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: Audio

  • If You Happen to be in Sydney This Evening

    American politics, as discussed in Australia

    All-purpose congratulations! Fortunate place to be. But if you're at loose ends, Morris Fiorina, of Stanford, and I will be mulling over the implications of the midterm elections, in a colloquy at the University of Sydney. Details here.

    Wherever you are, it's worth following the radio interviews of Mark Colvin, one of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's luminaries and (in his current role, after years as a reporter overseas which were ended by a near-fatal bout with disease in Africa) an Australian counterpart to, say, Terry Gross as a high-end interviewer. I've listened to his PM show often on the internet and enjoyed it; I talked with him yesterday about the news environment in the US after the mid-terms, what's up in China, and so forth. Longer-version podcast here. I mention this both in "for the record" spirit and also to alert listeners outside Australia who might not know about Colvin's show.

  • In Re-Praise of 'West Coast Live'

    A cooler version of Prairie Home Companion

    Four years ago, I wrote about how much I enjoyed Sedge Thomson's West Coast Live, described thus:

    The show is like Prairie Home Companion in the sense that live music, and the host's personality, are two central elements of its appeal. It is different in that it simply seems cooler. (It is usually broadcast live from a louche place called the Empire Plush Room in San Francisco.) Instead of skits and monologues it has interviews conducted by Thomson -- and at the moment I can't think of anyone who is his equal at getting guests off their normal schtick and talking about something interesting and surprising. (Ie: the opposite of Larry King.)

    Sorry in retrospect for the little dig at Big Larry (who was then seemingly ensconced for all eternity at CNN). But don't regret anything about praising an interviewer and ringmaster who really is great. Even if you're not in California (or some other places, including my spiritual home of Duluth MN, listed here) you can get it on streaming audio plus archived podcast from KALW, here. So listen in today, or find the archives. The jazz pianist Michael Greensill, a regular, is always wonderful to listen to. And they have a bunch of good writer-guests* lined up too.  Two hours, starting at 10am PDT / 1pm EDT.

    (*Not to be too cute about it: this is the next stop on the gala Dreaming in Chinese world tour. And, update, I should have remembered to mention that Michael Greensill's wife is the also-wonderful jazz singer Wesla Whitfield. Like me, he married well.)

  • Bob Edwards Show

    Recent interview on Sirius/XM

    During Bob Edwards's many years as host of NPR's Morning Edition, I was often doing commentaries for the program and sometimes had the chance to talk with him on air. In his current incarnation as host of an interview show on Sirius/XM, I had an extended discussion with him recently. It was broadcast this weekend and is available on podcast here

    We talked China, future of journalism, politics, the role of blog-versus-print, and so on. At least from my point of view, it was interesting to have the chance for back-and-forth on these topics and exploration of angles I hadn't expected. FYI.

  • 'On the Media' Show about Future of News

    A very good special program on whether the news business can survive -- and how

    NPR's On The Media had a great show this weekend about the pros, cons, and unknowns of the future of the news business. I am "biased" because one part of the show was Brooke Gladstone's interview with me about my recent "Google and News" article. The interview is here; the original article is here. But with that set aside, it's a varied, consistently interesting, and in its way hopeful show. Give it a listen, here.

    Essay question for extra credit: in America the news business mainly has been, and mainly should be, a privately owned for-profit business. But the ownership structure has always been diverse, too; and if publicly supported NPR did not exist now, would we be able to create it? How different would journalistic and public life be without the accident of its existence? I don't know and am too tired to think all the answers through. But that we have this system really does make a difference.

  • 'Virtually Speaking' Discussion with Bruce Schneier

    Here's the ideal candidate to run the TSA.

    On Thursday night, Jay Ackroyd interviewed Bruce "Mr. Sanity about Security" Schneier and me in an hour-long discussion session on Second Life. Web cast available here. Gentle hint to other radio and TV producers: Ackroyd has really figured out a nice way to promo his guests' books and other writing! You'll see what I mean.

    In this discussion, Schneier from his expert standpoint and I from my journalistic perspective are both pretty down on the one-way ratchet* of modern "security theater." It is easy to throw on new measures that seem as if they will make us "safe." For instance, the [moronic and indefensible] "current security level is Orange" announcements we have all heard so many times that they no longer even register on our eardrums. But it is practically impossible for an elected official to discuss the balance between security and liberty in a mature way, because the political risk of being blamed for some future attack, large or small, vastly outweighs the political risk of accepting the mounting costs in efficiency, freedoms, and general public IQ of security theater. See Schneier for more, or the webcast. Or this. (Past items from this site will be linked when our "categories" function returns.)

    On the other hand, once again there's a high-level job opening at the TSA. I am in a General Sherman mode regarding my own future public service. But I'll testify for Schneier as the new head of TSA when he is nominated.
    * Pedant alert: yes, I do realize that "one-way ratchet" is redundant, the salient feature of a ratchet being that it moves in only one direction. There are times when an addition that might literally be redundant can be helpful in clarification, in an "of course everyone already knows this, but just to speed the discussion I'll supply this extra clue" sense. Just trying to forestall those "gotcha" notes before they arrive!

  • Tommy Mischke on the phone

    The subject of a September 2000 Atlantic profile is back with more of his surreal Midwestern real-life humor. This time, the pathos of bill-collectors during hard times.

    Ten years ago I did an Atlantic profile of T.D. "Tommy" Mischke, a late-night AM radio humorist from St. Paul who kept me amused on many dark drives from The Cities to Duluth, for a book I was working on. Below, Mischke in action, then on KSTP-AM.


    Over the years I've reported some of Mischke's changing on-the-air activities. On a fan's lovingly curated Mischke Madness site, he has put up another collection of spontaneous bizarre humor. I have just listened to these (OK, in the "background," while doing "work") and considering that they are real-time improv, they show us something quite remarkable and striking about Mischke's genius and about our odd world.

    The calls are all from bill collectors, who are looking for people who used to have the phone number that Mischke is now using. The interactions among their hyper-earnestness; and the little cracks of real-personness behind their work personae; and the sequence of odd send-ups Mischke gives them, is both funny and, ultimately, touching. The fact that he can convince the callers (some of whom are obviously in India) that he is a woman, or named Rashad, among other feats, is impressive. At a moment when so many collection calls are being made across the country, there is real power to many of these recordings. Especially the incredible and disturbing final one ("this is my last day on Earth," "well, I would not comment on that sir. Can you tell me how you got behind on the payments?") -- though as Mischke recommends, it's best to hear them in order.

    After the jump, Mischke's note about the calls -- and also a quote from my profile about a similar spontaneous moment from his broadcast. These new calls are worth downloading from his site and hearing while you're walking or driving around or otherwise in the mood for a sustained listen.

    More »

  • For the record: two radio interviews

    From the airport hotel in SF, two phone interviews today, on the "going to hell" article:

         - With Marty Moss-Coane of "Radio Times" on WHYY in Philadelphia, this discussion, with MP3 file here

         - With Doug Fabrizio of RadioWest on KUER in Salt Lake City, this discussion, with embedded audio file.

     A point I think I made in passing on both shows: how different the modern American news ecology would be without NPR.

  • Media update: BBC, On Point, Diane Rehm

    For the record:

    - Discussing China-v-Google on Tom Ashbrook's On Point show today, with an array of Chinese and American tech and politics reporters;

    - Discussing the State of the Union after Obama' first year, plus American capacity for renewal, with Kevin Connolly on the BBC's Americana program today, here. (On line for next seven days.)

    - Discussing "America in decline" - infrastructure, renewal, security -- etc along with Stephen Flynn of the Center for National Policy on the Diane Rehm show, WAMU/NPR, tomorrow 11am EST.  

  • In case you were really curious about my views on different topics...

    For the record:
    - Last night's panel discussion with Jim Lehrer on the News Hour about China, Obama, et cetera, here;

    - Also last night on BBC America with Matt Frei, also about Obama and China, here;

    - This morning on CSPAN Washington Journal, with Bill Scanlan, also about Obama and China, not on line at the moment but I will find it at some point (here);
    - Interview last week on The Kindle Chronicles, with Len Edgerly, about e-reading devices, here;

    - Radio interview two weeks ago, when I was in Australia, with Margaret Throsby of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation -- closest U.S. counterpart would be Terry Gross -- here. Her interviews are Fresh Air-like in combining policy and personal info. Also discussing my upcoming collaboration with the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney on future-of-media issues, a topic for another day.

    - Just to round this out, plan to be on KQED "Forum" with Michael Krasny at 9:30am PST / 12:30pm EST today. (Audio here.)

    - Charlie Rose this evening, with Elizabeth Economy and Nicholas Burns.

  • Nook, Kindle, Raz, NPR

    On today's All Things Considered a hands-on comparison of Nook vs Kindle -- something I have not been able to do myself. (More from the interviewee, Gizmodo's Matt Buchanan, here.) I am agnostic about which is better -- or whether something by Apple or somebody else will ultimately be "the" right electronic reader. The one certainty is that the appearance of a new, attractive product from a strong competitor is good for everyone. Even, in an enlightened self-interest sense, for Amazon/Kindle itself, since real competition is likely to make this whole market larger and more viable.

    Two more points on which I'm not agnostic are: Is this good for publishing? And, will we get used to reading this way? The answers are Yes, and Yes. Anything that makes it easier to spend money on books, as the Kindle undeniably does, has to be good in the long run for publishing and writers, despite some in-the-meantime disruptions. And I already find it as natural to read on the Kindle's screen as from a paperback. I still like the heft and feel of real books in the right circumstances, and magazines are night-and-day preferable to read in print. But these devices are clearly a step forward overall.

    (PS: I disagree with the interesting post by the Atlantic Business Channel's Derek Thompson, who looks at the new e-readers and says that we're headed for a Swiss Army Knife-style combination of many different functions in a few all-purpose electronic gizmos. I'm skeptical because of the dozen previous times through the computer era in which that prediction has not panned out. "Real" cameras are still much better than in-phone cameras; the right device to carry in your pocket, as a phone or PDA, will always be worse to read on than a device with a bigger screen, which in turn is too big to fit in your pocket; keyboards are simply better than little thumbpads for entering more than a few words, and any device with a real keyboard has to be a certain size. So, sure, some things will be combined, but the all in one era is not at hand, and won't be.)
    I was also on today's show in a "news analysis" spot, as I've done several times in recent weeks with the host, Guy Raz, this time talking about errant airplanes, Fox News, Baby Einstein, etc. I very much like the savvy and cultural mix of the show, and happily serve in the "someone has to dish up the liver and vegetables" capacity.

  • Festival of updates #5: Wolfowitz and Iraq


    For the rest of his life, Paul Wolfowitz will face questions about the invasion and occupation of Iraq. You can hear that realization sinking in on him during the course of his ten-minute interview with Guy Raz of NPR, broadcast this evening on on All Things Considered. Wolfowitz had come on the show to discusss his essay on foreign policy "realism" in Foreign Policy magazine -- about which more in a moment. Through the ten minutes, you can hear Wolfowitz sounding startled, then testy, then something like resigned when Raz keeps coming back to the questions he obviously had to ask, about how Wolfowitz's current theories match the record in office for which he will always be best known.

    The idea that we'll "always" be known for a moment in the unchangeable past, no matter how the rest of our lives turn out, is a proposition so fatalistic that that we all naturally resist it. (Except maybe Michael Phelps, Sandy Koufax, perhaps Tom Brady and Neil Armstrong, etc.) The earnest post-Vietnam career of Robert McNamara is a testament to how much he struggled with that reality. Remarkably and rarely, Al Gore will "always" be the man at the losing end of Bush v. Gore, but he made a new identity after that.

    In the ten minutes of his interview, whenever Wolfowitz says "Look!" what he's really signaling is: I don't want to talk about this Iraq stuff any more, so why do you keep coming back to it? The reason for coming back, of course, is that Wolfowitz does and always will occupy a unique role in the intellectual history of the decision. Dick Cheney will apparently never reveal a doubt or second thought; George W. Bush has (with some dignity) backed off the public stage for now; Colin Powell has made sure to signal that he was never that enthusiastic; and who knows what Donald Rumsfeld will come up with. But Wolfowitz was the one who from the start had the sweeping vision of the historic rationale for removing Saddam Hussein.

    The public case for invading Iraq was purely negative. ("Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction." Dick Cheney, speech to national VFW Convention, August 26, 2002.) But the "enlightened" case that Wolfowitz in particular had made for years in articles, interviews, and speeches involved the broader, Wilsonian prospect of bringing democracy to the Arab world, as it had largely come to much of Asia and Latin America. I did a profile of him in early 2002 that emphasized this theme. I also had a sense of its origins, having lived in Southeast Asia in the 1980s, when Wolfowitz helped swing U.S. policy against Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines, and then was a very popular U.S. ambassador to Indonesia. By all accounts, Wolfowitz was a prominent voice telling a rattled President Bush, during the first, nervous strategy session at Camp David days after the 9/11 attacks, that for positive and negative reasons alike he had to get to the root of the terrorist problem by moving against Iraq. (For more on Wolfowitz's role in war planning, see here and here.)

    In its way it was an honorable vision, as were most of Robert McNamara's beliefs through the early days in Vietnam. But it did not -- OK, has not so far -- turned out anything like what Wolfowitz advertised publicly and within the government. To his credit, Guy Raz of NPR played back to Wolfowitz the tape of his notorious Congressional testimony just before the invasion, in which he said "We can't be sure that the Iraqi people will welcome us as liberators ... [but] I am reasonably certain that they will greet us as liberators, and that will help us to keep requirements down." And "It's hard to conceive that it would take more forces to provide stability in post-Saddam Iraq than it would take to conduct the war itself and to secure the surrender of Saddam's security forces and his army. Hard to imagine."

    It's worth listening to -- along with the full 37-minute unedited interview, here. Among other reasons, I suspect it will be a while before we hear Paul Wolfowitz in such a setting again. The first 15 minutes or so of the "long" version involve what he did want to talk about -- his new Foreign Policy article warning against excessive "realism" in America's approach to the world. Judge for yourself, but it strikes me as a concerted argument against a non-existent or straw-man foe. When an American president has given a major speech in an Arab capital saying that the U.S. needs to engage in the modernization of the Islamic world, it's hard to argue that the U.S. is showing a steely indifference to social and political conditions outside its borders.

    It took more than twenty years after Robert McNamara's departure from the Pentagon for him to begin talking seriously about Vietnam. I look forward to what Paul Wolfowitz eventually says about his war.

    In an on-air colloquy with Guy Raz after this interview, I made my own mistake. I said that a recent ruling by a panel of judges from the 9th Circuit held that John Ashcroft, former Attorney General, "was" personally liable for illegal detention of a U.S. citizen. Actually, the ruling said that he "could be" personally liable. My apologies.

  • My visit to the Motley Fool

    A week ago, when for unrelated house-reconstruction reasons I was comatose from no sleep, I had a very enjoyable hour-long visit with the staff of the Motley Fool, at their stylish HQ in Alexandria, Va. This was part of their Motley Fool Conversation series. A podcast of the result is available here. I realize that I may have been snarkier-sounding about the future of Twitter than reasoned analysis would support. But, hey, I was only half awake! And it was at the Motley Fool. Most of the talk was about China, with side notes about Microsoft, speechwriting, the Future of the Atlantic, and so on.

    Seriously, most TV and radio talk shows could take useful interviewing tips from these guys. A very enjoyable exchange, at least from my point of view.

  • If you're in Seattle-land

    I will be on KUOW's Weekday program today, 9am-10am PDT, talking with Steve Scher about (guess!) China. I was supposed to do this one week ago, but had such a paralyzing case of laryngitis, based on having yelled over the noise of jet engines at the Oshkosh air show earlier that week, that I couldn't say a word and had to bail out.

    Update: audio of show is available here. It was a lot of fun. Got to talk about my visit to the Shanghai Skin Diseases and Sexually Transmitted Diseases clinic, as a patient.

    Side note: again I notice as a recent arrival on American shores the value that NPR public-affairs talk shows around the country bring. When I lived in Seattle, I often listened to Scher's show -- or to Michael Krasny's Forum on KQED when I was living in Berkeley,  or Larry Mantle's AirTalk on KPCC when I was visiting my parents in southern California, or Kathleen Dunn on Wisconsin Public Radio when I'm in that part of the country. And of course in many cities you can hear Tom Ashbrook's On Point from WBUR in Boston and  Diane Rehm on WAMU in DC. I'll stop with the list before getting into the risk of "offense by omission"; the point, again, is that at a moment of justified concern about the chaos and deterioration of the media, it's worth noting that this particular kind of program -- locally-run NPR talk shows -- is an area of increasing quality and strength.


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