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: NPR

  • Pushback on Fox-NPR Pushback

    Readers go one more round on whether, and why, viewers of some media outlets are better informed than others.

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    I don't mean to make this an endlessly recursive loop, Escher-style, but some readers object to previous readers' objections to an earlier item about Fox News. The first item described a survey suggesting that Fox News viewers were flat-out worse-informed than people who relied on other news sources, especially NPR. The response questioned the survey's methods. Now, one more round from the readers.

    1) The survey might be flawed, but the findings are still "true". A reader writes:

    The pushback comments you published are quite correct about the shortcomings of the study and why it should be interpreted with caution.  Nonetheless, there are good reasons to conclude that Fox News does a poor job of delivering "news," that is to say accurate information about important current topics. 

    As one reader whose comment you featured noted, this survey is consistent with the conclusion that Fox viewers are less knowledgeable (he or she used the term educated, but in a sense equivalent to knowledgeable) than NPR listeners.  There can be no doubt about this conclusion. 

    If you polled large samples of regular Fox viewers and regular NPR listeners, which group would have the larger percentage of viewers/listeners accepting the existence of global warming, the validity of evolution, that we can't drill our way to energy independence, that that President Obama was born in Hawaii, or even that the Chevy Volt project was started by the very conservative Bob Lutz?  These are not obscure topics but have been featured over and over in media like Fox and NPR for several years.

    Given the strong human tendency to avoid cognitive dissonance, what would happen to its viewership if Fox actually pursued real accuracy in its reporting?  Viewers would flee in droves.  The Fox business model depends avoiding real information on a wide array of topics. 

    2) A 'tribal' world view. From another reader:

    Think Progress often reports on the coverage density across the major news outlets for a given story.  And apparently there ARE some stories that Fox tries to avoid covering in detail, apparently because they would challenge the "Fox Worldview"....

    But in general, I don't think Fox News' overarching negative contribution to the American conversation can be specifically described as a lack of knowledge, or a less well-informed viewership.  I think its bigger than that, and much, much worse. 

    The Fox news programming, taken as a whole, promotes not just a particular ideological viewpoint but a larger, generalized point of view that is often toxic and even dangerous.  Part of it is the insistence that empirical evidence is wrong, or experts like scientists are corrupt and/or serving a particular ideological agenda.  So you get beliefs like supply side economics and its handmaiden, so called "dynamic scoring" of fiscal policies, a blunt refusal to confront climate change and a gross misunderstanding of health care policy. 

    Even worse, the general worldview Fox promotes is deeply tribal, always casting doubts about and fostering fear of "the other". The Fox viewership is told that they are at risk, that they are victims, that everything they love and value is on the brink of destruction.  Of course that's ridiculous, it's how we arrive at conclusions like white males are oppressed and the Catholic Church is under attack.  But it's also dangerous, as it has created a powerful us vs. them dynamic in America that will almost certainly color everything we try to do for the next twenty years...

    3) Not all Fox News programs are created equal:

    The poll you cited is not the first one to show Fox viewers being uninformed.  Here is a rundown of several such polls.

    Granted, PolitiFact's final determination is that Stewart was wrong to say that "every poll" shows Fox viewers to be the most misinformed.  However, every poll they linked shows NPR listeners to be significantly better informed than viewers of the generic "Fox News" category.  That said, viewers of specific Fox programs -- such as the O'Reilly Factor -- tend to do significantly better than the generic "Fox News" category as well.

    p.s. You'll probably appreciate that at least one poll shows readers of The Atlantic (subscribe!) to top the list of the most informed news consumers.

    Escher's_Relativity.jpg4) Phone surveys are still OK:

    Points 2 through 4 [of the critique] are all more-or-less valid criticisms, and I'm in broad agreement with him there--Farleigh Dickinson should have released the full crosstabs (I used to work at a polling firm, so this isn't totally uninformed speculation). 

    But his first point would invalidate all phone-based polling, and that's a leap too far.  It's true that response rates have been falling; but smart people have looked into this and found that so far, it doesn't seem to be affecting results. 

    Pew released a fascinating study of this just a few weeks ago that you might enjoy.  The short version is that they did a normal survey and compared the results to a "high effort" survey (with frequent callbacks, financial incentives to participate, etc) that got a much higher response rate.  Nevertheless, the results of the two surveys was mostly identical, with the exception that those who answered the normal survey were more likely to report civic engagement.  For the moment, the polling edifice remains intact.

    5) If it's the viewers' fault, it's also Fox's:

    [The previous reader] is right that it may be premature to draw the conclusion that Fox News actually turns out uneducated viewers as a result of watching Fox's programs.

    However, I would suggest that if Fox was doing a decent job providing information to its viewers, then - even if they were ignorant of certain events or uneducated - the viewers should be coming away better informed about the facts.  This should be particularly true when Fox viewers are compared with people who watch no news at all. 

    6) The perils of amateurs writing about statistics:

    It's great that you are trying to be fair-minded by presenting a critique of the NPR-FOX study, but as is often the case with journalists who don't understand statistics as well as they might, you are swayed by somewhat weak arguments.

    The main response to the criticism of the study is that there's no argument suggested that there is any bias in the sampling method that would lower the fox scores and raise the npr scores. [JF summary: Maybe the survey was flawed, but there's no reason to think that it was flawed in a way that worked against Fox.]...

    The bias of the critic is also evident in their question.. " For example, what if Fox News reported particularly poorly on one or more of the topics included in the survey, but reported much better on some other topics not included?".

    Couldn't we just substitute 'NPR' for 'FOX News' and have an equally valid question?

    The failure to report margins of errors is a weakness, but again people so often make the mistake that scores within the margin of error indicate that the scores are essentially "equal". This is just plain wrong. The margin of error applies to a specific confidence interval (95% usually), but scores that are different but within the margin of error are by no means "equal". Instead, if Sample A is higher than sample B, but the difference between A and B is less than the margin of error, Population A is still more likely to score higher than Population B, even if that probability is less tan 95%. If I told you something was 85% likely to be correct, you would be foolish to ignore it because it didn't reach the 95% level, which of course has been arbitrarily set by researchers in the first place.

    Let me finish by agreeing with the critic when they say ...
    " You note in your post "that NPR aspires actually to be a news organization and provide 'information', versus fitting a stream of facts into the desired political narrative" . While this could be true, it is also possible that even if the survey results were correct there may be a bit of self-selection when choosing news networks.  In that case, ignorance could be the viewer's fault rather than the fault of Fox News."

    The part about self-selection is almost certainly true and likely a huge factor in the effect.  Also, your claim that NPR aspires to be a provider of information and FOX news aspires to fill a narrative is way too strong. I agree that there is more 'narrative filling' by FOX than NPR, but you can't wave away a whole group of journalists on Fox that way. Shep Smith and Bret Baier are two Fox news journalists who are obviously conservative, but can't be fairly accused as supporting a narrative.

    For the record, I agree that some figures on Fox -- Shepard Smith most of all, often Bret Baier, plus others -- conceive of their job in "normal" journalistic terms. But overall, to imagine that Fox and NPR are doing the same thing, just from different perspectives, strikes me as classic false equivalence. There is more to say, but this is plenty on the topic for the foreseeable future! Thanks to all who have weighed in. 

  • Pushback on NPR vs. Fox

    Reporters should be slower to leap to conclusions -- including me!

    I get off a connecting flight in Newark, en route to Shanghai, to see a mailbox full of notes questioning an item from last night. That item was based on a chart appearing to show that Fox News viewers overall did worse on a test of public-affairs factual knowledge than those who got their news elsewhere, or even than those who said they didn't watch the news at all.

    Here's the most fully argued version of the comments I've received, from a reader in New York. All emphasis in original:

    I've been following your "False Equivalence" series and have generally enjoyed and agreed with your insights, but I fear you may have jumped to a possibly unfounded conclusion on this one.  I'm a statistician by trade and have worked with various US government statistics departments the past and current work for an international organization.  Though I find these results entertaining from a media frenzy point of view, a number of alarm bells go off right away when I see this survey.  In ascending order of what bothered me most (with the relevant survey disclaimer quotes in italics):

        1.    It was conducted as a telephone survey.  "Survey results are also subject to non-sampling error. This kind of error, which cannot be measured, arises from a number of factors including, but not limited to, non-response (eligible individuals refusing to be interviewed)....." .  With caller ID these days what are chances that randomly chosen people would pick up for an unknown number?  And of those that pick up, how many are likely to agree to talk on the phone for 10 minutes to complete a survey such as this?  I would surmise that the response rate was quite low (I didn't see any documentation in the report).  A low response rate raises the possibility of nonresponse bias -  the possibility that certain demographic types would be undersampled.  The report states that responses were reweighted to account for discrepancies in race, age and gender proportions as compared to the national average, but presumable there are other factors that go into nonresponse bias. 

        2.    Only 8 questions were asked.  "Survey results are also subject to non-sampling error. This kind of error, which cannot be measured, arises from a number of factors including, but not limited to, ..... question wording, the order in which questions are asked, and variations among interviewers." This is a structural bias issue.  For example, what if Fox News reported particularly poorly on one or more of the topics included in the survey, but reported much better on some other topics not included?  While I don't see any inherent bias in the questions that doesn't mean there isn't any.  How were the questions selected?  Did both liberals, conservatives and centrists screen them for bias?  And how well the result of 8 random news questions relate to "what you know" anyway?

        3.    The deep breakdown of data in the survey.  1,185 people sounds like a lot, but when it is broken down to such a low level the sample size dwindles.  The graph that you use in your post shows the average number of questions answered correctly by respondents who reported getting their news from just this source in the past week.  So of the 1,185, how many watched Fox News and not any of the other sources listed?  MSNBC?  I would think that most people get their news from multiple sources (local news AND Fox News for example).  These people are apparently excluded from the analysis.  Presumably, the remaining sample could be quite small.  Which leads to the possibly most important issue:

        4.    Lack of standard errors on the correct answers statistic. "The margin of error for a sample of 1185 randomly selected respondents is +/- 3 percentage points. The margin of error for subgroups is larger and varies by the size of that subgroup." The size of the subgroups on which the graph is based are not mentioned.  Also +/- 3 percentage points does not apply to the number of questions answered correctly.  I do not see evidence of statistical testing to show there are significant differences by respondents reporting receiving their news from different sources (though I suppose there's a chance it may just not have been mentioned in the report).

    While I'm not sure that the team at Farleigh Dickinson could have done a much better job than they did with their resources, I think this type of survey does not rise to level of "news" (nor do most soft surveys like this).  It is extremely easy to jump to conclusions based on a graph that agrees with one's inklings about news sources even when the data behind it may not lend itself to clear cut conclusions.  Another thing that should be noted is the issue of causality.  You note in your post "that NPR aspires actually to be a news organization and provide 'information', versus fitting a stream of facts into the desired political narrative"  While this could be true, it is also possible that even if the survey results were correct there may be a bit of self-selection when choosing news networks.  In that case, ignorance could be the viewer's fault rather than the fault of Fox News.

    These are convincing points; I am sorry if I passed this chart along too eagerly and credulously, without reading the caveats. I have been big on the theme that reporters / commentators should not so often rush to conclusions and should instead be more aware of what they/we do not know. Conveniently and in my public-spirited way, I have now provided an illustration of this tendency myself. On the other hand, I do very much re-suggest consideration of the important  false equivalence item from masscommons I mentioned last night.

    FInally a sample of another recurring theme:

    I take some exception to this post, on how Fox viewers answer fewer questions correctly than NPR viewers. I'll bet that Fox viewers tend to be more conservative than NPR listeners. Conservatives tend to be less educated than liberals, and less educated people probably know less about current events.

    There are any number of correlations that could be involved in driving this result, and until those are explored the only safe accusation you can make is that Fox attracted less informed viewers than NPR, not that Fox provides less information. That might be true, and your opinion, but this isn't proper evidence for it.
  • This Is So Interesting (With False-Equivalence Implications)

    Can a news outlet reduce your store of knowledge? Apparently it can.

    I am simply piggy-backing here on a very popular item by Alexander Abad-Santos on The Atlantic Wire. But on the off chance that you have not seen it, this really is worth a look.

    It's a comparison of results on a basic factual-knowledge test for consumers of different news organizations. The Wire item (understandably) contrasted the results for Fox viewers versus those who watched no news at all. To me an even more dramatic contrast is Fox-v-NPR*.

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    To relate this to "false equivalence": during the Juan Williams inbroglio and passim, the Fox rationale has been that they are "balancing" a presumed bias from the rest of the media, notably NPR. Unt-uh! As I argued at the time, the more profound difference is that NPR aspires actually to be a news organization and to provide "information," versus fitting a stream of facts into the desired political narrative.

    That contrast may lack surprise value at this point. Still, it's worth noting that anyone who attempts to equate, say, NPR and Fox, in the fashion of "they're all biased, you just pick your perspective," is once again not looking at the actual data.

    Another illustration, which I'll plan to expand on tomorrow (if I can do it before the dawn flight to Shanghai): a very, very powerful illustration  of how strong the impulse toward false equivalence is, even among the most erudite and eminent. More soon.
    * Routine disclosure: I have never been an NPR employee but have contributed to various programs over the years, most recently Weekend All Things Considered with Guy Raz.
  • False Equivalence Update: Good News from NPR, Not So Good from NYT

    The Mainstream Media grapple with a Mainstream Problem

    On the heels of several promising developments from NPR recently, a reader on the West Coast writes just now with this update:

    I was lying in bed listening to the 8 am (ET) NPR newscast this morning when I heard the newsreader toss off some information almost parenthetically. It was a report on the primary campaign in which a clip of Romney was played saying that three years of Obama had brought fewer jobs and shrinking paychecks. The news reader added, "In fact although job losses that started in the recession continued into President Obama's term, the job market is now improving, if slowly, and real incomes decreased throughout the Bush administration."

    Ladies and gentlemen: fact checking during a newscast!!  It was stated in the same deadpan newsreader voice, with no more or less emphasis; it almost slipped past me unnoticed. And on thinking about it, I realized that I'd heard something like this earlier, but couldn't remember the issue.  Maybe it's been going on for a while and I haven't noticed, but this is the first time I paid attention.  So we're not just doing He Said-He Said anymore. Maybe there's hope for False Equivalence? 

    Maybe indeed! I'm not in a position right now to find the cite to that NPR broadcast, but I'll trust the reader's account and offer more congrats to NPR*.

    On the other hand, another reader notices this offhand assertion from today's NYT that 60 Senate votes is "needed" for routine passage of a Senate bill, rather than 51 in normal circumstances and 60 to break a filibuster. The story was about energy policy, and it quoted President Obama's opposition to "oil industry giveaways" and then said:

    Such views will set up a Senate vote as early as Monday on a Democratic proposal to repeal $2 billion in tax subsidies for the biggest oil companies and dedicate that sum to clean-energy projects. A similar measure previously failed when it fell 9 votes short of the 60 votes needed. [Ie, when it got 51 votes -- a majority.]

    Emphasis added, above -- and added as a reminder to NYT copy editors to include the words "to break a filibuster" after "needed." Maybe they could take another look at that latest "truth and news" handbook from NPR.
    * Routine disclosure: I have contributed to various NPR programs, though not in the past few weeks while I've been out of the country, but I have never been an employee.

    ** Extra disclosure: a ton of backed up items and reader mail, from Mike Daisey to Chinese leadership scandals to boiled frogs. Will get on them when next near the Internet.

  • Well, Good for WDAV

    A non-scandal ends, properly, in a non-crisis resolution


    According to this update just now, the classical music public radio station WDAV, in North Carolina, will not dismiss Lisa Simeone from her role as a freelance (ie, non-employee) host of an opera (ie, non-political) program carried by NPR, just because she has also been a spokesperson for the Occupy DC movement. The reports to the contrary over the past 24 hours boded ill for all who seemed to be involved, starting with NPR -- though, who knows, their sizzle might increase the audience for the next few installments of World of Opera.

    It looks bad enough that Paul Robeson (Wikipedia pic) was blacklisted as a singer for his political views -- and at least that was on accusations of being an actual Communist during the tensest Red Scare/ Cold War era. Are we really going to start pushing people out of roles like hosting an opera show, because they side in their free time with a movement that an increasing number of mainstream politicians have said they endorse?

    For the moment I won't go through the whole parsing of what outside roles are and are not appropriate for mainstream media figures. (You could look 'em up in a book!) The rules are and should be different for full-time employees of NPR than for a contractor like Simeone.* And they obviously should be different for news reporters, or editors or analysts, than for opera-show hosts. Whatever version of the rules you might come up with, there is no sane version of them that should have led to a panic over Lisa Simeone's role on a music show.

    So, good for whoever it was in the WDAV management with the sense to have an "oh calm down" reaction in the face of this non-scandal. And, yes, I would say the same thing if it turned out that the Car Talk guys were also spokesmen for the Tea Party, or even if Ira Glass is doing PR for Scientology. [On two minutes' reflection, bad analogy, since This American Life does so many stories that are "political" in the broadest and best sense.]
    * Or a contractor like me. I have never been an NPR employee but have done contract work for various programs over the years: in the 1980s and 1990s for Morning Edition, and now for Weekend All Things Considered. But -- to belabor the point -- I think different rules should and do apply to me than to a music-show or car-talk host, because I'm on there to talk about politics and the news.

  • The Latest NPR Turmoil

    Another mistake turns into another pretext for an anti-NPR push

    By James Fallows

    Like Jeff Goldberg, I saw the news of the latest NPR shakeup while on the road. I am in a part of southern China where the internet connection is so shaky I can't even sign onto a VPN and each new web page, if not firewalled, can take a minute+ to appear. (Chapter 4 million: The World Is Not Flat.) I want to say more about this, especially in light of my current cover story in the magazine, but in these circumstances I can't. So let me buy time with a link to something I wrote after the previous turmoil -- the one in which Vivian Schiller was doing the pushing rather than the one being pushed out.

    I still believe what I wrote there, and in the cover story. Both of the triggering events (first the firing of Juan Williams, now the NPR fundraiser's stupid comments) were mistakes, but IMHO each quickly served as a pretext for people with a larger agenda against NPR and its commitment to "real" reporting and news coverage from around the world. More to say but that's all I can type now. Pls read those other items instead!

    (For the record: I have never been on the NPR staff but have appeared on various programs over the years.)

  • Another View of Juan Williams, Ellen Weiss, and NPR

    "Political correctness ties NPR in knots over and over again"

    Yesterday I mentioned that Ellen Weiss, an NPR veteran who in recent years has been its news director, was taking the fall for the rash dismissal of Juan Williams. I made the case for Weiss (whom I don't know personally), saying that misjudgment in one episode was apparently being allowed to trump what she had achieved over the decades.

    Since then I have received a lot of response from the public radio diaspora, most of it saying: right on! But there is a minority view that, for fairness, I should quote -- especially since one person who has expressed it is willing to be quoted by name. The note below is from John Dinges, previously an NPR news official himself and now a professor at the Columbia Journalism school.

    I don't intend to get into back-and-forth about the personal virtues and failings of Weiss -- or Williams, or Dinges, or me, or anyone else. Being a news executive is like being a manager of any sort, in that inevitably you make choices -- budget, promotion, hiring, firing -- that please some people and disappoint or infuriate others. I know people who still resent choices I made years ago in my news-manager career. So inevitably Ellen Weiss will have critics. But Dinges's note makes a larger point about NPR. He writes:

    >>Glad you are weighing in on the Williams-Weiss saga.

    You quoted a station person extensively, saying that the 27 million NPR listeners conflates station audience as well as listeners to NPR programs. It is important to clarify that he is mistaken.

    NPR programs have 27.5 million just in themselves. If you expand the numbers to include listeners to all NPR member stations, the total listenership rises to 32 million.

    Those are 2008 numbers released by NPR. Here's the link and an excerpt:
    "March 24, 2009; Washington, D.C. - Following an unprecedented year in news dominated by the presidential election and global economic crisis, listening to NPR programming on NPR Member stations reached new highs according to just-released Arbitron ratings for Fall 2008*. NPR programming now reaches 27.5 million listeners weekly, representing 7% year over year growth. Total listening to NPR stations grew by 6 percent to reach a high of 32.7 million listeners weekly. Many individual stations also posted record high audiences during this ratings period."...
    You would get another million, maybe, if you include public radio stations who are not part of the NPR network--for example the community stations and the Pacifica Network of five stations.

    It is definitely NPR News that has been the engine of audience growth. Public Radio stations that don't broadcast NPR news programs have minuscule audiences.

    The growth of NPR in audience and as a news organization has been steady, and is definitely a shared credit going back to the original push to become "mainstream media" when Bill Buzenberg became VP for News in 1990 ( I was his managing editor for news). Listenership was above 20 million by the time he and I left in 1996.

    Jeffrey Dvorkin, formerly of CBC, and Bruce Drake, a former print guy, continued the steady growth in audience and staff quality.... Ellen Weiss didn't change course, but neither did she make a extraordinary contribution to that growth in quality, compared to her predecessors. Audience has actually flattened since 2008. Vivian Schiller, on the other hand, has been much more a factor for innovation in recent years, making NPR an important online journalism presence for the first time.

    Ellen made a serious error in judgment that has been very destructive to NPR. She has taken responsibility and resigned and for that I respect her. The board, by not clarifying what the errors in judgment were (other than to say she acted hastily), has left wide open the possible interpretation that this was another exercise in political correctness. (PC to fire Williams for anti-muslim comment; PC to fire Weiss for firing a black man.) Political correctness is the Third Rail at NPR. It ties the place in knots over and over again.

    My hope is that a real search will be made for a first-rate journalist who has the stature to lead one of the top news organizations in the country (as you pointed out). NPR needs someone of stature in the news business, someone who would have competed for Bill Keller's job at the New York Times. A Steve Coll, perhaps. Someone who can be a force in journalism in these revolutionary times.<<

    The case so many people at NPR make for Ellen Weiss -- after all, 90% of them* on-air reporters signed a letter urging her selection as news director -- is that she understands and defends the standards and news-culture of their organization. [*Update: the letter was not from the entire 400 person newsroom but the 100 or so on-air reporting staff.] The case that Dinges and others have made is that NPR needs someone from outside that culture. This is the eternal debate about any institution, and I don't know enough to have a refined view of it in this case. Any organization can be improved, but NPR's news culture seems impressive enough that it should not lightly be tampered with. But for the record, this is the other side of the argument.


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