James Fallows

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

James Fallows: Articles

  • Raw Footage from Coal Country

    A longer look at coal country from the air

    My story on the inescapability of coal, and how governments, scientists, and companies in the U.S. and China are trying to head off coal-borne climate disaster, is now online here. But, as always, it's better in print, and print keeps us in business, so please subscribe!

    As often seems to happen in a project this complex, I'm aware of at least two details about which I'll need to clarify my explanation. Specifics on those some time later today. This kind of rapid-update function is where the web is a help.

    Thanks to my colleagues Sullivan and Green for their notes about the story; and to Alexis Madrigal, for his detailed explanation of how "mountaintop-removal" coal mining (MTR) looks when you see it from relatively low altitude in a small airplane. He also has a don't-miss map of how far the the largest West Virginia "MTR" mines would extend if overlaid on Washington DC.

    On his site Alexis has posted a video that Jennie Rothenberg Gritz edited, with conversation between the two of us and some brief clips of the mines as seen from the air. If you're interested in longer, "B-Roll" footage from our overflight, see the clip below. Starting at about time 3:00 (of a 10 minute clip), you will see what Alexis Madrigal was recording as we flew over some of the most extensive MTR areas of southern West Virginia. (The earlier part shows our approach to some of the most heavily mined areas, and the clip opens with one very stark mine.)



    The chatter you hear in this clip is byplay between me and Alexis over the plane's intercom, as we try to match the areas we've marked on maps with what we're seeing below us. You will soon figure out that not all of it was uttered with a potential audience (outside the plane) in mind. You'll also hear discussion about bumpiness and winds--we'd decided not to fly the preceding day, when the winds over the Appalachians were very strong with resulting whitewater-style turbulence in the air. Even though winds were much lighter on the day of our trip, the bumps were enough to show up in the video and to be a theme of discussion.

    Nonetheless, if you watch for a minute or two (again, starting around 3:00), you'll have a sense of the scale of these marks on the earth. As Alexis Madrigal says in his post:

    >>Coal is the land in some places. When you mine it from the surface, the land is just gone, hence the name "mountaintop-removal" coal mining.<<

    More »

  • From the Archives: 'Countdown to a Meltdown' 2005

    What we knew about the 2010 election (and beyond) back in 2005

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    Five years ago, when the housing market and the stock market were still both going strong, the Atlantic ran as a cover story my article "Countdown to a Meltdown." It was an imagined history of the Presidential Election of 2016, and the "MacGuffin" of its plotline was the big (and at the time also imaginary) housing/financial crash of the late 2000s. The idea was that prolonged economic chaos discredited both of the main political parties and cleared the way for a third, "let's cut the crap" party to take the White House six years from now. It's written in the form of a "What do we do now?" memo from the new party's Karl Rove equivalent to the candidate destined to win in 2016.

    Obviously a lot of the details and color in the story are out of date now. I was, after all, writing it early in 2005, soon after George W. Bush had been sworn in for a second term. But some of the patterns will not seem so outdated. I think it's worth a look.

    LookingAtTheSun.jpgAnd while I'm at it, I might as well add an even older item from the archives, "How the World Works," from 1993, about the mismatches between the U.S. economy, as influenced by its political values and prevailing ideology, and the export-related economies of Asia. Japan, which was a main focus of that story, differs in very significant ways from today's emerging China. But there are similarities too. The article then became part of my book Looking at the Sun. FWIW.

  • Castro: I Was Wrong During Cuban Missile Crisis

    Another participant in the Cuban Missile Crisis says: we came too close to war

    Jeffrey Goldberg's online account just now of his recent visit with Fidel Castro, in Havana, is fascinating in many ways. But the part that got my attention comes at the end, when Castro expresses his fear that an Iranian/Israeli/US showdown could get out of control. He tells Goldberg: 

    "Men think they can control themselves but Obama could overreact and a gradual escalation could become a nuclear war." I asked him if this fear was informed by his own experiences during the 1962 missile crisis, when the Soviet Union and the U.S. nearly went to war other over the presence of nuclear-tipped missiles in Cuba (missiles installed at the invitation, of course, of Fidel Castro). I mentioned to Castro the letter he wrote to Khruschev, the Soviet premier, at the height of the crisis, in which he recommended that the Soviets consider launching a nuclear strike against the U.S. if the Americans attack Cuba. "That would be the time to think about liquidating such a danger forever through a legal right of self-defense," Castro wrote at the time.

    I asked him, "At a certain point it seemed logical for you to recommend that the Soviets bomb the U.S. Does what you recommended still seem logical now?" He answered: "After I've seen what I've seen, and knowing what I know now, it wasn't worth it all."

    I haven't followed the full literature of the Cuban Missile Crisis closely enough to know whether or how often Castro has expressed similar pentimenti before. But whenever he started revealing such a changed outlook, it is a significant complement to the views of the Kennedy Administration officials who were in charge at the time, many of whom looked back in relief and horror at how close the world had come to an uncontrolled nuclear exchange.

    The full dispatch from Havana is very much worth reading, as presumably will be the second online installment; and the upcoming print magazine account; and Jeff Goldberg's promised omnibus reply to supporters and critics of his original article contending that Israel is planning to bomb Iran. Obvious point worth restating: the ripple effects of this article, which have ranged from Castro's inviting the author for a visit, to impassioned international debate about what the governments of Israel, Iran, and America "really" intend and what this article "really" signified, show the way a venerable print publication is enmeshed in the connected, international, real-time "world brain," creating a kind of discussion and feedback that simply was not possible before. More on that later. For now, click over to the Havana report.

  • Compliments (Journalism Division)

    Three strong examples of what journalism can do -- even now!

    1) NY Review. Yes, the Atlantic is the best magazine of all. But for an outstanding single issue of any publication, you'd have to try hard -- and we will! -- to top the current issue of the New York Review of Books.

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    So many of the pieces in this issue are outstanding -- table of contents here, many of the articles behind a paywall -- that it would be invidious to start running down the list. I would be afraid to leave some out.

    Instead I'll say that in addition to coverage of politics and war and Cuba and culture and the Supreme Court and the health-care reform bill and Dubai and film and history and the Euro and artists and war of the genders and a lot more, there is a piece about the World Cup, by a life-long soccer lover, that ratifies my life-long decision to give soccer a pass.  This one, "The Shame of the World Cup," is online free. It's by the British writer Tim Parks and, in keeping with the glorious tradition of English sporting self-loathing (previously here), it ends thus: "In the event the grand finale was a disgrace; it also offered another pathetic 'English' performance in the shape of the referee, Howard Webb." There is incredibly much more in this issue.

    2) WaPo. Yes, the Post has had its travails, which various writers, including me, have chronicled in dispatches too numerous to link to. Last month its big take-out series on the shadow world of the intel-industrial complex got deserved praise. Here's a more modest feature that I thought remarkable: a photo-essay from the Washington Post Sunday magazine, with stark Margaret Bourke-White-ish portrayals of the physical infrastructure of Washington.
     
    DavidDealWaPo.pngThis is a sample, a shot of the Bryant Street pumping station, in NW DC. The online show of the photos is very good, but they looked even more dramatic in the magazine itself. The photos are by David Deal, based in Charlottesville, and accompanying essay by the WaPo's Steve Hendrix. I know Deal slightly, and eons ago Hendrix was an intern-assistant for me. The reason I found this presentation in the magazine so impressive and encouraging is that it was quite a gutsy thing to do: to commit that much expense and that much space within the magazine simply to pictures -- and photos whose quality and impact we associate with the glory days of Life and Fortune magazines in the Thirties and Forties. From Hendrix's essay:

    "Deal has a subcategory of interest in hidden spaces: the public places that now sit forlorn, abandoned and moldering invisibly, sometimes in plain sight. The most surprising of these is the old Uline Arena, a cavernous cylindrical dome in Northeast near the New York Avenue Metro station that is overlooked by thousands of Red Line commuters a day. A former hockey arena now doing duty as a filthy parking garage, it is an urban cavern with a remarkable pedigree: It was the site of the Beatles's first American concert. The boys set up just about where a Toyota Tundra with Virginia plates can be found on most work days."

    3) The Atlantic online: There is more on this site each day that any one person can read, let alone assess. But I can't not mention Alexis Madrigal's feature yesterday on "robot traders," which is a real feat of exposition, illustration, and explanation. In ye olden days, that could have stood as an article in the "real" magazine. Now, just part of the cornucopia.

    Only meta-point: even during these end days for journalism, or at least the journalism biz, lots of first-rate work going on.

  • In-House Links: Byrd, Coates & Goldberg, Epps & Kagan

    A profile of the late Sen. Robert Byrd as a young(er) man on the rise

    1) The Atlantic has just scanned and digitized an excellent 1975 profile of Sen. Robert Byrd, who of course died early this morning. The article is here; it was by Sanford Ungar, my immediate predecessor as "Washington Editor" of the magazine. (In days of yore, the Atlantic was in Boston, and the head of the one-person DC operation -- Elizabeth Drew in the late Sixties, then Ungar in the mid Seventies, then me starting in 1979 -- was dignified as the Washington Editor. Now all our editors are Washington Editors!) There are a few small OCR errors still in the piece, which will be cleaned up soon; thanks to members of our staff for doing it right away.

    The Ungar piece is fascinating as an illustration of how much has changed in 35 years -- Byrd at the time was the junior Senator from West Virginia, and enjoyed toying with the idea that he could be a presidential contender -- and how many of the dramatis personae are the same. Joe Biden appears, for instance, as a tyro first-term Senator. Josh Green on this article here.

    2) For the record, as followup on the controversy over David Weigel's departure from the Washington Post, which I mentioned here, I should mention the back-and-forth between my colleagues T-N Coates and J Goldberg. TNC here and here; Goldberg here, and with an invitation in response to Glen Greenwald's critique of him, here. I am noting this rather than getting in the middle of it, on the principle that there are no longer any unexpressed thoughts on the topic.

    3) Bonus in-house update: Garrett Epps, a distinguished historian and novelist, a longtime friend, and a wonderful addition to our Atlantic lineup, on what Elena Kagan really should say at her hearing, though she probably will not. Also, on the historical/legal background to the McChrystal case, here.

  • FDL / JF

    For the record, this afternoon I was on a live 90-minute Book Salon session on Firedoglake.com.  Transcript of 100-odd comments is here. Topics included Ralph Nader, Senate reform, my "going to hell" article, the desirability of a new American revolution, and the fact that many FDL denizens were not sold on my premises or conclusion in that article.

  • From the magazine: Field of dreams in China

    The new issue of the Atlantic is worth reading cover to cover -- and IMHO better read on paper than on line. For sometime soon: talking systematically about what kind of material is best read, scanned, absorbed, enjoyed in what kinds of media - handheld, computer screen, "real" print, Kindle-style reader, and so on.

    For the moment, a mention of my own very short article in this issue: a profile of an American family that has ended up in one of the most beautiful parts of China, trying -- against considerable odds -- to put together a coalition of local residents, Communist party officials, businesses, and NGOs to preserve traditional Chinese culture against the onslaught of kitsch-style development otherwise transforming the country's look. Their adopted home town is Xizhou, in the lush, southerly Yunnan province, and this is one view of their "Linden Centre," with local kids biking by.

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    More on Brian and Jeanee Linden and their ambitions here, and a four-minute narrated slideshow of the town, the center, the family, and the challenge is below (or here). That is Brian Linden, who first became known in China 25 years ago when cast in a movie about a famous and tragic US-Chinese interaction, in blue jeans and white shirt in the opening shot below.
     

    If you can make your way to Yunnan, this is very much worth a visit. Below a look at "downtown" Xizhou this spring, with the bean harvest being threshed.

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    From a terrace in the Linden Centre.

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  • Corazon Aquino

    Cory_Aquino_-_Woman_of_the_Year.jpgI am sorry to hear of the death yesterday of Corazon Aquino -- former president of the Philippines, widow of the assassinated senator Benigno Aquino, heroine of the "EDSA Revolution" of 1986 that drove Ferdinand Marcos from power.

    In 1987 I wrote an article about Aquino and the Philippines arguing that the removal of Marcos was sadly not likely to correct the deeper problems of political corruption and economic inequality in the country. The article was called "A Damaged Culture" and was extremely controversial in the Philippines at the time, and to a degree still now. The article as originally published is available here. Some if its references from 22 years ago now seem dated. Unfortunately many others do not. And in any reference to the Philippines, it is always important to mention the works of the great Filipino novelist F. Sionil "Frankie" Jose, whom I wrote about in the Atlantic in 1995 here and visited in Manila early this year, as described here.

    From the original article, about Corazon Aquino's prospects:

    "Because previous changes of government have meant so little to the Philippines, it is hard to believe that replacing Marcos with Aquino, desirable as it doubtless is, will do much besides stanching the flow of crony profits out of the country. In a sociological sense the elevation of Corazon Aquino through the EDSA revolution should probably be seen not as a revolution but as the restoration of the old order. Marcos's rise represented the triumph of the nouveau riche. He was, of course, an Ilocano, from the tough, frugal Ilocos region, in the northwest corner of Luzon. Many of those whom he enriched were also outsiders to the old-money, old-family elite that had long dominated the country's politics. These elite groups, often referred to in shorthand as Makati (the name of the wealthy district and business center of Manila), regarded Marcos the way high-toned Americans regarded Richard Nixon: clever and ambitious, but so uncouth.

    "Corazon Aquino's family, the Cojuangcos, is part of this landowning elite...."

    RIP.

  • Coda (for now) to the Mischke saga

    David Brauer, of MinnPost.com, has posted a two-part Q-and-A with Tommy Mischke, the recently-deposed radio humorist-genius of KSTP in St. Paul. (Previously on this subject here, here, and -- eight years ago in an Atlantic article - here.)
    (Mischke, as "shown" in our magazine story in 2000:)
    mischke.jpg

    The really surprising part of the interview is Mischke's description of exactly why he was fired "for cause" and with no warning, severance, benefits, phase-out period, etc. That's in Part 1 of the interview. In Part 2, he talks about the economic future of radio, the choices available to people like him who don't fit the standard AM political-talk mold, and various other challenges that will sound uncomfortably familiar to people in print journalism. Worth reading for culture-of-media purposes even if you've never heard of Mischke and don't care about life in "good old St. Paul, big-time Minneapolis" as Mischke always refers to "The Cities" on his show.

    Actually, one other point. I hadn't looked at my article on Mischke for lo these past eight years, but I did so just now. After the jump is one passage that tries to convey the on-air effect. And, for another long interview with Mischke from three years ago, go to the MischkeMadness site here.
    ________

    More »

  • Non-politics, non-tech, non-China: Istanbul!

    Twice during our past two and a half years of living in China, my wife and I have made vacation trips to Turkey. I had not been before and now really regret that fact.

    My brief travel article in the new issue of the Atlantic, here, offers a vignette that may convey part of what I found so intriguing about Istanbul. This slide show, with the Atlantic's slickest new video-effect tools by Jennie Rothenberg Gritz, has more of the Ottoman empire look. Go see for yourself -- I mean, not just via the articles but with a trip to Turkey.
     
    http://i142.photobucket.com/albums/r96/jfallows/IMG_2330B.jpg

  • Gao Xiqing interview in the new Atlantic

    I think highly of Gao Xiqing. He is the president of the China Investment Corporation, which oversees about $200 billion of China's overseas investment, largely in U.S. markets. (You think you're worried about the market's collapse....) He knows the United States and American culture well: he went to Duke Law School in the 1980s, was the first Chinese citizen to pass the NY State Bar, and practiced at Richard Nixon's old firm, Mudge, Rose. And he gives every sign of having enjoyed this immersion in America. Twenty years ago he came back to help build China's securities industry, and he took his current position when the CIC was created last year.

    fallows-chinese-banker-wide.jpg

    Gao has an earthy, jokey command of colloquial English and -- at least on my exposure to him -- he laughs frequently, including about himself. (The picture above is how he would look just before cracking a joke.) I was grateful that he agreed to an on-the-record interview, in Beijing, shortly before the U.S. presidential election. I think it is worth reading with some care: the article about the interview is in the new issue, here.

    In the previous issue of the Atlantic, I complained that Chinese officialdom generally has a tin ear when it comes to explaining itself to the outside world. It is trapped in formulations and stilted language -- "jackal with a human face" to refer to a certain "splittist" leader of Tibetans, for instance -- and seems unable to present arguments that actually engage the thought processes of the outside world, as opposed to reflecting internal-Chinese concepts and power plays. Gao is a striking exception. I am in no position to assess his financial expertise, but I can judge his ability to engage seriously with outside questions. If more powerful Chinese people spoke more often to more outsiders this way, things would be better all around. 


  • Jackal with a human face (updated)

    The new issue of the Atlantic, just up on line (and available with great photos and new design for subscribers) has among many other offerings my article about the ways in which Chinese officialdom so often makes the country look so much worse than it really is. It also includes an explanation of the "jackal" headline here.*

    I just know this will be taken by all concerned in the spirit of constructive criticism! That's what I'm saying to friends here in Beijing.

    UPDATE: Interesting to see, in this BBC dispatch, that China's former ambassador to France is making a similar on-the-record constructive criticism of his own government. (Thanks to reader T.H.):

    [Former ambassador] Wu Jianmin says China's image problem is caused at least in part by its own officials because they do not know how to communicate with the outside world.

    He says they waste time using political cliches, talking nonsense, and making empty or outrageous claims.

    _____
    *Hint: when trying to discredit a Nobel Peace Prize winner also seen as a religious leader in much of the world and by some important sub-groups within China, what subtle imagery would some Chinese leaders choose?

  • Non-politics: Yellow Sheep River in Chinese

    As previously mentioned here and here, the Atlantic's October issue has an article I put a lot of effort and heart into. It was about an idealistic attempt to improve the prospects for children living in China's remote, scenic, and very poor far western regions, including an area called Yellow Sheep River. The article, "How the West Was Wired," is here, and a narrated slideshow is here.

    If anyone was waiting to read it in Chinese, a translated version, prepared by the "Town and Talent" organization described in the article, is now available here.

    I realize that there is some irony in announcing, in English, the availability of a version for people who are not comfortable reading English. (Like the safety cards in airline exit rows: "If you cannot read these instructions, please let the flight crew know...") Still, I know that many Chinese readers are English-literate but naturally prefer to handle long material in Chinese. Here it is.

  • Three from the archives

    In the middle of Hellzapoppin news developments on the political and economic and photo-journalism fronts, I am more or less off the grid for a few days -- out of touch, ironically, because I am immersed in meetings at a company that is all about the internet. For the moment, please indulge me in references to three past Atlantic articles I think are relevant to the day's news:

    1) From three years ago, Countdown to a Meltdown, in the Atlantic. Some parts of this imagined-history of the great American real estate and financial collapse of the late Bush era now seem amusingly dated. But I submit that as a primer on the factors behind the real estate and financial collapse of the late Bush era, it's not bad and is worth another look.

    2) From nine months ago, The $1.4 Trillion Question. The ordinary people of China, via their government's investment of the country's accumulated trade surpluses, are tremendously exposed to the American real estate and financial meltdown. The difference between those Chinese investors and the Americans who have lost their homes, pensions, jobs, etc is that the Chinese are on average so much poorer. Again I think the article stands up all right in explaining how this arrangement happened, and how long the Chinese will put up with it.

    3) From this month, How the West Was Wired. Ok, this isn't immediately connected to the breaking news. But, for me, it puts some of that news in perspective -- and describes a part of China and a slice of the human experience that left a bigger emotional mark on me than anything else I have seen in the last two years of travel through this country. On the chance that it will be overlooked in Lehman/AIG/lipstick frenzy, I mention it once more. Along with this slide show and this link to a charitable organization that is doing very impressive work and deserves support.

    Back to Hellzapoppin in due course.

  • Yellow Sheep River

    The new issue of the Atlantic is in subscribers' hands and up on the web. It includes my story on a touching and quixotic effort by two businessmen / idealists to bring the good parts of modern technology to a remote village in Gansu Province called Yellow Sheep River. Here is one of the people I write about, Kenny Lin, on horseback near a Tibetan prayer-flag structure in the 11,000-foot highlands outside Yellow Sheep River.

     http://i142.photobucket.com/albums/r96/jfallows/IMG_3568.jpg

    There's an accompanying slide show, here, narrated with my best Beijing-air-induced chronic rasp, that gives an idea of how completely different China's far western regions look from the images of Shanghai and Beijing now familiar on TV.

    The story talks about an odd-sounding but intriguing effort to lift children from rural poverty via ...blogging! In effect, it gives them scholarships that allow them to stay in (public) school, and in return they chronicle their lives in words and pictures on web sites, developing tech skills along the way. Here are some the children he is trying to help:

    http://i142.photobucket.com/albums/r96/jfallows/IMG_3537.jpg

    The main Chinese site for this project is here; the English language version is here. It includes an easy way to sponsor students for this work, as my wife and I have done and will continue to do.

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The minds behind House of Cards and The Moth weigh in.

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A studio executive concocts an animated blockbuster. Who cares about the story?

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The co-founder of OKCupid shares findings from his analysis of millions of users' data.

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We're overthinking sandwiches, so you don't have to.

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Why does smoking maintain its allure? James Hamblin seeks the wisdom of a cool person.

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