By Chris Adams
In exploring the billions of dollars spent by the Department of Defense, some of the most helpful tips are also the simplest.
“Pay attention to big blocks of text,” said CQ Roll Call senior writer John Donnelly, who explained how he goes through the budget and appropriations documents produced by congressional staffers. You don’t have to read every word and number in these massive tomes. But if they write a lot of words discussing a particular program, there might be something interesting there.
Donnelly (work, Twitter), who recently won the National Press Foundation’s Everett McKinley Dirksen Award for Distinguished Reporting of Congress, detailed for Paul Miller fellows his work that dug deep into errant Pentagon spending. In addition to Donnelly’s talk, fellows heard from four Pentagon-based reporters – two of them Paul Miller alumni.
For investigative work, Donnelly’s main lesson was that muchof the information he uses is right there, in the public, for the taking – no deep throat sources necessary. He regularly taps reports from the Government Accountability Office, the Congressional Research Service and the Department of Defense Office of Inspector General. (See his NPF Awards Dinner speech about how he gathered information here.)
“These reports – they’re right there,” said Donnelly, who is also president of the Military Reporters and Editors Association. “Sometimes you look at the titles of these reports and you fall sleep before you get to the end of the title. But the reports have some great information.”
In the Pentagon briefing room, which has been relatively silent during the early years of the Trump administration, fellows then heard a range of tips and strategies, as well as insights into how the beat has changed.
David Martin (bio, Amazon page), a veteran CBS News correspondent and author, talked about how the beat has changed during the more than three decades he has covered it. Most of that is because of the modern, 24/7, fast-paced news environment. “I guarantee you when I get back to my office in one hour and 15 minutes there are going to be emails based on tweets from around the world,” he told the fellows. Managing that massive flow of information – and deciding which of those tweets actually have a grain of news in them – is a prime focus of his job.
Helene Cooper (bio, Twitter, Amazon page), a correspondent for The New York Times and author, offered practical tips on covering conflict and embedding with troops in war zones around the world. Reporters shouldn’t just show up, expecting to observe, she said. “It’s important to have an idea of what you want to write about before you go in,” she said. But don’t put on blinders: Be prepared to jump on another story if it comes into your field of vision.
Lolita Baldor (Twitter) of The Associated Press and a Paul Miller alum, talked up the beat – “the best in the city,” she said – but also how it has changed. One of the clearest changes has been the time devoted to fact-checking efforts. “Fact checking has become one of the most time-consuming things we do,” she said, “because unfortunately there are a lot of non-facts out there.”
Finally, Aaron Mehta (bio, Twitter) of Defense News and a Paul Miller alum, described the robust trade press covering the Pentagon, as well as the reason: “The Pentagon has a lot of money,” he said. Mehta specializes in acquisitions issues, as well as other Pentagon topics. But the $700 billion-plus defense budget – from weapons systems down to soldiers’ salaries – offers lots of room for exploration.
Paul Miller fellows also heard from Lt. Col. David W. Eastburn, a senior press officer for the Department of Defense who talked about how his office interacts with the media on a regular basis and how to gain day access to the Pentagon.