John Walcott: Award-Winning Georgetown Professor, Journalist, and Film Inspiration

by Jessica Kosmider, MSFS '19

John Walcott, a Georgetown Master of Science in Foreign Service (MSFS) professor and the foreign policy and national security editor at Reuters, has three recommendations for aspiring MSFS policymakers: tell the truth; speak your mind; and listen before reaching and then communicating a decision. These lessons, which he learned over his forty years as a journalist and twenty years of teaching, have also guided him as he has reported on complex issues, including weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The first lesson - telling the truth - is important because it provides credibility, something that can be easily lost and impossible to recover. For policymakers, Walcott argues that the greatest damage comes not from mistakes - “people make mistakes all the time” - but rather, from “lies and attempts to cover up lies.” The role of the media in this respect is particularly poignant. It is their responsibility “to hold those in power accountable, whether it’s political power, military power, economic power, or, as we’ve seen in the #MeToo Movement, a kind of social power.”

The media must also continue adhering to this principle to preserve its credibility at a time when the media landscape is dramatically changing. “The fundamental difference,” Walcott says, “is that for thousands of years information was precious. It was restricted to a handful of people who were learned and literate. Nowadays, information is ubiquitous and it’s time that’s become precious.” However, the media’s job, Walcott argues, has remained consistent: “to ensure the accuracy of content and to maintain credibility by assuring that [reporting is] free of bias.”

The second lesson - speak your mind - has led him to question accepted narratives and expose the truth. For example, while working for Knight Ridder in 2003, Walcott and his current Reuters colleagues, Jonathan Landay and Warren Strobel, uncovered and published stories challenging President George W. Bush administration’s assertions that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks. “[It] made no sense whatsoever, because Iraq wasn’t a natural ally of Al-Qaeda and it was clear it was an Al-Qaeda attack,” said Walcott. “Why would a secular dictator be aligned with a radical Sunni extremist?”

Searching for these discrepancies, what Walcott calls spotting the “sins of omission,” can be challenging. Yet, developing these skills and speaking up are imperative for impactful policymakers. “It’s a matter of tuning your ears the way you tune a musical instrument - to hear, read, or see things that simply don’t make sense,” Walcott advised. In the context of Iraq and claims of WMDs, Walcott’s reporting was so groundbreaking that Rob Reiner, the force behind films like A Few Good Men and When Harry Met Sally, has directed a new film, Shock and Awe*, showcasing it.

Walcott’s final lesson, to listen, is the most important, he says. “Policymaking is not about barking orders. It’s about listening first and then making decisions and communicating, but listening is the most important skill of all; and that’s throughout a lifetime. That’s true personally and professionally.”

Walcott, who received an award recognizing his two decades at Georgetown University during the Spring Faculty Convocation on April 5, extends this priority to the classroom, saying that listening to his students has helped in numerous ways. “I generally end the semester feeling like I’ve learned more from the students than they’ve learned from me, and that’s because of the diversity of the student body in the MSFS program...and because of the generational difference,” he said.

*Shock and Awe will be screened in select U.S. theaters starting July 13, 2018. It stars Rob Reiner, Woody Harrelson, James Marsden, Jessica Biel, and Tommy Lee Jones, among others.