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Government Executive Editor in Chief Tom Shoop, along with other editors and staff correspondents, look at the federal bureaucracy from the outside in.

Diplomacy as Literature

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I'll admit that I haven't delved deeply into the WikiLeaks mess this week, partly because it's been a busy week for events here at GovExec and partly because there's been another elephant in the room when it comes to federal news. But aside from the obvious security and diplomatic implications, I have to say I've been surprised to see how many people have commented on the quality of the writing in the cables that have now made their way into the public eye.

"Is the Pulitzer board reading this stuff?" Slate's Christopher Beam asked yesterday. "At their best," he added, "these cables read like their own literary genre."

In the Washington Post, Dana Milbank wrote that "the leaks have shown the world that somewhere within the U.S. diplomatic corps lurks literary genius."

What lurks below the surface of these comments is a tone of surprise that government officials could have produced this kind of work. But really, is it that shocking? First of all, it's not exactly news that diplomatic cable-writing is a practiced art with long-established conventions. Retired diplomat Ronald Neumann told NPR that "the important things in writing a telegram, a cable, as we call it, are to convey important information succinctly, well-written and in a way that will catch the attention of a policymaker." It's not surprising that such efforts would result in writing that approaches the level of literature, especially given the cloak-and-dagger nature of some of the subjects covered.

Second, the people who produce these reports are not only among the most educated and talented in government, but in the whole country. It's not like just anybody off the street can pass the Foreign Service exam and then actually earn a diplomatic position.

 

Tom Shoop is vice president and editor in chief at Government Executive Media Group, where he oversees both print and online editorial operations. He started as associate editor of Government Executive magazine in 1989; launched the company’s flagship website, GovExec.com, in 1996; and was named editor in chief in 2007.

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