As the United States has become increasingly polarized, both politically and socially, the relationship between the media and the national security bureaucracy is now more important than ever with the public’s pervasive feelings of mistrust. The Assistant Washington Editor of The New York Times Thomas Shanker (Class of 82) spoke to Fletcher students about his extensive journalism career covering the Pentagon, the military and national security, as well as the importance of his Fletcher education.
Before his introduction at the International Security Studies Program (ISSP) luncheon by Professor Michele L. Malvesti, Shanker visited her National Security Decision Making: Theory and Practice class where he shared anecdotes with students from his time covering the war in former Yugoslavia.
Shanker expanded on this story and others from his time as a war correspondent while speaking to a full house in the Chase Center at the luncheon. He began by highlighting the most significant influences in his career, which have in turn shaped his approach to journalism.
One of those influences was Johnny Cash. Taking the audience back to the 1950s American music scene and specifically referring to Cash’s song, “I Walk the Line,” Shanker explained how he approaches his reporting by maintaining the balance between the public’s right to know and upholding national security responsibilities.
“The [political] parties can’t hold the middle, the government can’t hold the middle, and so it is up to the American news media to hold that middle ground and walk the line,” Shanker said.
The former Pentagon correspondent explained that he has been able to achieve this goal of “walking the line” by utilizing a reporting approach that he learned from his time in the embed program with the U.S. Army.
“The army and the entire military divide the world into tactical, operational and strategic [categories],” Shanker said. “You want to get to that strategic level of information, but you have to start at the tactical level of your reporting. [You have to] develop your sources the tactical way, understand the operation level of products. Then if you’re good enough and lucky enough, you can write stories that have real strategic impact,” he said.
Additionally, the former MALD student credited his two years at Fletcher as essential for shaping his international perspective, especially when he was the first reporter to break the story about the Serbia campaign of systematic mass rape of Muslim women.
It was during this time that Shanker shifted from being a war correspondent to a war crimes correspondent as his Fletcher international law class introduced him to the severity of human rights violations taking place. “It was the first time and maybe the only time in my career where the story I wrote truly brought a little piece of justice back into the world, [and] prompted government action,” Shanker said. “What I brought to it from my Fletcher education and only from my Fletcher education was the teaching of Al Rubin,” he added.
This international perspective has remained invaluable to Shanker despite the changes that the world of journalism has experienced over the past few decades with the advances of technology and the Internet. Opening up the floor for questions, Shanker fielded questions on topics ranging from the 2016 election to how the media covers domestic terrorism to Edward Snowden.
When asked by a Fletcher student what kinds of skills differentiate the best journalists at top media organizations from others, Shanker once again emphasized his time at Fletcher as the catalyst which set him up for his future career.
“I didn’t go to a journalism grad school; I came to Fletcher because I wanted a specialized skill set,” Shanker said. “I am a firm believer that journalism skills can be learned, but the intellectual skills you learn at Fletcher are far more valuable. I truly could not be where I am today without my two years at Fletcher,” he concluded.