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: Crisis of the press

  • Another Bloomberg Editor Explains Why He Has Resigned, Over Its China Coverage

    "For the international press, there are many reasons for crimped ambitions."

    A graphic for "China's Red Nobility," from a 2012 investigative series on corruption among the country's leading families. ( Bloomberg )

    Four months ago, The New 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. 
    Ben Richardson,
    from Bloomberg.

    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. 

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  • Next in our Special Series: Gas-Price Rise Means Drivers Pay More

    Good thing we have experts to explain these things to us!

    Front page headline in the WSJ today.

    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. 

  • Why I Get More Than 1 Paper, Medicare Edition

    I am doing my part to keep the print-newspaper business going. And you should too!

    Here is the lineup on the breakfast table this morning. (And, yes, before you ask, that is a batik cloth in the background, from the old days in Indonesia.) 


    Overall front-page lead story in the WaPo: "Medicare's future appears brighter".

    #2 off-lead front page story in the NYT: "Report Shows Better Outlook for Medicare".

    Mentions of that story anywhere on the front page of the WSJ, including the news-briefs column: zero.

    The new Medicare assessment does make a cameo appearance at the bottom of page 5 (see right). Instead the WSJ devotes its featured front-page space to whether the IRS is doing more inspections of Republicans, and the plush life of modern Washington. Plus a very good (really) story, in the tradition of the old WSJ "A-hed" front-page features, on the modern high-tech sock-knitting industry.

    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.
  • False Equivalence: Where It Came From

    Is politics just another form of schoolyard bullying?

    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.

  • The Phoenix's Role in Climate Coverage

    Boston's now-closed independent paper "championed the climate issue and the grassroots climate movement, when virtually no one else gave them a serious thought."

    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.

    PhoenixCover.jpegI 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, garnered national attention 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.
  • Why I Get More Than One Newspaper, Cont.

    There's the "news," and then there's the "frame."

    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.) 
  • Pre-Election Reading: Wen Stephenson on Climate Self-Censorship

    The big issue of the campaign, and why it's not being discussed

    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 discussed.

    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. 


    An excellent radio show goes off the air, but the episodes live on.

    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:

    Thumbnail image for TSWI2.png

    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.

  • Hitler and the Secret Video: The Creator Speaks

    The man who created a parody video explains what he had in mind.

    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.

  • There Is No Such Thing as 'The Times'

    What a column from the New York Times' "public editor" does and does not signify.

    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.

  • Another Step Forward on the 'Post-Truth Politics' Trail

    Learning to cope with "truthiness" and "false equivalence": The saga goes on.


    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.

  • This Could Be the Most Dishonest Thing Fox News Has Ever Done

    If you thought you'd seen everything -- well, think again!

    I realize that's a big claim. But for your "post-truth" chronicles, check this out, a "data-based" graphic from a Fox & Friends program today.


    It is worth checking out the analyses from Zachary Pleat at Media Matters and Steve Benen at Maddow Blog, but here is the heart of the deception:

    To make it look as if the unemployment rate now is nearly twice as bad as it was four years ago -- 14.7 percent versus 7.8 percent -- the chart compares two different ways of measuring unemployment as if they were the same.
    • The "2009" version is the "official" unemployment rate, people actively looking for work who can't find it.
    • The "now" version is the "real" unemployment rate, which includes the official level and also: people who have given up looking for work, people working part-time who wish they were working full-time, and some others.
    The second number will always be larger than the first, often by a lot. "Comparing" the two is like saying that someone weighs 180 pounds when undressed, and 200 when wearing heavy boots and an overcoat with weights in the pockets, and using the difference to prove that he has gained 20 pounds.

    If this was an innocent though embarrassing error, a real news organization would immediately correct it and apologize. There is no sign that Fox has done so. [UPDATE: I see via Mediaite that Fox, after getting complaints, will issue a correction. Huzzah! That's a positive step -- but it also means that no one within the system said, Wait a minute, before we go with this, can these figures possibly be right? Let's double check...] This is as blatant an example of intentional, no-gray-zone dishonesty as I can remember from a news operation, counting Fox as such.
    If it were an honest comparison, here is how the figures would look:
    • Official unemployment: 7.8 percent in January 2009, 8.1 percent now (worse by .3 percent, not 6.9 percent)
    • "Real" unemployment: 14.2 percent in January 2009, 14.7 percent now (worse by .5 percent, not 6.9 percent)
    Pleat and Benen each explain why the other part of the graphic, the "sitting on E-Z Street" implication of 5.1 percent unemployment for public workers, is deliberately misleading too. Short version: for the past two years, the private economy has been adding jobs, albeit too slowly; the public sector has been losing them constantly.

    I had a lot of stuff I meant to put up about China right now, but this drew my attention. Next stop, Chinese developments, tonight or tomorrow morning.
  • Annals of Post-Truth Politics: Good for Norah O'Donnell

    "He said, she said" takes on a new and more promising meaning in a show on Sunday.

    Relevant background point #1: Rep. Paul Ryan's fame has depended on his reputation as the man who knew the obscure details of federal budget policy, and who was brave and honest enough to tell the public the unvarnished truth about those details.

    Corollary #1: Therefore questions of selectively presented truth, or incomplete honesty, count against his reputation more than they would someone who is seen as a run-of-the-mill partisan. Similarly: suspicions of extra-marital dalliance would do more damage to someone whose image involved being strait-laced than to someone already known as a rogue. (Think: Mitt Romney on the one hand, Bill Clinton on the other.)

    Relevant background #2: In his speech at the GOP convention, Paul Ryan really laid on the "selectively presented truths," more than other major speakers from either party. Especially notable:

    • Slamming the Obama administration for Medicare cuts, without mentioning that his budget plan included the same cuts (an omission Bill Clinton smilingly filleted him for in his DNC speech);
    • Slamming Obama for not doing more to support the Simpson-Bowles commission, without mentioning that Ryan was on the commission and voted against its recommendations;
    • Slamming the administration for the downgrade in the U.S. government's credit rating, without mentioning that a big part of the reason* for that downgrade (as reported by Standard & Poor's when issuing the downgrade) was the threat by Ryan and other GOP House members to block a usually routine measure to raise the U.S. debt ceiling and therefore risk a default on U.S. sovereign debt.

    Again, we expect politicians to shade and shape their version of reality. But getting a reputation for doing this, as Ryan is doing during the campaign, is a particular problem for someone who has been set up as a uniquely honorable truth-teller.

    Which brings us to Ryan and Norah O'Donnell today on Face the Nation. She presented him with another of the partial-truths from his convention speech, which he has repeated afterward. This is his slam of Obama for cutting defense spending, without mentioning that he has voted for these same cuts. I mention this less for what it shows about Ryan than for what it shows about O'Donnell. Take a look for yourself.

    Relevant background #3. It is hard for political journalists to know enough about the substance of obscure budget votes to go up against a famed "numbers wonk" from the Budget Committee; harder still for journalists to be sure enough of their knowledge, in the real-time pressure of live TV, to say "no, that's not right" to a national figure; and perhaps hardest of all for a mainstream network correspondent to take on the responsibility of saying, "This does not seem true," rather than just finding some credentialed "critic" to quote to that effect. I've mentioned before some signs of the mainstream media groping to figure out its role in the "post-truth" era. This is an encouraging sign.

    On the merits of what O'Donnell was asking Ryan about, see ThinkProgress. This is an issue I have followed. Ryan's thinly shaved rationalization here is consistent with the three I mention from his convention speech, in that each involves the deliberate omission of a major, elephant-in-the-room complicating truth. And, before you ask, when Joe Biden, Barack Obama, or other Democrats go as far as Ryan has -- not in presenting their opinions, or political "visions," but offering gross distortions-through-omission of their own records -- they deserve exactly the same treatment.
    * I edited this to include "a big part," since the debt-ceiling uncertainty was a factor but not the only factor S&P mentioned.

  • The One 'Daily Show' Clip to Watch About the Conventions—Plus One More

    A new stage in "fair and balanced" coverage

    See UPDATE for Canadian readers, below.

    Yes, I know that it's lame just to make an item out a Daily Show clip. But this should not be missed. Seriously.

    And maybe it becomes less lame, and certainly more "balanced," if I include this one too. It's another look at the "disappointment" question I mentioned here.

    The Daily Show with Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
    Hope and Change 2 - Barack Obama: It Could Have Been Worse
    Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical Humor & Satire BlogThe Daily Show on Facebook

    "Real" items will resume after a decent interval.

    UPDATE.Was off the grid just after posting this item. Another thunderstorm brought another 11-hour power failure in our part of D.C. Since the last two storms led to outages of five and four days' duration, respectively, we're feeling lucky! But on re-connecting I find a number of messages from Canadian readers asking what the Daily Show segments are, since apparently the embedding is blacked-out north of the border. Hadn't realized that. In any case, here is the link to the first clip, which is the important one.

  • 'State of the WaPo' Watch: Two Articles Worth Reading

    Two newspapers focus on the problems one of those papers has

    I assume it was by serendipity rather than design that both the New York Times and the Washington Post had bracing articles today on the way the way the Post is being forced to, or is deciding to, "right size" its news staff to cope with unending business pressures.

    High up in the Times story is an eye-opening quote from Robert Kaiser, a mainstay of the Post since the early 1960s and co-author with Len Downie, the Post's long-time editor, of a book on the future of the news business. As journalistically sophisticated a figure as Kaiser must have known exactly how it would sound for him to say the following, on the record, to a reporter from the traditional-rival news organization:

    "The survival of the institution is not guaranteed," Mr. Kaiser said in an interview... Over the course of his five-decade career with The Post, he has been a summer intern, a metro reporter, a foreign correspondent and the No. 2 to Len Downie, Mr. Brauchli's [the current editor's] predecessor.

    "When I was managing editor of The Washington Post, everything we did was better than anyone in the business," he said. "We had the best weather, the best comics, the best news report, the fullest news report. Today, there's a competitor who does every element of what we do, and many of them do it better. We've lost our edge in some very profound and fundamental ways."

    Meanwhile, in this morning's Post, the paper's current Ombudsman, Patrick Pexton [disclosure: formerly of National Journal, part of the Atlantic's corporate family], has what is overall an even tougher item. It discusses the latest round of buy-outs for reporters, editors, and designers at the paper and ends this way:

    But in looking at this buyout, I worry that The Post is moving away from local news and toward a publication that covers only national politics and government and the Redskins, one that relies too much on columnists....

    Ultimately, readers, online and print, will be the judges of the downsized Post. The staff here is not happy. They ask, Where is the bottom? They hate the less-is-more bromides from senior editors, so I'll not quote those. I'll quote Brauchli's most telling statement from The Post's town-hall meeting on the buyouts: "This is painful."

    I've never worked at the Post. But anyone in the news business knows that the phrases I've emphasized are extremely stinging judgments. Pexton, like Kaiser, is a veteran of this business who must have chosen his words knowing exactly how they would sound.

    The Post's travails are not good news for anyone, including "competitors" like the Times and the WSJ. These two articles are worth absorbing as measures of the challenges the paper now faces. This will sound glib, but like Pexton and Kaiser I am also choosing my words carefully and am sincere: I hope that five years from now some big NYT feature on the Post can refer to them as marking an early-2012 nadir from which the Post as a first-tier news-gathering organization managed to rebound.


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