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Come With Answers

By Robin Sloan

During the question and answer period of Samantha Power's Sunday afternoon session, she tossed off a phrase that I think is worth dwelling on:

"Win trust by knowledge."

Power spent many years reporting and writing her book "A Problem from Hell," a review of America's response to genocide in the 20th century, and became an expert on the subject. She often knew more about the subject than the government officials she was interviewing -- more about the history and about the personalities involved.

It sounds grimly sixth-grade: The low-level officials wanted desperately to know what their bosses, the national security advisors and secretaries of state, had told her. These high-level policymakers in turn asked her: Well, what did those below me say?

Power told former NSA Tony Lake about Prudence Bushnell, an deputy assistant secretary of state who was one of the first to warn of trouble in Rwanda. Lake asked: If this was so important, why didn't she call me at home?

Power mentioned this to Bushnell, who wondered: "Who does he think I am?" It would have taken an incredible amount of institutional self-esteem, Power says, for Bushnell to call the national security advisor at home and argue the case for Rwanda.

I think it's crucial that Power moved beyond surface explanations and down into the human gears of policymaking. It must have been a huge asset: Who wouldn't want to talk to a reporter who, besides posing questions, could also provide answers?

Robin Sloan works at The Poynter Institute.

Posted in book-length narratives, reporting, sessions.Against Neutrality, speakers.Samantha Power on December 12, 2003 at 05:14 PM | Permalink