The Backstory: Lee Fang

Investigative reporter Lee Fang discusses how he follows the paper trail to break big news stories and the philosophy that guides his reporting.

Investigative Fund reporting fellow Lee Fang has combed through Congressional correspondence to uncover political hypocrisy as Paul Ryan and other health reform foes begged for Obamacare funds. He has detailed the “Reverse Revolving Door” swinging from corporations into Congress, greased by huge bonuses, and he has revealed the role of corporate trade associations in channeling soft money to political candidates. In this Backstory, Fang discusses his document-gathering techniques, the philosophy that guides his reporting, and where to find the best free lunches in DC. —Darren Ankrom

Darren Ankrom: We’re chatting with Lee Fang, an Investigative Fund reporting fellow and Nation magazine contributing writer. It seems like a big part of your reporting involves following the paper trail, utilizing various documents. How do you access them, and are they mostly public, or are you securing them confidentially via sources?

Lee Fang: You know, I don’t restrict myself in how I get documents for my reporting, I just try every approach that I can think of. But what’s been very helpful to me is just familiarizing myself with the different ways that a lot of documents are just placed online. So, for certain IRS documents, nonprofit disclosures, there are third parties that’ve done a great job in digitizing these records and putting them online, and I’ve kind of gained from how unorganized these documents are, because I think very few reporters actually take the time to look through them because it’s so unorganized. And just taking the time to carefully sift through these types of disclosers that are often overlooked has been very helpful to me. And also just kind of monitoring different government agencies and state governments that are digitizing and putting up records that ordinarily might’ve taken some leg work to locate, that’s been helpful. At the same time, I’ve tried to familiarize myself with some of the more traditional document gathering techniques, like FOIA of course and other public record laws. And finally, you know, there’s been an explosion in social media websites and other websites dedicated to the dissemination of documents. There’s Scribd, there’s SlideShare, there’s about 10 other websites that simply help folks disseminate their documents. So that could be a lobbyist proposal, that could be different brochures from public affairs firms, and a lot of this is very interesting and helpful to my reporting and it’s not something that even existed a few years ago. So its been good for me.

Ankrom: And how did you develop this documents or records expertise? It seems like a lot of people wouldn’t even know how to read the documents you’re relying on, much less write about them.

Fang: When I kind of started out blogging and doing online research I kind of had such deadlines that I had to produce [laughs] content on a regular basis, and you had to get creative when you’re under that type of pressure. The other thing is, I like looking at reporting in the New York Times or something else that’s interesting and trying to pick through, “How do they get those documents?” and replicating it for myself because, you know, no-one candidly reveals how they report a story, right? It’s kind of the mystery of journalism. But you can tell, if you look carefully at a Wall Street Journal story or whatever, if you narrow it down — OK, this was their source. Where in the world are theses sources even available — it just gives you ideas for maybe future reporting and that’s something I always try to do.

Ankrom: What’s been your experience in dealing with the Obama administration in comparison to Bush when it comes to FOIAs or other public document requests?

Fang: I never FOIA’d under Bush so I can’t compare out of personal experience, but from what I understand, the Obama Administration has been very zealous in redacting information, they’ve been slow in responding to FOIAs and their overall response rate when you compare it to previous administrations is pretty low. That was something, I think there was a story on this a couple years ago and I assume this is still a problem, I’m not 100 percent sure. That being said, they have done some things to streamline FOIA, there’s like a website you can do where you can kind of fill out an automated template and send it to like six or seven different agencies or subagencies without writing your own letter. It seems smart, because there should be a standard form when you’re requesting these types of things. I’ve used it once or twice; once it worked well, an agency got back to me in a month and a half, which I think is a pretty good turnaround, others I haven’t even received a notification that they’ve received it. So I don’t know [laughs].

Ankrom: Now getting away from FOIAs a bit, from what I’ve read you seem to focus on a lot of hypocrisy and also use a lot of repetition in your reporting. For example, in “The Reverse Revolving Door,” you list example after example of these people crossing back and forth. How can that make for effective reporting?

Fang: I hope when I report something it inspires other journalists to write about the same topic, and that’s always been kind of my guiding philosophy. I know a lot of reporters take, I think, different strategies. But I get great satisfaction when I see other folks picking up what I’m doing and reporting on their own stories, so I’ve always come about this thinking if I have as much research as possible, for people to not only understand the concept of what I’m trying to explain, but also have all the nuggets there that if they want to go out and do something similar, they have it. Also, just having the maximum amount of research in a story I think just makes it more persuasive on some level, that you’re not just creating a fun scene but you’re actually demonstrating, with evidence, your case. That being said, I’d like to try different strategies of storytelling, but I think this is one that’s always served me well for my interest of just getting research out there and inspiring other folks to take up these topics, if that makes sense.

Ankrom: I’d imagine you’ve gotten very used to hearing “no comment” or perhaps something a little stronger from a lot of the people you’re trying to interview. How do you fairly paint or reference the other side when they’re unwilling to talk?

Fang: Well in some cases, like the American Legislative Exchange Council, instead of just saying “no comment” they then proactively attack you instead, so dealing with that has always been difficult. In ALEC’s case, not only did they attack me online, but when I go to their conference the sent their bodyguards to put me in a headlock and throw me out [laughs], so you have to deal with each of those groups on an individual basis. But I think it’s unfortunate that so many of these — particularly the ideologically conservative groups — are taking the approach of “We just simply won’t comment, we’ll use ad hominem attacks against whatever reporter writes about us,” I think is an unfortunate development, and I think they’re encouraging a culture where I think the reporting, or at least the conversations about these issues, is getting really debased. Like I said, they’d rather resort to ad hominem attacks. And if they’ve got a certain policy position or whatever and they genuinely believe in it, they should be willing to defend it.

Ankrom: You spend a lot of time covering conservative movements for liberal outlets, whether it’s The Nation or ThinkProgress. What drew you to focusing on the other side?

Fang: Well I grew up in the Washington, DC area. The reason I got into politics was multifaceted. I was interested in the Iraq War, I was interested in a lot of the things that the Bush Administration was doing. But what drew me into this as a profession was I would take a lot of internships in Washington, DC, I grew up in Prince George’s County and could jump on the metro and get into DC any time. I was kind of the intern lord, I had like internship after internship after internship just because it was convenient, and I could always metro in, you know, since high school. What always kind of stunned me was that I could open the National Journal or one of these other publications and wherever I wanted to go, on whatever day, I could eat a free meal. I could go to the Cato Institute and have a free catered lunch, I could go to the Heritage Foundation, I could go to any of these conservative outlets — it was always conservative groups almost, I mean, with of course some exceptions — that I could always eat for free and have some of the best food I’ve ever had in my life [laughs] at least at the time. And I think that just got me thinking that there’s that expression “There’s no such thing as a free lunch,” and that the conservative movement is so well-resourced. It’s not just the free lunches; they’ve got the money to buy politicians, to buy discredited ideas and disseminate them among the public, to do agency capture, to really influence society. And I think it was through attending all of these different conservative think tank free lunches, where I was not only introduced to their ideas and what they were about, but also just how much influence they have. From going from getting on the Cato listserv and having a free lunch there to seeing where their op-eds are placed or watching the Social Security privatization debate on the sidelines, seeing how much they dominated that discussion, it just really made an impression on me and made me want to write more about their influence and how they administer it.

Ankrom: And to put this in the simplest way, you seem to have so much to say based on how many articles and blogs I see posted with your byline. Do you always have a number of projects on your back burner or how do you find so many pitches?

Fang: [Laughs.] I feel like I could be doing more because it’s just, there’s so much to write about…. You wake up, like this morning, you see No Child Left Behind being reauthorized with a lot of really strange amendments attached to it. There’s so many stories there. What was the process? What are the implications? What’s going to happen on the Hill? How does this affect students, how does this affect the for-profit companies that might benefit from some of the changes they made? There’s so many questions, and I think the challenge as a reporter is how do you prioritize [laughs], how do you explain things when you know, the whole world, at least for politics, there’s constantly something new, there’s constantly an angle you can take. The challenge though is using your discretion to prioritize your time.

Ankrom: What advice do you have for young journalists, particularly looking to get into progressive magazine journalism?

Fang: You know, I think two things; one, find your niche, at least initially. Is there a political race coming up that that you want to cover, is there a policy issue that you’re interested in? Become an expert and do it really well, because I think that leads to a lot of other opportunities even if you don’t want to take this one type of reporting for the rest of your life, it’s good to establish yourself in some way. And two, don’t follow the herd. There are a lot of, I think, things you can do to just try to replicate what you see in a major media outlet. I would say: try to take it to the next level. Is there a research method that you don’t think anyone else is using? Obsessively take control of that and exploit it. Is there a way of reporting or disseminating your reporting that no-one’s doing? Try that. Just be creative because there’s a lot of competition and you have to distinguish yourself in some way.

Ankrom: Thank you for talking, Lee, and thanks for your work, thanks for your stories.

Fang: Thanks for doing this, I appreciate it.

About the reporter

Lee Fang

Lee Fang

Lee Fang is a journalist with The Intercept with a longstanding interest in how public policy is influenced by organized interest groups.