James Mann Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

The Bush War Cabinet: Conversation with James Mann, Nitze School for Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University, February 14, 2005 by Harry Kreisler

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Being a Reporter

For many years you were the diplomatic correspondent and a foreign affairs columnist for the Los Angeles Times. What is unique about that beat? Does it require a set of skills that are different than police reporting, say?

There are some things that are common to all reporting -- a need for curiosity to get beyond the surface, the need to know how to ask questions, to ask follow-up questions.

There are things that are particular to the diplomatic beat. I became a diplomatic correspondent after I'd been a foreign correspondent in China. I had lived and worked in China for three years. This was in the mid- to late-eighties. While I was there, I was reading my own paper every day, and I noticed something that should have been evident even before I left, which is that all of the coverage of American foreign policy out of Washington in my newspaper and many others -- all others, just about -- centered on two things: coverage from Moscow of Soviet policy, and coverage in the Middle East. Very understandable. But here I was working for the L.A. Times, the main and biggest newspaper west of the Mississippi, with large and growing Asian-American communities, large and growing interests in Asia.

Every once in a while I'd pick up regional publications like the Far Eastern Economic Review, and I'd find stories coming out of Washington that you couldn't find in the American mainstream press. So when I came back to Washington after my tour in China I said, "We should be covering American diplomacy, but not just Moscow and the Middle East. How about Asia?" Actually, at the time, this was about 1988 or so, the newspaper was a little bit resistant -- "Why do we need to do that?" But they accommodated me.

I spent several years doing what people on the State Department, the national security/foreign policy beats hadn't done before, which was to look at American relations with China, Japan, not as a sideshow that you checked in on once in a while if there was nothing going on in Jerusalem, but as the main part of the coverage. And it worked. It worked because the L.A. Times, once you brought in the stories, was intensely interested. That got me started.

What's unique about the beat is that not only are American diplomats, particularly State Department officials, closed-mouthed, in some ways they don't even know how to talk about policy. They tend to see the press as getting in the way of what they're doing, which is to smooth over relations with another country, or to make what might be unpalatable a little bit more palatable. And the press, by making things public, by putting words, by calling things by their real names, tends to make their jobs more difficult. That's unique to the diplomacy beat.

When I started doing this program twenty-plus years ago, one of my first guests was Tom Wicker. At that time, the early eighties, he was interested in looking at American patriotism and journalism. Thinking back to that interview, the immediate question that comes to my mind is, to what extent do conflicts arise [between] your responsibility as a journalist and whatever concerns or feelings you have as a citizen of the United States? You may need to report on things that might affect the way the policy is being shaped, or the argument could be made, "This is detrimental to U.S. policy." [Policymakers] may think they know what they're doing and they don't want to be in the democratic arena debating the choices that are before them.

I rarely found it as a conflict. But I have to say the reason that I didn't find it to be a conflict is that I never defined my job as to serve U.S. policy. If an official said, "This is detrimental to U.S. policy," I may not have said this in interview, but what I thought to myself was, "That's not my job. My job is to tell people what U.S. policy is."

There were several times when I would uncover things people did not want to be known. For example, in covering China, I remember in about 1992 coming across and then confirming the fact that China had sold missiles to Pakistan. It's now a long-forgotten incident, but it consumed American policy in the early nineties.book cover I don't know how many times I had officials, for months, deny that that was the case: it wasn't true, the evidence wasn't clear, and on and on. It took about nine months, to the point where Congress was holding hearings and where they couldn't really dissemble anymore, to acknowledge that that was true. The argument was made that this harms American relations with China. Well, it wasn't my job to improve American relations with China.

Do you think this a sensibility that extends throughout the community that had the same beat? Were you an exception, or do you think many of your colleagues were just as firm in their convictions about the ethics of their realm?

I think most of them were. The differences that I saw within the regular press ... well, there were two differences: First was between people who were covering American foreign policy day in and day out, and those who would come in occasionally. They inevitably had a different perspective. In in-house journalist terms, sometimes they'd say that they wanted to discover something new that had been written about day in and day out. I inevitably had the perspective of one of the people who was there every day.

There were differences between people who were allowed -- had the freedom, or you can call it the luxury, as I did -- to spend time, whether it was a week or two, or three, working on a particular story versus those who were necessarily chained to the daily stories. I'm thinking of wire service reporters. The divisions that I saw within the diplomatic corps were less over issues of patriotism or attitudes towards the U.S. government than they were journalistic, between daily reporters, people who had time, and so on.

You're now an author full-time. Have things changed a lot in the relationship between the press and the government in the foreign policy field?

You know, I'm not sure that they've changed that much.

One of the things I see written about the current Bush administration -- we haven't gotten to it, that's the subject of my book -- but one of the things I see bandied about is that it's more closed with information than any administration in the past. There's an extent to which that's true. There's an extent to which, having been around through several administrations, four or five of them, I react against that and say, actually, that's not true.

In this current administration what's closed is direct access to daily developments. But in a larger sense (I'll give you the contrast in a second) this administration has been so deeply divided about its foreign policy in a number of areas [that] those divisions are right out there for people to see. There's nothing hidden about the fact that people in the Pentagon have different views than people in the State Department. Those differences are reflected in the coverage. I'll give you the contrast, just to show you that not much has changed. I covered the first Bush administration.

Meaning the president's father.

That's correct, George H.W. Bush, or we can call him Bush 41. I've written two books that covered events in that administration. In each case, [writing] five, ten years later, I've found really vicious, nasty debates, say, between Secretary of State James Baker and National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft, or between then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney and Baker, that we never knew about, just plain never came to light because they were better even at covering up their disagreements. Better at covering things up than this current administration, but they covered up their internal differences as well. So it's a different kind of covering up. But they were, in some ways, better than this administration.

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