This week, Senior Editor Eric Umansky takes on the role of interviewer to discuss the recent slew of crackdowns in the Middle East with Blogger-Reporter Marian Wang.
As ProPublica’s lead blogger-reporter, Wang talks about what her hybrid role entails and how it presents new challenges as well as opportunities to cover fresh accountability angles in the news.
While Wang may not “end up posting 18 times a day, like some people who also share the title blogger,” she recognizes the importance of persistent coverage to keep those in power accountable.
“I think having a more frequent voice on something is sort of like a drumbeat, that you just keep beating the drum on a topic. In a way, it keeps up the pressure, keeps public attention on something. Because I think sometimes centers of power, if no one's asking these questions and asking them with frequency, they would much rather them go away.”
The full transcript is below. You can listen to the podcast here or on iTunes.
Mike Webb: Hi, I'm Mike Webb and welcome to the ProPublica podcast. This week we turn our attention to the turmoil in the Middle East. While many mainstream news organizations reported on the rapidly changing day‑to‑day events, ProPublica chose to step back and provide context for what was happening. So our stories focused on what the United States could do to suspend financial aid to Egypt, or we looked at America's complicated relationship with Libya, among many other things.
Reporter-blogger Marian Wang took the lead in our coverage, and today she joins ProPublica senior editor Eric Umansky in the Storage Closet Studios, to discuss our blogging process. Here they are.
Eric Umansky: Thanks, Mike, for your introduction. I think the first thing I would do is give myself more of an introduction; I think that's called for. So I'm Eric, and among my duties, I oversee the website, and I work very closely with Marian, who is constantly basically looking for fresh accountability angles on stories in the news. And obviously the big story in the news over the past month or so has been the Middle East. So I'm going to throw it over to you, Marian, and you can talk about some of the stories that you've done.
Marian Wang: I think at first we were a little uncertain about the degree of coverage we should give this, given that we're not on the ground and there are people on the ground doing really great reporting on it.
Eric: Very true.
Marian: So I think we had kind of decided to take a step back and look at areas that we can pick off that are related to the U.S. role in particular. So we started with an explainer on the U.S. aid to Egypt, and then did a follow‑up that was explaining the options that we had for leveraging aid in Egypt. Then we moved on to some of the exports, because tear gas from the U.S. was being found in several countries there, and how those products get from the U.S. to Egypt or Tunisia.
Then we did a couple of overviews, just because things were just sprouting up all over the place, so we wanted to track that in a way that was easy to take in. Then we did a couple of pieces that were specific to Bahrain and Libya, especially as things got a little more violent there.
Eric: Right. And we also did some stuff looking at the WikiLeaks cables, and what they say about various countries. I think we wove that in right, with our coverage?
Marian: Yeah, those were definitely important too.
Eric: Yeah. So what in all of these posts have you done that sort of caught your eye when you were researching these things?
Marian: I think what was surprising was how much was already out there. I guess you could say I'm surprised about how surprised the U.S. government was by these protests. Because if you look at the WikiLeaks cables, there are tons of notes dropped in there, about discrimination against the Shiite population in Bahrain. Or details about the degree to which the military controls the economy in Egypt, which would definitely have implications now that the military is sort of in control in Egypt. So just the degree to which some of this was already foreshadowed was sort of interesting. And not just in WikiLeaks. If you even look at State Department transcripts from Hillary Clinton's most recent visit to Bahrain, you can see someone from Bahrain's parliament asking her about the alliance between the U.S. and Bahrain and should it be reviewed. That type of thing.
Eric: Yeah, and as you say that, it occurs to me that it gives a good sense of it's one of the reasons that we do the kinds of stories that you do and the kind of blog posts that you do. Because, for us, you could have a good accountability story, even with something that isn't technically new. That you can get something very valuable by looking at material that's been out there a long time, but that is now looked at freshly in the context of the news.
Marian: Yeah, I think a lot of our role has been more providing context to what's happening because we're not going to be the first ones to report the death toll over there. It's probably going to be someone on the ground. But we can kind of add context to, to what degree did we know that this was happening? To what degree was this kind of thing, this kind of unrest, something that we knew was brewing under the surface, but sort of turned a blind eye to, or something.
Eric: Yeah, and you mentioned this at the beginning, but the two of us and others, I think, in the office, thought a lot about, at the beginning, how and sort of why we should be covering this. Did you want to give a sense ‑‑ and I was part of this discussion, so I might have an opinion too – but about why we decided to, and just some of the discussions that went on in terms of deciding to cover events that are, frankly, 10,000 miles away and in very different countries?
Marian: Well, I think part of it came down to, this was sort of taking over the news cycle, so it felt like we should do something on it. The other half was just that, it's not like these are isolated countries that we have no relationship to. The U.S. has had a long history of involvement in a lot of these countries. So we've mostly focused on that: just putting a sharp focus onto the role of the U.S. and that type of thing.
Eric: That's exactly right. I mean, I think that's it's been interesting to try to figure out our way through this, which hasn't always been easy. But I do think that time and again, and particularly in this stuff that you've pulled up in terms of the U.S.'s relationship with the Egyptian military, just to bring up one example, or the U.S.'s hesitance, frankly, about criticizing Bahrain during some of their repressive tactics, even before the protests. Insofar as we are doing accountability journalism ‑‑ and that is what we do exclusively here, almost exclusively here ‑‑ that's a really rich vein to mine, a really rich topic area for us to get into. I think that involves actors, holding actors in the U.S. accountable for their actions. It's not some foreign, faraway issue.
Marian: Yeah, I mean, we definitely have interests in those areas, and to what degree have we sort of struck a diplomatic compromise on those interests.
Eric: Right, absolutely, absolutely. So just stepping back, and I think listeners might be interested in talking a little bit about the daily routine that we have and that you have, in particular. Because we talk about your title as reporter-blogger, and I think people have these notions in mind of what it means to blog. That you're spouting your opinions, you're posting all day, and what we do is actually something very different from that, I think. So if you want to talk about a little bit the role you play and what your typical day is.
Marian: Yeah, I think the title is pretty fitting. It is hybrid and I don't end up posting 18 times a day, like some people who also share the title blogger. But it does involve taking in a lot of information, seeing what's going on, and there are certain types of news we just don't really ‑‑ we sort of know from the get‑go, that we're not going to cover the day‑to‑day of this.
Eric: Like the Justin Bieber concert, things like that.
Marian: Well, it's surprising sometimes, where accountability angles come from. No, but I think that some of the day‑to‑day politicking is not something we tend to cover, unless there's something very obvious to add to it. I think it just involves reading a lot, I think it involves thinking about what we can add, more than anything to some of the stuff that's going on. I think, more often than not, that's context.
Eric: So, what do you mean by context? I mean, just to help people flesh this out, because you and I deal with this all day, in and out, but I don't think it's easy to see from afar, necessarily.
Marian: I think it's often… it'll come down to something like comparing, looking back at the history of something. Is this person's position equivalent to something that they said back on the campaign trail? Or is this consistent with positions they have always advocated? Like, on our face, we are pro‑democracy. Is that consistently reflected through our diplomacy with these nations? So I think it's always that kind of angle on things.
Eric: Right. Yeah, I mean, I remember ‑‑ and this now goes back almost a year but one of the first stories, and Marian has been here for about a year and we've really been doing this blogging and reporting for about a year. And one of the first stories that we really got into was the Gulf oil spill, which was also this huge story, and also had hundreds of reporters working on it and talking about the latest events. I feel like what we learned to do with that, and have continued to do with the Mideast and other stories was, as you say, to step back and to...With that one we looked at the regulatory over‑structure, and frankly the lack of regulatory over‑structure, regulatory structure for oil wells in the Gulf, rigs in the Gulf.
All sorts of background stuff that I think could be out there, and it could have been ‑ and you found it, right? Were reports that were a few years old, and were not very widely disseminated. Or stories that were already out there, but that frankly didn't get the attention or weren't seen, didn't get the attention in the context, or seen in a different way, could be seen in a different way because of the spill.
I think that that kind of stuff is really valuable. I should say, one of the things that we often talk about is avoiding doing the kind of just regurgitating the news. If there is some event, we're unlikely to do a blog post being the fifteenth news place to just say XYZ has happened. Because you can find that elsewhere and frankly we have better use of our time than that.
Marian: Yeah, I agree.
Eric: That is good. So I think we might have answered this, frankly, to a degree. But also, I just think a lot of people ask us this, right? In an organization that's so focused on doing long‑form journalism, why do you think that the role ‑‑ and again, I have my own opinions here, but you and I both work very closely in this area ‑‑ why do you think it's valuable to be doing the kind of more iterative, responsive blogger/reporting pieces that you do?
Marian: Well, I think sometimes a lot of our reporters are very busy on long‑term projects, areas that no one else is looking into. But then there's a huge amount of news that's happening right now that could use some context, or it could use us dipping into at least. I think it's not necessarily the form that we're captured in, it's that we want to do work that is worthwhile and that could amount to change. I think having a more frequent voice on something is sort of like a drumbeat, that you just keep beating the drum on a topic. In a way, it keeps up the pressure, keeps public attention on something. Because I think sometimes centers of power, if no one's asking these questions and asking them with frequency, they would much rather them go away.
I think just to keep it out there, and keep following it and keep asking more questions, and pushing the coverage forward as much as we can does add value.
Eric: I think that's very well said. Thanks for chatting.
Marian: Thank you.
Mike: That was Marian Wang and Eric Umansky. You can see all of our coverage of the Middle East and more at propublica.org/blog. And now for our "Officials Say" Tumblr quote of the week: "In my opinion, any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should 'have his head examined,' as General MacArthur so delicately put it." Who said it? Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates in an address to West Point cadets on Friday.
OK, that's it for this week's show. Thanks to Minhee Cho for producing it. For ProPublica, I'm Mike Webb. We'll see you next week.
Transcription by CastingWords