Washington think tanks exert a vast but underrecognized influence on public policy, Nicholas Lemann of The New Yorker magazine said at an Institute for Policy Studies seminar last week.
Lemann was addressing students in the Master of Arts in Policy Studies for a Press and Public Policy Seminar designed to inform students in the policy field about the operation of the press. Lemann's message for the MAPS students was clear: Become reliable sources for reliable members of the press and you can influence policy even before you get into the position to make policy yourselves.
Experts in many of the leading research centers constitute a sort of government-in-waiting for each of the two major parties, Lemann said. From their think tank positions, they seize media appearances, whether on TV or in print. Once these sources are in power, plucked from the think tanks for top government positions, reporters and TV programmers are pounding on their doors for comment.
The "pundit explosion," Lemann said, is a function of the insatiable appetite of cable as well as commercial television for their innumerable talk shows.
Lemann discovered the value of think tank sources during the last election. While the press was chasing after the candidates, he spent much of his time interviewing Republicans-on-the-outs at the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute and other nesting places for conservatives.
As a result, though he had little experience in foreign affairs reporting, he was able to get a scoop for The New Yorker with a "Letter from Washington" predicting the Bush administration was going to get tough with Iraq's Saddam Hussein.
Members of the permanent Republican establishment who had plenty of time for him before the election, he said, are now in fancy Washington offices protected by squads of public relations obstructionists.
Lemann's job as The New Yorker's Washington correspondent is prized in journalistic circles, and his work is highly regarded by those in power, said Joseph Sterne, a senior fellow at IPS and a former editorial page editor at the Baltimore Sun, who invited the journalist to conduct the seminar.
In contrast to the work of insiders like Walter Lippmann and James Reston, the ruling political journalists of the 1950s, Lemann was inspired by the investigative work of Woodward and Bernstein, who cast themselves as outsiders in reporting on the Watergate scandal that began in 1972. Lemann started as a reporter for a small alternative newspaper in New Orleans.
As The New Yorker correspondent and a self-described "lone wolf," he operates outside the daily and weekly news cycles, from an office at home. He has gained admirers in policy circles for his probing depiction of racial relations in The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America, the story of a Southern black family migrating to Chicago, published in 1991, and in The Big Test, published in 1999, a critique of the meritocracy that included an investigation of the SAT.
It was his rendering of the think tank phenomenon that intrigued the audience of public policy graduate students and faculty at the recent seminar. "When a new administration takes office, the average person thinks the president draws up some new ideas and makes policy decisions," Lemann said. "In fact, there is a pool of 25 people" at key Washington research institutions aligned with the philosophy of the new president. "The question is which of them will get the five best jobs. Their ideas will be the ideas of the new administration."
First-year MAPS student Chris Herbst wanted to know more about Lemann's relationship with those in the think tank world. Lemann replied that there is "a higher level of trust" with the research institutions than with politicians and that they often provide insights and background information critical to in-depth reporting.
But all is not rosy. Lemann complained that journalists sometimes feel "used" and disrespected by policy researchers whose main interest is self-promotion. IPS director Sandra Newman pointed out that the typical scenario is being called by a journalist on deadline who needs a quick sound bite, not a real understanding of a complex issue. "From my side of the telephone, this is often a one-way street. This kind of lopsided relationship is not the best way to raise the public's understanding of important policy issues," she said.
"I have to plead guilty myself," Lemann replied. "It's tough. Every day the mailman comes to my house and brings 20 studies on different subjects that are quite good. There is often a follow-up call from the authors, and they seem annoyed or hurt that I'm not taking the bait, so to speak. And my best answer is that I just don't have time."
All this left second-year MAPS student Jen Comey a bit more cautious as she considers starting her postgraduate employment this summer at the Urban Institute. "The relationship between journalists and policy analysts is a little tricky," Comey commented. "It makes me wonder who's using who to get their 15 minutes of fame."