hacking involves. So what does it mean that they hacked into the Democratic Party’s, you know, servers and unearthed a bunch of information that they saw as damaging for a candidate they didn’t like? So we spun up a backgrounder that is sort of a broad, sort of comprehensive look at this investigation, and really trying to deal with the merits of it, which is what is the extent of Russia trying to interfere with the U.S. election, and how far did they get. There’s still a whole bunch of unanswered questions and there’s daily reports. Obviously, everybody’s familiar with it, coming in flying fast and furious.
But for us to try to stay in our lane, we’re trying to, I think, deal with the issues that Carla’s raising, which is so in a post-Cold War environment, what is making Russia tick? I remember we’ve had a number of really good events here with a number of people trying to get at that question, and it’s not something you answer in a soundbite. Mick McFaul, former U.S. ambassador, was at a Council event coming soon after the launch of his recent book. You know, he was inside that issue front and center. The Obama administration’s ambassador to Russia, he was sort of an enemy of Putin by the time he had finished up, in some ways. And he has some explanations for it.
But if you look at the transcript of that meeting, one of the things we’ve done is we’re trying to dig into this issue. It’s hard to kind of settle in on a central case for what is motivating Russia. There’s lots of different reasons. But I think that’s one of the things we try to keep an eye on. The same when we had Joe Biden at one of our Council events in D.C., it was the same thing with him. And although, in typical sort of Biden prose, he put it in a broader brush, basically saying this is kind of a—I think I’ll paraphrase because I can’t remember specifically what he said. It was something like, you know, Russia today represents basically like a giant sort of kleptocracy that wants to maintain the status quo and saw the U.S. is a great threat to that. That is a real paraphrase. But he has been working on, I think, in his new think tank with the founders of a new think tank—I think they’re trying to get at this issue as well—is what is motivating Russia at the end of the day.
And so I think for us it’s continuing to look at that and continuing to look at where Russia and the U.S. are pushing up against each other. We’re about to get into a lot of coverage involving arms control. This is talking about the Cold War. Here’s an issue that nobody has really thought about for a generation, thankfully. And now it’s—the more you probe into it, it is really scary to think about the amount of weapons that are still out there, and what they could do, and what is happening in terms of the disintegration of the arms control regime. We might start seeing that accelerate next month at the INF Treaty sort of doing by the board, and then there’s a deadline for the New START Treaty to be revived. And so we’ve been tracking those types of issues through. We have a timeline that kind of dates to the Soviet era and the whole history of U.S.-Russia arms control. And we have backgrounders on INF and on certain aspects of nuclear weaponry. But I think you’re going to start to see that kind of coverage—absent the kind of Manichaean struggle that was in place during the Soviet era, where the two sides were standing for a certain ideology—it’s a different environment.
But I’ll stop there and let Dan pick up, because I know he’s got some ideas.
ROBBINS: So, Dan, I wanted you to pick up. But for our colleagues here, I was thinking in the last session, I came up with a dozen story ideas listening to them talk about if I were an assignment editor, and what the schools could be doing, and if you had a casino in your town, and the questions you would go and ask them: Are you really dealing with the community colleges? You know, what sort of job development programs do you have? I mean, how do you make a story like Russia relevant to local communities?
KURTZ-PHELAN: I mean, Carla, the question you post is a really fascinating one and I think, you know, a very challenging one for all of us who are in the kind of foreign policy world.
I would actually shift the frame a little bit. I’m not sure it’s so much a failure to connect global stories to local stories, but really reflects the way that all of us in the United States thought about the rest of the world for probably the last twenty-five years, since the end of the Cold War when a lot of the kind of core issues of geopolitics and geo-economics seemed to recede, I think, to the background for a lot of us. The kind of storyline that was most prevalent suggested that a lot of the concerns of international tensions, international rivalry would not drive global events in the way they had through the Cold War and through most of the Council’s history. I think in the last couple of years, all of us in both the foreign policy world and in the rest of the country have spent a lot of time reckoning with this new reality.
And I think everyone’s been a little slow to really connect some of these changes to what’s going on within the United States. With the Russia hacking story specifically, I think if you read the durations of the Obama administration as they tried to figure out what to do about it, they had had just a hard of time trying to reckon with and understand what was going on and understand what it meant as the average American out there, you know, wondering if his or her vote is going to be secure when they go and, you know, submit their ballot on voting day. So I think this is not so much a failure of people outside of the foreign policy world to understand what’s going on as a kind of national discussion about what this new era means.
You know, again on the hacking question specifically, it’s hard for me to think of something that has a more direct effect on any voting American, certainly—you know, anyone who takes part in an election who can imagine, you know, their vote being hacked into political propaganda coming to them through social media or other means. But again, I think that all seems like such a throwback to a different era that it’s been hard for all of us to really imagine that it’s driving reality now.
ROBBINS: So you had a piece in this month’s—it’s bimonthly. It’s always confusing to me. I mean, still, you know, my husband gets the hard copy of the New York Times, and he says did you see that story? And I said, oh, I read it three days ago. (Laughter.) You’re so retro. But whenever the most recent issue of Foreign Affairs—
KURTZ-PHELAN: Can I just say this. For us, it’s very challenging, in this era especially, to produce a magazine that’s going to be on news stand month from—we’re closing an issue today. It will be out in three weeks, which is on the hand extremely challenging because, as we all know, things change very, very fast. We find it actually a really helpful discipline because it forces us to try to step beyond the kind of day-to-day response that consumes Bob’s life and think about what this story means over the course of a year. So if you have a Foreign Affairs sitting on your table, six months from now you should still be able to pick it up and find more of the stories germane. It’s challenging, but we try.
ROBBINS: In your swag bag you have a copy of Foreign Affairs. So if you haven’t been paying attention to it—first of all, it’s not your mom’s Foreign Affairs. It’s got color. It’s a hell of a lot edgier. And I just wanted to tell you that when I told my parents I wanted to be a journalist, it was like I said to them I wanted to be a plumber. They knew no journalists. They said, oh, my God, like, do people go to college to do that. But when I had a piece in Foreign Affairs thirty-some-odd years ago, suddenly it was legitimate.
SHIELDS: You’d arrived, OK.
ROBBINS: It was legitimate, so I want to thank you for that.
But anyway, you did have a piece about the unhackable election, which I thought that was really intriguing. How do you translate what—and that’s by a former head of Homeland Security and a former Danish prime minister—really interesting odd couple that are doing an international initiative to do that—how do you translate something like that on a local level, an initiative like that, when you say something that’s so basic.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Yeah, I mean, I think there are two pieces that I would point to in the issue that’s in your bags that I think speak pretty directly to this issue. One is the unhackable election piece that you mentioned.
There’s another piece called Deepfakes and the New Disinformation War.
ROBBINS: I was going to mention that. It’s a very cool piece.
KURTZ-PHELAN: It’s a great piece. It’s by Danielle Citron and Bobby Chesney, who I think are both at University of Texas, but I might be wrong about Danielle’s affiliation. And this is about new AI technology that can manipulate video and sound and image in very quick and easily accessible ways. And this has already been part of kind of disinformation in the last few years, and they think that it’s going to become a real threat to the kind of work that all of us do and the basic functioning of media and democracy going forward. So I would point to both of those.
I think that both actually do a pretty good job, if you read the piece, of talking about what that means if you are the average consumer of information seeing something on Facebook or on the local news or in your local newspaper and trying to assess its validity. It’s so easy to make a clip of a foreign leader saying something sound credible that it would not be that hard to pass it off to a journalist. I guess this is the Dan Rather story from the 2004 election, but you could imagine that happening again and again and again.
And similarly, with the unhackable election, you know, part of the policy problem for people sitting in places like this is that the solution lays in the hands of every voter and every local election board and every local politician taking steps to protect local voting systems, to know how to assess political advertising. That’s not something that people sitting in the U.S. government in Washington, the federal government can simply fix from their offices. It’s kind of a broader societal change. And the piece does a pretty good job of tracing all the different steps that would have to happen, in their view, to really make sure that elections are secure.
And I should say one more thing to protect the Council, that we are published by the Council. We are editorially independent. So when we produce a piece, no one from CFR is allowed to tell us what to publish, but nor do they deserve any of the blame for what we publish. (Laughter.)
ROBBINS: Bob, I want to turn to you, but just one point. I mean, one of the things about the unhackable election piece—and the AI piece is very cool because it does point out that you can easily with your computer now, you know, produce a clip that’s reasonably credible of, you know, the Israeli prime minister looking like he has a secret deal with the Iranians, or potentially Donald Trump looking like he’s ordering a nuclear strike on the Russians, and that’s pretty scary stuff. But also, on the unhackable election, it suggests that one of the weaknesses of the system—and I think they’re wrong about this—is that there is no concerted, you know, one standard even for voting machines. I think the fact that we have disarticulated voting systems is probably a strength of the system. It’s much harder to hack a system if it’s done one by one. And local organizations, news organizations can hold local electoral officials accountable in a way, you know, that it’s not a federal responsibility. So I think that’s an interesting thing, the same way, you know, we can do fact checking on faked images and the same way we do fact checking on people who claim we’re doing fake news, who will remain unnamed. So—
KURTZ-PHELAN: Can I add one more thing about the unhackable election?
ROBBINS: Yeah, sure.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Because it relates to what Bob said and I think it kind of demonstrates for us what the kind of platonic ideal of the Foreign Affairs editorial process and impact looks like. The unhackable election was the outcome of a gathering of kind of European officials and scholars who saw what had happened in the United States in 2016 and decided to create a study group or commission to kind of set up a set of standards that would be applicable, especially to Europe as they head into an election season, but could also be shared with authorities and with election boards in the United States. It was a response to the Joe Biden piece which was in Foreign Affairs shortly after the 2016 election talking about what had happened and Russian interference in the U.S. election. So we really have to kind of see that cycle, meaning a piece is published, there is a response in the world, people kind of do something about it, and then we have another piece that is a response to that.
ROBBINS: Very cool. So you’re violating the prime directive all the time. (Laughter.)
SHIELDS: I thought that one of the most interesting recommendations in the deepfakes piece, which terrified me as a concept, was one of the recommendations to prevent this so that famous people, celebrities, you know, world leaders, et cetera, might have to start a process called life logging, which is almost like being the Kardashians or something like that, where you literally have to record everything you do all the time so that you could actually dispute if someone said you were here having this conversation with somebody else. There would be a real time log of your entire life where you could prove in fact that you were not there. And I thought, oh, my goodness, we are really getting into some crazy stuff.
ROBBINS: Well, I think the president is already sort of pioneering that right now. Did you guys see the hamburgers picture?
So, Bob, did you put the hamburgers picture on CFR.org?
MCMAHON: We did not. We made no mention of it anywhere, as a matter of fact.
MCMAHON: You know, in navigating what’s going on in this country right now, you know, we try to sort of keep our heads down as much as we can and just kind of focus on, at the end of the day, what’s affecting policy here and what’s actually happening on the ground. So saying we’re getting out of Syria, that’s a really big deal. Even it came out in a tweet that was apparently unscrubbed and unfiltered, but it’s led to all sorts of confusion and ripples around the world. So it’s something that we would, for example, lead with our morning newsletter, which is the way we kind of kick things off, and we see it as a little bit of a gatekeeper function. We just try to keep with what’s going on.
SHIELDS: The daily news brief.
MCMAHON: The daily news brief. And it’s among, you know, a hoard of newsletters. As anybody who subscribes to any knows, it’s been such a huge industry now, and really valuable, but it’s an enormous amount of stuff. We feel like we have a lane that we can provide some sense of what’s going on in the world in the midst of everything else.
So we noted there was a very detailed infographic The Washington Post did about the distribution of the hamburgers, which I thought was, you know, useful service journalism. (Laughter.) But we couldn’t do anything with that. We were salivating over the resources that would allow a publication to do something like that. But again, we try to stick to our lane and try to, you know, cover other aspects of policy.
SHIELDS: We could say global health, maybe. That would sort of fit in that section.
MCMAHON: That’s actually a good point.
ROBBINS: The calorie count here.
So I’m a particular fan. I mean, you have many products on CFR.org. And as managing editor—and you’ve got this really compelling guide to Amazon deforestation, if you haven’t seen it, and as well as this exploration of modern slavery which is really compelling. And these are complex topics, and the visual storytelling is really, really compelling.
MCMAHON: Thank you.
ROBBINS: And just a pitch for that.
But I’m a particular fan of your World Next Week podcast, which Bob does with Jim Lindsay. And it’s not just because you invited me a few months back to co-host.
MCMAHON: Not at all.
ROBBINS: But you guys can listen to that.
But in the January 10 show you talked about both the Detroit Auto Show and the search for a new World Bank president, which was a very interesting mix. And I learned in that about something called the Ivanka Fund, which is a new gender equality fund launched by the World Bank’s current president, which may explain why the World Bank is one of the few international institutions to so far escape the president’s ire.
So there’s such a cacophony of news out there and so many different ways that listeners and readers can get their information just even in the podcast space. So how do you decide on your mix of stories each week, and what’s on for next week?
MCMAHON: Well—excuse me—Jim and I just taped. Jim and I are back in the booth together for the first time this year, and so it dropped into the podcast subscription last night, looking at—Jim sort of taking a look at the next two years of Trump, which formally kicks off next week, and so a lot to handle there, obviously.
Also, what to think about Brexit. It was a crazy week for Brexit, and it’s going to get crazier—so, again, putting that into perspective in what on Theresa May’s plate.
Venezuela has another round of protests that are scheduled—again, another story that gets bigger and bigger, and people still don’t seem to really understand what’s going on there. So we just try to tee these things up and let people know that these are things that you should probably be aware of because they’re coming up.
And then we have a device that we call the figure of the week where we weigh in with a number or a person. And, you know, I took the liberty and named the New York Knicks starting center. So—(laughter)—because it’s an extraordinary situation involving—you know, he’s persona non grata in Turkey and in fact could not go to London this week to play with the Knicks because he fears for his life.
ROBBINS: Well, they’ve now issued a warrant for him, I think.
Yeah. But to your point about the array of types, I mean, we’ve found with this podcast, which we started almost 10 years ago, Jim and I—actually started a little bit earlier than that—but Jim and I started, this year will be the 10th year. It’s really kind of grown the last couple of years in particular because it’s a vehicle for us to get into so many different issues. You know, the news cycle just never ends, right? So there’s always some sort of fluid issue that’s going to continue on. But there’s a lot of things, a lot of sort of calendar items, and you all know from your roles—and I know from your bios there’s a lot of assignment editors—it’s always sort of like what’s coming up, how are we going to cover the big summit, the big election, the big conference. And so we try to at least give a sense of what matters on those fronts.
And again, you tap into—I think everybody has their own sort of type of assignment calendar. We do in our department. And so we kind of distribute that early in the week. Jim and I take a look and say, OK, you know, the U.N. is talking about Syria. We haven’t talked about that in a while. Let’s get into what’s going on there for example. Or, you know, something like the auto show is a little bit of a departure, but it has a through line, you know? We’re maybe on the cusp of an auto tariff war, you know, brewing for example. But also, these are places where countries strut their stuff, and it’s an industry that’s facing huge disrupted changes and everything. So we sometimes make a segue into those.
It’s interesting. When we go a little bit farther afield, we hear from audiences about it, like sometimes whether we muff something or whether there was some sort of basic thing that we should have pointed out, we’ll hear back from people in this country, but also it seems like we have some listeners in Europe because we get a lot of feedback from them.
So I guess it starts with the calendar, Carla, and then it’s sort of trying to provide a mix of things.
ROBBINS: So I want to turn it over to everybody—and Lisa was going to do her little call to action here—
SHIELDS: Oh, yes, OK.
ROBBINS. But before I do that, I’m going to have a question, quick question—this is final jeopardy—to all three of. So you are going to bring them into the secrets here. So what do you think are the big stories that we should be looking out for in the next three to six months—you can go out a little further if you want—that are going to affect Americans’ lives, big international stories, the things that are the holy crap ones and the things that we should be worrying about?
SHIELDS: I’m going to say climate change. The polar vortex and things like that I didn’t even know existed, those sort of things terrify me, actually. If I could say there was one thing that I worry the most about, it’s probably climate change.
ROBBINS: We’re going for 40 degrees to 5 degrees on Sunday here in New York. And scientists who stopped saying that you could say particular climate events were driven by climate change have stopped saying that. So I’m saying that Sunday is climate change, OK? I’ve declared it.
SHIELDS: Yes, yes.
ROBBINS: Sunday’s climate change.
MCMAHON: Where to begin? So I can only name one or—
ROBBINS: No, you can name as many as you want.
SHIELDS: No, you can name as many as you like.
ROBBINS: You paid for that mic.
MCMAHON: OK. (Laughter.) That’s a great Cold War reference, by the way.
ROBBINS: I’m showing my age here.
MCMAHON: Well, I mean, I referenced the arms control issue. I do think, in the timeframe you mentioned, we’re going to see a pattern on whether or not arms control enters a new scary age or not. And again, it’s something people haven’t thought about in a long time. But if, like, the INF Treaty, which many people acknowledge that Russia has been violating.
ROBBINS: Intermediate range.
ROBBINS: OK. Nuclear—those are the ones that are not too small, not too big.
MCMAHON: This involves Europe. It involves China to some degree. It’s a global issue. And I think the more you dig into it, sort of the psychology behind Cold War arms control discussions and acronyms like MAD and other things, you realize how really kind of perilous things were during the Cold War. But I think arms control is something to watch.
I think looking at the calendar again, we’ve got a big fat Brexit deadline at the end of the March where you’re seeing a major G-7 country sort of, you know, unravel in real time in front of you, and there’s no sign yet from what we’ve seen, having just talked about with Jim in the podcast, but also we just updated our background on the site. You know, it’s hard to see the paths where this is going to sort out, other than if, as some people said, they stop the clock and everybody just sort of says timeout, we’re going to stop things for a while and try to sort this out.
ROBBINS: And potentially a foreshadowing for us. I mean, their unraveling looks a little bit like our unraveling, and certainly we’re feeling like we’re unraveling right now. What day are we in the shutdown, twenty-five, twenty-six, something like that? Which is sort of scary.
You know, I would think that rather than describing as arms control, which I think even I, who have covered this for years, one’s eyes begin to glaze over, if you refer to it as nuclear weapons, it sounds a lot—this is really scary, the fact that this stuff is back. Everybody thought it was gone. So, yeah, that stuff’s pretty scary.
MCMAHON: And then just on a mundane but important note, everybody’s already kind of ramping up to prepare for the 2020 elections. We are included. I know Dan’s already had some essays in the magazine.
ROBBINS: You had Elizabeth Warren in, right?
KURTZ-PHELAN: We had Warren. We had John Kasich last year.
MCMAHON: And so we’ve now for the last several election cycles—and I think actually Lisa kicked off this whole thing on the Council’s digital platform back in the day.
SHIELDS: I take responsibility for that. That’s—(laughs)—
MCMAHON: But we have a tradition where we kind of track, we take stock of all the major candidates. And it could be fifteen major candidates; we’re not sure yet. And we track the main foreign policy issues, where do they stand on them, what have they done on them, whether they’ve been in office, or what have they said about it.
And in 2016 we had our most sort of evolved one yet. And the trickiest one to do was Trump. But it was revealing, if you look at those trackers, it’s a pretty consistent line from what he was saying on the hustings to what he’s been doing. So we’re going to be ramping up our planning for that and really accelerating just within the next quarter, I would say.
KURTZ-PHELAN: I think that tension between the United States and China is going to suck in more and more issues in every arena of national life and is going to play out in really complicated, difficult and sometimes scary ways for all of us. One that I think will be a really tough national issue everywhere in the United States over the next couple of years is the question of Chinese spies or Chinese students or tech workers coordinating with the Chinese government who may have some presence in universities and companies around the United States. I think that’s going to create a kind of frenzy of suspicion that is going to be really scary from the perspective of citizens and be really challenging for us as a society. So I think that, in a variety of ways, is really going to define the next couple of years.
ROBBINS: So we’re going to turn this over to you, questions on topics and also questions on—oh, I’m sorry. We called. Yes, you want to talk about—
SHIELDS: OK. I can weave that in anywhere, just to key off of what everyone is talking about here, Bob and the campaign 2020, the Council—I think you heard Fareed last night talk about 9/11 being a turning point, I think, in terms of the public and media’s interest in international affairs. Having worked at ABC News, I can tell you that that wasn’t a time that we cared that much about international affairs. I sometimes joke that Princess Diana’s death was the only story that I ever was—the only foreign story I was ever meant—sent to cover, and the reason I raise that—
ROBBINS: You didn’t do Tonya Harding?
SHIELDS: I didn’t do Tonya Harding, actually.
ROBBINS: (Laughs.) That was—
SHIELDS: JonBenét Ramsey maybe was up there, yeah. So point being that I—9/11 for us also became a time where we really became a more public-facing organization, and I think of the work that we do in this field as service journalism in a way. So we built the first online encyclopedia of terrorism after 9/11, for example. We did the first website—we built the first website on foreign policy in the 2000 election, which then Bob has built into a really thriving franchise.
We do backgrounders on—there must be hundreds of backgrounders on a full range of issues. We have about fifteen newsletters now that you can all sign up for. There are issue areas—you know, Women and Foreign Policy, Asia Unbound, a whole bunch of different blogs, about fifty-one scholars tweeting in addition to an Instagram feed. I’d really encourage you—if there is anything that we would like you to do on the way out of here is sign up for our newsletters, either The World This Week, which comes out of our operation which really sums up what happens in the weekend at the Council; Bob’s terrific newsletter, the Daily News Brief, but there are also issue-focused newsletters that might be more applicable to your beats. So again, that could be Asia, that could be Women and Foreign Policy, that could be Geo-Graphics. That could be a whole bunch of different things in additional to blogs.
And we would also like to hear from you about what would be more helpful. I mean, we are constantly trying to iterate and look for ways that we could make your jobs easier, so we have television studios here in New York and Washington, D.C. You can use those freely. Call up, have our scholars—put our scholars on television, and we have the live lines that we feed out from here and Washington, D.C. of our events.
There are live streams, as well, which we also encourage you to watch. If you miss events, you could also see them on line. We clip them now, and try to pull out some of the highlights of those clips, and transcribe them so they are available at all times on our YouTube channel.
In addition to that, we also encourage you to reach out directly to our scholars. You can reach out to us in the communications operation any time, but also all the scholars have their contact information, email addresses and phone numbers, et cetera, so breaking news, et cetera, don’t ever hesitate to reach out to the scholars and talk to them, ask them, you know, whether it’s an interview or anything else, but also come to us.
I would be interested to know what we can do better, what kind of services, what kind of newsletters, what kind of anything. We do breaking news media calls, as well, which I think are really terrific. We did a—we sometimes do, in the run-up to major world events, we’ll a sort of curtain-raiser call with our experts, so you could just call and listen in, or you can ask questions. So if you sign up on our media list, we will make sure that you get those invites, as well, in addition to invites to events in New York and Washington when they are on the record. So—
MCMAHON: And these typically have transcripts and audio that you can take and, you know, excerpt and so forth.
SHIELDS: And use, yes. We want to make your jobs easier. We want you to see us as a fact-laden organization—fact-checked, fact-laden organization with some authority that you can rely on to use in all the reporting that you are doing. So I’m eager to hear back also from all of you about things that we might do as well.
ROBBINS: Great, thanks.
SHIELDS: And follow us on social—I should have said that.
ROBBINS: Oh, yes. (Laughter.) We want more Twitter friends.
SHIELDS: We do—and Instagram.
ROBBINS: So right here—woman right in the front. Thank you. Can you stand up?
ROBBINS: Say who you are and with whom you work.
Q: OK. Hi, my name is Hannah Bay, and I cover Asian-American communities in New York City right now for the Asian-American Writers’ Workshop. I’m on a fellowship.
And as I was listening to this discussion, I kept coming back to this idea of news literacy and media literacy. And I’m coming to this as somebody who has worked in public affairs for the State Department and worked as a journalist in digital and print. And I just—I feel like I’m observing a lot of disconnect between audiences, and who is behind which media outlets, and what’s real, like I feel like with Russia today—for example, I’ve been seeing some of my own friends sharing, you know, some of their viral videos, and it’s just like do you guys know that this is a Kremlin mouthpiece, and so I just wanted to ask, you know, I think that local journalists are really on the front lines of engaging with communities. And so I wanted to ask whether CFR has done any study of media literacy, and also what journalists can do to engage with our audiences locally to kind of show that we’re not the enemy, so—
SHIELDS: I don’t—we haven’t done any studies specifically on media literacy. I think folks like the Pew Research Center and others have done terrific studies on those sorts of things—troubling nonetheless.
We have done a National Geographic survey. We did do that about what folks know.
MCMAHON: It was about—yeah, well, it was global literacy, I think.
SHIELDS: Also we—yeah, yeah, yeah, also depressing. (Laughter.)
So, yes, in terms of legitimate news sources, I think that’s a serious problem. I wish I had some really good answer to that. I know some of the organizations here are working toward making sure that there are well known sort of public service kinds of news organizations. Tell your friends to stop sharing Russia today—(laughter).
I should say that we are not government funded—that was one of the things I think I forgot to mention. We don’t take government funding, and I think that’s a very important aspect of the organization. So maybe everybody get out there and tell their friends to stop sharing things that aren’t legitimate news sources.
If I could figure out a way—I know Facebook was trying to do this, and I don’t—I think it would be smart for them to do, but I don’t know that I trust that they would do it—I don’t know—well, let’s just say, but some kind of verification almost, like a Twitter verification for sources. You know, something that says this is a legitimate news source.
MCMAHON: This is—this is an issue that Steve Brill and Gordon Crovitz have been—
ROBBINS: And Gordon Crovitz is doing—
SHIELDS: And that’s—right, which I think would be terrific.
ROBBINS: Well, there’s a lot—there’s a lot of different—I mean, I’ve written about RT, and there are media literacy projects, you know, that this—media literacy projects, a lot of these things that are out there. I mean, one of the biggest problems that we have right now is when you have the top leadership that has adopted this term, fake news, to not actually describe fake news but to describe news that they don’t like as fake news. So I have expunged the term from my language, and—but there—I mean, there are very interesting things out of—you guys don’t—I don’t know if anyone’s ever seen the EU Disinformation Review. The EU does a weekly newsletter in which they have all these incredibly interesting stories that are pushed out across Europe; things like stories about five thousand women who underwent female genital mutilation in Sweden because of the influence of the Muslim community in Sweden. This of course is not a true story, but it became a viral story.
These are—this is a weekly thing that they monitor and they—and you can sign up for it. I mean, there’s all sorts of people who are monitoring this, and these stories get picked up across Europe, they get picked up in the United States. Sputnik pushes them out, RT pushes them out. And I wrote a story about looking about how similar the narratives coming out of the White House are to the narratives coming out in RT. And it’s—the language is really strikingly similar.
I’m not saying that one is pushing the other one, but there is very similar language there, and we do have to be vigilant. And I think that as journalists that’s one of our responsibilities—is to explain these things; not to rail against them, but to—but to explain them, and that’s part of this fact-checking responsibility.
And I don’t think it should be segregated just solely into a fact checking—I’m getting on my hobby horse—
ROBBINS: —and just solely into a fact-checking part of the newspaper, but it should be part of every story.
MCMAHON: I would just add also that, you know, it’s—we’re in a weird time; you know, sort of the best of times, the worst of times in terms of information. There is some astonishing range of great information out there, but the noise, and the disinformation, and the trolling that is going on is causing a lot of confusion. I think media literacy—you’re exactly right—is really important.
We have a—you know, sort of a—I mentioned a gatekeeping role. We try to kick off the day—one of the functions we see of our newsletter is we go—we try to only cite sources that are known to be credible sources from whatever region we are covering as a starting point. And sometimes it’s local—it’s an English-language local source that is based in, you know, the Japan Times or something like that. We’re going to link to English sources anyway—the purposes of our audience which we see as mainly an English-speaking audience—but we’re trying to make sure that there is a mix of sources. It’s not the same old—it’s not—we don’t—it’s not The New York Times and Washington Post for 90 percent; it’s actually a wide array of sources, and sometimes it is state broadcasters. If it’s Europe, it’s probably—we’re probably going to get something just as good from Deutsch Welle’s English language site, which has a big news hole, or, you know, The Economist, and then some of the others—some of the other big, state broadcasters that have credible news sources. So—and that infuses our whole process in terms of when we do these backgrounder explainers, and interactives, and other things. We’re trying to vet these sources as much as possible.
Our experts in the think tank are very good at helping us helping us kind of suss out sometimes places that, you know—or sources that might be suspect. You know, and having Foreign Affairs as part of our stable, you know, they’re a go-to place—like Foreign Affairs had something on this, it’s great, and then we’ll go and link there as we know they are credibly, thoroughly vetted—their pieces—and were really well edited.
So we try to be a, you know, port in a storm sometimes—in an information storm, and—but I do think there is more to be done on—in terms of looking at how other countries have it as part of a strategy—like Russian and China, for example, have huge international broadcasting arms—and maybe take a look at those in a backgrounder, you know, that’s something we can do as well on this as part of our coverage.
ROBBINS: But then I think also in terms of local coverage, I mean, that’s—one of the questions is what is being taught in schools. I mean, are we teaching students, starting at what level, you know, how to be critical consumers of information? You know, what are parents telling kids about how to be skeptical consumers of whatever it is that they’re seeing in the time that they spend online, what they watch on television, what they hear from—you know, when you have top political leaders who are saying the things they say, how can they be skeptical consumers without having it be turned into, well, you’re just being partisan if you say that that’s not what you agree with. And that’s learning—that’s a long-range learning process. The same way in the previous panel people were talking about the need to get people ready for 21st century skill—that’s a 21st century skill—is skeptical consumerism because we have a vulnerability here. We have a very fundamental vulnerability that’s driving our politics.
So next question? So here, right in the front. Thanks.
Q: Hi, my name is Ivan Rodriguez. I’m a reporter with KGUN 9 in Tucson, Arizona.
As an MMJ, about 80 percent of the stories are those daily grinds—80 to 90 percent, right—those daily churns that we have to do. The rest—small percentage—are those special projects where I had maybe more than one day to work on a story.
I guess I still would like some clarification on how to bring those big topics down to the local level. Yesterday we heard Fareed say that people are worried about family, money, their jobs. A small percentage of that is politics, so how to make a story resonate to someone under those few categories to really put a story behind a topic like that so that—I mean, at the bottom line, that they just care, and something that I can actually pitch; you know, not coming in with today I want to do a story on Russian interference into the election because I’ll just get laughed out of the room. I guess just how to continue to bring that down for a daily turn, right, because that’s the majority of consumption that they’re then receiving on the other side.
ROBBINS: Is your vote safe?
Q: Is my what?
ROBBINS: Is your vote safe? I’m sorry—you wouldn’t listen to a story like that? Is your vote safe? I mean, that’s like a—right before an election?
KURTZ-PHELAN: What is a trade war going to mean for your 401(k) or the price of, you know, milk that you buy at the grocery store?
ROBBINS: What’s going to happen when you walk into Target next week?
MCMAHON: Yeah, I mean, just walking into a store—you know, the extent of globalization and the impact in a typical, you know, Target or a Walmart and boil down the price to that. You know, you bought your groceries last week for $60. Well, if these trade wars continue, what’s that going to cost next week?
You know, you can do an infographic related to something like that. You can really boil it down. I mean, you are starting to see—and I was talking to a few of you last night about how the trade war is starting to hit or the trajectory for that, and I think in some cases, because of the way that the agriculture markets work, that it’s going to another year in some places or six months, or whatever, but we’re already seeing with the soybean farmers how it’s hitting them right away.
So I think there is—whether you are in a farm state or whether it’s just this consumer issue, there is a whole array of consumer issues that I think Americans—I just don’t think they realize how much—which Fareed referred to last night as well.
SHIELDS: Well, what are Millennials going to do when avocado toast prices go up? (Laughter.) I mean, that alone is going to be a huge—
ROBBINS: You’ve got Millennials in Tucson.
SHIELDS: You’ve got a news story right there.
ROBBINS: Dan, you were going to say something?
KURTZ-PHELAN: I mean, I was going to say I think that probably most of you in this room are going to have better answers to that question than any of us up here given what you all do day to day and what we do. I think the way we see our role, both at Foreign Affairs and CFR more probably is trying to—if it’s something like changing dynamics in global trade, we will chart the impacts at a relatively high level and try to provide authoritative analysis about what it means, and then the kind of complementary role that those of us up here play with most of you out there is you then can take that analysis and say, here’s what that means for consumers in Tucson or workers in Tucson, the people I interact with every day.
I think we probably don’t have a great sense of how to connect with those people and you do, and I think that our role can be to provide the higher-level analysis that you can then apply to the more specific story. That would be my hope at least.
MCMAHON: Yeah, one more thing to add to that, like, for example, I assume you probably deal with your share of immigration issues, and asylum, and so forth, you know, so we’re—in a few weeks’ time—going to be launching a new deep interactive on these issues, and part of—one of—the thrust of it is going to be sort of describing how the international system was set up to work and the obligations of countries to—on how they’re supposed to treat asylum seekers, and refugees, and so forth. That can be the backdrop or the context in which—so you have that that maybe you don’t have to necessarily go into and do a lot of heavy digging on because maybe it’s already provided, and then you go into, you know, the human interest story of some of the people that you are encountering in your beat.
ROBBINS: I also—I mean, Trump announces that he’s going to use a national security exemption and that means that you are going to reopen the steel mill in your town, I think your first question is, can he do that and, you know, what’s the law, you know? And you’re going to want an answer in twenty minutes because you are on deadline. I mean, that’s the sort of question you can call up here and somebody should be able to answer. I can’t answer it, but there are other people who can answer it.
SHIELDS: Well, let’s come back to my climate change point, the thing that I worry the most about. I do think that climate change is an area where local markets absolutely do not have control over what’s happening in their own communities because there are laws that supersede local laws, so state law, federal law supersedes local laws when it comes to things like dumping ash in your backyard or other kinds of things that are very serious. And I think that’s an area that’s really ripe for pushback from local communities because they are just not given the choices, and it’s your communities that are getting, again, the sludge, the fracking runoff, all the kinds of things that you don’t get to vote on, and often when you go to protest about them, you find that your local leaders can’t do anything about it because there are laws on the books that say local laws can’t overrule the ones that are on the state or federal level. I think those are seriously problematic.
So—and I also think that globalization is one of those things that is like a bogeyman often across the country as if it’s something that is a choice, you know, like a religion, like you don’t—choose globalization or don’t choose globalization. You are seeing that used in a lot of ways in populism, nationalism, other kinds of ways that are very dangerous.
And I think of the upsides—and that sort of gets a little bit to what you were talking about—the upsides of globalization, what are the benefits that everyone has received as a result of this. That doesn’t mean there aren’t certain communities and there aren’t certain areas that are left out, but the overall net-net gains from globalization are really tremendous, and I think those are—if you can connect the dots between what people are concerned about and feeling in your community with, you know, sort of other trends that are happening in the world, I think that’s helpful in that regard.
ROBBINS: And you don’t have to use the term “globalization.”
SHIELDS: Correct, right.
ROBBINS: You should just go and talk about prices, you know, and what—I mean, what Diana was talking about and what they were talking on the last thing. I mean, there is—has been a huge benefit in terms of lowering the cost of imported goods, and you don’t even have to use the word “imported” goods; just go and look for “Made in China.”
And so it’s—these are—I think it’s—the jargon is what is so off-putting. It’s—the impact on people’s lives is a pretty direct one. The story is not—you know, a lot of these stories are not that hard to tell, and I do think that, you know, we can—what a lot of people here can help you with is the—you know, is the fast response on the context, which, you know, we certainly want—they certainly want to do it.
So, right here—and I promise I’ll go in the back next.
Q: Hi, I’m—excuse me—I’m Rosemary Westwood. I’m a freelance journalist in New Orleans.
This is a question I had last night, but it seems appropriate for you all, and I’d really like your responses. I’m interested in how you view the idea of framing international stories for local audiences within—for audiences, say, where there might be a belief in American exceptionalism. So how do you—how do you frame that global context for people who might believe that the way things are done here is absolutely the best, or there can’t be, you know, things to be learned from other places? It’s certainly a strong feeling, I think, in a lot of parts of the country, and it really impacts people’s interest and the way they view stories that are coming from other parts of the world.
MCMAHON: I mean, I think—so one of the things we’ve tried in a few instances is comparison backgrounders, just sort of how do other countries do gun control, for example. And I’m sad to say this backgrounder is one of our top traffic backgrounders of the past year because it surges in traffic every time there is another mass shooting in the U.S. It is a particular thing—all you need to do is point to that issue alone to start to, you know, challenge somebody who is maybe claiming American exceptionalism, although it’s a type of exceptionalism, I guess, right?
And so that backgrounder, it started out—I don’t know, it was—it might have been on the Connecticut shooting that spurred that—I can’t remember—or maybe even earlier. But, you know, you go around the world and you look at other—we decided let’s look at advanced democracies, you know, where the people have a chance to decide on what to do with gun rights. And, you know, Australia, and Israel, and U.K.—and there’s very, very interesting case studies, and so I think it’s—there’s a reason that I think the traffic for that is such is that it—for a lot of Americans it helps situate them in the world, and like, how normal is this? Oh, it’s abnormal, you know?
And I think we can—we could actually be a whole side series we can generate on these comparisons, right? You can take any of these sort of issues—infrastructure, you know, why can’t—why do our airports—why are they so abysmal? We’ve just come back from some place abroad and we have this dump we just arrived in, you know, and so that’s—you know, that will dispel again any notions of exceptionalism except in the negative sense. So I think comparison-type coverage of that nature is going to be useful.
ROBBINS: Although there are things we do better here. (Laughter.)
Q: I guess I’m just really thinking that if it’s a belief someone has then—if it’s a belief someone has then maybe those comparisons—like how do you make a comparison that that’s valuable to someone who isn’t interested in that comparison?
Q: So maybe that’s not very answerable, but thank you.
MCMAHON: Yeah, I think in some ways that that—as Lisa was mentioning, the Council has all these different channels and ways of unpacking issues. Our Meetings Program, for example, sometimes there will be a, you know, panel discussion on issues like that; maybe not one on that level of American exceptionalism, but it could be a certain issue in which there are, you know, strongly held views, and they are debated by people who come at it from different angles.
So I think in that kind of a forum—I think FA has its share of debates certainly. You’ve had some really good ones in some of your FA Live meetings, for example. Or on the website you’ve had a number where you’ve done online debates. So there’s other ways you can get at it, I think, using online tools.
ROBBINS: In the back here, we have a gentleman in the middle.
Q: Hi, Joel Connelly, seattlepi.com.
Dating all the way back to the summer of 1988, which had record heat, various journalists—myself included—have written articles suggesting will this be the presidential election, will this be the election where the climate issue finally has an impact on voters and begins to—begins to resonate.
It has never happened. Hearing what has happened and what people are saying up on the stage, I’m beginning to—and would like to get your opinions on whether this will be the year, whether the impacts are so serious and are so widely felt and so on that this will be part of the issue equation in the 2020 election.
SHIELDS: Was it—who quoted—was it Fareed that quoted Churchill last night saying Americans try every other option before they—what’s that—what’s that quote? I forget what it was, but in any case, I hope so.
KURTZ-PHELAN: They do the right thing after trying everything else.
SHIELDS: Right, thank you. (Laughs.) Unfortunately, you know, I don’t what it’s going to take to—for everything that, you know—how bad does it have to get? I wish I had a good answer for that.
MCMAHON: I mean—
Q: Could I offer a quick intervention?
SHIELDS: Sure, please.
Q: I’m—(off mic).
SHIELDS: Oh, yes. (Laughs.)
Q: Andy Revkin, yeah.
SHIELDS: Yes. Of all people, that’s the right—
Q: I have my—
SHIELDS: —person to ask.
Q: I have my thirty-year story here and—(laughter).
We’re having a lunch panel on this, but the answer is just look back at 2016 when Democrats—liberal Democrats—this finally rose to be number six on their list of priorities. That was liberal Democrats—Yale study—so I have no confidence that climate change, as it has been cast, will be a presidential issue in 2020 or beyond. We can do a lot about it, and that’s what we’ll talk about.
MCMAHON: And I would just note, you know, we’re going to be following this for—the tracker I mentioned, we noted that with the mid-term elections the term “Green New Deal” started emerging. We’ll see how much traction that gets, but that could be something some of the candidates try to make a lot out of, and we’ll see how far it goes.
ROBBINS: Dan, were you going to say something?
KURTZ-PHELAN: I mean, I—Andy Revkin knows more about this than any of us, but my guess would be because, like many things, this will be seen in an increasingly partisan frame. That makes—even if it becomes a greater election issue, it’s unlikely to become kind of a national bipartisan commitment.
SHIELDS: She in the back, I think.
ROBBINS: Right there, woman. Thank you.
Q: Zahra Ahmad from the Flint Journal.
So we have a ton of problems going on in Flint in regards to the economy, gun violence, and then of course the water crisis. It’s already really hard to engage our audience in terms of the technical things that are going on with the recovery from the water crisis, like pipeline replacement and everything.
My outlet—I think the first time we’ve really done anything global at the Flint Journal is I’ll be going back to Iraq for the first time. I was born there, and then we moved here twenty-two years ago. And I’ll be going back, and we’ll be doing an op-ed series about going back, and the struggle of self-identity and all that, and that’s great and all, but that’s something that they were interested in.
It’s really hard for me. I feel like if I go back and I pitch all these ideas that you guys are mentioning to my editor, he’s going to say, well, your responsibility is to post two stories a day, it’s already hard for us to keep the retention of our audience let alone bring in these global issues. So for a young journalist that’s very interested in foreign relations but also understands that she has an obligation to be reporting on the local issues, like the water crisis and everything else that I just mentioned, when do you make the leap into either finding a publication that cares about the same issues as you do or—I guess that’s what I’m asking is like when is the right time?
SHIELDS: Carla? (Laughter.)
ROBBINS: So I always say that I—my experience as a local reporter was as a foreign correspondent. I mean, that’s—I just—I got lucky, and it was also a different market when I started.
I mean, one of the things about—and we haven’t talked about this at all—is that the United States has been at war and for the longest time in its history. And that is a very local fact in many of the communities in which you all report. And so, you know, there is a class separation. It’s very different from the world in which I grew up in which conscription made the Vietnam War a reality in nearly every community, not—I mean, there were certainly wealthy people who managed to avoid the draft.
My husband is a Vietnam veteran and ran a swift boat on the Mekong, but there are so many communities in this country where people have had deployment after deployment after deployment, and the economic impact, the social impact, the human impact of this—mainly for ill, but to a certain extent for good—people who have come home with extraordinary experiences, people who have come home with new sets of skills—you know, there’s a lot of stories to be told there, and that is not a foreign story.
And what that has done to this country and what it is going to continue to do to this country, to the economy, to the demands on social services, that’s a story that one can start with as a local story and maybe even build a career on.
SHIELDS: Well, and water—water is a serious issue.
ROBBINS: And I want to read your return to Iraq stories, and can you please be careful? (Laughter.)
KURTZ-PHELAN: One other thing that we have spent a decent amount of time running pieces on in the last year is the opioid crisis. We did a piece online last week—or two weeks ago—on fentanyl production in China. I imagine in many of your cities and communities people are saying, you know, dead bodies at bus stops, and wondering what is going on. Our added value—you know how to connect with the concerns of your audience and how to connect with them better than we do, but what we can do is say, look, if your community is concerned about fentanyl, we can look at the policy challenge of trying to get China to crack down, how that’s likely to change, why it’s becoming so much more deadly, and I think that’s where we can complement your work, or support your work.
The other thing I would say is it’s not just about global stories becoming local but local stories becoming global. And part of what we try to do—and I think CFR.org does a really nice job of this—say look, refugee and refugee migration is one of the biggest stories globally in the United States, but in almost every other country on earth at this point the experiences of local communities in dealing with the policy challenges, the economic challenges, how communities are adapting, how the politics of this play out has become a global story in a way that might not have seemed the case five years ago. And to the extent that your city, your community hasn’t experienced that, that’s relevant to that broader challenge. I think you can kind of engage with that global debate by bringing in the lessons and experiences of the stories you work on every day.
ROBBINS: And particularly at a time—I completely agree with you on it—particularly at a time when there is so much demonization going on of these communities in the political realm. There are so many stories to be told, both about what’s going on in the countries where the push is coming from and the communities that—and the experience of the communities here, and that is really—you know, afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted is our responsibility as journalists. I mean, these people are not all gang members out to kill, you know? I mean, that’s the sort of—and that is—you know, there’s great local stories that have, as you said, global implications there, right there. So, yes.
SHIELDS: Well, the magazines also—you guys have been doing some really good work on populism. The next issue is going to be on nationalism. I think those kinds of trends are happening everywhere; not just—you know, they are happening around the world, which is how Foreign Affairs will cover the whole scope of those issues, but it’s also something that’s landed firmly in our own—and probably has always existed obviously in our own communities as well.
MCMAHON: I would just add to that—really quickly—that on the local level I think you could sort of establish—you could pitch this to your editors or whatever, but I think we’ve got kind of a niche in the explainer space, right, how things work. But there’s a lot of things that people are questioning across the country, and this administration, the upheaval it has caused has raised a lot of questions about just how things work—what are checks and balances in government, for example.
But on a local level which Carla was referring to, how local election systems work, the explainer about how are votes tallied—both parties, what are their roles in doing that? Or, you know, there’s any number of these types of how things work type pieces you could do that people can associate you with—or how does the census work, you know. I mean, you just look at sort of the docket of the Supreme Court in some ways and you can get a sense of the issues that are raising passions, but also that are going to affect your community, and just sort of do a little nuts-and-bolts piece. That will serve you well anywhere you go in your career because, you know, if you do get in as a foreign correspondent, you are going to be asked to explain things on another level.
ROBBINS: So I always want to—I know, there are so many more questions, but I always want to outdo Jim Lindsay, and since he went over, I’m going to end two minutes early to make up—(laughter)—for his sins.
We’ve got the lunch meetings in which I hope we’re going to talk about—I mean, we’ve got the substantive topic but also more about how we can interact about this.
And thank you for your questions, and thank you for all of this, and thank you guys for up here, so—
SHIELDS: Yes. Thank you. (Applause.)
MCMAHON: Thank you.