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.
  • Airspace over the Hudson

    One more thing to be thankful for: a sensible response to the tragic airplane-helicopter crash over the Hudson River in August. As of this week the FAA has applied new traffic-separation rules for small airplanes, airliners, and helicopters flying above the Hudson that should reduce the risk of such a collision ever happening again. The rules codify what had been informal procedures for keeping aircraft out of each other's way. But they don't over-prescribe, regulate, or restrict. Here is the FAA's diagram of the new separation procedures:

    FAANYC.jpg



    Versus the chart of how confusion could arise under previous rules:

    FAAHudsonOld.jpg

    When regulators and security officials address a problem through minimal rather than excessive rule-setting and interference or panicky over-reaction, that is worth our thankfulness too. Building toward a crescendo of things to be thankful for at this time of year.
  • Ever wonder what a Chinese travel show looks like?

    Here is your chance to see CCTV3's "Dali Impressions," in a 26-minute clip at this site. Site is in Chinese, as is the program -- but regardless of language, if you watch for a little while you will get the idea.

    Reason I mention it: starting about 4 minutes in, the program is shot at the "Linden Centre," in Xizhou, "happy town," in Yunnan province. This is the place I wrote about in this article two months ago and mentioned in this post, which includes the Atlantic's own video presentation. Starting at time 6:20 of the CCTV show, you can see Brian Linden strolling through his family's adopted home town. Starting around 7:15 you'll see him chatting in Chinese with the townsfolk.

    Other reason I mention it: TV really is the least globalized of media. Cars look more and more the same worldwide; electronic products are the same. But the styles, stars, programs, allusions, etc on TV really are distinct country by country. For a sense of the melodramatic, quasi-heroic aesthetic of modern China's "cultural" programming, let this run in the background. If you put it on a loop so it runs five or six hours straight, you'll have a sense of the ambiance of our home life in Shanghai and Beijing.

    Heroic introduction of Brian Linden, from the show. This is a screenshot rather than an embed, so the click-to-play button won't work:

    LindenCCTV.jpg

    Also, you'll see one of the touches I most appreciated about Chinese TV broadcasts. The narration is in Chinese, which is then subtitled -- in Chinese! (Much as Trainspotting or other films with extreme regionalisms in spoken English might be subtitled - in English.) I assume the subtitling is a bow to the wide variations in spoken Chinese across the country; it's a big convenience for foreigners working on the characters too. 

    In the ever-thankful spirit, this picture, taken from a deck at the Linden Centre and looking toward what become the Himalayan foothills, captures the feeling of my family's time in Xizhou:

    IMG_7214.JPG


  • Getting a start on being thankful: new Kindle firmware

    If you have a Kindle 2 or Kindle DX, the new firmware update is worth checking out, so you can play with it while dozing off in front of the football games tomorrow. Amazon's announcement here. Stalwart Kindle Classic customers like me will have to gut it out with original firmware. But those who, like my wife, have the newer models can take advantage of features like better handling of PDF files and the option of rotating files to view in landscape or portrait mode (ie, horizontally or vertically). FWIW, I find that reading .DOC and .PDF files makes up more and more of my time with a Kindle. It's a much more palatable option than printing them out (wasteful) or logging yet another hour staring at a normal computer screen (ugh).

    One more plus of the new firmware, reported today by reader D.P. in Shanghai:

    "Just upgraded my USA (CDMA) Kindle 2 to firmware version 2.3 (via USB), and it registers and connects to amazon here in Shanghai! Just got my new December issue of The Atlantic over Whispernet. This is pretty interesting."

    Now that's the ideal use of new technology! The real thing to be thankful for is that there is so much activity in the "e-reader" field, so that a few months from now we'll have not just the Kindle and B&N's Nook but many other competitors too. This is what the Pilgrims must have had in mind when they started the Thanksgiving tradition.

    On this front: my interview two weeks ago about e-reader use with Len Edgerly, on his The Kindle Chronicles series.

  • Last words on Obama and China

    Yes, there are more!

    1) We All Know that Obama was humiliated and stonewalled by the haughty Chinese leaders, in contrast to the titanic American presidents of yore who spoke sternly to Mao and his successors and therefore always got just what they wanted in Beijing. Richard Cohen of the Washington Post has reminded us of his fecklessness again.

    And yet...  my favorite newspaper of all, the (state-controlled) China Daily, has just indicated in its November 25 edition that China's recent year-long freeze on the value of the RMB may be about to end. (Thanks to my friend Jeremy Goldkorn, of Danwei.org in Beijing, for the tip.) If Obama had "demanded" this in public, or insisted that it be announced while he was standing next to Hu Jintao in Beijing, his "toughness" might have received better one-day coverage in the U.S. press or on SNL.  But the chances of his getting what he was after would be nil. Of course, the chances are still uncertain. But this was the major item on the economic-rebalancing agenda; and the Administration's argument all along was that influencing China's behavior was a long game. This news story is not conclusive but does support rather than weaken the long-game approach.

    2) We All Know that the Shanghai town hall was an embarrassment, because the audience was packed with young Communist Party stalwarts who could be depended on to ask anodyne questions. ("What's the best step toward a Nobel Prize?" etc.)

    But remember the moment when Obama turned to Ambassador Jon Huntsman and said more or less, "Jon, did any questions come in via the internet?" I now have heard from enough different informed sources to be comfortable saying that the Chinese government did not know this was coming, and that the ensuing discussion about the Great Firewall was not at all according to their script. Jeremy Goldkorn adds a note about that question -- whose answer, as I mentioned earlier, has the potential to resonate within China. Goldkorn says:

    "The Great FireWall question at the Shanghai town hall came directly from the blogger briefing arranged by the Embassy and consulates in Shanghai and Guangzhou.

    "I attended the briefing and live tweeted it. The bloggers included Anti and Bei Feng, two of the loudest voices calling for open media in China at the moment, but also Rao Jin from AntiCNN.com. The most common question, asked several times by different bloggers, was if Obama knew about the Great FireWall and if he would do something about it."

    3) Most Americans don't know about the Southern Weekend interview -- the one interview Obama gave to a Chinese publication, and not to the People's Daily or CCTV but to a Guangzhou-based paper that is famed in China for its muckraking exposes of corruption and abuse. It would be as if a visiting head of state passed up CBS and the NYT and spoke instead only to Frontline or Mother Jones. The Obama team was well aware of what their meeting with Southern Weekend would symbolize -- not necessarily to the traveling press but to the educated population of China. As the government official I have previously quoted explained to me, "We wanted to highlight an edgy, aggressive Chinese paper that has run stories that others don't run. That was meant to be a statement encouraging serious journalistic effort in China."

    As Jason Dean explained in the Wall Street Journal and Jeremy Goldkorn did in Danwei, the authorities then interfered with the distribution of Southern Weekend in a comically ham-handed way. For instance, they (apparently) tore out pages containing Obama's interview from copies headed for foreign news bureaus -- but let them in for ordinary Chinese readers. The government official said, after marveling at the crudeness of the censorship, "I read a piece somewhere saying how naïve we were thinking we could get it out that way. But we did get a message out to a fair number of people. Did we expect it to be uncensored? No. But again think what the episode shows about the American government, and the Chinese."
     
    As Thanksgiving draws near in America, readers can give thanks that I will bid adieu to this topic. To sum it up: the Administration may or may not end up getting what it hoped for from this trip to Asia, especially China. But its members had a clearer idea of what they were after, how they could get it, and how to represent American interests and values than most coverage gave them credit for. The words that stick with me through this whole episode are those in the subtitle of Tish Durkin's piece last week: "Even through a veil of censorship and propaganda, the Chinese people managed a clearer view of Obama's visit than the US media did."

    And I'm not even getting into the whole "Obama carries his own umbrella" brouhaha! Read about it here, if you want.  Happy upcoming Thanksgiving Day.
     
    obamaumbrella_CV_20091116220111 (1).jpg


  • Manufactured failure #6: the wrapup

    I think this is it for a while, in three extensive sub-parts! Background here.

    1) Today the Columbia Journalism Review published part 2 of its interview with Howard French; first part was here and was discussed here. It is long and convincing, but here is the heart of its criticism of the dominant "Obama was a wimp" coverage. French says:

    "I am known for having had a pretty consistent focus on human rights in my work as a journalist [JF note: this is very true], so the comments that will follow should not in any way suggest that I believe in a de-emphasis in human rights with regard to China.... But the problem with the way the press has covered this is there's a kind of implicit premise [that...] is misleading, I think. Maybe disingenuous is even a better word, because it seems to suggest that if Obama had pulled a Khrushchev and banged his shoe on the table on these issues and really jumped up and down and made a lot of noise, then this would have achieved a markedly different result for the better. I don't think there's any evidence of that. It may have made certain people in this society feel better about themselves, but if the goal is changing behaviors in China or obtaining political or diplomatic results with China, I think the evidence is the contrary."

    2) From the U.S. government official who has appeared twice before, these final comments on the trip and its consequences:

    On atmospheric payoffs of the trip:

    "Two of the press conferences, in Japan and South Korea, both began with the same elements. In Japan, Prime Minister Hatoyama got up and gushed that "my friend Barack calls me 'Yukio.'" Then the Korean press conference began with [president] Lee Myung-bak saying, 'We have become close friends.' That says something. Those are not just routine polite words. It meant that Obama is profoundly popular in those countries.  Hatoyama's poll numbers are high but dropping, Lee Myung-bak has been embattled, though recovering. But both saw it as enormously important in terms of their own agenda to be identified with Barack Obama. In my mind, the personal popularity and respect for him is a strategic asset. And not one that gets you results in a day. If you have foreign leaders who see their own fate tied up with Obama, that becomes a chip you can draw on. If you need a last minute shift on climate change, they do not want to separate from Barack Obama. Everyone wants to be his best friend."

    What about the view that Obama caved to the Chinese on human rights?

    "Here are the things we tried to do. Number one, he made a robust statement in Shanghai. Number two, have that reach as many tens of millions of Chinese as possible. You can argue about the degree of success, but the message got out. They had a chance to see him in a setting no Chinese had seen before. And beyond that was to be explicit and direct in the private meetings about the importance of our values and the effect on our relations. And then we put in references in the press conference statement to Tibet and the Dalai Lama, and the importance of rule of law, freedom of expression, protection of the rights of minorities, which was an obvious reference to the Uighurs and Tibetans. We went straight to Tibet in the statement, saying that we consider it part of China and urge direct negotiations with the Dalai Lama."

    More »

  • One more on scholars, career paths, and Wall Street

    While waiting for one last installment on the Obama-in-Asia front, here is one last installment on the "does it matter that bright young things go to Wall Street" front. This is from a reader I know, American by background but living overseas for many years, on postings in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. He went from a high-prestige academic track to the financial world, for reasons explained below and after the jump.

    Heart of his argument: the problem is not so much the financial rewards of Wall Street, which had not begun their stratospheric ascent when he made the switch 20-plus years ago. Rather it was the scarcity of other work for people trained and interested in international work -- and, as he puts it, the distinctive role of business-based experts in American public life.

    "Please allow me to give a view on the "Rhodes Scholars take the path to Wall Street" topic -- as I think my own experience sheds light on a fundamental fact which might be missing in the author's dismay that young US students in Oxford might lower their moral standards by pursuing a get-rich career in Wall Street: we need to understand the heavy weight of business pervading many segments of American political life and society, and to appreciate the lack of alternatives available to young American professionals if they wish to create a respectful career with an international background in non-business areas (diplomacy, journalism and/or academic). That in a nutshell is how I wound up in a Wall Street job coming out of a traditional university environment.

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  • Rhodes pushback

    Yesterday I mentioned Elliott Gerson's op-ed in the Washington Post, which said that a shift in career choices for Rhodes scholars -- before, mainly politics/academics/writing; now, increasingly Wall Street -- was one more illustration of how outlandish pay in the financial world was distorting American incentives. For a Chinese perspective on this same point, see the thoughts of Gao Xiqing in my article last year, here

    A current Rhodes scholar at Oxford writes in defense of today's students:

    "Although I'm [from a country other than the US] and so outside of Mr Gerson's jurisdiction, I'm friends with many American Rhodies and I think it's worth noting one or two things about his article. It was an interesting and thought-provoking piece, but...

    "First, it should not be assumed that Rhodes Scholars are leaving Oxford for business in overwhelming numbers. The most convincing evidence Mr Gerson cites is that 6 (presumably 6 out of 32 American Scholars) went into business "recently". While 6/32 is a lot more than the 3/320 in the 1970s, it hardly signals that there has been a fundamental change in the nature of the organisation or the Scholars involved. The road from Oxford High Street to Wall Street is far less well travelled than the road from Oxford to law school in New Haven or med school in Cambridge, MA.

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  • Manufactured failure #5: views from China

    I won't go on in this vein forever (previously #1, #2, #3, #4), but the topic is important enough to bear a little more elaboration, IMHO. Part of the importance: there is no country with whom America's interactions are more consequential, or perpetually more complicated, than China. Another part of the importance: how the American public understands these interactions makes a big difference, in recognizing the points of disagreement and the areas of possible cooperation. Tomorrow, one more installment from the US government official who participated in important meetings and whom I have quoted twice before. For now:

    This morning on the Chris Matthews show I mentioned earlier, a White House reporter for the Washington Post said that the Shanghai town meeting was another item on the disappointment/failure docket for America. Her argument was essentially: the Chinese outsmarted the Obama team and kept their countrymen from seeing it. I don't remember whether she said it was not broadcast at all or only on one "local" network; as mentioned yesterday, that one network reaches 100 million households.

    So to a member of the traveling press pool, viewing the session mainly as a campaign stop whose advance work went either well or poorly, this looked like a bust. Here is how it looked to a foreigner who has just written me -- a person who has lived in China for two decades, still does business there, and speaks Mandarin:
    "In your series, you touched on the Shanghai town hall, quoting from President Obama's opening and his response to the Twitter/Great Firewall question, and gave voice to a White House insider as to the power of his words and their likely reach inside China. There's been some buzz among western journalists about how the town hall "reached no one".

    "I've been monitoring the China internet in the wake of the town hall and, based on my observations of these things over the years I'm very much leaning toward the White House insider's view -- that the reach was vast and deep, in the many millions or tens of millions, though not necessarily entirely positive. But the comment from President Obama that I think will have the most impact inside the firewall was not the one about US principles that you quoted in your followups. It was this one:
    'Now, I should tell you, I should be honest, as President of the United States, there are times where I wish information didn't flow so freely because then I wouldn't have to listen to people criticizing me all the time.  I think people naturally are -- when they're in positions of power sometimes thinks, oh, how could that person say that about me, or that's irresponsible, or -- but the truth is that because in the United States information is free, and I have a lot of critics in the United States who can say all kinds of things about me, I actually think that that makes our democracy stronger and it makes me a better leader because it forces me to hear opinions that I don't want to hearIt forces me to examine what I'm doing on a day-to-day basis to see, am I really doing the very best that I could be doing for the people of the United States.'
    "Wow! As a resident of China for two decades and a Mandarin-speaking China-watcher for three decades, I can say without any doubt that those words will resonate far more deeply -- and potentially more "subversively" or "destabilizingly" -- than any overt thumb-in-the-eye hectoring that any foreigner or foreign leader might muster, in public or private. Those words are ***precisely*** the kind that Zhongnanhai [Chinese term equivalent to "the Kremlin"] fears the most, and rightly so."
    After the jump, two other reader responses, one with an additional Chinese perspective and one with a historical comparison.
    ______

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  • Manufactured failure #4: more on Obama's trip

    Things are warming up on this front. Previously here, with backward links. Today's points:

    1) Many people have forwarded me a posting from my friend and former colleague Chuck Todd, saying that people who criticize the press's horse-race, instant-analysis coverage of Obama's trip are guilty of the same horse-race, instant-analysis thinking themselves. Ie, Hypocrite lecteur - mon semblable -- mon frere!

    With all good will toward Chuck, let me point out the distinction: What (we) reporters say or write about an event can in fact be judged as soon as we say or write it, because it's all out there to be seen. What happens in a meeting between the leaders of China and the US often can't be judged for months or years after it occurs -- which is the complaint about instant analysis of what Obama "got" or didn't from this trip. For instance: no sane person imagined that an agreement about the value of the RMB would be announced just after this session. That is not the way the Chinese government has ever behaved in response to foreign "pressure." We will know whether US intervention on this issue had any effect over the next few months. It reveals zero familiarity with the issue to expect anything else -- or imply that the absence of an announcement is a "failure."

    2) Many people have sent clips of today's talk show by my friend and former colleague Chris Matthews, which went in super-heavy for the "Obama humiliated in Asia" line. With all good will to Chris, I fear that this show today, notably the comments by the Washington Post's reporter from the Asia trip, will be the new symbol of exactly the kind of instant-analysis that, in my view, fundamentally misrepresents what happened on the trip. (Distillation of my complaint in an On the Media segment here; also, it was one theme of my All Things Considered discussion with Guy Raz yesterday.)

    2A) As a bonus, here is what the Post's page showed yesterday for discussion of Obama's trip: was it a success or "an embarrassment"?

    obamaasiaWP.jpg

    3) Below and after the jump, more comments from a US government official who was on the trip and knows first-hand about many of the meetings with foreign dignitaries. Earlier from this person here.

    About the "humiliating" bow to the Emperor of Japan:

    "Obama's attitude was, this is an elderly gentleman in a country where this kind of greeting is customary. It does not seem extraordinary to show this kind of gesture to him. The Fox news poll said that 67% of Americans thought it was a good thing for him to have done. When the president heard that some people had complained, I'd characterize his reaction as: The notion that the United States is somehow humbling or humiliating itself by showing respect for a local custom, when it is transparently the most powerful country in the world, leaves me speechless."

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  • Manufactured failure #3: insider's view of the Obama trip

    Late yesterday -- after I had recorded my On The Media complaints about mainstream coverage of Barack Obama's trip to Asia, but before I had seen Howard French's and Tish Durkin's similar complaints -- I got a call from a government official who had been on the trip. This person -- for convenience, I'll say "she" rather than "he or she" from here on -- wasn't aware that I'd already weighed in about the coverage, and was calling to say that I, as person who'd recently been living in China, might be interested in how different the events seemed to her from what she'd seen in the U.S. press.

    She agreed to have her views conveyed "on background," which I'll do here and in a few more installments over the next two or three days. Obviously these are the views of an interested party, who was involved in planning the trip and believes it should be seen as a success. But compare them with what you read and heard about the trip last week -- including about the "failure" of the Town Meeting in Shanghai.

    About coverage of the trip in general:

    "I don't care if someone criticizes us, I just would like it to be accurate and in context. I fear I am learning that is not the skill of some in the White House Press corps. They are experts on horse races, and so that is the way everything is cast."

    About what the Administration hoped for from the trip:

    "In thinking about the trip, the things we were trying to accomplish were all basically long term things. We were not looking for 'deliverables' or one-day stories. You've now got eight or nine countries among the G20 that are Asia-Pacific countries. The historic shift of power and influence from West to East is reflected in that number.

    "Obama is very focused on global issues, things like climate change, financial imbalances, non proliferation, energy issues. We saw all the countries on this trip as players on those global issues. Of course China is important in particular, but also Korea and Japan and the ASEAN countries. So we saw this as a way of developing relationships that would be helpful to us as we tackled these issues coming down the road. 

    "We've got Copenhagen [climate talk] coming up in mid-December. We have Iran heading increasingly likely toward Plan B rather than Plan A, pressure rather than inducements. North Korea. And the Copenhagen session is very far from a done deal. The countries we dealt with are all key players here. And on the economic side, you've got the whole issue of rebalancing the global agenda. None of those is something where you come out of a meeting and say Eureka. They're all part of a long process and a long game.

    "The other thing we had in mind, which has to do with the whole "rising China" phenomenon: we wanted to solidify the relationship with China. To show them that we're not going to have a fluctuating policy. That we know what we're doing, and understand that we are dealing from a position of strength. And at the same time, to all our traditional allies [Japan, Korea, etc], we wanted to reinforce their sense of comfort that our relationship with China won't be at their expense."

    About the Town Hall meeting in Shanghai: Why was it "censored" rather than streamed to anyone who wanted to see it in China?

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  • Signs of the apocalypse from an unexpected angle, #13,287

    In case you haven't seen it, check out Elliott Gerson's op-ed in the Washington Post today, offering an unexpected measure of what has gone wrong with America's economic and social structure. Gerson is the American secretary of the Rhodes scholarship trust, and his data track follows... what Rhodes Scholars do with their lives once they come home from England.

    Precis: in the olden days, they wanted to be big shots, a la Bill Clinton. Politicians, professors, writers, people paid in part or full in currency other than plain cash. Now, they want to be rich. And Gerson has a theory about what that change shows.

    There is a reverse-backflip aspect to this shift that Gerson is certainly aware of but doesn't have the space to mention: Over the past 20 years or so, the selection process for Rhodes scholars has shifted to place less emphasis on Clinton-style BMOC traits and more on expressed or proven commitment to "service." So a group that starts out being more interested in social service ends up being more likely to go to Wall Street. Read and reflect.

  • Manufactured failure #2: the press, Obama, Asia

    It's not just me. Two colleagues with different perspectives -- from each other's, and sometimes from my own -- marvel at how badly the mainstream American press distorted the picture of what happened during Barack Obama's just-ended tour of Asia.

    First, Howard French -- long of the NYT, now of the Columbia Journalism School, friend of mine in both Tokyo and Shanghai. He has a new online Q-and-A with the Columbia Journalism Review, here, in which he says that the traveling press covered Obama's meetings with Asian officials as if this were a bunch of stops in a presidential campaign tour, and as a result missed or misrepresented what was going on. Read the whole thing, but here are two samples:

    From the set-up to the interview, by Alexandra Fenwick:

    "In almost every analysis of the trip, Chinese officials were portrayed as optimistic and newly emboldened to stand up to American interests and Obama was cast in the role of the meek debtor, standing with hat in hand. The line is that little was achieved and Obama was stifled, literally by state television and figuratively by the Chinese upper hand in the power dynamic."

    Howard French goes on to say that these assumptions were flat wrong. He offers many explanations, including this:

    "I find that the Washington reporters tend to be typically the most subject to this instant scorekeeping. This is part of the game of Washington reporting. They're at the bleeding edge of this phenomenon that I think is distressing in terms of the approach of the press to serious questions. Everything is shot through this prism of short-term political calculation as opposed to thinking seriously about stuff. You can't be an expert on every question, and so you're part of the Washington press corps and if you're really good and really diligent, you're going to be expert maybe in a few things and one of those things might not be China."

    If you have seen Howard French's coverage over the years, including the five years he was based in Shanghai, you will know that no sane reader has ever put him in the category of "soft" on the Chinese leadership or China's faults. Yet his wonderment and exasperation at what he reads is palpable.

    Tish Durkin, who has written for the Atlantic from Iraq and elsewhere, arrived in China recently. The subhead on her new column for The Week gets across the point:

    "Even through a veil of censorship and propaganda, the Chinese people managed a clearer view of Obama's visit than the US media did."

    While I'm at it, here's one more: a story quoting the new US Ambassador to China, former Republican governor of Utah Jon Huntsman (a Mandarin speaker), to exactly the same effect.

    "Washington's ambassador to Beijing hit out on Friday at negative US media coverage of President Barack Obama's visit to China, saying it failed to take into account important progress on many issues...

    "The trip was the top news story in China, drawing strong interest from the mainland public who, surveys suggest, are largely positive in their view of the American president.

    "However, much of the US media coverage was strongly negative, accusing Obama of failing to gain concessions on key issues such as Iran's nuclear programme and climate change, as well as being weak on human rights."

    "I attended all those meetings that President Obama had with Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao," Huntsman said, referring to the Chinese president and premier. "I've got to say some of the reporting I saw afterward was off the mark. I saw sweeping comments about things that apparently weren't talked about, when they were discussed in great detail in the meetings," he said.

    I wasn't in touch with Howard French or Tish Durkin (to say nothing of Amb. Jon Huntsman) before we all expressed the same amazed and negative reaction at the way our colleagues had missed the main point of what just happened in America's relations with a very important part of the world. We're all familiar with one "crisis of the press," the business collapse. This is a different kind of crisis, though it makes the business crisis worse: the distortion of reality by compressing every complex issue into the narrative of the DC-based "horse race." As you can tell, this really bothers me.

  • Manufactured failure: press coverage of Obama in Asia

    I have what I think is some interesting new info coming on this front over the weekend; stay tuned, starting Saturday afternoon. For the moment, two more installments in my argument, previously here and here,  that Barack Obama's recent swing through Asia was a relative success, and certainly nothing like the disaster that most U.S. coverage implied.

    Installment one: me talking with Bob Garfield of NPR's On The Media just now, about why American fantasies of an omnipotent, rising China may have distorted American press reaction to what Obama said and did.

    Installment two: the before-and-after analyses from a private client newsletter by Damien Ma, Divya Reddy, and Nicholas Consonery of the Eurasia Group, reinforcing the idea that what actually happened on the trip was almost exactly what informed observers expected to happen, and not some humiliating disappointment.

    November 11, just before the trip:

    "President Barack Obama's first visit to China on 16 November will produce positive rhetoric, but achieve little on a range of issues from North Korea to economic rebalancing. Washington and Beijing will continue to highlight areas of mutual cooperation and interests, but domestic political agendas will pose serious constraints on the extent of near-term progress....

    "Little to be expected on economic rebalancing and trade... Obama will likely raise the currency issue as part of a broader economic rebalancing framework. But the Chinese will continue to reject greater emphasis on the rebalancing issue, because Beijing interprets it as Washington shifting more of the blame on China for the global recession....

    "No bilateral agreement will be reached on emissions reduction targets that might precipitate an ambitious global climate change treaty next month in Copenhagen. Obama's more modest task is to prevent China from aligning too closely with the G77 developing country bloc in global negotiations, although he has limited bargaining chips to encourage cooperation from China." [emphasis mine]

    November 20 (today), post-action assessment, which boils down to, it went just as expected, and maybe a little better:

    "President Barack Obama's first visit to China met the modest expectations set by the White House, making some progress on creating a more expansive relationship and on clean energy and climate change cooperation...Obama appears to have effectively reassured Beijing that the US does not intend to contain China's rise, creating a framework for mutual assurance that could augur a more mature relationship in the longer term.

    "The US-China presidential summit involved a genuine attempt by both sides to push toward closer cooperation -- producing a robust joint statement that highlighted a range of common interests. In particular, Obama's first visit to China saw deliverables on clean energy and climate change cooperation, as expected. By dampening Copenhagen expectations in Singapore, Obama avoided a potential collision with China at next month's meeting... But Chinese domestic politics prevented Beijing from publicly discussing contentious issues such as currency and economic rebalancing during the trip...

    "While policy disagreements and trade frictions will continue in the near term, Obama took an important step with a very public reassurance for Beijing that the US does not seek to contain China's rise. Beijing's receptiveness to this appeal indicates the intent of both countries to reduce the mutual distrust that has colored aspects of the relationship -- from currency, military engagement, and Taiwan to human rights and climate change. The Obama administration's more public approach, if successful, can promote longer term stability by engaging China on a broad range of issues within the context of a more mature and pragmatic relationship -- and in preventing specific, contentious issues from defining the relationship."

    Why bring this up? Because it's bad all around when American press coverage makes people feel that perfectly predictable results constitute a shameful failure for the country and its leadership. More on this theme tomorrow.

    (Update: later in this series, #2, #3, #4, #5, and #6)

  • RIP, D-N-I.net (updated)

    After an outstanding ten-and-a-half year run, the website "Defense and the National Interest," better known as d-n-i.net, will close down next Monday, November 23. Chet Richards, who with his wife Ginger has run the site through that time, says that for various logistical and practical reasons he is ready to move on to day-job concerns.

    chet.jpg

    Chet (shown here), a retired Air Force colonel and math PhD, has been one of the most committed and effective proponents of the ideas of combat developed in the 1970s and 1980s by another retired Air Force colonel, the late John Boyd -- background here and here. Chet is an original thinker and strategist himself and has written about theories of conflict as they apply to modern business, technological innovation, "soft power," and so on.

    There's an immediate reason for mentioning the site's pending close, apart from an appreciation of Chet and Ginger Richards, William Lind, Chuck Spinney, and others who have contributed to d-n-i's success. This is the main online repository for a lot of Boyd's briefings and papers, so if you think you might ever be interested in them, set aside a little downloading time over the weekend. Handy shortcut to some downloads here. Thanks to all involved.

     Update: more on d-n-i, Richards, Boyd, and maintaining the archives here and here


  • Having complained about Google Checkout...

    ... because of its opaqueness in certain circumstances (and more to say when next I am at a computer), let me mention a different Google project notable for its transparency. That is the "Chromium OS" -- a new operating system optimized for "netbooks," which was announced yesterday as an open-source development project. Google has made the source code available free, along with some design documents and results of early user testing. First video below is the hour-plus announcement session. At the bottom is a three-minute product intro.

     

    The idea behind netbooks, of course, is that they'll be stripped down to only and exactly those features needed for "cloud"-based work. The idea behind the Chromium OS is the same. According to this announcement, the cloud-centrism of the new OS will have two big advantages for users: speed, going from power-on to ready-for-use within a few seconds rather than a few minutes; and security, with both programs and data "living" in the cloud rather than on your own machine, and therefore subject to protection in more sophisticated ways. More on security features here. As the announcement says, "Chrome OS barely trusts itself. Every time you restart your computer the operating system verifies the integrity of its code. If your system has been compromised, it is designed to fix itself with a reboot."

    How well will this actually work? Obviously we'll have to watch as it unfolds -- the watching process being much easier because it will be open-source. Here's an early Network World look at strengths and apparent weaknesses. Google's related Chrome browser has had both pluses and minuses, about which more later. A beta version of Chrome (Windows only; Mac promised) has just been announced with bookmark-sync and further progress toward support of "extensions," which is one of the areas where Firefox is most obviously superior to Chrome. Will check it out, with reactions later on. (Routine disclosure: I have many friends who work at Google -- but, to my knowledge, none of them directly involved in this project.)

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