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: False Equivalence

  • Bad News, Good Headline

    The importance of one verb and one noun

    On the New York Times site just now:

    What is very good, and accurate, about this headline: the verb "blocks" and the noun "filibuster."

    On why those two words are important—in contrast, say, to the word "fails" in the headline below from the same paper (and same reporter) in similar circumstances less than three months ago—see this compendium of items on reporters' and editors' discomfort in using the plain word "filibuster" to describe what is going on.  


    Poorly done, Senate Republicans; nicely done, NYT.

    Update: The headline on today's story was better than the article itself, whose second paragraph read as follows:

    The vote was 54 to 42, with 60 votes needed to advance the measure.

    For "advance the measure" read "break a threatened filibuster."

    Previous post                                                                Next post

  • Just Use the Damned Word: Filibuster

    Defining obstructionism down

    How not to do it: home page of the NYT just now. [And see intriguing update below.]

    Careful students can follow along as we review what's wrong here:

    1) "Necessary 60-vote threshold" implies some regular constitutional requirement, like the supermajorities necessary for impeachment trials or treaty approval. In fact incessant use of the filibuster is a recent, shift-of-norms phenomenon—and one of the goals of its practitioners is "defining obstructionism down" precisely so that its abuse will be treated as "necessary" and routine. 

    2) "Fell short" and "stalled" are intransitive verbs suggesting a weakness, failure, or insufficiency. In fact the nomination received a clear majority of 56 Senators, who as it happens probably represent about two-thirds of the population, but it was actively blocked rather than petering out on its own. To be fair, the headline uses the word "reject." 

    Courtesy of the WaPo, here is a how-to illustration of the way a lead story can note these realities:

     On point #1, we've got the plain word "filibuster." On point #2, we've got the transitive verbs "blocked" and "denied."

    What's really going on here? Below you see the current lineup of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, usually considered to be the most important appeals court not simply because of its jurisdiction over many federal regulatory cases but also because so many Supreme Court nominees come from there. 

    You'll see that the twice-elected Bill Clinton has three appointees on the court, as does the twice-elected George W. Bush. The single-term George H.W. Bush has one appointee, as does the current, twice-elected Barack Obama. The Republican filibuster strategy is an attempt to stall as long as possible before allowing Obama to fill those vacant seats. It's a kind of reverse court-packing, as Garrett Epps has explained; by extension, it's an attempt to spread abuse of the minority-blocking power in the Senate to another branch of government. Agree with the policy or disagree, but call it what it is. Please.

    I take it back! Or something. Two minutes after posting, as I check the NYT story again to add its URL link, I see this quite hearteningly different first paragraph:

    WASHINGTON — President Obama’s latest choice to fill one of the vacancies on a powerful appeals court went down in a filibuster on Tuesday as Senate Republicans blocked another White House nominee — the third in two weeks — and deepened a growing conflict with Democrats over presidential appointments.

     On the one hand, the previous version was up there for quite a while. Its posting time said 8:06 p.m.; I did a screen grab three-plus hours later. On the other hand, it's different now. However this came about, thanks.

  • I Hope This Is Our Final Shutdown Reader: Map, Airplanes, ChiComs

    What 32 committed people, and one timorous speaker, can do to everyone else

    Maps: I give you this one, from our friends at Esri, of the cities most affected by the shutdown. Click on the numbers at the left, and the map will show you more info for the respective cities.

    Of course this understates the geographic extent of the impact, since it shows only direct Federal payroll numbers and not the ripple effects of cancelled research projects, tourism falloffs at the National Parks, and so on. But it's a start.

    Airplanes: I give you this story, from Bloomberg, on why sales in America's leading manufactured-export sector, aerospace, are stalled by the shutdown too.

    Hundreds of sales from vendors as varied as Airbus SAS and individuals are stalled as the Federal Aviation Administration’s aircraft-registration office remains shuttered. Titles for $2.5 billion of jetliners, small planes and helicopters may be in limbo if the shutdown runs into next week.

    “This is a mess,” said William King, a vice president at Cirrus Aircraft Corp., which installs parachutes on its planes so they float to the ground in an engine failure. “Even if they settle this out quickly in the next 10 days, we could still be in a position of not meeting our delivery numbers by Jan. 1.”

    The snags are part of the economic ripple effects from the first government shutdown in 17 years. Five U.S. senators urged FAA Administrator Michael Huerta in a letter this week to reopen the Oklahoma City-based registry because it’s “inflicting unnecessary hardship on aviation industries.”

    ChiComs: We hear this from the FT.

    This may be nearing its end. When and after it does, let us not forget the 32 people, and the one House speaker too scared of them to stave off this disaster, who have caused such mindless, cumulative damage.

  • Tuesday-Night Shutdown Reader: 'This Didn't Happen Today'

    "Democracy requires accepting defeat," and other quaint concepts

    I am on the road and not in a position to catch up on the respective press conferences today. Thus, reader mail, much of it in response to the pro-shutdown messages I quoted yesterday.

    "This didn't happen today." Source of the photo above:

    I started to post a picture per day on my normally irregular Blog...Scenes from around DC from sites that are closed due to the shutdown.  Nothing shattering...the quality of life that we get to share but which, apparently, is not that important to some.

    "Does it only matter if it affects you?" From someone with military connections:

    I've got a question for those who think the shutdown is no big deal since it's not affecting them. Is the war in Afghanistan (which, yes, is still happening) no big deal just because you don't personally have skin in the game?

    Ignoring all the other very real impacts your readers have pointed out - if the fear with ObamaCare is that it will ruin the economy, what sense does forcing 800k workers out of a paycheck to stop ObamaCare make? ...  

    I guess that since the shutdown isn't affecting every single person directly, we can continue to just laugh this off and say "no big deal, how does this matter to ME?" Of course, most folks could say the same thing about ObamaCare too.

    "Affecting more people than she could possibly imagine":

    I read your blog regularly and this is the first time I've commented on something.  It is in response to a reader who was saying that most people aren't affected by the shutdown and the government workers will receive backpay.  The shutdown is affecting more people that she could possibly imagine.  And it's getting personal for me.

    My 23 year old daughter who has a BA in Biology is working as a contractor in the Smithsonian's Natural History Museum Lab.  It is a full time contract for 2 years until she goes to grad school for her PhD.

    She receives no benefits.  The only way she could think of accepting such a wonderful job offer was due to the ACA, she was able to stay on my health insurance plan until she is 26.  She will not get backpay because of her contractor status.  And I will pay her school loans, rent, and living expenses while the shutdown continues.  I have always had to live a frugal lifestyle, so it's not like it is easy for me to help, but help I will.


    So how many furloughed workers/contractors/people down the pipeline thought they had good steady jobs such that they could set up automatic EFT payments for student loans/car insurance/electric bills and now won't have automatic pay deposited?  The banks will love collecting all those overdraft fees, won't they?

    From someone who sells to foreign customers:

    Republican extremism has impacted me: My clients are unable to do business overseas because vital approvals cannot be accessed even when the approval is already done, as offices are shut down. And court dates have had to be rescheduled after years of preparation because government attorneys are not present.

    On Democrats as bullies:

    I’m certain I’m not the only reader who threw up a little in my mouth after reading [a previous reader's] attempt to rationalize the GOP’s hostage-taking while scolding Democrats for being “bullies.” By what perverse twist of logic do members of a political faction who threaten to blow up the global economy because they don’t like a law that extends health benefits to millions of uninsured citizens become victims of “Democratic bullying?” The law survived a grinding legislative process in which the full fury of the American Right Wing was  unleashed to destroy it, it survived a Supreme Court challenge, and it survived an election in which “repealing Obamacare” was the centerpiece of the losing side’s campaign.

    Truly, the only shame I feel right now is witnessing the tantrums and displays of self-righteousness and self-pity by what is likely one of the most privileged groups of people in modern history.

    What will they give up that will hurt them? Prom a professor in the Midwest:

    In all of the debt-ceiling, government shutdown argument, I keep waiting to hear from the people who argue that the debt is a looming disaster any statement of something they'd be willing to give up that works against their own interests or comfort.

    I agree that the level of borrowing in the U.S. is a real concern, particularly as we face the coming retirement and military healthcare tsunamis. Fixing that will require, among other things, tax increases that will at least get the U.S. tax system back to its historical levels of taxation. It seems to me that anyone who isn't willing to consider this is simply not serious.

    "Democracy requires accepting defeat":

    As I have sat with my earlier comments on the subject, something else has come into focus. It's a corollary to your recent post which asked: What would the discussion have been had the Democrats acted the same way as the current Republicans in the face of the GW Bush tax cuts?  

    Again, rather than look at how the reporting would have been different, let's look at what WAS different.  

    The thing which has historically made this country's contentious form of government work is that, when a party loses, it acknowledges, respects and acts according to that constitutional decision of the people.  And so, when a victorious president puts forth legislative proposals, there is some recognition and respect for the legitimacy of his power.

    More »

  • Shutdown Chronicles, NTSB Division

    Crash investigations -- who needs 'em? Nobel prizes too. We're saving the world from Obamacare.

    From Tennessee:

    From Washington. D.C.:

    From Southern California (about crash shown above):

    From the South Pacific:

    These damned leeches and goldbricks on the federal NTSB payroll. Better off without them. In the same spirit, a comment from the head of the NIH after America's latest Nobel Prize sweep in the sciences:

    “This is a stark reminder of how these are the best of times and the worst of times for American biomedical research,” Dr. Francis Collins, the N.I.H. director, said in an interview on Monday. “Today we celebrate the three N.I.H.-supported Nobel Prize winners, but we’re being slammed by sequestration and a government shutdown.”

    Even before the shutdown, scientists were facing severe budgetary difficulties that restrict the kind of research that led to this year’s Nobel Prize, Dr. Collins noted. “How many potential future Nobel Prize winners are struggling to find research support today, or have been sent home on furlough?” he said. “How many of them are wondering whether they should do something else — or move to another country? It is a bitter irony for the future of our nation’s health that N.I.H. is being hamstrung this way, just when the science is moving forward at an unprecedented pace.”

  • Monday Shutdown Reader: 'A Last-Ditch Effort' to Save the Country

    The view from the right

    For the record and without comment, two more illustrations of the outlook behind the House GOP stance. Each of these notes is representative of a major theme in reader mail.

    First, from Susan Cronin, of the National Parks Promotion Council, in response to my item on the enforced closing on an inn in the Blue Ridge Parkway area. I'm using her name with her permission.

    James, you have completely missed the point of the federal shut-down hurting good Americans like Bruce O’Connell, owner of the Pisgah Inn.  The Republicans that have called for this shut-down are doing so as a last-ditch effort to stop the acutely dysfunctional Obama administration from taking our country down any further by trying to force a compromise on the AHA. 

    President Obama leads congress and his party.  The onus is on him to bring leaders from both sides to the table to negotiate a compromise.  His partisan rhetoric has created this huge rift in Washington, to the detriment of millions of innocent Americans, like Bruce. 

    You, like the rest of the Democrats in Washington, are fueling this fire with editorial opinions like this.  My heart goes out to Bruce, all of the mom-and-pops who depend on national parks tourism and all good Americans who are trying to make an honest living while the Democrat bullies in Washington play childish games. Shame! Shame on you and your party of bullies. 

    Also, from a reader in the midwest:

    You cite real victims (I accept those assertions at face value) but they represent a minority of voters.  Today’s polling asking how many were affected by the shutdown produced barely a third, which is probably an exaggeration.  Since only 17% of the Government is shut down, presumably based on furloughed workers, and every single one of them will be retroactively paid, the shutdown is in reality a media event, with the affected chosen in every case by the Executive Branch, aka The White House.

    I’ve read your columns in The Atlantic for years and particularly liked China Airborne, as one who follows international affairs and aviation.  This column, however, reads like a typical liberal hit piece.  Are you aware that Obama is the first President in US history to say, under the same or similar situations, “I will not negotiate.”  He has demonstrated this ‘spoiled brat’ syndrome through his entire life, what we know of it. 

    I do recognize that the "Atlas Shrugged Guy" with whom I was corresponding last year was speaking for a group much larger than himself, and with this shutdown we are hearing from them again. I'm getting an increasing amount of mail each day from readers asking about the end of that saga, so I will set myself a public deadline of digging out all the messages, and seeing if I can find out his current views, by the end of this work week. 

  • Your Sunday Shutdown Reader #1: In Defense of Boehner

    "How many times do we have to refight the Civil War?"

    Recently I argued that John Boehner's refusal to let a "clean" budget measure come up for a full House vote was "contemptible." That was because, in order to protect his own job as Speaker, he was allowing countless other Americans to lose their jobs or businesses through an entirely unnecessary shutdown.

    I'm not the first to use that term. But readers write to defend Boehner and his motives in a variety of ways. For the record, here is a sampling (and that's his official picture).

    He is playing the long game. This is one of many reader messages saying that Boehner is storing up for the "real" battle over the debt ceiling:

    I understand why you are viewing the Speaker with contempt.  But let me offer an alternative view.

    As you say, bringing a clean CR [continuing resolution] to a vote would likely cost him his position as Speaker.  That is, he gets to defy the Tea Party fanatics once, but only once.  Clearly he could do this over the clean Continuing Resolution, and thus end the pain that a lot of people are feeling.

    But if he did, what would happen next?  Next would be a bill to raise the debt ceiling.  The next speaker would likely not be inclined to fight the Tea Party on that one, so it would include the whole Tea Party laundry list of wants.  And it would fail to get anywhere in the Senate.  So America defaults.  Which would be catastrophic for the nation.

    So maybe, just maybe, the Speaker is doing the hard and thankless job of taking all the contempt you (and others) are giving him.  In order to use his one shot for a debt ceiling bill.  

    We will know in a couple more weeks whether that possibility is correct or not.  (I could, of course, be totally wrong.) But if it is, I submit that the nation (and the world) will owe Mr. Boehner an enormous debt of gratitude -- for being willing to take all the opprobrium being heaped upon him in order to be in a position to do what needs to be done.  

    The nation will survive and recover from a shutdown, even if (as seems likely) it ends up lasting a couple of months or more.  We would not, I suspect, recover from a default.  So maybe, just maybe, the Speaker is taking one for the team here.  Let's hope so.

    Similarly, let's think about his final moves:

    Let's give the man even a tiny bit of credit as a human being.  Then, if we are to believe that he really won't plunge they world economy into chaos in 2 weeks, let's think about his end game.

    Could he believe that he has only one more chance to allow a clean vote and it will have to be both on the budget and default together?

    If he allows a vote now to re-open the government, the nihilists and the lemmings in his own party will replace him with one of their own on the debt ceiling...

    On the larger question that nobody has asked, how is it that in a Democracy the minority parties can't even bring something up for a vote?  Seems like a decent democracy would have "Minority 'All You Can Vote' Fridays" at least once or twice a month. Sounds like something to look at.

    And, suppose we had a Speaker Eric Cantor

    I wonder what [Boehner's] personal endgame is here. I mean, what is the point of being Speaker if you are beholden to your backbenchers?

    That said, there needs to a face saving solution for him. Obama shouldn't have to negotiate over the CR and/or debt ceiling, but by the same token if the only option for Boehner is a humiliating request to Pelosi for votes, I don't see him doing it. 

    Further, I am not convinced that Boehner is the key. Let's say he does call a vote on a clean CR. It passes with Dem votes and moderate Republicans. The Republican extremists immediately petition to challenge his Speakership -- only need 50 votes to do that, right? Then Cantor knifes him. So we get the CR, but now Cantor is in charge. 

    You'd need Boehner to bring a CR to the floor, and then you'd need a consistent willingness and ability to use Discharge Petitions to undermine Cantor. But at that point, you've essentially posited two dozen or more GOP Reps voting consistently with the Dems... which just isn't credible. Getting a single Senator to switch parties is tricky, but doable. Getting two dozen GOP reps to do it is just not credible.

    On the possibility of a discharge petition, a reader points out that 20+ Republican House members have spoken up in favor of a "clean" vote — enough, with the Democrats, to constitute a House majority. He adds:

    Interesting to see if this gambit works. By my math 200 Democrats + 17 Republicans signing a petition to request John Boehner bring a motion to the floor with a clean CR would show the American people that a majority in the House wants to end the shut down. Then it would be up to Boehner to demonstrate why he doesn't end the shut down.

    And on the big picture, from author and former longtime aide to GOP Senators, Mike Lofgren:

    For God’s sake, how many times do we have to refight the Civil War? You suggested a House discharge petition (which Pelosi is pursuing); I suggest taking off the kid gloves. How about drawing up articles of impeachment against the House and Senate instigators of the shutdown, since they are clearly nonfeasant with respect to their oaths of office, and their actions are causing substantive harm to the public interest? 

    Sunday Reader #2 coming this evening. 

  • Why the Shutdown Is Hurting All of Us, and Why That Doesn't Matter

    "They don't know the difference between soil and dirt."

    Two more quick instances of the wanton damage that 30-odd legislators (named here) are doing to Americans at two levels: those running small businesses, and those working in the large research institutions on which so much of our long-term wealth and well-being depend. 

    First, small business. Scott Slesinger of the NRDC reports on the 51-room, family-run Pisgah Inn on the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina. It is being forced to close, cancel future reservations, and even evict current visitors because it is inside National Park territory. From Slesinger's account (also source of the photo):

    [T]he government shutdown forced closures of picnic areas and other businesses along the 469-mile parkway. America’s most visited site in the National Park Service draws 15 million people a year and October is one if the busiest months because of the turning of the leaves.

    The Pisgah Inn operators, who have a concession contract to run the facility owned by the federal government, initially tried to keep it open. But the park service—out of cash for the fiscal year that began on October 1—gave them until 6 p.m. Thursday, and showed up to lock the entry gates. “They forced us to close,” an Inn employee said, adding they had to kick out some six dozen guests and spent Friday calling dozens more to cancel upcoming overnight reservations. 

    Now, national-scale public health. An acclaimed virologist at an East Coast university talks about short- and long-term consequences:

    Just don't get the flu next year and you will be OK. I happen to be vetted for a Federal committee that decides on which influenza antigens to use in next year's vaccine.  It doesn't take much imagination to figure out how fast this is going during The Shutdown.

    [This researcher's lab is internationally recognized for having discovered two different viral causes of cancer, and yet] our research funding has been cut, a moving target, but somewhere between -10 and 25%.

    I just received an email from one of my more talented post-docs who took a job at FDA as a scientist several years ago.  They couldn't hire him on as permanent science staff because of temporary hiring blocks, "The Sequester". and so forth.

    Since they are no longer giving him a paycheck, he says to hell with it and he is looking for a job in private biotechnology.  

    The problem with Congressional Republicans is that they do not know the difference between soil and dirt.  If you put soil in your oven and bake it at 450 C for an hour, it turns into dirt.  It doesn't matter how much manure you throw on dirt, it won't become soil again.   It's dirt with shit on it.

    And while I'm at it, a followup to an earlier item about the shutdown-limited satellite and weather info available to the Coast Guard:

    This column of yours strikes near and dear to my heart: my son is a member of the US Coast Guard, and serves aboard an ocean-going cutter.

    It’s not just the people they’re trying to rescue who are at risk: it’s the members of this (small but mighty) service branch as well. Some of those waters they sail can get treacherous. Oh -- and he’s scheduled to deploy soon.

    Now, the really depressing part: Why none of this matters. Like Robert Costa of National Review, whose reporting on the Republican hard-line faction has clarified why they are willing to wreak so much damage on so many fellow citizens, McKay Coppins of BuzzFeed has been very well sourced among Republicans. Read his account "Where Ted Cruz Is Coming From" for an understanding of how irrelevant any normal concept of "compromise," "leverage," or "public opinion" is with the hard-line faction. And also how contemptible John Boehner* is for protecting his own job, by catering to these people, at the costs of hundreds of thousands of jobs around the country. Coppins writes: 

    From its genesis in 2009, the Tea Party movement has been fueled by the rhetoric of revolution.... While Nevada Senate candidate Sharon Angle outraged mainstream political observers when she suggested people may start looking for “Second Amendment remedies” to the country’s problems, one recent survey showed that nearly half of Republicans believe armed insurrection might be necessary “in the next few years.”

    Data points like those have long been Democrats’ bread and butter as they work to cast the Tea Party as “extreme.” But they also show just how extreme conservatives consider America’s current peril to be. To believe an armed revolution could realistically be on the horizon is to live with the genuine suspicion that your government could, at any point, be overtaken by tyranny. In that context, some temporary furloughs seem like a small price to pay....

    [M]any Tea Party lawmakers view Obamacare as such a catastrophic threat to the country’s healthcare system and long-term economic health that it’s worth the high-stakes legislative brinksmanship to try to slow it down.

    At least, that’s what they hear when they return to their districts.

    * Why do I single out the affable-seeming Boehner for contempt? He obviously is not a Tea Party hardliner himself. And it is within his power to end this damage in a minute, simply by allowing the House to vote on a "clean" budget measure (which would pass). That would probably cost him his job as Speaker — but his failure to do so is costing many other people their jobs, not to mention longer-term effects. To me, that defines contemptible.

  • More Tales of Shutdown Life

    A struggle within one party, damage across the country

    Two more accounts. First, from a reader who is a scientist at an East Coast university that is affiliated with a federal research lab. He tells what is different because of the government shutdown:

    I wanted to write in to note that your "reader out West" [mentioned here] who is a university employee locked out of his Federal lab, is far from alone.  Plenty of us over on the East Coast are also locked out, and it's tremendously damaging to morale.  Many of us have quite a lot personally invested in our projects, and those of us who conduct experiments are completely unable to continue work.  Yes, the paychecks are still coming, but it's not a good feeling to be at loose ends all day.

    Somewhat bizarrely, there was very little warning that our building would close.  All of the contingency planning I was aware of involved operating as we do on Federal holidays — university employees would come to work and keep things moving while the government workers stayed home.  Then, Monday afternoon, the directive came down from somewhere on high that the facility would be closed completely in the event of a shutdown.  I think there's one person allowed in for up to an hour a day to make sure equipment is in a safe state, nothing is catching fire, etc. ... None of this makes any sense — those of us on the university side are fully funded for the moment, and we're still getting paid.  We just want to be allowed back to work.

    I'd like to add one more thing. It is fashionable in some circles to dismiss federal employees as overpaid, entitled, slothful bureaucrats. In my experience, nothing could be further from the truth. The people I support are uniformly very talented scientists who could almost certainly be paid far more in the private sector. True professionals in every sense of the word. We are absolutely sick at not being allowed to simply do our jobs.

    Now, from a reader who anticipates a connection I intend to make — real soon now! — between the encouraging developments my wife and I have been trying to chronicle via American Futures and the self-inflicted damage of our national politics of the moment:

    Your small town series seems to answer the one question that's an increasing puzzle to me.  Why is the US still the world power it is, in spite of our increasing political disfunction?  Maybe it will turn out that we have so many advantages built up over the years, as explained in the small towns you are visiting, that we have a cushion protecting us from our self-destructive tendencies.

    If this is true, it won't last forever.  So the Democrats need to figure out how to combat the anti-government rhetoric that's been building in the Republican world until the underlying demographic changes finally overwhelm the redistricting advantage the Republicans currently enjoy.

    What I would do is institutionalize the message that we are increasingly a country where the liberal blue states pay  more and more for the benefit of the more rural red states.  After all, who are the takers?  States like New Jersey or Connecticut, who get way less for each dollar they send to the federal government, or states like Arkansas and Nevada, who get way more than a dollar for each dollar they send to the federal government?

    One more point on the shutdown.  My daughter is in her last year at [a major UK university], working on her master's project in psychology.  She's found that the US government research databases that she relies on are all offline because of the shutdown.  Not a big deal, but damned inconvenient when you have a deadline. 
  • 'JFK, Oswald Differences Lead to Violence,' and Other Great Headlines of Yesteryear

    Two innovative ways out of a journalistic dead end

    1) A few days ago I spoke with NPR's media reporter, David Folkenflik, about the whole false-equivalence fandango. Just now I heard the resulting story, which took a form I hadn't expected — in a good way.

    Usually for broadcast stories, on radio or TV alike, the practicalities of the medium and the conventions of journalism dictate this cycle: A reporter talks with one source for a few minutes; then talks with other sources; and then interleaves little snippets in the final story. "Mr. X says this [8 second clip from him], but Ms. Y says that [10 second clip from her]." I'm not being catty about this. It's what the time constraints of the medium often require; it's a version of what print reporters like me do (talk to someone for half an hour, then use two or three quotes in a story); and often it is the best way to get a range of views across.

    Instead, Folkenflik presented the story in a way that talked about its stated subject -- "false-equivalence" reporting -- but that also, in its very structure, illustrated a way to work around some normal journalistic constraints. He ended up pairing two reporters who differed in many ways including overall political outlook -- Robert Costa, of National Review, and me. He pointed out that, despite other differences, each of us was presenting the shutdown story in a fundamentally similar way, as a fight within the Republican party. Then he contrasted that with the mainstream "Obama and Boehner: Who will blink first?" Washington-dysfunction narrative. You can listen to his story here. Completely apart from my own involvement, I thought this was a real step forward in explaining how and why the media can portray today's changed political realities.*

    2) A reader with a political-literary-legal background suggests the way our current mentality might apply to headlines from yesteryear:

     JFK, Oswald Differences Lead to Violence
          Fateful Lincoln, Booth Collision Repeated
    [See photo above]

    Rights Marchers Clash with Fire Hoses and Dogs
        Standoff as Marchers Doused and Canines are Photographed

    Astronauts, Moon Meet at Last
       Historic Moment as Lunar Soil Makes Contact with Human Boot

    Animosity Flares Between Jap Planes and Shore Batteries at Pearl Harbor
        Both Sides Unleash Firepower

    *The Folkenflik story includes an unfortunate on-air clip from Fox News's Brit Hume (whom I've known for years and like personally).

    Hume was complaining about a WSJ story saying that the most "reasonable" solution would be for the House to go ahead and pass a "clean" budget bill. This would get the government going again and would save health-care debates for later. Hume said that was unfair, since it would be just as "reasonable" for the Senate to pass the House's version of a budget bill.

    Think about this:

    • On the one hand, the House could do what a majority of its own members (R and D) clearly want, and that is in keeping with what usually happens through the years, decades, and centuries. Namely, keep the government open without making its very operation conditional on other demands. OR
    • On the other, the Senate could accept the House's bill — which keeps the government open but also undoes Obamacare — even though a majority of its members consider this anathema, it goes against all precedent, and it would force a recently reelected president to accept the minority-opposition program. 

    As a matter of politics, people can differ on which of those results they would prefer. But I don't think many people outside D.C. journalism would think of calling them equally "reasonable."

  • Today's Shutdown Bonus: Why It's Harder for the Coast Guard to Find People Lost at Sea

    Studies in the self-lobotomization of a modern system

    Three points from readers:

    1) Forget about the discharge petition. As a reminder, a budget resolution to end the shutdown would pass in the House, if Speaker John Boehner would allow it to come to a vote.

    Yesterday I quoted a reader's suggestion that Democrats in the House should ally with a handful of Republican to force Boehner's hand, via the technique of a "discharge petition." Overnight many readers pointed to this article, by Sarah Binder on the poli-sci-oriented The Monkey Cage site, about why in reality that is not likely to work, at least in the short term.

    2) Non-essential vs. non-excepted. Yesterday I also quoted a business person who dealt often with federal agencies, on the annoying implications of the term "non-essential employee." A reader in the West says that a different term is now in use:

    One of your readers wrote, "Can we use some other word [for federal employees] other than "non-essential"? I don't think any employee is non essential and it demeans the works they are doing with dedication."

    Actually, the language *has* been changed: Federal employees who are "excepted" are not on furlough and must report to work (and work on "excepted" tasks or projects); "non-excepted" employees are furloughed. I've seen at least 1 news article that noted the language change but said they wouldn't follow along in order to "keep things simple". Another had the word right once and wrong once, but opted to use essential/non-essential most of the time.

    As background, I'm employed by a state university but my office is
    located at a federal research lab. (I write this only to establish credibility. I'm not allowed in my office during the shutdown and I can't access the federal computers and datasets, but I'm expected to work as best as I can and I will continue to be paid. I know I am fortunate compared to my federal colleagues!) The language "excepted" and "non-excepted" was used in all the materials sent out to us by [the federal agencies the writer's organization works with].

    3) Now, from a "non-essential"/"non-excepted" reader. The detail below is the real payoff of this reader's account, but the practical implication is this: With every hour that the shutdown goes on, the Coast Guard's understanding of currents, winds, weather fronts, and other trends in the ocean, and therefore it is less and less likely to be able to find people lost at sea

    Thank you for your columns on the shut-down. I'm a non-essential civil servant at NOAA so I am home without pay.

    The public is being told that the government is operating in a limited way to do what is necessary to protect life and property. I am writing to tell you an example of how the shut-down affects that behind the scenes.

    If a plane has to ditch, a boat is swamped, or someone falls overboard at sea, Coast Guard will do the search and rescue. No doubt the folks at CG who do that are essential and not furloughed. When they get a report of a man overboard the first thing they will do is put a marker at the last known location into two ocean models. These models mean to predict where the people and things on the surface will drift as time goes on, pushed by winds and currents.

    There are two models, a Navy model and the NOAA RTOFS [Real Time Ocean Forecast System] model, and they'll give slightly different answers, which is good, so CG will get a sense of the uncertainties in the model forecasts. (The models have essentially the same physics embodied in their computer code but they have slightly different ways of assimilating wind data.)

    I suppose the people at Coast Guard believe the models are reliable, and probably no one has told them that the models can get less reliable every day that the government is shut down. But the ocean circulation part of the model relies on assimilating data from active radar satellites that measure ocean surface wind speed, wave height, and "dynamic topography", which is the ocean equivalent of what high and low pressure systems are in the atmosphere. If the ocean model doesn't get these data, its prediction of currents gradually 'relaxes' (decays, more or less exponentially) away from a good approximation of the truth and toward an overall background state that is a climatological average.

    An analogous situation in weather forecasting would be if you stopped giving the computer models any info about barometric pressure, clouds, winds, and humidity, and then watched what happened to the accuracy of the daily forecast. Before long the forecast would have no fronts, shears, weather, etc. and would just look the same over hundreds of miles, just the background climate.

    NOAA operates only one of these active radar satellites for making these essential ocean measurements. .. To make a decent ocean forecast you need at least three of these satellites. There are three, but NOAA treats the other two as 'research', done on a 'best-effort' basis, and the scientists who built that research capacity are all out on furlough. If their computers go down, they aren't allowed back into their building to reboot, and the ocean forecast will quickly become useless for search and rescue.

    (Incidentally, the big international, once-a-year science conference on this kind of satellite oceanography is scheduled for next week but unless the government reopens, the NOAA scientists can't go.)

    So why aren't all three satellite data streams deemed essential? Basically, it is money. The US isn't investing in satellite technology as it should....

    So 'best effort basis' is how we do things, because it gives us flexibility and it is so much cheaper. But it means that (probably not just n Coast Guard search and rescue but in all kinds of stuff throughout the intelligence, defense, and civilian safety sectors) there are downstream things that are 'essential' that depend on (in ways the decision makers may not even be aware of) upstream stuff that is shut-down.

    So with each passing day, we're learning more about the surprising connection of public and private functions, national and international, military and civilian, and so on. That teaches us something, but the discoveries are not worth the cost. Especially considering that this is all at the behest of 40-some people who have determined that if the government isn't operating the way they like, they're happy for it to stop operating at all.  [Coast Guard photo]. 

  • The Two Basic Facts That Should Be in Every Shutdown Story

    If Congress could vote on a "clean" bill, it would end the shutdown tonight. So why isn't it allowed to vote?

    To people who follow politics these two facts are obvious. But they're not part of most "tragedy of gridlock" false-equivalence stories, and I believe they would come as news to most of the public. The two facts are:

    1. If the House of Representatives voted on a "clean" budget bill -- one that opened up the closed federal offices but did not attempt to defund the Obama health care program -- that bill would pass, and the shutdown would be over. Nearly all Democrats would vote for it, as would enough Republicans to end the shutdown and its related damage. (And of course it would pass has already passed the Senate, repeatedly, unless the minority dared filibuster it, and would be signed by the president.) For illustrations of the wanton damage, see here and here.
    2. So far House Speaker John Boehner has refused to let this vote occur. His Tea Party contingent knows how the vote would go and therefore does not want it to happen; and such is Boehner's fear of them, and fear for his job as Speaker, that he will not let it take place.

    These two points are why the normal D.C.-poohbah moanings about the need for compromise do not apply. The Democratic administration, and a sufficient number of Republicans, already agree and are ready enough to compromise to solve this problem. If the normal machinery of democracy were allowed to work, the manufactured crisis would be over. The only reason the senseless damage is being done is that hostage-takers have terrorized members of their own party. 

    I wish John Boehner were a vainer man. (And I wish that Boehner and vainer didn't rhyme, undercutting the point.) The way he could earn a place in history, admiring chapters in Profiles in Courage-type books, and even a long swing on the university-lecture circuit would be to defy his extremist minority. And maybe eventually he will.

    I am reminded of these points by a very good story this evening on NPR. It's this report, by All Things Considered host Melissa Block, based on an interview with Republican Representative Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania (right). Dent has voted for the various defund-Obamacare resolutions that have come down the pike. But in the segment he explains why he thinks it's (obviously) time to return the government to normal functioning and work out health-policy differences through established channels.

    One reason to listen to this story: it shows, in contrast even to some other NPR coverage, how you can be "fair" in presenting a story without sinking into the mire of false-equivalence, "everyone's to blame"-ism. The other reason is for a reminder of the two basic points above.

    Very soon, I will return to our travelogue. 

  • Et Tu, FT?

    One newspaper, straddling two different worldviews

    A few hours ago I suggested a primer for media coverage of the impending budget and debt-ceiling votes. Main point: the real reason we're contemplating another government shutdown and debt-ceiling crisis is the titanic struggle within one party, the Republicans, rather than the normal tussles between parties in familiar R-vs.-D mode.

    Therefore any story that sheds light on the varying factions and interests within conservatism generally -- Paul and Cruz and Rubio and Cantor and DeMint; Boehner and Rove and McConnell and the Kochs; Hannity and Limbaugh and Ailes; Newt and Jeb Bush and Kristol; plus whoever else -- helps us understand what's happening.

    And any story that presents this as a normal "both sides are to blame" recurrance of bipartisan gridlock, or as the object of rational-actor negotiation between Obama/Reid on one side and Boehner/McConnell on the other, says more about journalists' reflexive fear of not seeming even-handed than about the reality we should be trying to describe.

    The headline writers at the Financial Times today marvelously illustrate the uneven ways in which mainstream journalism is adapting its (our) conventions to these new realities. The screenshot at the top was from the FT's home page a little while ago. The two headlines boxed in red are classic "gridlock in Washington" / "everyone to blame" old-think formulations. Yet right in between them, conveniently highlighted with the green arrow, is a story by the FT's Stephanie Kirchgaessner whose headline boldly refers to the "Republican civil war" and whose opening clearly draws the connection between the GOP's inner struggles and the nation's fiscal fate:

    Idaho Falls lies more than 2,000 miles from Washington. But a local political fight that has gripped this community explains in large part why the US is once again teetering on the edge of a government shutdown and even default.

    The primary election fight, described by some as a battle for the soul of the Republican party, has pit congressman Mike Simpson, a longtime personal friend and ally of John Boehner, the Republican Speaker of the House, against a newcomer named Bryan Smith, who has won the backing of the most powerful conservative groups in Washington....

    Far from being a one-off phenomenon, the Idaho race shows why conservative but pragmatic Republicans like Mr Simpson, who are from districts where Democrats are almost irrelevant, have been pushed to the sidelines.

    Anyone who reads the story will understand that whatever the Obama and the Democrats are saying or offering is essentially irrelevant to the inner GOP drama. So the paper's headline writers are describing a world -- parties are "poles apart" and cannot "bridge the divide" -- that the same paper's reporters say no longer exists. Split-consciousness specimens like this will be great time-capsule elements to illustrate how rapidly the politics of our time is veering away from our familiar ways of understanding and describing it.

  • False Equivalence Watch: East Asia / Mea Culpa Edition

    It's not just for Americans any more.

    A reader with a Japanese family name writes:

    I know that false equivalence is a favourite topic of yours. Therefore, I'm going to suggest that when you wrote the following, you might have been indulging in a little false equivalence of your own:

    "Japanese leaders have made repeated inflammatory visits to the wartime Yasukuni shrine; Chinese state media have run nonstop anti-Japanese war dramas on TV; both sides have pushed the dispute over the Diaoyu / Senkaku islands. You can also think of officials in each country who would back off (and have, in the past few months) if the hostile attitudes threatened to provoke actual hostilities."

    I agree that visiting the Yasukuni shrine is not the most tactful thing one could do. I also agree that there's some ugly right-wing rhetoric coming out of Japan. But how is this at all equivalent to the venomous, wide-spread and officially-sanctioned anti-Japanese propaganda, the resulting, seething hatred and the subsequent, anti-Japanese riots that we have all seen? There's a marked difference in degree, as far as I can tell.

    Fair point. There is an asymmetry in Chinese-Japanese relations.

    Japanese politicians have frequently pandered to part of the Japanese nationalist right wing by visiting the Yasukuni shrine, above. (To oversimplify: this would be like a German leader going out of his or her way to visit Nazi-era shrines.) The Japanese educational and media systems, based on what I've observed and learned, so thoroughly downplay the history of the 1930s and 1940s that most Japanese citizens naturally view their country as the major victim of World War II, because of the atomic bomb. The result is genuine puzzlement and ignorance about why older Chinese, Singaporeans, Filipinos, but again mainly Chinese might bear a grudge.

    On the Chinese side, much as the reader says, the government tolerates and/or fosters flat-out hate-Japan propaganda. Ordinary Japanese people can be affected by passive lack of awareness of their country's history. Ordinary Chinese people can be affected by deliberate agitprop. 

    Both of these are unfortunate, but they're not really "equivalent." China's government is more culpable than Japan's in drumming up and maintaing ill-will. On the other hand, when it comes to the specific issue of the Diaoyu/ Senkaku islands, I think it's fair to say that the governments have been roughly comparable in ramping up (and when needed damping down) hostilities. Thanks for the clarification.  

  • D.C. Interlude: False Equivalence, This Town

    Media notes on a return visit

    A D.C. drop-in, after nearly three weeks on the road, with three quick media notes. [Please see update below.]

    1) It is wonderful when life works just as you expect. Driving back from the airport to our house, I predicted to my wife that we would hear a certain three-word combination within the first 30 seconds of turning on the radio. 

    Yes! After I pressed the power button, the first three words we heard were these: "R. G. Three." OK, I had slightly rigged the competition, by tuning to a sports-talk station. Still, it was a wonderful small moment. (Previous-season photo from here.)

    2) And sometimes it is not so wonderful. These days there is no joy in noting problems in the Washington Post, but on getting home I finally looked at the article dozens of readers had mentioned as a candidate for a new False Equivalence champion. It is by Dana Milbank, it is called "The weakest generation?", and it laments the shortcomings of Milbank's own Obama-vintage contemporaries when compared with the Greatest Generation of yesteryear. Milbank says that the failure is generational rather than partisan. Thus, with emphasis added:

    Without any concept of actual combat or crisis, a new crop of leaders -- Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Paul Ryan, Sarah Palin -- treats governing as a fight to the death, with no possibility of a negotiated peace. Without a transcendent social struggle calling us to seek justice as Americans, they substitute factional causes -- Repeal Obamacare! Taxed Enough Already! -- or manufactured crises over debt limits and government shutdowns. Though the problem is more pronounced on the right today, the generational drift is nonpartisan. President Obama has extraordinary talents but shows no ability to unify the nation in common purpose or to devote sustained energy to a cause greater than his own.

    So: We have four named Republican leaders, two of them already candidates on a national ticket and the two others obviously hoping to be, whom Milbank cites for a demonstrated nihilist approach to government. As evidence that the problem is "nonpartisan," he names one Democratic leader whose failure is not being able to offset the nihilism of the other side (which does, in fairness, display a "more pronounced" version of the generation's overall failure). 

    It was fascinating to read that item in company with the other stories in the same issue looking back on the Bayard Rustin/Martin Luther King March on Washington 50 years later. The assessments of the March, when looking back from 2013, didn't have to show "false equivalence." They could talk about the power of King's speech, the beginning of the Civil Rights struggle, the struggle that lay ahead in both the South and the North, the flat-out segregation-era resistance of George C. Wallace, and so on.

    But the stories from 1963 couldn't do that. As current-day Post reporters noted, they were full of warnings about "extremists on both sides," the threat of demonstrator-induced violence, and so on. They barely mentioned the one line that lasted from that event that lives 50 years later, Martin Luther King's "I have a dream..." (The Post's Robert Kaiser, who was there 50 years ago, has a very nice item explaining why.) That is, the newspaper's awkwardness in covering the eventsof 1963 is almost as revealing as the March itself in evoking public and media attitudes of that day.

    I suspect that when people look back on our era of politics, they'll make a similar point about essays like "The weakest generation?" One of our national parties is, objectively, going through a historic swing to an extreme. It's happened before to other parties. But right now it is happening now to the Republicans. Academics can say that. Out-of-office Republicans can say it, even members of the Bush family. Future political writers, when they are looking back on the Tea Party era, will surely say it. (Mitch McConnell is under primary threat from the right; Nancy Pelosi is not under primary threat from the left.) But it goes against nature for political reporters to say so, plainly, now.

    Of course it's easier to look back than to look forward. Of course every reporter should always seek out and convey a range of views. I'm talking instead about the instinct to muffle what your evidence and analysis tells you to be true -- and what you know you'll be writing a few years from now. It's another manifestation of the instinct to cover politics as sports. Expert analysts of sports can say safely say that one team is "playing the game better" than the other or "is well coached" or has "a deep bench." They can go out on a limb arguing controversial or hard-edged perspectives on these questions of process and technique. But (unless they're home-town broadcasters) they are never supposed to reveal a preference or judgment about who is "right" or "should" win.  

    3) This town. I had resisted reading Mark Leibovich's This Town because I had a lot else on my mind; and because I figured I had already written this book myself (Breaking the News); and -- crucially -- because I had inferred from local D.C.-reaction that it largely involved gossip about le tout D.C., a subject on which I felt sufficiently informed. 

    Last night I saw Leibovich on Moyers and Company, and -- the sincerest form of flattery! -- as soon as the program was over I ordered the book. It's an extraordinary session between him and Moyers, which among many other things addressed one of my mistaken concerns. Leibovich said that outside Washington, the book has mainly aroused discussion/concern/anger about the permanent-establishment, money-for-everyone nature of the modern capital. Whereas inside D.C., he said, it had been treated mainly as a chronicle of boldface names -- which is of course exactly what I had seen and heard of it.** This session below is worth watching. From Moyers and Leibovich you'll hear criticisms of both parties, but without a drop of "false equivalence" from either man.  

    * With only a few years' retrospect, everyone could say that the choice of Sarah Palin was a tremendous embarrassment for John McCain and the party in 2008. But if you were a political reporter at that time, your powerful instinct was to say, "the vice presidential picks are a risk on both sides. Joe Biden has proven gaffe-prone, and there was that embarrassing Neil Kinnock episode 20 years ago. Yet the problem may be more pronounced with Palin .... "

    A year after the 2012 Republican primaries, analysts throw around terms like "freak show" and "non-starters" to describe a field whose prominent figures included Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann. But they couldn't do so then.

    ** Small-world department: This was exactly my experience with Breaking the News. People outside D.C.-media-land didn't like what it said about the culture of pundits and celebrity journalists. People inside D.C. were in a lather: He said what?? about TV pundit X?? He said that about the White House Correspondents Dinner?

    UPDATE: As Jonathan Cohn, Dean Baker, and Jonathan Chait have pointed out, the truly egregious story in yesterday's WaPo was the lead story on the front page, which went way past false equivalence to just being false. Wow. I hope that Martin Baron, the Post's recently arrived editor whose work and judgment I've always admired, was off on vacation this week.  


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