Writing for the mass media.

Position:Proceedings of the One Hundred Second Annual Meeting of the American Society of International Law: The Politics of International Law - Discussion

This panel was convened at 1:00 p.m., Thursday, April 10, by its moderator, Sarah Mendelson of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who introduced the panelists: Kenneth Anderson of American University Washington College of Law; David Henderson, an Independent Consultant; Gregory S. McNeal of Pennsylvania State Dickinson School of Law; and Benjamin Wittes of The Brookings Institution. *


Welcome to Writing for the Mass Media. My name is Sarah Mendelson. I am neither a journalist nor a lawyer, but 1 have written for the mass media. 1 work at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and I run a program called the Human Rights and Security Initiative, which focuses on the security implications of human rights abuse in two specific areas. The first is counter-terrorism. The second is human trafficking.

This conversation should be about how those of us who are used to writing for peer review can take arguments and direct them to a wider audience. As a non-lawyer, I really want to make an argument for the law not just to be the purview of law professors or lawyers. We should think about strategies to increase the demand for international law inside the United States. Going from my left to the end, we have Ken Anderson. He is a professor of law at the Washington College of Law at American University. He is also a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and a member of the Task Force on International Security and law. He is a contributor to the Revista del Libros in Madrid. Now let me give Ken the stand.


Thank you very much. When this panel was organized, I asked myself "why is it that people are writing for mass media audiences--newspapers, magazines, etc.?" In my case, much of what I write is edited by law students. This editing process is not one I am much engaged in. Writing for the mass media enables me to have my work edited by genuine editors. This is the main reason I have gravitated toward writing for the mass media. The second reason is that everyone wants to imagine himself as a public intellectual. I think this is highly overrated. I think most people who write for the mass media believe they arc reaching a wider audience. I wrote a piece a few years ago for the New York Times (NYT) Magazine, hut I do not think anybody read it. I do not think most elite opinion-makers read it. It is important to bear in mind just how small the readership is for policy pieces. I also write for the The Times Literary Supplement, but I always have to remind myself of the audience--aging university professors, mostly in Britain.

In essence, the greatest privilege I get from writing for the mass media is interacting with editors. For example, I have an email from my editor at the Times Literary Supplement back from 1998, which I have framed on my wall. It reads,

Ken, you really think this is short? May I enjoin you further on the virtues of concision? There are too many long quotes from the book for a start. I fear you risk partaking in its leisurely pace and unalleviatedly theoretical tone. Maybe you have not quite come down from your sojourn in the jungle with tenure-grabbing "publish or perish" academic vanity publishing. This is journalism, Ken, albeit the higher-rated journalism. People do not have too much time. There is nothing here that cannot be said in half no--a third of the space. It is the ability to get an email like this from a real editor that sums up the pleasure involved, for me, in writing for the mass media.

* The panel wishes to thank Anna Beier-Pedrazzi for preparing the following edited transcript.

([dagger]) Director, Human Rights and Security Initiative, Center for Strategic and International Studies.

([double dagger]) Professor of Law, American University Washington College of Law.


Thank you. Our next speaker is David Henderson who is an author, online publisher, and Emmy award winning CBS news correspondent based here in DC. He has effectively used communication in support of litigation. He is recognized for making the word aware of the denial of human rights and due process for prisoners at Guantanamo. He is an authority on media trends and today's dynamic of the convergence between mainstream media and new media. David also advises companies and organizations. David's most recent book is about controlling news.


It is a pleasure to be here to speak to you. I spent a decade as an on-air journalist with CBS News, and the things that I found among many people in business was that they had difficulty getting to the point while being interviewed or when trying to articulate a vision. Just earlier this year, I was talking with Garry Shapiro, who is head of the Consumer Electronics Association. He said that when they are evaluating CEOs and business leaders to speak at the Consumer Electronics Show--the largest trade show in the world--they judge people on how well these people can get to the point, articulate a vision, and get people excited about what they are saying. I worked for a number of years with several law firms. The field of law is now turning to communications skills because litigation can be influenced by effective communications techniques. When I started working on the Guantanamo issue in April of 2002, for example, and was working with two attorneys at Shearman and Sterling, nobody wanted to touch the issue. It was too soon after 9/11. We were representing twelve Kuwaitis scooped up for bounty in Pakistan after 9/11. We believed it was a matter of fundamental American principle--it was wrong to deny basic due process rights to the people being held at Guantanamo. Our behavior as a nation would set a precedent of putting Americans and military in harm's way. Our efforts to provide legal counsel to those Kuwaitis held at Guantanamo required effective communication skills, the ability to communicate messages in plain language. If you were to speak in legal terms rather than plain language to the media, that would be a bad marriage because each party would talk past the other. You need to interpret what the media needs and translate the message you want to get across. One has to turn the triangle upside down. In law, one builds a case. In the media, however, one has to get to the point.

* Independent Consultant.


Thank you very much, and that was certainly to the point. Next we have Gregory McNeal who is a visiting professor of law at Penn State's Dickinson School of Law. He is also working on international security and public international law. He helped found the Grotian Moment Saddam Hussein trial blog and the International Association of Penal Law (AIDP) biog. His editorials have appeared in a numbers of newspapers and online publications. We may have a chance to talk about some of the differences between those types of sources. He is coeditor of the book Saddam on Trial: Understanding and Debating the Iraqi High Tribunal. It began as a series of mass media-oriented blog posts. He is currently researching issues pertaining to the closure of the Guantanamo detention facility.


Given my distinguished co-panelists, I am going to take the "you-can-do-it" approach by putting a bit of...

To continue reading