Debriefing with David – An Interview with David Sanger

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David Sanger is the Chief Washington Bureau Correspondent for The New York Times. He sat down with DPR’s Kyra Noonan. 

David Sanger, Chief Washington Bureau Correspondent for the New York Times, visited Duke this January as an American Grand Strategy guest. Sanger sat down with Duke Political Review. His commentary on the upcoming election, the current White House administration, and the increasingly digital world of journalism proved Sanger a balanced critic of both parties.  

Sanger last visited Duke University in 2009, while promoting his book, “The Inheritance”, a critical look at what the Obama administration had been left foreign policy wise by the Bush Administration. In his book Sanger studied the relationships between both the US and Iran, and the US and North Korea, two key issues in both Obama terms.

With his background as both an author and a foreign correspondent for the Times (for six years in Tokyo), Sanger is well equipped to discuss how foreign policy will factor in this coming election. “There is a significant part of the voting population that will only have been thinking of foreign policy in a post 9/11 context”, Sanger clarified, “in terms of how you organize yourself, how you deal with immigration, the rise of weak states that strike out and Syria related problems. Candidates are conscious of this younger, post 9/11 voting population.“ Today’s terrorism threats have had marked change on foreign policy debate. “This has been a pretty desolate time for foreign policy types,” Sanger laments, “If you’ve been listening to republicans it’s been a race to who can sound tougher, I’ll carpet bomb them, I’ll build a wall, I’ll make somebody else pay for the wall, you know? This is not foreign policy debate as it was once thought of.”

Sanger rebuked republicans for these generalities, saying, “The subtleties of the issues we are dealing with each and every day which a president has to go deal with, aren’t getting discussed.” Sanger allowed, “It has been a little better on the Democrats’ side only because Secretary Clinton has felt that it has been her big advantage to sort of show readers how much experience and subtlety she’s got in dealing with these issues”. A goal of the Clinton team, Sanger argues has been to “advertise the kind of judgment that comes out of those issues in an effort to try to make it clear how it is that [Secretary Clinton] has got the experience to go handle these issues, unlike the republicans.” Sanger points out that, “With the possible exception of Governor Kasich,” a significant time ago, ”none of [the Republican candidates] have had significant foreign policy experience.”

When asked to reflect on this presidency’s handling of foreign policy issues, Sanger again showed he could be even-handed in his criticism. “I think people will look back at the Obama era and say, they had an awful lot of change on their plate, some of which they could have played better, declaring red lines in Syria and so forth, and some of which they were just lucky to keep their heads above water for.”

Sanger did comment, however, on the increased control on information dissemination instituted by Obama administration. “You may have seen a quote that was rightly attributed to me,” said Sanger, “that said this administration is the most closed, control freak administration in history, and I think that’s right. My next line after that was, ‘and when the next administration comes in, whether it’s a democrat or a republican or something else, it will become the most closed, control freak administration that we’ve ever seen’.” Sanger argues this is not a blip, “we’ve been on a very steady path here towards more and more centralization of information and more and more talking past the traditional media.” Sanger observes, “President Obama has done more on YouTube then he’s done with the New York Times”.

In his tenure as Chief Bureau Correspondent, Sanger found the Bush administration to be more accessible than that of the Obama administration.” While working with the Obama administration, Sanger says he “ran into a particular set of issues after publishing his book titled Confront and Conceal: Obama’s Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power. The book is an account of how Obama has used innovative weapons, such as UAVs and cyberwarfare, and how these have reconfigured American power. Sanger acknowledged, “[The book] led to a lot of investigations on how some of the information got out and that ended up freezing my ability to go deal with some subset of officials in the White House.”

After allegations like those of Ted Cruz about an “untrustworthy media”, this reporter wondered if Sanger feared that the perceived liberal bias of the New York Times would influence his relationship with the next conservative administration. “Fundamentally,” Sanger said, “people in the 20th century came around to the idea that you could trust most of the news you read on the news side, and that you understood the division between news and opinion. If you wanted to go back to the editorial page or the op-ed page as the times create, that’s a different thing.” Sanger, evenly as ever continued, “That has broken down in both the cable world and then somewhat in the digital world, and even in our world, because if you’re looking at the New York Times online, it’s very difficult sometimes, unless you’re paying attention, to focus on what’s editorial and what’s not. It is somewhat of a Pandora’s box.”

Despite Sanger’s prominent career, the refreshing way in which he exhibited a balanced stance on issues not only concerning political debate, but on skepticism of his own industry proved him an even critic.

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