Taylor Barnes is an Inkstick Media field reporter and investigative journalist whose work covers militarism, the defense industry, and foreign affairs. Her work has appeared in CNN International, The Intercept, Public Radio International, USA Today, the New York Times, and other publications. This is part of a series of interviews in which you can get to know the grants given under the 2022 Equity Rises Request for Proposals and the people behind all the work.
Question 1: Tell us about your work! What kind of goals do you have? What are you excited about?
Thanks to the Equity Rises grant, I’ve joined Inkstick Media as field reporter for military affairs and the defense industry, a.k.a., the military-industrial complex (MIC). Tremendous military spending is one of the defining features of American life; the United States’ war spending exceeds the GDP of all but 17 countries, and about half of that amount goes to private contractors. The MIC is usually covered by Beltway journalists reporting from the Pentagon or in the financial press covering companies’ earnings calls and business affairs.
I instead report on the hundreds of billions of dollars the US spends on the military each year through the lens of workforces and company towns caught up in it. I believe this adds much-needed geographic diversity to the public's understanding of the MIC. In the South and elsewhere, I’ve reported in numerous military-industrial towns where the defense industry evades public scrutiny and rarely is the subject of on-the-ground accountability journalism. Yet its presence in towns across the United States gives the military and private defense contractors powerful political and economic sway on the local level, influencing how people live and work, how vast tracts of land are used and sometimes polluted, and who can profit from local resources. Taxpayer money often goes to subsidize projects linked to the military without local constituents getting a meaningful say in whether they would like those public funds to be spent on other sectors.
My goal is that illuminating these connections helps readers across the country understand how massive flows of military spending affect their daily lives. I also hope that rigorous, revelatory journalism can be one of the tools in their toolbox to engage powerful economic and political players in their towns.
Question 2: What questions do you ask yourself and others when you research a story? How do you approach these topics that can sometimes be deeply sensitive to the people you’re interviewing?
As I start a reporting project, I first think about the people involved in it. Who is the audience for this piece? Whose stories will be told in it, and what will it mean for them to have their stories synthesized and preserved via the written word? Will this story be here today and gone tomorrow in the ether of the internet, or will it be something with a shelf life that people with a stake in the issue continue to read and share amongst themselves?
When I speak with someone in the field, say, someone who may work at a Pentagon contractor or be a dissenter within their families or towns, I’m less interested in getting a “juicy story” than I am in understanding what kind of story an individual has to tell and why they want to tell it. What do they want to contribute to this conversation? Many of the people I speak with have rarely or never been quoted in the media before, let alone in the military press. What does it mean for them and for readers to have new spokespeople telling the story of the MIC? How can journalism be a tool to diversify the field of people who can engage and debate this fundamental feature of American life?
Question 3: What's the most interesting or memorable project you've gotten involved with in your career?
This is hard to choose! I really enjoy getting to dive into a new town and meet the people and see the places tied up in its military industry. I then get to keep up with the people I’ve met and see how their stories play out over the following years. I kickstarted my reporting in Huntsville, Ala., by attending a union training that taught the basics of organizing a workplace. Even though I did so in order to meet new people and get story ideas for reporting, I, as a byproduct, also learned some really important labor lessons that I’ve taken into my own field as my colleagues and I to improve our working conditions as journalists.
Reporting in Asheville, N.C., was also fantastic because it was like a textbook lesson in participative democracy unfolding in real time. There, a proposal to offer about $100 million in state and local subsidies to Raytheon could have easily never made it onto the public’s radar, in no small part because the defense contractor required county and economic development officials to sign non-disclosure agreements! Once the public did get wind of the project, however, they passionately debated it for reasons that ranged from global (citizens mentioned at public forums that the company’s weapons were being used in the war in Yemen, for example) to the hyperlocal (such as concerns that the new plant would contaminate an important water source).
Question 4: What’s the one thing about the defense industry you wish people knew or would talk about more often?
Decisions about the defense industry are not just made at the national level (i.e., what happens in Congress, the White House and the Pentagon) but absolutely are made at the hyperlocal level. State and local governments hand out taxpayer money in subsidies (in official jargon, usually called “economic development incentives”) to defense contractors and also pass legislation (such as “right-to-work” laws that disempower unions) that can increase contractors’ profits to the detriment of workers and taxpayers. If a citizen wants to be able to pay attention to what’s going on in regards to the military industry in their hometowns, there are some good resources to get started, such as running a spending profile on USAspending.gov and checking out your state profile on the Office of Local Defense Community Cooperation.
Sometimes, like the people in Asheville did, you also have to learn to read between the lines. People there saw a notice in the newspaper that a public meeting would soon be held to debate “incentives” for an unnamed “aerospace firm” and understood that, in layman’s terms, that very well may mean subsidies for a defense contractor. They started asking questions and then formed a whole watchdog group to track the issue.
Question 5: Who or what motivates you?
My journey to imagining, formulating and executing this journalistic beat has been years in the making. Broadly speaking, I started with an aversion to war and human rights abuses and worked backwards. Americans largely say they oppose “forever wars” and nonetheless they go full steam ahead; if not public support, what political and economic forces keep those forever wars going? I’m also a post-Great Recession millennial who struggled financially with student debt and the terrible job market my generation graduated into. That motivated me to start working backwards with regards to public spending. If not for better education, housing, and healthcare, what did the United States spend its fortune on?
I’m also very motivated by my colleagues in journalism who continue to press on and do such quality work even when the deck is stacked against us – our industry in financial freefall, animosity toward the press stoked by powerful political figures, and bad-faith actors who will do all they can to make our work hard so that the public doesn’t know what they are up to.
Question 6: How can someone best support your work?
Send tips! Military spending likely touches many aspects of daily life in your town and definitely in your state. What kind of stories do you wish the public heard more about? My email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Your financial support to Inkstick Media is also a powerful way to make this work possible. As much of traditional media has shrunk or died off, public interest and nonprofit outlets have cropped up in their place, filling voids and reimagining how to cover areas like the environment, criminal justice, local news, etc. Inkstick is a nonprofit outlet taking that approach to national security and foreign affairs. By doing so, it sets itself apart from much of the military press that is funded by defense contractors who have a financial stake in the issues covered in those outlets.
My position at Inkstick is grant-funded, so its survival depends on the backers who believe in this work and its independent stance.
Question 7: What is the best piece of journalism you’ve read recently?
I really enjoyed Elisabeth Eaves’ “Why is America getting a new $100 billion nuclear weapon?” in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. If all politics is local, perhaps all (or at least much!) of Pentagon spending is also parochial. The story was reported among the people and places tied up in the new intercontinental ballistic missile and takes readers to places like the Chamber of Commerce in Great Falls, Montana, and a family farm in rural Montana where a landowner resents having to play host to a nuclear weapons silo.
I also really enjoyed my colleague Olivia Paschal’s recent report in the American Prospect, “The Modern-Day Company Towns of Arkansas.” She does a deep dive into two small towns dominated each by Tyson Foods and Walmart. She shows the symbiotic (albeit unequal and detrimental) relationship between the local populations and the companies. Yes, residents rely on those companies for jobs and patronage, but the firms also leverage that local economic dependence for political and reputational gains that, in turn, increase their economic power. Her story isn’t about the defense industry, but similar ones could be written about many military towns.
In addition to those articles, I’ve learned a lot from some really great books, both academic and journalistic, that tell the story of the military-industrial complex through the lens of specific places tied up in it, such as “Cold War Dixie,” by Kari Frederickson, about the Savannah River Site in South Carolina; “The Missile Next Door,” by Gretchen Heefner, about the ICBM fields in the American West; “Spoils of War,” by John Tirman, about the arms industry in Connecticut; “Making a Real Killing,” by Len Ackland, about environmental and labor abuses at a nuclear weapons plant in Colorado; and “Homefront,” by Catherine Lutz, about the United States’ largest military base, Fort Bragg, in North Carolina
In the latter, Lutz asks: “How did it come to be that we live in a society made by war and preparations for war?... Are we all military dependents, wearers of civilian camouflage?” Those questions inform much of my work and why I seek to include new, diverse voices – those many “wearers of civilian camouflage” – in my journalism.