Vol 1, Issue 12 December 2019

Share this on twitter Share this on twitter Share this on twitter

Apply Today!


Three questions with...
2020 Fellow Trevor Aaronson

Your Fellows Project is a book and a podcast series about Americans who joined the Islamic State. Could you tell us a little more about it and your goals for the project?

I think it’s fair to say that every journalist wants the same thing—a large audience for their work. But while the logistics of accessing great journalism are easier than ever today, reaching large audiences is actually more difficult for journalists as a result of, among other things, filter bubbles, tribalized media, and changes in the ways people receive information.

The goal for my New America project is to reach a large audience by telling one story in two different mediums. While the processes of working on a book and a podcast have differences—for example, unlike with a podcast, you’re not too concerned about the quality of your audio in recording an interview for a book—the work is the same journalist’s quest: identify the story, find the facts and people, and research everything fully. But podcasts require information to be distilled to a much greater degree than would be needed in a written piece, and I’ve actually found that process helpful in refining my ideas and how I want to tell the story in a larger written work.

What role do you think investigative reporting plays in today’s media landscape filled with hot takes and Twitter?

Journalists seem to love Twitter. But I wish more would remember that only 22 percent of Americans use Twitter, and of those users, most rarely tweet. Twitter creates this noisy echo chamber in which the news cycle changes fast and everyone is easily outraged. A friend of mine recently sent me this USA Today piece—which is, in fact, just a collection of tweets masquerading as journalism. Don’t get wrong: I’m not trying to single out this particular story. Rather, it’s just one example of this type of Twitter-based reporting we see more and more today.

I think investigative reporting—the type of work that takes months, even years—is a necessary antidote to Twitter’s fast pace and instant outrage, which we see reflected increasingly in our news media, particularly on cable news. But investigative reporting is also very expensive, and while news organizations often pay lip service to it, funding for deeply reported stories has been declining and continues to decline. That’s why philanthropy, such as New America’s support for fellows like me, is so critical for investigative reporting right now.

You wrote recently about a former Army sniper who was recruited by the FBI to be an informant. When it comes to writing about informants and other sensitive subjects, what steps do you take to protect their privacy and safety?

I often write about FBI informants, and when people ask me why, I remind them that there are more informants working for the FBI than there are agents. Some informants, such as Chris Stevens, the Army sniper in the article above, want to make their names and stories public. Others want to call attention to something, but don’t want me to use their names publicly. For that reason, communicating with informants requires some forethought. Encrypted email and apps like Signal, which allows for encrypted calls and texts, offer some measure of security.

When it comes to naming an informant in a story, I take seriously privacy and safety concerns. But I also think that the FBI and other U.S. intelligence agencies are at times able to avoid accountability by telling journalists, without supporting evidence, that naming an agent or an informant would somehow endanger the person or national security. I’ve had the FBI ask me not to name agents or informants for security reasons even when they’ve been identified in court records or have testified in open court. Just as U.S. government agencies classify too much information, they often push for unnecessary secrecy in other areas. It’s critical that journalists push back.

Two Cents

Fellows on how they manage negative feedback, bad reviews, or online criticism.

1: I started reviewing books early in my career and it gave me perspective on book-writing—there will always be criticism of your work and that's part of the business. Someone once gave me the wonderful advice to never take praise or criticism too seriously. I try to learn a little from both and move on. What I do pay more attention to is criticism of my journalism that comes from people in the region I am writing about. There's always room for improvement there — Suzy Hansen, Class of 2020

2: Online, especially on social media, I think it's important to remember that people aren't typically engaging with you, the person, they are engaging with the avatar of who they believe you to be and everything they have projected onto you. — Clint Smith, Class of 2020

3: The comments section on most online publications is not the best place to take cues, so my husband usually reads the comments for me and sums up the helpful ones and steers me away from the toxic ones. Substantive reviews of my work are different, and I try to think about the perspective of the reviewer and I think about how I can apply their ideas to future projects. I'm an academic, so negative feedback on my writing is part of the job; I'm pretty impervious to the sting by now.  — Marcia Chatelain, Class of 2017

Two Cents

Jessica Bruder wrote a cover story for WIRED about a group of Somali warehouse workers who are taking on Amazon. 

Patrick Radden Keefe's Say Nothing was named one of the 10 best books of 2019 by the New York Times.

Suzy Hansen wrote a story on internet censorship in Turkey for the New York Times Magazine special Tech & Design issue.

A Good Provider is One Who Leaves by Jason DeParle and Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe were on the Washington Post's top 10 books of 2019 list.

George Packer's Our Man was named one of the 50 notable works of nonfiction in 2019 by the Washington Post.

Azadeh Moaveni's Guest House for Young Widows and Patrick Radden Keefe's Say Nothing were on the Guardian's best books of 2019 list.

David Wallace Wells' The Uninhabitable Earth was one of The Times literary supplement's best books of 2019.

The Library Journal listed Christopher Leonard's Kochland, Patrick Radden Keefe's Say Nothing, and Jason DeParle's A Good Provider is One Who Leaves as the best social science books of 2019.

Five fellows made the New York Times' 100 notable books of 2019 list: Azadeh Moaveni's Guest House for Young Widows, David Wallace Wells' The Uninhabitable Earth, Christopher Leonard's Kochland, George Packer's Our Man, and Patrick Radden Keefe's Say Nothing. 

Two Cents
Go To This

New America events we recommend you check out. Now.



Coming Home: Dialogues on the Moral, Psychological, and Spiritual Impacts of War

This half-day event brings together academics, military leaders, veterans, journalists and clinicians to explore the value of humanities in exploring the effects of war on the warrior as she or he returns home. Learn More


American Hate: Survivors Speak Out

Join New America CA for a conversation with New York Times best-selling author David Wallace-Wells, Class of 2019 Fellow. Learn More


American Hate: Survivors Speak Out

Join the International Security program for the launch of Peter Bergen’s new book, Trump and His Generals: The Cost of Chaos. Learn More

Reading this month

Desmond's writing perfectly melds humanity and policy in describing the American housing crisis. It's an incredible template for weaving policy into a narrative without weighing it down.

—Melissa Segura, Class of 2019

Learn More

A good entry point for understanding the current big Constitutional questions and where they come from.

—Vann R. Newkirk II, Class of 2020

Learn More

Berman's history of Europe—and of the slow, arduous triumph of democracy over dictatorship—reminds us how hard it is to build, and preserve, liberal institutions.

— Didi Kuo, Class of 2018

Learn More

Free Swag

Fill out this tiny form for a chance to win a cop of Felon by Reginald Dwayne Betts, Class of 2018! Read the New York Times review of the book here.

(Please submit by COB Monday, December 9th to be considered.)

Get swag!

footer logo


We are storytellers who generate big, bold ideas that have an impact and spark new conversations about the most pressing issues of our day.

The three who put this together

Sarah Baline + Elizabeth Pankova + Awista Ayub

Join the Conversation

Subscribe to this newsletter

Thoughts or questions?

Privacy Policy|Email designed by Iced Coffee Please

You are receiving this email because you signed up to receive newsletters from New America. Click to update your subscription preferences or unsubscribe from all New America newsletters.