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.
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.
"Of no party or clique" was the founding motto of our magazine, 157 years ago next month. In practice this mainly means that we should aspire to present each article or argument on its merits, and not as expressions of some other agenda. (Though of course we all have our larger worldviews, blind spots, favorites, etc.) Sometimes it means there are disagreements in the arguments presented in our pages or on this site.
For the record I want to note two recent disagreements, one about a journalistic tone and one about a diplomatic goal.
1) Gary Hart. Last week I wrote that I found Matt Bai's All the Truth Is Out to be valuable and worth reading in full, perhaps especially if you'd read the interesting but not-quite-representative excerpt in the NYT Magazine. The book as a whole considers the real career, achievements, and, yes, "character" of former senator and presidential candidate Gary Hart, including his original and decades-long work as a defense reformer—and it contrasts that with the smirking shorthand of press references to Hart as a man forced out of politics because of Monkey Business.
Yesterday The Atlantic ran a short news item about Hart that demonstrated the smirking shorthand tone. Indeed, I thought the item had little point except as an occasion to mention Hart this way—that is, it probably wouldn't have been written if some other former senator was going on a diplomatic mission. It began:
But less than a month after a new book thrust him back into the news, Hart has a new job, and it comes courtesy of a fellow member of the semi-exclusive club of presidential losers, John Kerry.
This is just too easy, and there's just too much of it in political media. I'm sorry that we added to the supply. Before you ask, I have discussed this with the item's author, Russell Berman, and I know that he never meant to leave the impression I am talking about. But that's all the more reason to note it in public, as an illustration of the tone we often take by reflex, without meaning to or thinking about it—and because we are talking about real people.*
My view all along has been more or less the opposite: that the greatest opportunity for the United States is re-integrating Iran into normal international relations, and the greatest risks for American interests and the world would come from Iran's continued isolation under extremist leaders. For background: Ten years ago I argued in a cover story that a military "solution" to Iran's nuclear ambitions was a fantasy. It hasn't gotten any more realistic since then. Last year I wrote about the ways in which re-integrating Iran resembles and differs from the Nixon-era accommodation with China. Because it's relevant to the Iran question, I should also mention that David Frum is generally credited with having come up with the line calling Iraq, Iran, and North Korea the "axis of evil" in George W. Bush's State of the Union Speech in 2002. On the 10th anniversary of the speech, Frum wrote that the phrase stood up well.
By all means read these latest pieces by Frum. Then please consider this detailed report by "The Iran Project," which argues (as I would) that the risk/reward calculation of long-term dealings with Iran favors more active attempts at engagement.
The people running The Iran Project are about as august a group of experts as you could find, largely former ambassadors or security advisors from both Republican and Democratic administrations. The image at the top is a screen-grab of a signature page showing some of their names. One member of the panel, longtime CIA official Paul Pillar, has explained its implications this way:
A premise of the report is that a successful nuclear agreement, by resolving the issue that has so heavily dominated for years the U.S.-Iranian relationship in particular, is likely to have other repercussions in the Middle East. This is partly because it would open up opportunities in the U.S.-Iranian relationship itself to address other problems of mutual concern. It is also because, given the importance of the United States to many states in the region, there are apt to be secondary effects involving the relations of those states with Iran.
Robert Hunter, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO (and a colleague and friend of mine back in the Carter administration days), made a similar case as negotiations neared a deadline this summer, in "The Hopes and Fears of an Agreement With Iran."
Read them all, decide for yourself, and remember the big-tent spirit we aspire to here.
* For some reason, this old standard comes to mind: "Though boys throw stones at frogs in sport, yet the frogs do not die in sport but in earnest."
For as long as there have been readers, writers, and publishers, and even before people may have used those terms or the word "journalism," the business of providing information about the world has wrestled with two big, related questions. They are the questions that in 2014 go by the names "monetization" and "traffic."
The monetization question: How do people who gather information, assess and analyze it, present and illustrate it, and make it available to the public pay their bills? How do they rent and heat the offices where they work, buy the printing presses (old) or servers (new) they need to get their product out, pay for their own food and clothes and medical expenses? In general, how does an information system match its output—"news" in all senses—with revenue that lets it pay for necessary inputs of every sort.
The traffic question: How does a news organization set, re-set, and adjust every day the balance between sizzle and steak, between glitter and grist, between what's fun to know and what's important to know? News has to always be both and can't ever be just one. If it's just froth and eye-candy, it's not news but entertainment. If it's just worthy lectures, it's boring and goes unseen. Professors can make students read their books. Reporters and editors can't. Thus everything in our business is, and must be, up for constant re-assessment and change.
The questions are related: solving the traffic issue can help solve the monetization problem. And they're different: a rich owner, or a non-profit organization, may decide to monetize something despite low traffic. Beyond these two is the real question of journalism: what we now call the "content" issue, of how you discern and explain what's important and true.
As for the 2014 version of the eternal questions, let me recommend two recent essays in the consistently interesting LadyBits collection of Medium. LadyBits itself is about to close down move away from Medium, a year after it began—which illustrates the problem these essays describe. But please check them out in detail.
• "Your Newfangled Media Algorithms Are Bullshit," by Erin Biba. Yes they are. Just as it would have been bullshit a generation ago to say that TV Guide was 20 times better than The New Yorker because it had 20 times more subscribers. Sample of Biba's approach to the eternal monetization/traffic questions:
[W]hile I’m all in favor of this new world of media startups, where truly well-intentioned people are trying to figure out how the heck to make money from journalism on the Internet, I just need to step up right now and call bullshit on pretty much all the algorithms. Cause you guys just aren’t understanding the importance of a good writer.
It would be comforting to believe that we live in a world where quality content chosen by experienced editors and authored by talented people will get more clicks than celebrity gossip, fear-mongering headlines, and snake oil salesmen peddling the next generation of tech bubble pyramid schemes. But that’s almost never the case....
Medium stopped curating a universal homepage where people browsing Medium.com would be exposed to the best writing on the site. That meant that the people who were coming across LadyBits content because it was good, who wouldn’t normally have been exposed because they weren’t searching for feminist tech perspectives, weren’t finding us. Our traffic fell by about 50%, as did our income.
Naturally any comments like these from writers come across as special pleading. "We're doing great work. You should love us more!" But whether that's part of these writers' tone, or mine, these essays are raising today's version of the contradictions every one of our predecessors has wrestled with. We'll figure out some balance now, and then it will all change once again.
First, the China stories you should skip. Using up my once-per-lifetime pass for such activity, I am about to show a screenshot of a tweet that I myself put out two days ago.
The backstory here is the newly released result of a big, years-long, international (UN) effort to calculate price levels around the world—and thus to improve the "Purchasing Power Parity" figures for comparing spending power in different countries. Simplest example: a few years ago, 1 U.S. dollar was officially worth about 8 Chinese yuan renminbi, or RMB. That rate is not set on an open market like, say, dollar-euro rates, but instead is carefully "managed" by the Chinese government. But if average prices in China were only half as high as in the U.S., then on a PPP basis the Chinese economy would be twice as large as the official exchange rate made it seem, since the RMB would go twice as far in buying things.
The newest results show (to oversimplify) that effective Chinese prices have been even lower than assumed, and therefore the purchasing power of Chinese RMB has been even greater. After these adjustments, the overall Chinese economy is deemed to be about 20 percent larger than previously believed—and therefore either it already has, or it very soon will, "overtake" the United States to become, in PPP terms, the world's biggest economy.
Thus silly (over)reactions like this, from The Economist:
Just for the record, my initials are the same, but the "J.M.F." listed as one of the authors is not me. And this from Bloomberg View:
Headlines and reactions like these are ridiculous, as I'm sure both publications are aware and as each of the articles concedes further down in the stories. Compared with one week ago, when China's economy was much "smaller" than America's, nothing economic has changed in either China or the United States. With these new figures, we may have a closer approximation of how circumstances for China's recently urbanized hundreds-of-millions compare with others around the globe. But the differences not captured by such figures—freedom to or restrictions on travel within a country, who can and cannot go to school, the still-unfolding enormous effects of mass urbanization, the nature and availability of health-care systems, above all the country's environmental catastrophe—are also part of any serious attempt to understand how "rich" or "poor" China is.
Rather than belabor that point, let me turn you to an excellent ongoing discussion at ChinaFile, whose reaction could not be more different from agog headlines about a new Chinese Century. For instance, this installment from Arthur Kroeber, who has been on-scene in China for many years and understands how little such statistics signify:
...this is a “who cares?” moment. It has been obvious for quite some time that China would soon overtake the U.S. in sheer economic size. If one doesn’t accept the current PPP conversion rate then just wait five or ten years and China will be bigger at market exchange rates. But basically, all that this shift tells us is that China has way more people than the U.S.— 4.2 times as many, to be exact. So, as soon as China stopped being fantastically poorer (per capita) than the U.S., and became simply a lot poorer, its total economy surpassed that of the U.S. (And still lags that of the European Union, which is arguably the world’s biggest economy, if one takes economic integration rather than political boundaries as the criterion.) Big deal....
Fundamentally Damien [Ma] is right that this “who’s on top?” discussion misses all that is truly interesting, namely how China and other countries manage social tensions, income distribution and other problems arising from high speed economic growth. Because of its sheer bulk, China is indeed wealthy and poor at the same time, and the responses to that paradox are a far more fascinating target of study than the mere size of the economy.
There is a lot more nuance in that ChinaFile discussion, which I highly recommend. As a handy guide the next time you see some pie-eyed headline about the PPP:
As a matter of individual or family welfare, this is a reminder of how much poorer the average Chinese person remains than the average North American or European.
Also on the individual or family basis, the average Chinese person is actually further behind than these figures suggest, because (as Arthur Kroeber points out) so much less of the nation's total output goes to individual consumption relative to Europe or North America, and so much more to infrastructure or export.
Still for individuals and families, if there were any PPP-style adjustment for environmental costs—epidemic deaths especially in Northern China from air pollution, the emergence of "cancer villages," increased rates of birth defects, destruction of fisheries and arable land—China's wealth would be much more heavily discounted than that of other large economies.
And if we're considering the national scale, as implied by loose talk of the Chinese Century, then the largest measures of national influence and potential come into play. From universities to global corporations to "soft power" to, of course, the military. No sane person contends that we are anywhere close to the "Chinese Century" in this sense—as Arthur Kroeber and others say in today's discussion, and as I argued at length in China Airborne.
Plus the ongoing mystery of which statistics out of China can and cannot be believed, and when and why.
China is a big, fascinating, fast-moving society that I learn from practically every day, whose continuing rise has done much more good than harm, and that I do my best to interest outsiders in. But Economist and Bloomberg—come on.
Next, a China story you should read. Over the months I've written about allegations that the Bloomberg journalistic empire has defanged its coverage of China (especially corruption stories), to avoid jeopardizing its terminal-and-data business there. Some previous items here, here, here.
No one at Bloomberg has ever agreed to respond on the record to these contentions. The only official reaction I have ever received, via spokesman Ty Trippet (with whom I've talked before or after each installment and again just now), is that the company "has no comment." Over the months I have heard from a very large number of current and former Bloomberg employees, most of whom have been very concerned that I not identify them, their geographical locations, or their exact roles in any traceable way.
Now Howard French—a veteran international correspondent, long with the NYT and now at Columbia Journalism School, my friend and colleague first in Japan and then in China, author of an Atlantic article on and now a great new book about China in Africa—has a much fuller account of the Bloomberg-and-China story in the CJR. It is definitely worth reading.
At the end of his story, French does get a reaction beyond "no comment" from Matthew Winkler, Bloomberg's editor in chief and a man whom French reports to be in the middle of the China-coverage controversies:
Several days after our initial email exchange, Winkler, the editor in chief, wrote back to provide his sole quote for this account. “I’m proud of our reporting and our work speaks for itself,” it read.
Asked via email if that applied to the now apparently dead second investigative take on high-level corruption in China, Winkler replied, “The statement covers our work.”
Here is the problem Bloomberg is creating for itself by refusing to engage in discussion of this issue. The company is full of first-rate reporters and editors, including a lot of people who are my long-time friends. It is one of the great news organizations of the era. In China as everywhere else it has very good people doing very good work.
But: over a long period now, named individuals have made specific and very serious allegations about the organization's trustworthiness on a crucially important ongoing story of these times. Think for a moment of any other institution facing comparably specific questions about its decisions and values: a politician about conflicts of interest, a company about product recalls, a university about controversies over athletics or sexual assault, a tech company about protecting privacy or handling government pressures. In any of these situations, Bloomberg's tough reporters would be among the first pushing for specific answers, beyond "no comment" or "our work speaks for itself."
It is long past time for someone senior at Bloomberg—the former mayor himself, editor-in-chief Winkler, chairman Peter Grauer, or anyone else in a position to speak for the firm—to do what Bloomberg reporters would expect of other institutions, and accept questions and give answers about the allegations that have mounted up.
If you're anything like me, you're already worried about how CNN will keep going, once even they recognize that there is no conceivable extra angle to wring out of the sad mystery of MH370. What new questions will Don Lemon have for his daily six-expert panel of analysts? What will those panelists do with their evenings? What will "breaking news" and "developing story" refer to at the bottom of CNN's screens? This air disaster really is sad, and it really is mysterious, but even the saddest, most puzzling, and most dramatic sagas eventually drift from the center of attention. (For instance: the 1980s "dingo baby" tragedy in Australia. Now there was a dramatic and mysterious story, and while it gave rise to many good books plus one of Meryl Streep's Oscar nominations, nowadays entire years can go by without it being mentioned on the news.)
Therefore I perked up when I saw this item in the morning's mailbag. I pass it on gratis to CNN's bookers and producers. It's from a very nice-sounding young woman in China, and I see lots of possibilities for CNN here.
Dear new friend,
I am a Chinese, 20 years old girl and will like to need your advice over my parents’ property. My father is Chinese as well as my mother. They own two big businesses, one is an electronics warehouse in China and another one is a garment factory in Cambodia.
Recently, my parents are still missing in Malaysian airplane because they were flying back to Beijing to celebrate their 28thanniversary of marriage.
Now I am studying business management in Cambodia and I hope I will be helping my father’s business after my studies. But after hearing this big shock for me about the missing airplane so I want to sell my father’s garment factory in Cambodia. Because of instability in garment business in Cambodia, I decided to sell this factory $23,000,000.00 but the government agreed to pay me US$17,000,000.00 out of money after deducting salaries for factory workers, environmental damages and other costs.
I really need a guardian to help me to manage this big amount of money and the warehouse in China as I am just a university student. I want to move out of this country and start refresh in a new country with you. Please reply me back out of pity on me and help.
After I receive your caring and supportive reply, we will talk more in details to make things work faster for both of us.
I'm looking forward to hearing the panelists's views—or a one-on-one with Richard Quest, as the bereaved young lady guides him on a tour of her family's factory in Cambodia. Her contact details available if you ask.
To answer the obvious question: If I think this coverage is so nutty, why do I watch it? I don't really. But several times per day I want to click over to CNN to make sure they're still on the story. And they still are!
Four months ago, TheNew York Times ran a big story contending that Bloomberg editors had quashed an investigative report about corruption among leaders in China. The Times story was clearly based on informed comment from people inside Bloomberg who were unhappy about the result. It said that higher-ups at Bloomberg were worried that the story would hurt the company's sales of financial terminals—the mainstay of its business—inside China, since the main purchasers would be directly or indirectly subject to government control.
Like the NYT and some other Western news organizations, Bloomberg was already "on probation" with the Chinese government, because of some very brave and probing official-corruption stories the previous year—including the one on "Red Nobility" that is the source of the graphic above.
As a reminder, here are the main story steps since then:
The FT did a similar report (here, but paywalled), also clearly based on inside-Bloomberg sources and also saying that Matthew Winkler, Bloomberg's editor-in-chief, had ordered the story killed, for fear of ramifications inside China.
Bloomberg denied the reports, in categorical but not specific terms. I.e., variations on: Of course we didn't bow to political pressure, and the story was just not ready yet.
Amanda Bennett, a long-time editor and reporter with experience in China (she was co-author of Sidney Rittenberg's book, The Man Who Stayed Behind), promptly resigned as head of Bloomberg's investigative unit. She did not explicitly address the controversy but made her feelings clear in her resignation statement. It said: "I am totally proud of the work of the Bloomberg Projects and Investigations team over the past five years.... I’m also most proud of the groundbreaking June 2012 story that the team led, that for the first time exposed the wealth of the relatives of China’s top leaders. I’m proud of the courage it took from top to bottom in Bloomberg to make that happen."
Michael Forsythe, the Bloomberg reporter who had worked for decades in China and was involved in these corruption-investigation stories, was quickly suspended by Bloomberg. He later joined the NYT staff.
Bloomberg continued to deny the allegation of knuckling-under but refused to address any specifics. The story that reportedly was underway has not yet appeared.
Soon after the flap broke, I received several calls from people inside Bloomberg, all of them insisting that I say nothing that could identify them, or even about the fact that we had talked. One was from a person who warned me that it would be a big mistake to put too much faith in what this person said were competitively motivated attacks by Bloomberg rivals. The other calls were from Bloomberg reporters or staffers, who said that the NYT and FT reports were essentially accurate. I wrote to the man who reportedly gave the spiking order, editor-in-chief Matthew Winkler, and did not hear back.
Then, last week, the chairman of Bloomberg L.P., Peter Grauer, seemed to confirm the original accounts by saying that it had been a mistake for Bloomberg ever to deviate from its business-oriented coverage.
All this is prelude to the latest news, which is Ben Richardson's resignation as a Bloomberg editor. Jim Romenesko had the story yesterday, followed by this from Edward Wong of the NYT, who also had the story about Michael Forsythe back in November.
After I saw the item on Romenesko, I wrote to Richardson asking if he would say more about the situation. He agreed. What follows are my emailed questions to him and his replies:
James Fallows: Four months ago, during the Mike Forsythe episode, Bloomberg officials contended that his stories just "weren't ready," and that the accounts in the NYT and elsewhere were misleading or incomplete. What was your understanding of the episode and whether the company's claims were correct?
Ben Richardson: I was one of the two editors on the story that was spiked last year, and one of three who helmed the 2012 stories on the hidden wealth of China's Communist Party leaders, so I have a pretty intimate knowledge of what happened. Unfortunately, I am bound by a confidentiality agreement that prevents me from disclosing the details. That said, much has already become a matter of public knowledge.
I felt the NYT and FT articles were a fair account. As often happens in news coverage, the stories painted the picture in stark black and white when in reality it was more nuanced. However, the contention that the story "wasn't ready" is risible: the only proof of readiness is publication. The real question is whether the story had any merit, and if it did, how could we get it to press?
That's a simple question. So if Bloomberg felt the story had no merit, then why has the company not explained its reasons? Four seasoned, veteran journalists (with help from many others on the periphery) laboured for months on this story. Were we all wrong? All of us deficient in news judgment?
JF: Amanda Bennett left the company at that same time. I know you can't speak for her, but should outsiders see her departure and yours as similar reactions to a trend in coverage?
BR: Amanda Bennett must speak for herself on this. The only comment I can make is that her departure coincided with the decision to spike the China wealth story and the effective dismantling of her Projects & Investigations team -- along with the sacking of a number of seasoned and award-winning journalists. At the same time, the company is shifting ever-more resources into the short, bullet-point end of the news spectrum. That trend isn't unique to Bloomberg and is undoubtedly sound business, but the overall direction is clear.
JF: What happened, now, in March, 2014 to persuade you to leave the company, versus the controversy in November, 2013?
BR: Time. Like most Bloomberg staff, I have a family to support, credit card bills, taxes and a mortgage to pay. I timed my departure to the company's annual bonus.
JF: Is the main change that is afoot here on the Chinese side, in decreased tolerance for any investigation into (especially) leading-family corruption issues? Or is it on the Western-press side, in decreased willingness to run these risks?
BR: It's hard to say. I'm not aware of any reporting of this nature up until Bloomberg and the New York Times stories of 2012, so there's little to gauge the government reaction against. Those stories were published against the backdrop of a power transition, the purge of Bo Xilai and incoming president XI Jinping staking his legitimacy on cleaning up graft. And on top of that, growing inequality and soaring home prices are stoking public resentment of corruption -- making the government even more sensitive.
As for the international press, there are many reasons for crimped ambitions. The first is that these stories are immensely expensive to execute. Even if a news organisation has the money, it may not have enough people with the right skills. And then it needs the will. I don't know whether it was bravado fueled by ignorance or true cold-steel nerves, but Bloomberg stood up to intense bullying by the Chinese government in 2012. Last week in Hong Kong, Chairman Peter Grauer made it clear that China is just too big a market to miss out on. The jury's still out on how most other big organisations would handle a similar situation.
JF: If you were in charge, how would big Western news organizations set this balance? To be more precise, Bloomberg is in a different situation from NYT or WSJ, in that its main business is not reporting but financial services. How should Bloomberg set this balance?
BR: I'll combine this with your next question, "What is the main thing you would like people without experience in China to know about your situation and decision?"
Bloomberg has to act with the interests of the majority of its employees at heart. The company provides a good living for thousands of people. The vast majority of its news is untainted by the kind of constraints you see in China. If that's the kind of news its clients want, give it to them. The world is full of news organisations that feed different parts of the spectrum -- including many trade and specialist publications that never write critical articles of any kind. I think the debate should now move beyond Bloomberg.
Business and political power are inextricably linked everywhere. That's especially so in China, where both are largely in the hands of a single, unelected political party that forbids the free flow of information and ideas and operates behind a veil of secrecy. Lack of transparency and accountability fuel rampant corruption, human rights abuses and environmental crimes. As China goes global, those values and practices are in danger of gaining currency elsewhere.
The question is a bigger one for society as a whole. What value do we place on investigative journalism? If the world's best-resourced news organisation leaves the field, who will fill the gap?
I'm grateful to Ben Richardson for his quick and forthcoming answers. This may be the time also to share something I received from a person inside Bloomberg at the time the news first broke, which is a useful complement to what Ben Richardson says. This Bloomberg employee said:
There is a bigger contradiction for the company than most people perceive. Outsiders think the worst explanation for this controversy is that it's concerned about selling terminals within China. It's bigger than that. Really it's about continuing sales all around the world, if Bloomberg can't promise having the fastest inside info from China.
Everyone knows that it's a company that exists on the terminals. But now that they have saturated the US market, all of the growth will come from areas with these deep contradictions between the company's financial-business interests and its journalistic aspirations.
Until very recently, the very fact that Bloomberg was not principally a journalistic company seemed to be its greatest strategic asset. It could use the stream from those financial terminals to bankroll ever-expanding coverage, while companies that were mainly or only in the troubled journalism biz kept cutting back.
From Citizen Kane onward (and beforehand), it's been obvious that these extra-journalistic business ties can complicate news coverage. It's time for someone with standing-to-speak for Bloomberg values—Winkler, Grauer, or the mayor himself—to address these concerns directly.
Headlines are harder to write than you would think, especially for a one-column story like this. And the article itself is very interesting, so no offense to anyone at the WSJ. But I did find this delightful.
Homework assignment: as we have seen before, there is a testable hypothesis to apply to the evolution of the Wall Street Journal.
Hypothesis: Under the ownership of Rupert Murdoch and the editorship of Robert Thomson*, the Journal has deliberately been bringing its news operations into closer alignment with its editorial-page views.
Sub-hypothesis: You don't see this shift in the line-by-line content of the stories themselves but rather in the headlines, subheads, and placement of the stories in the paper. That is, we're looking at editors' work rather than reporters'.
Being hypotheses, these are subject to testing and disproof. The experiment goes on.
* Thomson took broader News Corp editorial responsibilities this year; Gerard Baker is his successor as WSJ managing editor.
You know the syndrome. And, hey, if you've forgotten, check these two recent examples. Today several hypotheses about its origins. First, from a reader in Colorado, the idea that the false-equivalence reflex -- "extremists on both sides are blocking progress on the budget" -- comes from a kind of mirror-image mentality:
I've had a similar reaction to politicians and pundits (virtually always on the right, it seems these days) who assume that just because they are for something, the people on the other side must be against it, or vice versa.
So, if they think there should be "less government," then the rest of us all think the answer to every problem is "more government." Or because they purport to be single-mindedly focused on less spending, the rest of us are for out-of-control spending. It puts a straw man front and center and then bashes it, which the press doesn't call out enough either.
A reader in Connecticut says we are seeing a grown-up, political-world version of schoolyard bullying:
I am particularly amused by the current meme that somehow the blame lays at Obama's, and by extension, the Democrats' feet. So they have to give in because everyone understands that the Republicans are so set in their views that they won't change, so it's up to Obama to compromise?
I think that this ties in with the new attention that Emily Bazelon has given to the problem of bullying with her book [and related Atlantic article] Sticks and Stones. One thing that hasn't been pointed out is that bullying exists, even in adults. Furthermore, bullying by supposed adults often works at the highest levels of politics and business. In sum, if a group of kids acted like the Republicans in Congress, refusing ever to even even acknowledge that there are legitimate points of view that contradicted their own, and refusing to do anything unless they got their way completely, wouldn't the teacher think that they were attempting to bully the rest of the class?
Another reader, Shreeharsh Kelkar of MIT, offers a social-science explanation:
I share your frustration with the false equivalence that's practiced by the big newspapers.
But I wonder if I might offer a perspective on bipartisan think based on my discipline: the history and sociology of science.
You say in one of your posts that the thinking behind it seems to be that reality is somewhere between the positions of the two parties. And there's something to that. But I think one of the ways of explaining it is using a concept called "boundary work."
Boundary work is a kind of rhetorical work that is performed in public argument: something is asserted to be science by stressing what it is not (pseudo-science, or faith, or religion, or what have you). Even Tim Geithner did it in his exit interview when he painted his own work as just a kind of technocratic problem-solving rather than politics, see this analysis.
It seems to me that our political discourse also contains a similar kind of boundary work -- between "politics" and "policy." Our politicians will always say: what I'm doing is just plain old common sense or the right thing or just good policy, or just the solution to a problem; whereas what my opponent is doing is playing politics. And if one sees politics as actually a way of managing relations between conflicting groups of people, one can see why they do that.
For instance, reforming the American health care system is almost certainly a matter of redistribution: taking money from older people and giving it to others (the uninsured, younger people, etc.). But one can't say that if one is a politician, and so there is a delicate balancing act: one's own work is constructed as problem-solving and policy-making, the opponent is portrayed as playing politics (where politics is understood to be trading off between different social groups).
I think this kind of boundary work exists in journalism too (and more on why it exists later); it's what you call false equivalence (and Yglesias calls bipartisan think). Here the newspaper is seen as above politics, which is what grubby politicians do. And therefore the contrast between the policy that the newspaper is advocating (which is not politics but merely good moral sensible stuff), and that what the politicians are doing. It is imperative, I think, in this model that both parties be painted in the same brush. Because if you don't, then you agree with one of the parties, which therefore makes you political.
Why should the newspapers practice this kind of boundary work? My sense (which comes straight from Paul Starr's history of the media) is that it's a holdover from the times when the newspaper industry changed. As we all know now (from arguing about partisanship), newspapers in the 19th century were unabashedly partisan. They also catered to niches, and made money from subscriptions. And that changed sometime in the 20th century when newspapers started to make money from advertisements -- and therefore they had to be less partisan and attract more people. Hence the objective tone of the reported stories (he says, she says) -- and also I think the false equivalence of the editorials.
Interestingly enough, we're now back in more partisan times, thanks to the Web. And it's interesting to me that you, Matt and others who call the editorials on their false equivalence operate in a completely different new media ecosystem; you have readers of a certain kind and stripe (but lots of them thanks to the reach of the Web), you don't really need to be bipartisan. But I think the example of Ezra Klein proves my point: ever since he's moved to the Washington Post, he's a lot less rough(er) on Republicans than he used to be. He won't fall into the false equivalence trap for sure but he's certainly adapted to a different audience. (I think it's great that he's reaching more people).
So - I don't think the WaPo is ever going to abandon its false equivalence model; not unless it becomes a completely new kind of WaPo (which it might very well become!).
I don't mean to suggest of course that all editors are dumb actors acting out a premediated sociological script; just that the roots of false equivalence go pretty deep into our current system.
I suspect this analysis is not particularly new to you (with some jargon added!).
Indeed this is an analysis I've thought about before -- thanks to Starr's book, and Jay Rosen's, and many others', and Breaking the News back in the 1990s. But I had not known about the "boundary work" label, which is usefully clarifying. It's a long road ahead.
I seem to be one of the few people in journalism who never worked or wrote for the Boston Phoenix. I certainly read and admired it, and feel the same general malaise at news that it is gone.
Wen Stephenson, an Atlantic veteran who was closely involved in our first online versions (called "Atlantic Unbound") nearly 20 years ago, says that the Phoenix has played an increasingly important role in climate coverage, and thus its absence will be felt there as well as in other fields. I turn it over to him:
A Death in the Family By Wen Stephenson
We got the news, of course, on Twitter: "Thank you Boston. Good night and good luck."
That tweet came yesterday afternoon from the Boston Phoenix, the storied but struggling alt-weekly, for which the current print issue will be its last. There will be an online-only issue next week, containing an important piece by my friend and fellow climate activist-journalist Bill McKibben. And then the rest is silence.
But a lot of us can't stay silent, and won't. There are a great many people in Boston right now, and around the country, who care deeply about everything the Phoenix has always represented, right down to the end -- smart, fearless, fiercely independent journalism -- and want to say a few things about what this means for our impoverished media landscape. Many thanks to Jim for lending me this space to offer a few words of my own.
I was proud to be associated with the Phoenix, even if briefly. My cover story last fall, called "A Convenient Excuse" (right), took serious issue with the way our mainstream media has covered -- or failed to cover -- the climate crisis. One of the places I criticized was The Atlantic (though I spent seven years as an editor at the magazine, from 1994 to 2001, and still have friends there). [JF note: see my discussion of that piece.]
The Phoenix has run three more of my pieces on climate and the climate movement in these past four months (you can find them, for now at least, here); the last one was just this week, an online piece about a stunning student-led protest against the Keystone XL pipeline at the TransCanada office in Westborough, MA, in which 25 (mostly young) climate activists were arrested for peaceful civil disobedience (a remarkable local story, with national resonance, that the Boston Globe, incredibly, has failed to cover).
There's a reason I'm mentioning these pieces, and it's not to promote my own work (ok, maybe just a little; I'm a freelance writer who just lost my main outlet!). In all sincerity, it's to pay heartfelt tribute to my editor, the guy who commissioned and expertly edited these pieces -- the last editor-in-chief of the Boston Phoenix -- Carly Carioli.
To put it simply and bluntly: Carly championed not only the climate issue but, equally important, the young and increasingly powerful grassroots climate movement, at a time when virtually no one else (outside of environmental blogs and magazines) could be bothered to give them a serious thought. Those pieces of mine -- to my utter amazement -- went somewhat viral, garnerednationalattention to the Phoenix, and put the climate movement on the map for a lot of readers. I know an awful lot of people right now who feel a piercing sense of loss, and powerlessness, and quite frankly, real anger, knowing that the only widely-circulated publication in Boston paying serious attention to climate change has gone away.
In today's paper, the Globe's editorial page had an eloquent euology for the Phoenix, where editorial page editor Peter Canellos, like a long list of other accomplished journalists, spent some formative years of his career. Acknowledging the Phoenix's "proud journalistic tradition," the editorial notes that the alt-weekly's audience "was anyone who believed that powerful institutions and other engines of society deserved a kind of scrutiny that went beyond mere reporting, and who wanted to see the fundamental ills of the social order exposed." And it concludes:
Now, with Thursday's announcement of the Phoenix's demise, much will be written about the paper's impact on local politics, music and film criticism, and the various journalistic careers it launched. It's a substantial legacy, by any measure. But better to focus on the careers that might not be launched, the questions that might not be asked, and the stories that might not get told.
Yes, it's a little ironic to read that on the Globe's editorial page, in whose offices (as I described in the Phoenix) I protested the paper's lack of climate coverage. We can only hope that the Globe -- or somebody -- will fill the void now left on Brookline Ave. in Boston.
Last week I mentioned the striking difference in the way three major newspapers "framed" the latest employment data. The Washington Post's headline was "Jobs report builds hope," the WSJ's was "Tepid Job Growth Fuels Worry," and the NYT's was "Job Creation Is Still Steady Despite Worry" -- this while all were talking about exactly the same government report.
Here's a new example, from the front pages of the same three major dailies yesterday. The visuals are fuzzier, but the editorial differences are at least as significant. Let me lay out what you're seeing below.
The news concerns the findings that 2012 was the hottest year on record for the continental United States. The Washington Post and the New York Tmes both played this as big front-page news. The WaPo's headline, at left in the picture below, was "Nation set record for heat last year." The NYT's was "Not Even Close: 2012 Was Hottest Year Ever in U.S." Both papers devoted most of the above-the-fold space on their front pages to the stories and accompanying photos, maps, and graphics -- which I've boxed in red.
Then we have the WSJ. The picture on its front page, marked in blue, is also weather-related, about the heat wave and related brush fires in Australia. But it's a picture-and-caption, and is presented mainly as a weather story, as with a blizzard or tornado, rather than as bearing on climate issues. How does the WSJ deal with the "Hottest Year on Record" news? Its treatment is also shown in red: the little "news briefs" box, pointing to a story on an inside page.
Themes for further study:
At the most obvious level, this is one more reminder of the importance of "framing." Two major papers decided the "hottest year" finding was first-tier news. The third did not.
In conjunction with the previous WaPo/NYT/WSJ comparison, it raises an interesting question about the WSJ. For years everyone who talks about the WSJ has contrasted its editorial & op-ed pages, which are the print equivalents of Fox News or CCTV, with its news operations, admired by all. The main biases of the news operation would be the professional/cultural biases of journalism in general, rather than a Fox-style partisan tilt.
Yet as a matter of strict news judgment and framing, in both of these cases the NYT and the WP chose one emphasis (job report basically positive; climate report quite important) and the WSJ chose an emphasis that was not only different but also more "right wing." Jobs-report news is basically bad; climate news is not that important. Coincidence? Sign of editorial/news convergence at Murdoch's WSJ? I don't know, and these are only two data points. But it may be a trend worth watching.
When I was a kid in southern California, a surprisingly large number of my school teachers were former "Okies," whose farmer-parents had fled with their children to California from the man-made disaster of the Dust Bowl in the 1930s. My sixth-grade teacher would describe how, as a sixth-grader himself in Oklahoma, he had watched the sky turn black during dust storms and then watched the family's crops and cattle die. He gave us bonus lectures on the importance of soil conservation -- and said that his parents had given him lectures on the importance of wildlife conservation, after hearing from their parents about the extinction of the once-numberless passenger pigeons, the near hunting-out of the buffalo, and so on. The moral in all these stories was: Why didn't they stop before it was too late? You can fill in the rest. (Or read this, in Grist.)
I am still in only shaky post-hurricane connection to the Internet, so here is one update before catching up on a variety of other topics soon:
By all means read Wen Stephenson's impassioned essay* in the Phoenix today on what he views as the tyranny of complacency and business-as-usual in the media's approach to climate change.
It is one thing for politicians to decide that they simply can't touch certain issues. Politicians need to keep raising money. They're vulnerable to concerted opposition campaigns. They are acutely aware of the tiny distance they can afford to get "ahead" of the sometimes-uninformed center of public opinion on any issue.**
Thus we've come to recognize the inch-wide boundaries of political argument
when it comes to anything involving guns (as I argued at length here). Stephenson says that, even if politicians have come to a similar
calculation about the impossibility of discussing climate policies and therefore climate change itself, the
media should not accept their definition of what "can" and "cannot" be
That is: It's the politicians' fault that neither Mitt Romney
nor Barack Obama mentioned climate change during their debates. It's the
press's fault that they weren't asked.
For cultural, commercial, intellectual, and political reasons, it is tricky for members of the press, especially those in organizations that still quaintly think of themselves as "mainstream," to decide that they, rather than elected leaders, should announce what "matters" to the public. But they do it all the time. The push-and-pull of the press "leading" versus merely "reflecting" public opinion has gone on for a very long time, on a very wide range of issues.*** In this article Stephenson admits all the difficulties but still argues, fiercely, that it's time for the established media to do more.
This is an angry, polemical piece, which says both good and bad things about many specific people in the media -- including us here at The Atlantic, where Stephenson once worked (he was deeply involved in the creation of The Atlantic's original web site) and still has many friends. At a time when both parties are saying that this is an "exceptionally important" election, yet neither will even discuss an issue that (I contend) will loom larger in historical accounts of this era than 99 percent of what is discussed in speeches, news analyses, and debates, this article is worth reading and thinking about. And after a "historic" hurricane, following a historic drought and heat wave, following historic rains .... Stephenson said in a note to friends that it was the "hardest thing I've ever written." It is not comfortable to read, and I have various things to say about the Atlantic's long-term performance on this issue; but I am glad he wrote it.
__ * The Phoenix unfortunately portions the piece out in eight separately clickable chunks, with no "single-page" option. You could support their online ad model by clicking through all eight. Or you could try the "article print" ruse.
** Still-relevant historical example: LBJ's decision to go ahead and
support civil rights legislation in the Martin Luther King era, despite
the likelihood that it would switch the previously Democratic "Solid
South" to a solid Republican stronghold.
*** It's more than I can get into now, but in widely varying ways the press
has "led," "reflected," and "lagged" on issues ranging from slavery, to
worker mistreatment and workplace safety, to immigration, to environmental protection, to race relations, to today's "debt crisis." The history of press "leadership," good and ill, on the sequence of U.S. wars from the one against Mexico in the 1840s, through the Civil War and the war with Spain, through the two 20th-century world wars to Korea and Vietnam, and on to the CENTCOM wars of the moment and the open-ended "war on terror," is its own important both heartening-and-discouraging theme.
When we moved back to Washington DC three years ago, after three years of out the country, naturally we noticed the old TV shows, radio broadcasts, stores, etc we'd been used to that had disappeared -- and the new ones that had started up while we were gone.
One of the new arrivals I was glad to have happened upon was The State We're In, which was improbably* enough produced by Radio Netherlands but was carried by WAMU, the local NPR station, on Saturday afternoons. I'd usually listen when I was running or driving around etc, but I began seeking it out because the mini-dramas and interviews were part of the tradition of modern radio done right, and as a lead-in to the unmissable** Weekend All Things Considered on NPR.
Just now I was out for a run and, while listening, heard the announcement that today's TSWI episode would be the very last. The Dutch government had cut the budget for Radio Netherlands Worldwide by 70 percent, and the show was getting the axe.
I am sorry to hear this, and am noting the occasion (a) to recognize the staff on the excellent production they've done for these past few years, and (b) to point you to some of the archives you might want to explore. Today's show is a good place to start; it's made of staff and listener favorites. For more you can prowl around in the archives. Here are the people responsible for the show:
Congratulations and thanks to them; for everyone else, you won't regret checking into some past episodes. __ * "Improbably" because the on-air voices sounded so North American. Yes, the Dutch are great linguists, but most speak English with a Euro-style rather than a North American accent. Today I learn from the show's website that the host Jonathan Groubert, in the glasses above, has lived in Holland for many years but grew up in Brooklyn.
** Inside joke: I love this show, and also regularly appear on it.
Yesterday I mentioned the latest, and in my view genuinely funny, Downfall / Hitler-rant parody, in which the Fuhrer bemoans the recent setbacks for the Romney campaign. I can't embed it, but you can see it here.
I also mentioned that the video included a "DC press in-joke," about a Washington Post writer who has become the Baghdad Bob of the 2012 election cycle via a willingness to spin any news, of any sort, as the best possible development for the Romney campaign. For clarity I should point out that her name is Jennifer Rubin, and the video refers to her below:
Imagine my amazement when the person who created the video, Daniel Vergara, wrote in to say that what I considered a side allusion was for him the entire point of the project. With his permission, here is his account:
I wanted to take exception to one little thing in this brief post about the Downfall parody video, the suggestion that Jennifer Rubin is an inside DC press joke.
I am the one who made the Downfall parody video, and I'm a Floridian single dad who has nothing to do with the media, who hasn't been to DC since the Clinton Administration, and who made that video almost as an afterthought after putting my little boy to bed and finding myself with some free time.
Jennifer Rubin is well-known outside the DC inner circle, and her jenrubinisms are legendary in more places than you'd think. The entire purpose of the video was to mock Rubin (as is the parody account I've created of her) and nearly everything else was added as filler for the long, loooong (but you don't really understand how very long until you have to make one) rest of the video. I have a fascination with Rubin based on the fact that I think we are living through historic times, that future generations will speak of her in amazement, and that she might even lend her name to an era or a practice, not unlike, for example, this.
Now I know. Thanks to Vergara for the video, even if I originally missed its point.
In response to this item yesterday, about mainstream media outlets figuring out how to cope with "post-truth politics," a writer who is a regular contributor to the New York Times and other publications (and is not a NYT staff member) writes with this elaboration:
I enjoyed your piece on the Times' new public editor, and agreed with most of it, but I think there's an underlying fallacy to it, slight but significant, which your readers should understand:
There's no such thing as 'the Times', really. It is, of course, an enormous organization operating on very tight deadlines; there are hundreds of reporters and editors, each of whom acts at least somewhat autonomously, and often in a mad scramble to get the news out on time. The paper -- like any news organization -- has its standards, of course, but they're flexible and not always easy to enforce, and in many cases it's up to individual actors, faced with specific circumstances, to decide how to phrase things. A certain amount of oversight takes place, but a certain amount of freedom is granted, as well.
I mention this because I think readers, and people in general, often think of the Times --or the Washington Post, or CBS, or CNN -- as a monolithic entity, a single organism with a consistent approach to news-gathering. I suspect the Times likes to think of itself that way, too. But in my experience, this simply isn't true: reporters are given leeway; editors change things, or they don't; something gets rewritten by the desk at the last minute, because space is short or a new piece of information came in; phrases are added or dropped. I wouldn't describe it as arbitrary, but I think it's more contingent, messy, and catch-as-catch-can than most readers realize.
I like reading the Public Editor columns, but I think they're a bit misleading. They imply that there's a 'Times policy', and often there is, -- but often there isn't, or it's imperfectly enforced. We would all be better off, I think, if readers understood that the paper, like all papers, is a large and contentious organization, made up of strong-willed and opinionated people in a half-mad dash to produce a fair account of what's going on. It's message, methods, style and results are nowhere near as controlled as, say, a corporation, or a political campaign. The paper's editors try, and I'm glad they try; but they seldom succeed, and I'm glad they seldom succeed.
Of course I agree on the main point. Even an organization like The Atlantic, so much smaller and less sprawling than the NYT, usually sets its tone through an accumulation of individual responses rather than through any tightly coordinated plan. (And I think we all view this as a good thing.) I also realize that the Times's "public editors," another term for ombudsmen, have no line authority at the paper beyond the guaranteed ability to express their views within the Times's space. My point in noting Margaret Sullivan's column was as another illustration of evolving discussion within the paper about moving beyond the "false equivalence" trap.
On another angle of the Sullivan column that I didn't address, it is worth reading this critique from Kevin Drum.
Thanks to many readers who have sent pointers to today's column by the NYT's new public editor, Margaret Sullivan, shown in a Times photo at right. Here's the good news: she is off to a strong start with her entry on the "false equivalence" debate.
Her predecessor, Arthur Brisbane, asked in a column earlier this year whether the press should be expected to serve as a "fact vigilante." Sullivan answers Yes.
[F]alse balance is the journalistic practice of giving equal weight to both sides of a story, regardless of an established truth on one side....
It ought to go without saying, but I'm going to say it anyway: Journalists need to make every effort to get beyond the spin and help readers know what to believe, to help them make their way through complicated and contentious subjects.
The more news organizations can state established truths and stand by them, the better off the readership -- and the democracy -- will be.
I'll take this as another positive sign in the long "false equivalence" wars. For a few previous installments, see here, here, here, and here.
Two caveats and elaborations: 1) As Andrew Cohen points out on the Atlantic's site today, some of the Times staffers whom Sullivan quotes sound as if they are not yet fully on board. For instance:
[One Times editor says] "There's a lot of reasonable disagreement on both sides... It's not our job to litigate it in the paper. We need to state what each side says." That's absolutely right as far as it goes. But like the original piece itself it's not nearly enough. Since [the editor] used the word "litigate" I'll start there, with some of the recent litigation that has surrounded the new laws....
The Times' piece did not mention, for example, the fact that Pennsylvania conceded during its voter ID trial that there was no in-person voter fraud in the state and that none was expected in the 2012 election....
From a political perspective, there may be a level of "equivalence" in the number of people who either support or oppose these laws... But from a legal perspective, at least so far, it has been a rout in favor of those who believe the new laws would unlawfully disenfranchise registered voters. In other words, there is no "equivalence" in the way judges so far have evaluated these laws.
Cohen's piece is very much worth reading alongside Sullivan's, because it lays out so carefully the damage that falsely equivalent coverage can do.
2) Reader SC points out this passage from Sullivan's piece today, with emphasis added:
On other subjects, The Times has made clear progress in avoiding false balance.
The issue has come up frequently with science-related stories, particularly those involving climate change. The Times has moved toward regularly writing, in its own voice, that mounting evidence indicates humans are indeed causing climate change, but it does not dismiss the skeptics altogether.
But earlier this year, the Times has seemed to be much more definitive on the climate-change point. As I mentioned back in February, a NYT piece about the climate-change-denying Heartland Institute said this, with emphasis added:
Heartland's latest idea, the [internal] documents say, is a plan to create a curriculum for public schools intended to cast doubt on mainstream climate science and budgeted at $200,000 this year. The curriculum would claim, for instance, that "whether humans are changing the climate is a major scientific controversy."
It is in fact not a scientific controversy. The vast majority of climate scientists say that emissions generated by humans are changing the climate and putting the planet at long-term risk, although they are uncertain about the exact magnitude of that risk. Whether and how to rein in emissions of greenhouse gases has become a major political controversy in the United States, however.
Optimist that I am, I will assume that Sullivan's comment today was an incidental "to be sure" touch, rather than a deliberate sign of a step back from the Times's previous clarity on this issue. Good for Sullivan for making this case; good for the Times in choosing her for this role.