Free Fall Q & A With FP’s Kevin Baron

Foreign Policy magazine’s Kevin Baron, who typically writes The E-Ring blog, is filling in for Gordon Lubold this week to write the early morning Situation Report. So we caught up with him to see how that’s going. A bit of background on Baron: He came to Foreign Policy last July. Before that, he worked at National Journal for 10 months, and previously significant stints at Stars & Stripes and the Boston Globe. What lured Baron to FP was a newly created national security “channel” on their website to beef up defense reporting. It’s called a “channel” but doesn’t involve TV footage. He explains that the “The E-Ring” — his section — is named for a part of the Pentagon where you find all the big shots, such as former Sec. of Defense Leon Panetta. As a Pentagon reporter, Baron has traveled the world — Angola, Australia, Papua New Guinea, Japan, Korea, Slovakia, Qatar, Djibuti, Egypt, Israel as well as Afghanistan (four trips) and Iraq (four trips). “I don’t get to go on the fun trips like Paris and Rome,” he says. Baron marks the Peruvian chicken as the best food at the Pentagon. He explains that the “Pentagon press cave” is a fire trap because there’s only one door going in and out and only a couple windows. He couldn’t take a picture for FishbowlDC because it’s not permitted and he’d have to get clearance. But he says it’s nothing much to see — a bunch of cubicles, a long common desk. And no wireless. “They took away our wireless,” he says. Reporters must plug in through ethernet cables. To use a cell phone, he has to walk to the “outer ring” or near a window.

What’s your usual beat? I do the Defense Blog. I’m a national security reporter. I cover the Pentagon. I’m at the Pentagon almost every day. I cover Capitol Hill when it’s related to national security stuff. 

What time do you wake up and get to work? For this week, the Situation Report is a morning news letter. We have a pretty global audience. A lot of it is pre-reported the day before. After dinner, before bed I’ll do some writing. I get up 5:30 in the morning, put on coffee, feed the dog and start to piece it all together. I check the overnight news, especially the overseas Afghanistan reports. So I’m at home in my pajamas. I’ve been handing it in between 8 and 8:30. There’s no hard rule. It depends. It’s meant to be something to read after you get to your desk.

I didn’t realize national security reporting could be fun and snappy. Is that what your trying to achieve as the substitute Situation Report writer this week while Lubold is on vacation? That’s kind of what I like to achieve in all my writing honestly. That’s just my style. The more uninhibited I am, the better the prose is. Finding the voice can be difficult, especially when you’re trained to not have a voice. Up and coming journalists, I would highly recommend them to [know how to] do it all.

Why won’t you tell us where Lubold is? It’s so awful of you to tell us only that it involves sun, tropical and freckles. I should’ve asked him if he minds. It’s his vacation. I’m not going to publish his vacation. He’s getting sun, he’s on vacation. Is he out of the country or in the United States? I can’t say. [Grumbles and other sounds of irritation.] Come on, you can tell me that. No, I can’t.

You cover very serious world topics. Does it ever make you afraid or put more thoughts in your head as to what could happen? Um, I think it makes you more aware, but not more afraid. Just the opposite. It demystifies everything.

What do you think is the most likely event to happen? We spend so much time covering wars far from our shores. I don’t walk around town looking at security measures. I’m focused on whether the trillions of dollars chasing terrorists in the Middle East has had any effect on, not just American safety, but global security. I think this is the best beat in town in that I literally don’t know what I’m going to cover everyday. One day you’re covering military suicides, the next day you’re writing about whether Chuck Hagel hates Israel. You never know, it’s a great mix.

Coming up… Baron’s thoughts on Prince Harry.What do you think about Prince Harry coming to Washington? I love it. I hope we can have a beer together. I love any blend of pop culture and national affairs. Man, this is what attracts eyeballs. I’m interested to see how much he says, how much it’s photo ops.

Tone wise are you trying to be more like Mike Allen of Politico Playbook or Eliot Nelson of HuffPost Hill or neither? Neither. These are serious issues but they have to be accessible to mass audiences. I try to stay away from snark. It’s most of everything you hear on cable news. The trick of being a national security blogger is finding a voice that can be real and vernacular and engaging, but taken seriously. I can make fun of Gen. Dempsey singing all day long, but I also have to take every word he says seriously and get an interview with him just like everyone else. When you’re on the Pentagon beat it’s a mix of traveling around the world with the Sec. of Defense’s entourage where you’re responsible for conveying U.S. National Security issues to global audiences. At the same time, you’re going to see half their staffers walking around in their pajamas or having drinks at the bar. Its’ a big mix of earning trust.

Speaking of trust, what do you think of the Michael Hastings brand of military reporting? I know Michael and I know his reporting well. As far as his Stanley McChrystal reporting, I’ve yet to hear a rebuttal. I think there is room for all styles of all journalism and reporting. There’s plenty of room for Michael Hastings and a lot more.

How cozy do reporters get with the military? This is a beat that isn’t very big. There aren’t many reporters that have stuck with military reporting for a really long time. To do the best work you have to stick around for awhile. It’s a beat that requires dexterity to be objective, honest, and hard-hitting while placing your life in the hands of the guys you are scrutinizing. There are  range of reporters who hare openly affectionate with the military and others who are much more guarded about how they feel about the military. What I have found is there are great reporters on both of those sides.

Where do you fall? I think I’m still on the side of keeping a fairly tall wall between my journalism and the military. But this is my fifth year in the Pentagon and I have absolutely taken on a greater appreciation for every aspect of military life and the people and what they do.

There was talk on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” today about people who don’t sleep and how fat they get. How many hours of sleep do you get on average? And sorry, I’m not suggesting that you’re fat. Five. I’m a bit of a night owl. I stay up late and I have three young boys who will wake me. Coffee is a journalist’s best friend. They know my name and my drink at the Starbucks.

What is it? I like a double tall mocha with no whip.