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.
  • Somehow I Found This So Touching (Shanghai Expo Dept)

    The Chinese masses visit the world, by going to Shanghai.

    At the Czech pavilion at the Shanghai World Expo this week.

    Ambassadors of Czech culture:

    In the refreshment area (real Czech beer):
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    Display of Czech aerospace tradition (large-scale flight simulator, Chinese father and son inside):
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    Meta-theme: Shanghai Expo of 2010, whose most devoted attendees appear to be small-town and rural Chinese folk, serving the same role the St. Louis World's Fair did for Midwestern Americans a century ago -- giving them a glimpse of what the wide world might look like, since they are not likely ever to see it themselves. Strangely uplifting.

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  • Google-and-the-News Followups

    Readers with ideas of what else Google should be doing -- and what it doesn't understand.

    There is a wider variety of reaction to my current article (I've got to say it: subscribe!) than I can deal with in any comprehensive way at the moment. For now, a restatement of a central theme, then two reader dissents.

    If there is a point that, above all the others, I wanted most to convey in this article, it is not "everything is going to be OK" or "Google is our friend" or even "here comes a torrent of new advertising money!" Rather it is a cultural/attitudinal argument about the press and everyone who cares about it. Far from being autumnal and despairing and mournful about a supposed golden age that has passed and fatalistic about the doomed state of public information and the resulting lapsed state of society, people who care about the media should (according to me) recognize that technological upheaval, and the resulting business shifts and forced individual innovations, have been the norm rather than the exception in our enterprise. Clever and ambitious people, especially but not only young people, will find new ways to do the work a society needs of them -- and to make a living while doing so. There will be parts of a future press establishment that will be worse than what we know now. There will be parts that are better. That is how it has always been. This paragraph, near the end of the story, is what I really believe:

    Ten years from now, a robust and better-funded news business will be thriving. What next year means is harder to say. I asked everyone I interviewed [at Google] to predict which organizations would be providing news a decade from now. Most people replied that many of tomorrow's influential news brands will be today's: The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, the public and private TV and radio networks, the Associated Press. Others would be names we don't yet know. But this is consistent with the way the news has always worked, rather than a threatening change. Fifteen years ago, Fox News did not exist. A decade ago, Jon Stewart was not known for political commentary. The news business has continually been reinvented by people in their 20s and early 30s--Henry Luce when he and Briton Hadden founded Time magazine soon after they left college, John Hersey when he wrote Hiroshima at age 32. Bloggers and videographers are their counterparts now. If the prospect is continued transition rather than mass extinction of news organizations, that is better than many had assumed. It requires an openness to the constant experimentation that Google preaches and that is journalism's real heritage.

    After the jump, two dissents. One, from a reader who thinks that Google should be trying much harder than it is to help news organizations. The other, from a reader who says that the Google advertising experts don't know what they're talking about when they predict a brighter future for online ad revenues. Judge for yourselves. This argument will go on for a very long time.

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  • Continuing the "Beer Bottles + Skyline" Motif

    Shanghai's "original" beer, in a heroic pose.

    With previous entries here (Chicago, south side) and here (Shanghai, Puxi side), now just for the sake of completeness and nostalgia we have a Pudong-side view of the city, as setting for "Shanghai's Original" beer, REEB:

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    FWIW that's a camera-flash flare in the background, not a mottled sun through the Chinese sky. And most of what's giving the air its color seems to be "cloud" as opposed to anything more ominous, but on that front you never know. Right below the flare is the Shanghai World Expo site, about which more another time.

    "Real" topics anon. UPDATE: REEB is even worse than I remembered.
  • More on the Scale of the Gulf Spill

    Unfortunately, it's even worse than it looks.

    Several days ago I mentioned Paul Rademacher's very powerful application that lets you envision the size of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill (as of then) by mapping it against any urban area you choose. As a reminder, here is what it would do to the SF Bay area:

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    Below and after the jump, two informed reactions suggesting that even this imagery fails to get across the full enormity* of what is happening. [*Pedant alert update: Yes, I am 100% aware that "enormity" does not mean "enormousness." I am using the term deliberately, in the sense of "a monstrous wrong."] First, from a geologist, John Wellik:

    I believe that people can attain a greater grasp of the scale of what is unfolding when they can relate it to their own backyard.

    That said, I feel that I must point out some of the untold story of what is going on out there. I spent four years as an environmental geologist investigating and characterizing commercial and industrial sites impacted by unauthorized releases of various types of chemical pollutants (generally gasoline/diesel/motor oil spills). What is recognized as the extent of the spill today would be classified as "free phase" product, that which is still very close to its manufactured, or in this instance, natural state. There are several phases that a product like oil can take, as I said above, there is the free phase state, then there is the sorbed phase state where product comes into contact with a medium like soil (as when the spill reaches a beach) and adheres to soil particles and is released slowly through dissolution; there is the vapor phase state as the product comes into contact with a medium such as air and volatilizes; and then there is the dissolved phase state as the product comes into contact with water and a portion of it dissolves and is released into the water column.

    The dissolved phase state is the one that will most likely travel the farthest, because in this phase it is incorporated into the water column and will travel almost nearly as fast as the water itself travels, so think about the currents of the Gulf, and where the water is likely to travel to next, as it is likely that the "invisible" dissolved phase has already reached that location along with the water and is impacting the ecosystem.

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  • Google and the News

    I'm on the other side of the world this next week, rather than being in the fray of the "future of the news" debates inside the US. But I hope you'll read my cover story in the new issue about Google's plans to help the news business survive.

    I'm on the other side of the world this next week, rather than being in the fray of the "future of the news" debates inside the US. But I hope you'll read my cover story in the new issue (subscribe!) about how Google got religion on the need to help the news business survive, and what they're doing about it.


    On the why-they're-trying front, the story points out that Eric Schmidt, Google's CEO, has said that the company can't stand to be seen as "the vulture picking off the dead carcass of the news industry." But what the company is doing, I contend, reflects a deeper sense of symbiosis with people producing the information that Google eventually indexes.

    As for why I found this project interesting, I try to explain the difference between discussions of "future of the news" I heard within Google and those I am used to at journalism worry-sessions:

    Here's an important illustration of the difference: people inside the press still wage bitter, first-principles debates about whether, in theory, customers will ever be willing to pay for online news, and therefore whether "paywalls" for online news can ever succeed. But at Google, I could hardly interest anyone in the question. The reaction was: Of course people will end up paying in some form--why even talk about it? The important questions involved the details of how they would pay, and for what kind of news. "We have no horse in that race or particular model in mind," Krishna Bharat, one of the executives most deeply involved in Google's journalistic efforts, told me, in a typical comment. His team was already working with some newspapers planning to put their content behind paywalls, others planning to remain free and hoping to become more popular with readers annoyed when paywalls crop up elsewhere, and still others planning a range of free and paid offerings. For Bharat and his colleagues, free-versus-paid is an empirical rather than theological matter. They'll see what works.

    Check it out -- plus this slideshow from Hal Varian, long of UC Berkeley and now Google's chief economist, about the basic economics of the news. And, yes, I am aware of the oddity that we are simultaneously offering this article for free online and hoping you will subscribe. The article suggests some ways in which that contradiction will be resolved.

  • Home Again (Shanghai/Great Firewall dept)

    Back in the fray.

    Twenty three hours after I got up in Chicago, I drag into one of the nicest hotels in Shanghai and think, Back home! Fire up the computer to say hello to my family and find.... there are all sorts of sites I can't reach and links that give time-out errors. Something wrong my computer or with the connection in this posh hotel??

    And then I realize, with a Doh-style slap of the forehead, of course! You can bring a gala World Expo to Shanghai, but you still can't bring the "real" Internet, not even to a top-end venue like this. Will re-up my Witopia "personal VPN" subscription (which I had innocently let lapse on moving out of China) after I've slept and am conscious enough to enter the right credit card info.  I guess I really have been gone for a while, or am really tired, to make this rookie mistake. 
  • How to Save the News

    How to Save the News

    Plummeting newspaper circulation, disappearing classified ads, “unbundling” of content—the list of what’s killing journalism is long. But high on that list, many would say, is Google, the biggest unbundler of them all. Now, having helped break the news business, the company wants to fix it—for commercial as well as civic reasons: if news organizations stop producing great journalism, says one Google executive, the search engine will no longer have interesting content to link to. So some of the smartest minds at the company are thinking about this, and working with publishers, and peering ahead to see what the future of journalism looks like. Guess what? It’s bright.

  • More Midwestern Beer

    From Goose Island IPA to Great Lakes Eliot Ness, America's breadbasket seems to have become its brewery. An Atlantic blogger highlights some favorites.

    I mentioned recently that the excellence of Three Floyds beers is making me consider becoming a Hoosier. But I didn't mean to slight other excellent beers of the Midwest that I've gotten to know and love in recent weeks in Chicago. For instance, a group portrait of favorites, with a sliver of Lake Michigan in the background:

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    From left: Goose Island IPA (Chicago); Great Lakes Eliot Ness Amber Ale (Cleveland); New Holland Brewing Mad Hatter IPA (Holland, MI); Bell's Brewery Pale Ale (Kalamazoo); Barley Island Barfly IPA (Noblesville, IN). I can attest for all of these personally.
    Compare with this similar group portrait of beers in Shanghai, here, with a sliver of People's Square in the background.

    Speaking of Shanghai, I'll spend the rest of the week there, among other reasons to see how Expo looks. The only reason I regret the timing of the trip is missing this wonderful event on Thursday, May 13 at the Garfield Park Conservatory in Chicago, a celebration of local craft brews. Life involves tough choices. But go if you can.

  • The New "God Bless America"

    How Robert Gates can take the next step to rhetorical perfection.

    SecDef Robert Gates gave a truly excellent speech two days ago. It was at the Eisenhower Library in Kansas; it revived and applied to modern circumstances Eisenhower's famed warnings about the effects of untrammeled military spending; and -- if a fair indication of the Administration's and the Defense Department's intentions -- it gave reason for public optimism. The transcript is here, and it most certainly is worth reading. I've meant to mention the speech in a list of five or six "shockingly sensible statements about security" that have cropped up recently. I "will" do that in the next day or so -- perhaps during tomorrow's long flight to Shanghai.


    Brian Hurley, a retired Air Force officer, writes to point out one rhetorical device that is common in DC-bigshot speeches and that Gates in particular has really run into the ground. It appears in the standard "light humor" intro to his speeches -- in this form at the Ike event:

    I'm pleased to be here for several reasons. First, it's always a treat to be someplace other than Washington, D.C. - the only place where, as I like to say, you can see a prominent person walking down lover's lane holding his own hand. Second, it's even better to return to my home state of Kansas - a place of little pretense and ample common sense....

    What's wrong with this commonsensical observation? Hurley explains:

    There is a classic opening in Gates' speech [he is actually referring to an earlier one I praised] that rankles me as much as "and may God bless America" rankles you. It's the obligatory "any place is better than being in Washington" jibe.

    I think when leaders from Washington repeat that sort of thing, they are simply reinforcing a cheap stereotype and actually -- in perhaps small ways -- undermining their own ability to get things done. Yes, there are plenty of stories and deals that can make you sick. My own experience - in both the Air Force and in the private sector outside of Washington is...it's happening everywhere. Washington is just a bigger stage. But, when our own political leaders do this (and the senior people who are appointed by the elected leaders), we diminish the many very good things that many good people in Washington and in government generally are trying to accomplish. We reduce confidence in government to make needed changes, and we sustain the impression that Washington is a hopeless mess (auidence: "heck, if Secy Gates can't change the culture, we're doomed"). It's a cheap and harmful device. No one is blessing America here...

    Hurley is right. I am sure that if Gates thought about it for a minute he'd recognize that as well. (For why this is like "God Bless America," see here and passim.) These speeches are too good to need any gimmickry.

  • "China Today" #3: The Environment

    Third in the series of video conversations about China's prospects.

    The third in the series of conversations I've been having with Damien Ma, of the Eurasia Group, is now online, here. It's the third one down on the list on that page; previous two available there, and here. The theme this time is an extension of one often discussed in our pages: namely, how serious, really, is the environmental challenge for China, and how do the country's efforts to cope with it measure up.

    By the way, lots of other interesting videos on the Atlantic's (conveniently-named) "Video" channel, here. Worth checking out.

  • If You Think You Have a Sense of the Oil Spill's Scale

    A new way to envision what is happening in the Gulf.

    Try this utility from Paul Rademacher's site, which overlays a scaled representation of the Deepwater Horizon spill onto a Google Earth view of any city you choose. (May require a Google Earth web plug-in, available at the site linked above. I've used that plugin for a long time with no ill effects.) For instance, here is how the spill would look as applied to Washington DC. Click for larger.


    And, just quickly a few other cities I'm familiar with. First the SF Bay Area, then Tokyo, then Duluth MN. You can choose any place.




    For later discussion: the surprising power that different visual renderings of reality can have, in changing our ability to understand, or at least begin to envision, what is going on around us. (This is not just a brush-off: I actually have a little discourse pending on the topic.) In this case, Rademacher, who works for Google Earth, points out on his site that it is very hard to imagine the scale of things we see in the open ocean. Suddenly it becomes much more comprehensible and dramatic when mapped this way.

    The only possible benefit of this catastrophe could be forcing or allowing people to understand differently the scale of environmental damage now being done, and thereby catalyzing some new form of action. Yes, I'm struggling to look for a benefit. For the moment, thanks to Rademacher for this new view of reality, and to his colleague Michael Jones for the lead.
  • If I End Up Moving to Munster, Indiana ...

    The Hoosier state isn't known for its beers, but Three Floyds Brewpub gives Portland a run for its money

    ... this will be the reason: Munster's own Three Floyds Brewpub. I haven't yet been there, but from buying their wares in Chicago supermarkets I will assert that Three Floyds makes as consistently excellent a range of beers as any outfit I have ever come across. (And yes I'm talking about you, Lagunitas -- and North Coast, and Rogue, and Stone, and Victory, and Full Sail, and REEB, and ....)

    Flagship drink: Alpha King Pale Ale, shown with apartment-window vista of Hyde Park, Chicago, as background (explanation later).

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    Beer advocate rave about Alpha King here and the full Three Floyds line here. Formal, studio-lit beer-porn portrait of A.K. right here:


    And best of all, I see that the brewpub in Munster is... right next to a small airport! Just like my beloved Hangar 24 brewpub in Redlands, Ca. 

    For upcoming discussion: many other excellent Midwestern microbrews that have recently won my heart. Who says America is on the wrong track?
  • Our Spam, Ourselves

    What does our spam say about us?

    I mentioned recently the interesting-but-weird abundance of Russian-language spam in my Gmail spam filter. Hypothesis offered by my wife: "How many of those 'Find a Russian bride' sites have you been visiting, anyway?" Slavic in origin herself (Czech), she understands my aesthetic.

    Cruelly unfounded as such a suspicion might have been in this particular case, it turns out that the larger idea -- the spam you attract in some way reflects the person you are -- has something to it. Or so I learn in the note below from Nathan Newton, now of shutterclassic.com and formerly of the Atlantic's tech staff. He explains why he is always fending off spam requests of a kind I never get.

    Since you seem to have an interest in the spam industry, I thought I would send along an observation. Just as giving money to the WWF or applying for a patent will qualify you for a whole new class of junk mail, there are also niches in spam. For example, Matt Yglesias recently complained about press releases from the Venezuelan Embassy. You may receive this sort of spam [yes! and the Venezuelans are far from the leading offenders], but few people outside of the media are aware it exists.

    I routinely receive another type of spam that I was unfamiliar with prior to owning an online retail business. An example is reproduced below. The scam is that the "customer" want to purchase a commodity that can be resold on the open market (can can also ship quickly). After some back-and-forth, he will insist it ship overseas using his freight forwarder. For convenience, he will ask you to pay for the shipping, and he will reimburse you for that cost. The product and the shipping will be paid with a fraudulent credit card or check. If the mark falls for the scam, the mark will not only have lost the goods, but will have also be out the amount he paid the freight forwarder.

    You can encounter a similar type of fraud if you post an expensive item (motorcycle, for example) on eBay.

    Hello Owner/Manager My name is Rev Clark Bruce I am with the Presbyterian Church of God And I will like to Order a Product Call Window Blinds or any type of blinds to ship it to a Presbyterian Church in Ghana

    And,i will like to order some Window Blinds from you,i am interested in a size of glass is below;

    More »

  • More on Autobahn Airports, With Special ß Feature

    What do Germany and Pakistan have in common? You'll find part of the answer in Großenkneten.

    1) They're doing it in Pakistan too!

    2) As for the real location of the German highway/airports mentioned here, the answer appears to be this bucolic area near Ahlhorn in Großenkneten,* Lower Saxony. Granted, it would look slightly less bucolic if you zoomed out to see the military airfield just to the east. But still:


    The turnoff roads running parallel to the right and left of the main highway, above, appeared to serve as "ramp" areas -- places for the aircraft to park and be serviced and fueled -- during the "Highway 84" exercise shown in the original videos. As explained here. Google Earth view of the area here. Now we know. Thanks to Ari Ofsevit and Salman Akhtar.
    * I have used Japanese and Chinese characters plenty of times on this site, but this is my first for a "ß." Hope it shows up.


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Who Made Pop Music So Repetitive? You Did.

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Stunning GoPro Footage of a Wildfire

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