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.
  • Bad news, good news on the air-traffic beat

    Bad news: further evidence that the worldwide GPS system, which is run by the US government and on which everything from airline navigation to iPhone mapping apps relies, is at risk of "browning out." Earlier mention of the problem, back in May, here, based on this government report. Update this month, from Avionics magazine, here. Talk about your deteriorating critical infrastructure! Headline below gives you the gist.

    "Fixing GPS

    "Almost half of the current constellation of GPS satellites are at or approaching 'single thread' operation, where a critical system failure could render a satellite inoperative. What are the options for replacing GPS satellites?"

    Now, the better news. Assuming that the GPS network gets tuned up in time, Scott McCartney, of the WSJ, explains some of the potential for better, more efficient, and safer airline navigation -- including over the vast oceanic "big blue data void" into which Air France 447 disappeared. The "NextGen" navigation systems McCartney describes have their strong supporters and critics, when it comes to specific configurations and timetables for the program. But a shift to some version of the new system is as inevitable, and McCartney explains clearly what the benefits can be.

  • A Rorschach test on Afghanistan

    The NYT op-ed page that has just gone up, for tomorrow morning's paper, has as concise a paired description of options in Afghanistan as anyone could want. Each of the articles is by an American writer with experience in the region. One says we should send more troops; the other says that would be a mistake. Each is clearly written with a brief passage that distills the outlook and sensibility.

    One says:

    "The United States was born of our ancestors' nationalistic resentment of a foreign power whose troops we saw as occupiers, not protectors. The British never fathomed our basic grievance -- this was our land, not theirs! -- so the more they cracked down, the more they empowered the American insurgency....
    "We have been similarly oblivious to the strength of nationalism in Afghanistan and Pakistan, particularly among the 40 million Pashtuns who live on both sides of the border there. That's one reason the additional 21,000 troops that President Obama ordered to Afghanistan earlier this year haven't helped achieve stability, and it's difficult to see why 40,000 more would help either."

    And the other says:

    "During 10 days spent in Afghanistan at the invitation of Gen. David Petraeus, the head of Central Command, I observed that a difficult task has been further complicated by the checkered results of the Afghan election. But what seems to be conspicuously absent from the conversation in the United States is the realization that Afghanistan's corruption problem, like its security problem, can be best addressed by additional troops.

    "Given what I saw and heard on my visit, I believe it is indeed possible to get Afghanistan's politicos to do a better job -- you just have to watch them closely.... Poor governance is an argument for, not against, a troop surge. "

     The writers' identities are after the jump. I'm concentrating on the arguments themselves because I think they represent an extraordinarily pure Rorschach test. There are cases where you can listen to various sides and think, "Well, they've all got good points." But in this case, I bet most people will think: one of these perspectives rings true, and one sounds tragically deluded. Certainly that was my instant reaction -- and for that clarifying power I am grateful to both authors. Read, react, reflect.

    _____
    Item one ("no more troops") is by the NYT's Nicholas Kristof, here. Item two ("more troops") is by Max Boot of the CFR, here.

    More »

  • I don't know the author, but...

    ... I am biased in favor of this book:

    SharkBook.jpg

    Chris and Monique Fallows are a naturalist-photographer team based in Cape Town, South Africa, who produce documentaries and conduct adventure trips in hopes of protecting marine life, especially sharks. I don't know them, but there are not that many of us with the same name, so we have to stick together. I bought one of their books when I saw it at the bookstore of the wonderful Two Oceans Aquarium in Cape Town several years ago. I'll get this new one too. Maybe they'll do the same for mine!

    Another of his shark pics, from their site.
     
    Thumbnail image for SharkPic2.jpg

  • First-hand experience with Chinese air, pro and con

    Following this item yesterday, about this article in the current issue on the health effects of living in China, good-news and bad-news reports from American friends with long experience in Asia.

    First, the bad news.

    "I check the BeijingAir Twitter every time I'm headed there for work. I thought I'd report an anecdote from a friend who has worked in China since the 1970s and lived there for many years (though moved back partly to raise children in a more healthy environment!). She had MRIs performed on her lungs some time ago and they indicated significant scarring and other damage, despite the fact that she has never been a smoker. She has never complained of any symptoms or health problems but clearly some damage was done."

    FWIW, I heard similar stories from a variety of people who had been in and out of China since the 1980s, but I don't know of any systematic data. Maybe I'll have another data point two weeks from now, when my appointment with my own doctor for a welcome-home physical exam finally rolls around. Only has taken three months to get on his schedule! Good thing we don't have Canadian-style socialized medicine in this country, what with its long waiting lists and rationing-by-delay etc.

    Now, the better news:

    "We were back in China for a couple of weeks this past summer to visit my former students in Beijing and then to travel in Hunan for a week or so.  I think the air has improved.  It was mostly blue skies, even in Beijing, which I rarely saw when we lived there for 10 months in 2003-04.  I think you are right to conclude that expats do get over the problems once they leave.  At least we haven't had lasting health problems -- at least not yet."

    As a side note, based on my experience anyone who wants to visit Beijing in particular should go in October. Even though the current BeijingAir Twitter reading is deep into the "unhealthy" zone, this seems reliably the nicest time of the year.

  • The air over there

    In the new issue of the magazine (subscribe!) I have a short article about a topic I discussed constantly with Chinese and foreign friends over the past few years: how dangerous it is, really, just to live in China. To breathe the air,  drink the water, eat the food. Won't spoil the suspense about conclusions in the article itself. But the note below is from a reader whose experience is similar to mine:

    "I just returned to the US after a four-year tour in Shanghai. I major reason for returning was that I knew that living over there was terrible for my health. I always told myself that I couldn't live in that poor environment for five years. Aside from the terrible air quality, I did four stints in hospitals for food poisoning.

    "But since I have been back, I have found that recovery has been easier than expected. I am now running about four to six miles four times a week. I think it may have been like living at high altitudes - you body gets used to being deprived of oxygen and becomes more efficient. 

    "Plus, just having the space and good weather adds to the motivation. As I am sure you know."

    For perspective, here is today's real-time air pollution map for the US, emphasizing the dangerous small-particulate pollution (PM2.5) plus ozone (O3). Green "good" areas have readings below 50; the yellow "moderate" areas are 51-100; and the little spot of orange "unsafe for sensitive groups" air, near Pittsburgh, is 101-150. Maybe they're reopening the steel works? Most times when I look at this map, it's virtually all green.

    AQI2.jpg


    Meanwhile, readings earlier today from Beijing, taken by the clandestine "Beijing Air" monitoring station I describe in the article:
    AqiBeijing.jpg

    The point is that the Chinese readings would be in the red "unhealthy" (151-200) or magenta "very unhealthy" (201-300) zones if they were mapped. Like anyone in Beijing, I've breathed my way through a large number of purple "hazardous" days, with readings over 300.

    For the benefit of Chinese readers, let me say for the millionth time that to stress this comparison is not to put down China's successes, underestimate the difficulties of dealing with these problems, deny that a high-pollution phase is part of every move toward industrialization, etc. China's situation is tough, and a lot of forces within the country are working to improve it, as laid out at length here. Instead it's worth emphasizing that the people of China themselves are the ones with most at stake in improving its environment. And because of global effects of climate, as I've also said a million times, it's crucial for the US and China, the two biggest-emitting countries, to work together on energy and pollution issues. Indeed, this is the historically most important business for the two countries to take up.

    In the meantime, it's a nice day in DC, so like my correspondent I'll plan to take another run.

  • More on US presidents as Japanese words

    Several readers, plus my raised-in-Japan Atlantic colleague James Gibney, have reminded me that Barack Obama is not the first American president whose name has been converted into an ordinary word in Japanese. After the first President Bush fell ill and vomited on Japanese Prime Minister Miyazawa at a state dinner in Tokyo in 1992, the term Bushu-suru -- ブッシュする, "do a Bush" -- became a joke staple of Japanese slang. Bush understood how Montezuma must have felt about having his name appropriated for gastrointestinal use.

    Real time picture, via Wikipedia, of Barbara Bush and PM Miyazawa coming to the aid of the stricken president (behind napkin):
    Bush-japanese-pm.jpeg.jpg


    Via Google Books, an account from the Encyclopedia of Political Communication of the meaning of Bushu-suru, though I prefer my own "do a Bush" English version.
     
    BushSuru.jpg

    I don't know whether doing "a Clinton" -- クリントンする --  came to mean anything in Japanese.

  • "To Obama" in Japanese

    Last week the NYT ran a story about how Barack Obama's version of spoken English has become a huge hit in Japan, emerging as the new standard for language-learning. This rings true to the fad/blockbuster nature of many commercial and cultural phenomena in Japan. And, we can all think of worse versions of English for them to emulate. (Carville? Stallone?)

    But I thought that this item from the Ampontan blog, written by a foreigner in Japan, was more fascinating. It is about the way the invented verb Obamu -- オバむ, "to Obama" -- has gained currency among some Japanese youths. Explanation:

    "obamu: (v.) To ignore inexpedient and inconvenient facts or realities, think "Yes we can, Yes we can," and proceed with optimism using those facts as an inspiration (literally, as fuel). It is used to elicit success in a personal endeavor. One explanation holds that it is the opposite of kobamu. (拒む, which means to refuse, reject, or oppose).

    "[Japanese bloggers] give the following example:

    :ほら、何落ち込んでいるんだよ。オバめよ、オバめ。

    "Or, "Hey, why are you so down in the dumps? Cheer up, cheer up!"...

    "One more Japanese-language citation is from a Twitter tweet, which defines it simply as believing you can accomplish something.

    "Those familiar with the language will understand immediately that such a coinage would sound very natural, and that it is typical of Japanese creativity and their sense of humor."

    The absorptive-and-transforming power of the Japanese language is indeed one of its charms. It will be a good sign for Obama if his name continues to be used in this mainly-positive context.

  • This is good news

    I emerge briefly from writing-induced blog exile to celebrate a well deserved honor for a comrade: our own James Bennet, editor of the Atlantic, being selected as AdAge's "Editor of the Year."

    I have worked for five editors during my time at the Atlantic: Robert Manning, William Whitworth, Michael Kelly, Cullen Murphy, and now James Bennet. They have been different people with different styles dealing with different challenges in different times.  But all have been absolutely committed to the idea that this kind of magazine, with its determination to deal with serious issues in as interesting and news-making a fashion as possible, has a role in national life and can find an audience that will value what we do. I feel very fortunate to have been part of this institution for so long -- and I know that what makes it special are people who really do think all the time about improving the magazine. That describes everyone on the staff -- now, and over the years.

    Industry "honors" like this are highly unscientific, hit-and-miss propositions. But when they work out, that's worth celebrating, as I do now.

    If you feel like joining in, a subscription always makes the ideal gift! I'll save the full pitch for another time. (Andrew Sullivan has made his case here.) But, seriously, in the long run, enterprises like this have to figure out how to pay for what they do, and subscriptions make a big difference. Plus, the layout and pictures make magazines much better to read in print. Meanwhile, as members of the extended Atlantic family, please enjoy this nice bit of news.

  • On the chain of command

    After I mentioned last night that I disagreed with Robert Kaplan's call for an immediate commitment of more US troops in Afghanistan, I received a note that reminded me of a point I had meant to make. It concerns the chain of command and the different responsibilities of a theater commander (like Gen. McChrystal, in Afghanistan) and the commander in chief (like Pres. Obama, in Washington). I raise the point not to drag out a disagreement with a friend and colleague but to clarify an elementary but sometimes muddied issue.

    My correspondent, a veteran of the defense and technology businesses, notes these lines from Kaplan's piece:

    "The position Obama's now in is similar to that of former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld some years back--appearing not to be listening to his generals. If the president doesn't agree with his field commander, that's fine. Just don't make a public spectacle of it."

    And says that this misconstrues the way the disagreement came to light:

    "...since it was the leaks (from wherever -- I suspect [name redacted!] to Bob Woodward that publicly highlighted McChrystal's disagreements with the President. Only in the face of continued leaks about how "long" McChrystal's report had sat on the President's desk sans action did the President's team (NSA Jim Jones, CJCS Mullen) finally proceed to remind -- and quite obliquely -- those in uniform that disagreements with the Commander in Chief should be expressed privately, not aired publicly.

    I think that's right as a matter of fact. And as a matter of policy, the point I meant to make is that a president should of course listen to his generals on questions of military operations, trade-offs, resources, etc. But it's worth remembering from Civics 101 that they must listen to him on questions of larger national interest and strategy.

    The complaint about Rumsfeld was that he ignored -- in cases like Eric Shinseki's, stifled -- military professionals who warned how hard it would be and how many troops it would take to complete the mission the Bush administration had decided on. Their argument was: if you're going to do this, do it right. That is exactly the kind of advice military professionals are expected to give their civilian commanders. It's what Bush, Rumsfeld, et al should have listened to. (Apart, of course, from listening to a wider range of views about launching the invasion at all.)

    That is a different kind of listening from what is emerging with Gen. McChrystal. Whether or not this was his intention, his quoted advice comes across less as, "If you're going to do X, then do it right" than as, "You should do X..." Figuring out what it would take to protect Afghan citizens and win a counterinsurgency effort is the general's job. Figuring out whether that is worth doing is the president's. Again, an obvious point but worth restating.

    One comeback would be: Obama's already made up his mind! He said that Afghanistan was the "necessary war," and if he is committed to the end then he is committed to the means. To call his original choice into question would waste time and look weak. As Bob Kaplan put it, "the time to roll out a new or adjusted strategy would have been when McChrystal's selection was announced, so that he could become the face of the new policy."

    This is where we disagree. I think the time to adjust the strategy is as new evidence comes in and until you've done something irreversible -- and that in these war-and-peace matters it is better to be inconsistent than wrong. That is why I think a thorough reconsideration is just what the Administration should be doing right now. I start out believing that the less-bad option is to curtail rather than expand America's commitment in Afghanistan -- all options being bad because of the fateful mistake of switching attention to Iraq eight years ago. But I'll listen to a case for expansion differently if I think it comes from an open assessment of all possibilities, rather than because it's too late to change course or risk losing face.

    Last on this theme: the same reader offered this link to another valuable "be careful what you're getting into" analysis of Afghanistan, from Survival magazine. I agree with Andrew Sullivan's current examinations of this difficult choice, here and here. And, having watched the Frontline "Obama's War" broadcast last night, I share the widespread endorsement of it. Can be viewed online here.

  • Festival of links, part 2: Coates, Kaplan, Green

    Following this earlier dispatch, a few more.

    - Like my Atlantic colleague Ta-Nehisi Coates, I've been in a no-TV mode for a while -- in my case, most of the time since returning from China. We finally got TV coverage re-connected last month for the US Open tennis matches and the start of the NFL season. But I realize that I'm turning on the TV only for live sports and the occasional real-time spectacle that's easier to watch on the big screen than find on line. David Letterman's first post-scandal show; the new (and just so-so) season-opener of The Simpsons this weekend; the PBS "Obama's War" tonight. Not Mad Men, because we have to catch up with the first two seasons on DVDs.* For old times' sake and for language practice, my wife sometimes has the Chinese-language station on in the background. But in general, it's not a factor -- compared either with radio or, of course, the internet. Certainly less a presence in our life than it used to be.

    I'm not making any big cultural point about TV or our haughtiness in rising above it. I am convinced that our children's four elementary-school years when we were living in Japan and Malaysia and rarely saw TV at all, were good for them (and us) in various ways. My only point at the moment is that the same technological shifts that have caused problems for the print media have, in our household's case, made even more of a difference when it comes to TV.

    - My Atlantic colleague Robert Kaplan has argued on our site very strongly that it is "Time for Decisiveness on Afghanistan," by which he means that it's time to send more troops to wage a thorough counter-insurgent action. Here is why I disagree.

    Bob Kaplan knows more about Afghanistan and its environs than I ever will. I like and respect him, even though we usually disagree about foreign policy, notably about Iraq. But his essay is only in part about the right strategy for Afghanistan. It is also about the way presidents make decisions about war and peace. That's something I know about, and I think his basic assumptions are wrong.

    He says that Obama is causing great damage by taking so long to decide on the right course for Afghanistan. I think that presidents have caused damage by making decisions too quickly much more often than by taking too long. And he says that Obama runs the risk of seeming inconsistent -- and therefore of becoming ineffective. To me, presidents have hurt themselves and the country through rigidity born of a fear of looking inconsistent, much more often than they have by being too flexible.

    A sample passage from his essay:

    "It's perfectly legitimate for Obama to review Afghanistan strategy and troop numbers. But by calling into question the very strategy that he put into place earlier in the year, when he called Afghanistan the "necessary war," and promised to properly resource it, Obama is courting charges from the right that he is another ineffectual Jimmy Carter--that other Nobel Peace Prize winner....

    "The Administration had many months, beginning the moment Obama was elected, to recalibrate Afghan strategy. Yet it's now in the position of publicly questioning the fundamental wisdom of the general it has chosen.... Even if Obama does end up making the correct decision on Afghanistan strategy (by which I mean adding troops, since counterinsurgency is manpower-intensive), the public agony over his deliberations may already have done incalculable damage."

    You should read his whole argument. If he or others can really establish that a decision right this minute about Afghanistan is indispensable -- that this is a moment comparable to the Cuban Missile Crisis etc -- then, OK. (For a contrary argument, see this.) Otherwise, everything I've learned about politics indicates that impatience is almost always destructive, that especially when it comes to military commitments it's crucial to think and think again, and that a president should be less afraid of being "inconsistent" than of making a big mistake.

    - My Atlantic colleague Josh Green, co-author with Henry Waxman of The Waxman Report, adds this about the disagreement over calorie labeling I mentioned earlier today.

    "To chime in with a congressional/historical angle on the Corby/Megan labeling imbroglio: Congress considered the lack of information on most products serious enough from a public health standpoint that (led by Henry Waxman!), it passed the dull-sounding-but-important Nutrition Labeling and Dietary Supplement Act in 1996. Waxman devotes a full chapter to it in his book. Example of typically misleading industry behavior:  Sara Lee Lite Cheesecake actually contained more calories per serving than Sara Lee's regular cheesecake. The "lite" was a marketing ploy. Confronted by an FDA task force, Sara Lee claimed that the "lite" referred to the color, not the caloric content, of the cheesecake. Similar examples abound. A perhaps more resonant point for the general public: without the Nutritional Labeling Act there would be no South Beach Diet!"

    ___
    * Why we're behind on Mad Men: Tried three times to get Seasons 1 and 2 from pirate video stores in Beijing. First time, the version we got was in Russian. Second time, Spanish and Portuguese. Third time, it was some other show altogether. Actually relieved to have a chance to rent legit versions at full price in DC!

  • Festival of links, part 1

    Before an impending "real," as opposed to false-alarm, absence from this site for a while, because of impending "real" writing, a variety of links about things I've meant to mention. Two now, two or three later in the day.

    - Everyone on the China-media beat is aware of the turmoil at Caijing, a unique and important magazine in China. The title means "Finance and Economics"; an English site is here. (Disclosure: one of my sons worked there right out of college, during the SARS epidemic, and I know many of the staff.) Caijing has become a powerhouse in both the business and the journalistic sense. It publishes thick issues and holds big, influential conferences -- but it has also been a crucial leader in real business/financial reporting and exposes of financial chicanery, corruption, pollution, and other topics usually hard for the Chinese press to cover. Evan Osnos, who wrote a New Yorker profile of the founder and sparkplug of the magazine, Hu Shuli, has an update on the turmoil here. Other info from the FT here, from the AP here, from the WSJ (subscription wall) here, from the Guardian here, from the NYT here, and from Yahoo news here. None of this is good news.

    - In their respective parts of the Atlantic's site, my colleagues Corby Kummer and Megan McArdle make opposite cases about the effects of New York City's calorie-labeling law. McArdle says it hasn't done any good; Kummer argues that it has already done something and, over time, will undoubtedly do much more. Read and judge for yourself, but one part of Kummer's argument seems obviously true and worth underscoring. He stresses (as did the authors of the original study) that calorie labels -- like mileage labels on cars or electric-consumption labels on appliances -- can make a difference even if customers don't think they're paying attention to them. As the original study said:

    "Calorie labeling could result in changes that do not rely primarily on alterations in consumers' food choices. Menu labeling regulations may encourage chain restaurants to offer more nutritious or otherwise improved menu offerings, which could be profoundly influential. [italics Kummer's] Public health experts have shown that creating "default" incentives to improve well-being is essential to improving public health. By indirectly influencing restaurants to offer more lower-calorie items, menu labeling regulations could help encourage such default options for consumers."

    As Kummer added:

    "Yuppie avatar Starbucks immediately changed its default milk from whole to 2 percent, so it wouldn't have to admit that a Frappuccino could amount to practically as many calories as you should eat in a whole day... Just this week, [a NYC official] told me... Burger King began a new ad campaign telling how customers could eat a full meal for 650 calories or less. McDonalds took .7 ounces and 70 calories out of its standard portion of french fries. Dunkin Donuts introduced an egg-white breakfast. KFC put grilled skinless chicken on its menu--not something anyone expected to see at KFC."

    Again, decide for yourself, but this corresponds to effects I've seen in other areas over the years. Labeling and disclosure in itself has an influence, in encouraging organizations to offer more of what they think will look "good" and less of what looks "bad."

  • The speech Obama won't ace (plus, WaPo gaffe followup)

    So far, as noted here, Barack Obama has faced mounting expectations through a sequence of high-stakes speeches, from the "race" speech that saved his campaign 18 months ago to the Joint Session address on health care that appears to have changed momentum for his proposal. So far he has met or beaten expectations just about every time, most recently here.

    I confidently predict that this string will end with his address in Oslo on receiving the Nobel Peace Prize. My argument is probabilistic: of the hundreds of addresses that have been given by Nobel laureates (last year's here), exactly one is frequently quoted or referred to. That is William Faulkner's address on receiving the literature prize 60 years ago. The transcript is here, including the best known line: "I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail." It's only three minutes long, and you can hear him delivering it below:



    Will Obama give the second-ever memorable speech? That would be impressive but seems unlikely. For context: Martin Luther King's quite long speech here; T.S. Eliot's here; Winston Churchill's here, which includes the Onion-esque line, "The world looks with admiration and indeed with comfort to Scandinavia."
    ___
    Also, to follow up on the WaPo Nobel editorial gaffe from yesterday: I mentioned soon after moving back from China that the New York Times looked like the same newspaper I remembered, while the Washington Post sadly did not. This is the kind of thing I had in mind. The NYT has its lapses and embarrassing errors (as do we all). But for this lengthy, lead editorial to have appeared in the Post yesterday, it had to have passed through at least three people's hands -- and probably many more. Those three would be: the editorial board member who wrote it; the editor of that section; and the copy editor who was on duty for the page as a whole. In reality, other people almost certainly saw it before publication.

    The editorial as published -- with its recommendation that the Peace Prize should instead have been given posthumously to the martyred young woman Neda from the Iranian uprising -- required that none of those three people was aware that Nobel prizes are not given posthumously. That's surprising for people in those positions, on general-education principles, but in no sense negligent. We're all ignorant, just of different things. Before the current flap, I had never heard that Peace Prize nominations had to be filed by February, which would have ruled out figures from the Iranian uprising this summer.

    But it also required that none of the three people was curious enough or worried enough to check, before publishing not a blog post or a real-time update but a major paper's main editorial. That is a surprise. I don't think we can imagine a similar gaffe in a NYT lead editorial -- other problems, sure, but not a general-knowledge fact-check howler. More to the point, I can't imagine a comparable error in the WaPo's own sports section, which has been outstanding for years and still is now. (The counterpart might be a column about the World Series noting that the NL pitchers looked better when at bat than AL pitchers did, and wondering why that might be.) FWIW the Neda editorial is still online, with no correction note or update. 

  • Don't these people have The Google?

    The Washington Post's lead editorial today argues that a more deserving winner for the Nobel Peace Prize would have been Neda Agha-Soltan, the young woman whose death during the Iranian uprising became a worldwide symbol, comparable to the Tank Man of Tiananmen Square in 1989.

    NedaHeadline.jpg

    Defensible point, though obviously purely symbolic in its own way too. As the paper says, after arguing that the selection of Barack Obama is an expression of hope rather than a post-achievement recognition:

    "The Nobel Committee's decision is especially puzzling given that a better alternative was readily apparent.... A posthumous award for Neda, as the avatar of a democratic movement in Iran, would have recognized the sacrifices that movement has made and encouraged its struggle in a dark hour."
    Would it have been so hard to mention the complicating fact that Nobel prizes are only for still-living people? And that this is a basic element of discussion when, for example, the literature prize rolls around each year? (After John Updike's death in January, one of the Post's own writers noted that among the sadnesses was that Updike would never be recognized with a Nobel prize.) And that therefore the omission of Neda is not "especially puzzling" at all? The FAQ page at NobelPrize.org (yes! there is such a site) makes this clear:
    "Is it possible to nominate someone for a posthumous Nobel Prize?

    "No, it is not. Previously, a person could be awarded a prize posthumously if he/she had already been nominated (before February 1 of the same year), which was true of Erik Axel Karlfeldt (Nobel Prize in Literature 1931) and Dag Hammarskjöld (Nobel Peace Prize, 1961). Effective from 1974, the prize may only go to a deceased person to whom it was already awarded (usually in October) but who had died before he/she could receive the Prize on December 10 (William Vickrey, 1996 Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel). See also par. 4 of the Statutes of the Nobel Foundation."
    And this paragraph is the very first thing that comes up on a Google search for "posthumous Nobel prize." According to Google's meter, it took 0.24 seconds to find that info, and it would have taken maybe another fifteen seconds to change the sentence in the editorial to say: "Although the Nobel committee ordinarily rules out posthumous awards, an exception in this case... [and make the argument]."

    Maybe the no-posthumous-award rules make sense. (Otherwise, you could have a debate every year on whether Abraham Lincoln, St. Francis of Assisi, or Gandhi was the most deserving choice.) Maybe they don't. Maybe they should have exceptions for deaths within the calendar year. Etc. But these are the widely-understood rules. Who is on the copy desk these days? Or writing editorials like this? 

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