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.
  • In defense of Facebook (the second time around)

    In response to my saying yesterday that I'd had enough of Facebook, between the steadily mounting stream of spam "invitations"/announcements and the "scale" awkwardness of combining family/real-world friends with more casual acquaintances, this note from a reader:

    "I have come almost full circle in my own views.  I first joined over a year ago and promptly quit because of 'too much information,' partly as a result of letting Facebook use my email list to invite 'friends,' and because it seemed like such a sloppy, lazy substitute for keeping up with people by email.  Many of the people I most want to stay in touch with aren't on it, and I especially hated having mandatory ads show up on my page.

    "But I've recently rejoined, and have come to see it as a useful accessory rather than a substitute for virtual socializing.  I'm more selective now, and am comfortable with it as a gratifying reminder of my own history.  It now includes people I was (and am) very fond of, but whom it wouldn't make any sense for me to be emailing - we've reasserted our goodwill towards each other; I am glad to know tidbits of their present lives, some of which I pursue independently, and to occasionally hail each other over some entry.  It's a cushion against loneliness, and against investing too much in some particular, immediate relationship.  It makes me feel part of a carefully crafted whole, sustainable since its give-and-take is very lightweight.  Its usefulness is just different from other approaches to socializing, in an unexpected but pleasant way - like an interactive, ever-updated scrapbook.  But all its advantages do depend on being consistently selective about who's invited or approved, rather than on increasing the number of friends."
    This approach has some appeal. It's like the rare chance in life to start over and apply the lessons you learned the hard way the first time through. A related plan would be to sign up in two incarnations -- a personal one, for "real" friends, and a professional one, for the world at large. I'll add this to the to-do list.
  • For those following the filibuster saga (updated)

    An encouraging update and list of suggestions at the Washington Monthly's site, here. (Background here.) One of the rare encouraging indicators about the operating texture of our democracy is that this collection of issues -- abuse of the filibuster, proliferation of one-Senator "holds" on public business, and the general dysfunctional nature of the Senate in particular -- has gained increasing attention as a genuine source of trouble, and as something that could be fixed. As the WashMonthly item explains.

    Update: Not so fast, says (unfortunately) Sen. Harry Reid, in the WaPo today. Grrrrr.

  • From this month's Atlantic

    Our new issue (subscribe!) is full of strong articles, but let me strongly recommend that you start with this one: my colleague Don Peck's cover-story explanation of why the economic, emotional, sociological, and political effects of the ongoing recession/depression are likely to be with us for decades to come. This is not a feel-good article, to put it mildly; but it is lucid, convincing, systematic, and different in its emphases from what I (at least) have seen anyplace else. There is a lot more in the issue, but please start with this.

  • The glamorous life of a journalist, cont.

    Previously in this series, here. From the mailbox just now:

    "Hi James,

    "Hope you are enjoying the snow! I wanted to check-in and see what type of stories you are currently working on regarding jewelry and accessories. I work with an online jewelry retailer that has amazing fine jewelry at unbelievable prices (www.xxxx.com). Would love to send you some over for any stories you may be working on.

    "Let me know what you think.

    "Best,

    "XXXX" [A woman's name I don't know]

    I actually am touched by most of these notes. So many efforts on so many fronts! Any economy is a miracle of hope and cold-calls and knocking on doors.

    On the other hand, I'm not writing back. (Although, if "send you some over" means send some jewels, hmmmm.)

  • For the record: two radio interviews

    From the airport hotel in SF, two phone interviews today, on the "going to hell" article:

         - With Marty Moss-Coane of "Radio Times" on WHYY in Philadelphia, this discussion, with MP3 file here

         - With Doug Fabrizio of RadioWest on KUER in Salt Lake City, this discussion, with embedded audio file.

     A point I think I made in passing on both shows: how different the modern American news ecology would be without NPR.

  • Going to hell #2

    Previously in the series, here. Original "are we going to hell?" magazine article here. Reader Joseph Britt of Wisconsin writes:

    "I'm not a fan of apocalyptic thinking, and if America really were on the road to hell, tinkering with the structure of institutions that have been around for over two centuries probably wouldn't help very much.

    "I would, however, offer a few random suggestions as to how to improve the functioning of institutions important to American democracy.  I don't promise that they would redeem American democracy or anything so grandiose; in at least one case (the first one, below), all I can really promise is that they might help keep things from getting worse.  But you asked, so...

    "1.  Stop electing judges.  As in, any judges for any court of law in the United States.  If the Citizens United ruling does result in a surge of money from corporate and union treasuries into electoral politics, judicial races will be the most easily influenced.  This is because they are ordinarily low-turnout elections, held separately from November elections, and low-turnout elections are more easily swung by getting small numbers of zealous people to the polls.  Electing judges is probably not a good idea anyway, seeing as how a competent judge must have a specialized legal background most citizens aren't in any position to evaluate.

    "2.  Stop televising the Senate.  The Senate operates on comity and precedent more than it does on rules.  Its norms, as with the norms of any institution, are more easily sustained if its exposure to the norms of the broader society is limited.  A significant number of Senators now are basically back bench Congressmen, and they act like it; every appearance on the floor is designed to appeal to people likely to vote for them or send their campaigns money.  Visual aids abound.  Serious debate is avoided (it could be embarrassing if a Senator was asked questions he couldn't answer), and the temptation for Senators to address issues for which the committees on which they sit are not responsible is irresistible.  So, remove the temptation.  Turn the cameras off.

    More »

  • I become part of a national trend!

    The front page of USA Today informs me this morning -- at my airport hotel in Calif, in Day 2 of waiting out the backlog of canceled flights back to Siberia-on-the-Potomac -- that people are turning away from some online social networks, Facebook in particular. This is because of privacy intrusions and, more fundamentally, the unwieldiness of "symmetric" social networks like Facebook's. My "actual" friends or family members might want to be connected with me on Facebook. (Or, in the case of some of them, they might not!) But if I then have a much larger cloud of professional acquaintances in the same undifferentiated "friend" status, people end up being connected or exposed in ways they didn't intend. A very useful essay on scale problems in social networks, by Tim O'Reilly last year, is here.

    Given the continued growth of these networks, I realize that a story like today's can sound like the old joke about a restaurant that's so crowded nobody goes there any more. Still, I find that way too much of the traffic I get from Facebook is of the variety shown below (click for larger):

    FacebookSpam3.png

    Or:


    Facebookspam2.png

    Or:
    FaceBookSpam4.png

    I could go through and "de-friend" the people identified as sending each of the invitations; or of course I could change my notification settings; but I could also reexamine what I am doing there at all. Before anyone else says it: yes, yes, I am aware that I am not exactly the target Facebook demographic. So, why did I join in the first place? Answer #1: I'll try almost anything that's interesting. Answer #2: I thought there could be value in connecting to people with shared journalistic, political, China- or tech- or aviation- or beer-related interests. But on balance it's not worth it -- and any lost childhood friend who wants to find me can probably figure out other ways to do that. So it is time to begin the dis-engagement process.

    While I'm at it, this new piece in the NY Review of Books is very useful about Facebook's origins, strengths, and weaknesses. It is still remarkable to me that Facebook's founder, Mark Zuckerberg, so obviously stole the idea for the company from two other students that he made an out-of-court settlement of that claim for a sum usually reported to be $85 million. This is remarkable in many ways: that the sum was so "large," in normal terms; that it was so trivially "small," in terms of Facebook's current perceived worth (therefore amounting to a "great bargain"); and that it has so little apparent effect on Zuckerberg's standing or ability to get other firms to work with him. C'est la vie, as either Balzac or Richard O'Connor might have said, in somewhat different words.
  • On the cyber-threat from China

    I have an article on this subject in the new issue of the Atlantic (subscribe!). I had done the reporting and writing for the story long before the Google-v-China controversy broke. We had a day or so to take note of that development before the issue went to press. Welcome to life in the monthly magazine business! I think that the analysis in the story actually stands up well in light of the Google episode -- including the insiders' estimate that China is a serious source of international cyber-attacks, but not the leading source and perhaps not even the second most important. More in the article itself (illustration from this issue, below).

    china-cyber-war-wide.jpg.


  • Tonight's aviation-mishap report

    I have not yet seen, but I heard many admiring previews of, a PBS Frontline show tonight (just minutes from now, on the East Coast) about last year's Colgan crash in Buffalo and the related problems of low-budget regional airlines. If you miss it, as I will in real time today, it will be available online starting tomorrow here. It is narrated by Miles O'Brien, known to the world as a long-time CNN figure and to me as a fellow pilot of Cirrus airplanes.

    On the more positive side of recent aviation news, in case you have not yet heard enough about "Captain Sully" and the remarkable safe landing last summer of US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson, this site, by Exosphere3D in Denver, has some equally remarkable recreations of the event. My favorite is the one below (best viewed in full-screen), matching all the comment of all the controllers involved with a moving map of the plane, birds, etc. But there are lots more at the site:


    Reader Michael Stoogenke, a geospatial analyst (who is not part of Exosphere3D), says this about the representations:

    "Given the sophistication of the simulation, it's easy to overlook an important point -- the level of detail in the background mapping is very sophisticated. ExoSphere3D probably acquired the maps, aerial photos, and 3D buildings in the public domain or for relatively low cost. This type of thing would not have been possible 10 years ago (3-5 years for the 3D buildings). If the crash occurred between 2000 and 2007, ExoSphere3D  would have had to dole out thousands of dollars to obtain this level of detail in their sims. In the age of Google Earth, we now take this for granted. Indeed, we've come to expect it."
  • Are we going to hell? Kicking off a series

    In response to my long article in the January "State of the Union" issue of the Atlantic, on whether America was finally, now, really going straight to hell, I received more mail than in have in a very long time. More than I've been able to answer; much more than I've been able to take note of on this site; and way more than we'll eventually be able to use in the print-magazine "Letters" section.

    So I'm kicking off a "Going to Hell" series of interesting correspondence -- some with ideas about how to deal with structural problems in American governance, some with signs of hope -- or doom -- that my article missed, some with support for or challenges to the views I set out.

    "Going to hell" policy: This is a supplement to rather than a replacement for the "real" letters section in the magazine. In most cases, I'll just quote the message, saving replies for the magazine's letters section -- except, of course, when I decide otherwise. If someone writes directly to me, using the "Email JF" button to the right,  and says "You may use my name," I'll use the name. The same is true for letters that went originally to the magazine's Letters section, which requires real names and addresses. Otherwise I will not use names.

    To start us off, a message from Joseph Bracewell, a contemporary and long-time friend, who was raised in Texas in a political family. He writes:

    "My father was a politician (State Senator) for 10 years when I was a kid, then a lawyer/lobbyist the rest of his career. The State Legislature in Texas used to meet for 120 days (January-April) every other year. My Dad said his principal regret in politics was voting to air condition the State Capitol (thereby enabling the Legislature to meet longer and/or more often and accomplish more mischief). The point I take from this is that small changes could make a difference, and that there ought to be an action plan somewhere between a constitutional convention and "muddling through."

    "With that in mind, here are a few random ideas that could be on the list:

    "1. I think some kind of national service requirement makes sense. Maybe some private non-profit work could be made to count also.  I had a job one summer working for Coca-Cola, and now I never order Pepsi.

    More »

  • Wrapup on those used yoga mats

    Background here and here. After showing the "used yoga mats for Haiti" sign for intrinsic comedy value and as a vignette of la vie San Franciscienne*, I quoted the person behind the campaign as to its benign intent. For the record, here is an opposite perspective, from reader Sharon Shewmake of UC Davis:

    "I thought it was a particularity stupid way to donate, especially after everyone pointed out that shoes-for-Haiti is wasteful and stupid....

    "I think that one of the reason people like to give things instead of money to charity is because they feel a connection, and the more specific the item the more of a connection. It's nice to think that someone in Haiti will enjoy my old yoga mat, but if it's not what they need then it's an irresponsible gift. Keep your old yoga mat (why do people have old yoga mats anyway?) and donate the $50 you would have spent on a new one to the Red Cross. I think the sign about donating the yoga mats is really arrogant. I appreciate they are trying to help, but it's a stupid and arrogant way to do so."

    The sides having been heard, I declare the debate closed, or moved to other venues (like this yoga-related site). For the record, my wife and I have given cash donations but not goods  after this disaster and others of its type (the Sichuan earthquake, the Indian Ocean tsunami, Katrina, etc). To all I say, Namaste, and on to other subjects.
    ____
    *I am inventing this translation. If it's wrong, excusez-moi!

  • I retract all criticism of Fox News

    Thanks to the impressive science behind this story:

    FoxBeer.png

    The whole story is worth reading, but this is my favorite part:

    "Hops were the stars of the beer ingredients, showing as much as four times more silicon than was found in malt. The downside: Hops make up a much smaller portion of beer compared with grain. Some beers, such as IPAs are hoppier, while wheat beers tend to have fewer hops than other brews, the researchers say."

    Now I have science on my side when I look for those well-hopped ales! Thanks to TAJF for this lead, and thanks to Fox for being "fair and balanced" where it matters.

  • About that "yoga mats for Haiti" sign....

    In response to a large volume of wounded, testy, quizzical, or simply hurt responses to this post yesterday, showing a sign I saw on a beautiful Sunday afternoon in San Francisco's Cow Hollow neighborhood, a few extra words:

    Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for IMG_8347.jpg1) Am I making fun of yoga? No indeed. Although this is not a featured part of my public identity -- compared with the beer-lover part, the aviator part, the interested-in-China part, and so on -- I enjoy and value yoga and particularly respect good teachers. I am not very adept at it so appreciate their patience all the more.

    2) Am I making fun of this particular enterprise, The Pad? No. As I have heard from many sources today, it has a very good reputation. If I lived in the neighborhood, and if I could register under a fake name, I would sign up.

    3) Am I making fun of the idea of helping disaster victims in whatever way is possible? No. Several people wrote to say that mats could be a comfort to people who would otherwise be sleeping on the streets in Haiti.

    4) But, come on, some things are just funny.

    Update. Here is a note I have received from Leila Burrows, of The Pad Studios,  whose sign was in the picture. I quote it with her permission. I mean her and her team no disrespect and -- stipulating point #4, above -- regret any hurt feelings I may have caused.  

    "I do not follow your feed, however, we have received some rather irritated email communication since you posted a photo of our A-frame, sandwich board, inviting people to donate their old or used yoga mats to be sent to Haiti and used in the overly crowded hospital beds. I'm only sorry the intention of this drive was unclear to you. Actually, our drive was a part of a bigger organized effort spear headed by the founder of JADE yoga mat, during the weekend of the annual San Francisco Yoga Journal Conference. JADE asked studio owners, teachers, students alike to give up their old or used mats so that the thousands of suffering people in Haiti may have somewhere softer the  ground to sleep.

    "You may also know that my business partner and I run donation events on monthly basis to contribute 100% of the program earnings to people in need. Most recently we raised $3200 to fund the education of 15 students in Ahmedabad City, India. 

    "May we all contribute in one way or another to help ease the tremendous suffering that continues in Haiti."
  • Update on yesterday's plane crash news

    As mentioned yesterday.

    About the mid-air collision near Boulder, Colorado, it now appears that the two planes involved -- a Cirrus SR-20, and a Piper Pawnee that was towing a glider -- actually ran into each other. Early reports suggested that the Cirrus had hit the line connecting the Pawnee to the glider. In either case, the Cirrus apparently lost most of one wing. More on this later today.

    About the exemplary Buffalo News coverage of the Colgan regional airline crash in Buffalo, I had written: "I assume that the Buffalo News, like most newspapers, has all sorts of financial problems; therefore it is all the more worth recognizing the valuable info that professional reporters produce." A reader who is familiar with the Buffalo News and some better-known regional papers writes:

    "The Buffalo News is one of the few newspapers of any size not owned by a chain.  It's owned by Berkshire Hathaway, has been profitable, and remains at least relatively profitable (caveat, Warren Buffet has stated recently that newspaper ownership may not be rational).  It's a very decent newspaper, with a much better than average web site, at this point, far outshining the N&O [Raleigh News & Observer], something I would have been shocked to even think a decade ago...

    "One clear factor or interest; while the N&O has been mightily affected by the general downturn in the fortunes of newspapers, by far the greater impact in recent years flowed directly from the stupendous debt resulting from the McClatchy / Knight - Ridder merger. Both the N&O (former McClatchy) and the Charlotte Observer (former KR)... have been profitable, albeit much less so than in past years, during the huge shrinkage of staff, news hole and number of pages.  The dramatic layoffs have resulted from cost cutting which were, in turn, driven by the overwhelming debt (something like 4 billion, of which lots remains) paid for a property now worth ... well, you couldn't get even one billion for the whole thing now, needless to say.  The other driver was and is the giant bleeding represented by a few major properties (the Miami Herald, for example); most of the cuts at the N&O and Observer were apparently made to throw money down those deep, deep holes.  While ad revenue shrinkage is certainly a factor at these papers, free of the debt represented by the buyout (and, in the case of McClatchy, free of the Herald, which came over in the KR deal), there would have been a decade in which to deal with 'what's to become of the paper?'  Instead, there's this mess.  The N&O still has its moments, but they are few and far between."

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