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.
  • The only thing I will ever say on this subject (Redskins)

    I highly recommend Steve Coll's mini-screed on the New Yorker's web site right now. Like Coll, I enjoyed playing offensive line back during (briefly) the Peewee Football/Pop Warner stage of life. Unlike him, I was not a childhood fan of the Redskins -- the L.A. Rams, as then existed, had their summer training camp in my home town, and my brother and I lived for the moments when we could watch them up close and get autographs on the practice field. But you can't raise sons in DC, as my wife and I have done, without having the Redskins be the common bonding experience, topic of phone calls on Sunday afternoon, and all-purpose cultural touchstone for a lot of people in DC.

    Unfortunately the Redskins of the Dan Snyder era, which is now a decade long with no sign of relief, are simply a cause of heartache, nausea, and depression. The only reason I've been able to watch this year is the stylish and stalwart Chris Cooley, who tonight apparently has been injured in the soon-to-be completed loss to the Iggles. Jeez.

    Back to Steve Coll. He has won every journalistic prize, been a power at the Washington Post, now runs the New America Foundation, etc. But the words he may always be proudest of are those he's written about what has happened to the city's team:

    "The issue is not the team's performance on the field, dismal as that is. It is the culture created by the owner--one of greed, expediency, and mean-spiritedness. The general atmosphere around the team suggests Zimbabwe--a failed state, an intractable dictator, and an impotent and suffering populace."
  • More on the Minneapolis "overflight"

    According to numerous accounts in the last hour -- AP here, Reuters here, WSJ here -- the current story from the Northwest flight crew that forgot to land in Minneapolis is that they were so absorbed in using laptops in the cockpit that they neglected to talk with air traffic controllers for more than an hour and didn't get around to descending.

    I hate to say this about people with enough other problems already, but: that's simply impossible to believe.

    Flying an airplane is different from driving a car, in that it doesn't take constant second-by-second attention to the mechanics of where you're going and how you're handling the controls. If you type out a text message while you're driving a car, you really are putting yourself and others in danger.  But if you take a minute in an airplane to check a detail of the routing, or a weather report, or anything else that comes up, in most phases of flight nothing bad is going to happen. The plane will cruise along with its autopilot, and most of the time no other planes are anywhere nearby. (Obviously this doesn't apply in takeoff and landing, in busy airspace, etc.)

    That's why some of the stories tut-tutting the pilots for breaking company rules by opening laptops during flight are beside the point. That's a for-form's-sake only rule whose violation may be"wrong" but is not intrinsically dangerous.

    The difficulty for the pilots is that the version of the story they're resisting -- that they simply fell asleep -- is less damning for them than any alternative version. If they fell asleep, that's bad, but they could argue some kind of force majeure. But if their "heated conversation" (previous story) or intense laptop use (current story) kept them from remembering their most elemental responsibility as pilots, that really is beyond the pale. The closest comparison would be, say, to an operating-room team that got so interested in watching a football game on TV that they sliced open a patient but forgot to take out his appendix. Forgetting where you are going is incredible enough on its own. And not having any back-of-mind nag saying, "Wait a minute, we haven't heard anything on the air-traffic control frequency for a while" also is outside any known experience of the professional flight-crew world.

    I say this not to rub it in for people who have lots of trouble ahead -- and who, to their credit, did get their passengers down safely. I mention it to underscore how much an outlier the apparent failure in this case is -- and to emphasize the trouble they're creating for themselves with the "conversation" and "laptop" alibis. If they fell asleep, that's embarrassing. If they were awake, it is far, far worse.

  • Maybe Amazon and Visa should talk?

    Packing for an airline trip. My wife online booking the next family trip. Keeps trying to confirm and pay for the tickets -- cheap advance purchase deal! System keeps rejecting the Visa card number she feeds it. Hmmmm. Am I going to have trouble using the card on the upcoming trip?

    I continue to pack. She holds on the phone with Visa. Suddenly the answer is there: card has been frozen because of suspicious tiny transactions. One for thirty cents, one for forty-five. Just the kind of "probing" charge that credit card thieves attempt to see if a card number is good -- and that, for the same reasons, credit card companies block.

    But wait a minute. These charges -- shown below -- were for the fifteen-cent conversion fees that Amazon charges when you mail it a .PDF or .DOC file to be sent to your Kindle. I was sending several files so I could read them on the plane. (The $1.25 charge is for my monthly Kindle version of the world's finest magazine -- better on paper, but this is a nice backup.) You can get files converted for the Kindle for free, but it means manually transferring them via your computer. I thought it was worth the seventy-five cents to skip that phase.

    I can't be the first person to use a credit card for tiny Kindle charges. Maybe a little coordination to be worked out here, guys? Another opportunity for the Nook?

  • McChrystal as Obama's savior?

    I mentioned recently William S. Lind's argument that Gen. Stanley McChrystal has, intentionally or not, done the Obama Administration a favor with the bleakness of his report on the prospects in Afghanistan. In response to the recent Australian analysis of the McChrystal report, cited here, a reader writes with a view complementary to Lind's:

    "I suspect that the news media and blogosphere has overplayed the tension between McChrystal and the Obama administration.  As your recent post on the Afghan Rorschach test suggests, McChrystal has given an unvarnished assessment of the state of play, and a fairly unvarnished assessment -- or at least a shockingly high assessment -- of the numbers of troops he needed to 'turn the conflict around.'

    "In short, he made his troop request high enough to be fairly easy to reject, and his report pessimistic enough to rule out an Obamaesque middle course   He can't be expected to craft a report that would make withdrawal seem easy, but it is to his credit that he (unlike Westmoreland) has made a good faith effort to make increased commitment seem hard.
    "One of the problems with civilian commentary on Afghanistan is that civilians have been much slower than the military to learn the lessons of Vietnam."
  • More on the Afghan Rorschach test

    A friend in Australia pointed me to the transcript of a speech in Canberra last week by Paul McGeough of the Sydney Morning Herald, who has reported extensively from Afghanistan over the past eight years. The war in Afghanistan has been a bigger matter for a longer time in Australia than in the US, in part because Australian troops have suffered many more casualties in Afghanistan than in Iraq. McGeough's speech is coruscating, and it uses Gen. McChrystal's report in a way I haven't seen applied anywhere else: as a radically honest reporting document, which in its very honesty reveals why its recommendations would not work out.

    I mean these few samples to whet interest rather than to substitute for reading the presentation as a whole. Although he is tough on the Obama Administration, McGeough offers no support to the likes of Dick Cheney and his recent criticisms. As McGeough says in the final words of the speech, referring specifically to the Bush Administration's choice to switch manpower, money, and attention from Afghanistan to Iraq starting in late 2001:

    "By the way, a recent American intelligence estimate put the insurgency's full-time fighting strength at at-least 25 000, up 25 per cent on the previous year. There should never have been a debate about how strong the insurgency is. They were on the run in 2001 - and they came back, only because they were allowed to."

    Below and after the jump, other samples of his reasoning. But please do check it out. First, on the similarity between the Soviet and American wars.

    "After eight years, Washington finds itself in the same position that the Soviet Union was in Year 8 of its occupation of Afghanistan, seemingly having learnt nothing from history - until McChrystal's bombshell assessment.

    "I want to read from a defence official's letter dated August 17. He calls for an honest admission of failure after eight years, citing the squandering of huge material resources and considerable casualties and a failure to stabilise the country - militarily or politically. Most of the population has lost trust, because the campaign is bogged down and a strategic breakthrough is unlikely.

    "The experience of the past years," he continues somberly, "clearly shows that the Afghan problem cannot be solved by military means only. We should decisively reject our illusions and undertake principally new steps, taking into account the lessons of the past, and the real situation in the country..."

    "That might have been a note to General McChrystal as he prepared his report - but the date was August 17, 1987. And the author, Colonel K. Tsagalov, was addressing the then newly appointed Soviet defence minister, Dmitry Yazov."

    More »

  • Nook, Kindle, Raz, NPR

    On today's All Things Considered a hands-on comparison of Nook vs Kindle -- something I have not been able to do myself. (More from the interviewee, Gizmodo's Matt Buchanan, here.) I am agnostic about which is better -- or whether something by Apple or somebody else will ultimately be "the" right electronic reader. The one certainty is that the appearance of a new, attractive product from a strong competitor is good for everyone. Even, in an enlightened self-interest sense, for Amazon/Kindle itself, since real competition is likely to make this whole market larger and more viable.

    Two more points on which I'm not agnostic are: Is this good for publishing? And, will we get used to reading this way? The answers are Yes, and Yes. Anything that makes it easier to spend money on books, as the Kindle undeniably does, has to be good in the long run for publishing and writers, despite some in-the-meantime disruptions. And I already find it as natural to read on the Kindle's screen as from a paperback. I still like the heft and feel of real books in the right circumstances, and magazines are night-and-day preferable to read in print. But these devices are clearly a step forward overall.

    (PS: I disagree with the interesting post by the Atlantic Business Channel's Derek Thompson, who looks at the new e-readers and says that we're headed for a Swiss Army Knife-style combination of many different functions in a few all-purpose electronic gizmos. I'm skeptical because of the dozen previous times through the computer era in which that prediction has not panned out. "Real" cameras are still much better than in-phone cameras; the right device to carry in your pocket, as a phone or PDA, will always be worse to read on than a device with a bigger screen, which in turn is too big to fit in your pocket; keyboards are simply better than little thumbpads for entering more than a few words, and any device with a real keyboard has to be a certain size. So, sure, some things will be combined, but the all in one era is not at hand, and won't be.)
    I was also on today's show in a "news analysis" spot, as I've done several times in recent weeks with the host, Guy Raz, this time talking about errant airplanes, Fox News, Baby Einstein, etc. I very much like the savvy and cultural mix of the show, and happily serve in the "someone has to dish up the liver and vegetables" capacity.

  • From an Airbus captain, about recent flight errors

    A reader writes:

    "I just thought you might like to know that while the airplane overflying Minneapolis received major headlines, the Delta airplane which landed on a taxiway in Atlanta earlier this week received minimal coverage. As you can imagine the taxiway landing is much more of a close call (that is a greater chance of casualties) than overflying an airport at altitude. As I've come to expect from the press there is no perspective on the relative danger of either incident. Somewhat similar to focusing on shark attacks while we kill approximately 40,000 every year on our roads.

    "As an A-320 captain I don't mean to throw stones at either crew (there but for the grace of God...)... As to the Atlanta taxiway incident there were multiple factors including a long overnight flight, a sick check airman who was in the back, and a change of runway inside the marker [well into the plane's final descent, shortly before landing] to a runway without approach lighting... But it is interesting that one incident is totally ignored while the other gets major media play."

    Google Earth view of approach to runway 27R at Atlanta. Where they should have landed is the runway at center of this view, with the chevron markers on black background pointing towards it. Where they actually landed was the taxiway just to its right. This happened in the dark. At night the taxiway would have blue lights and the runway white lights.


    Why a taxiway landing is potentially much more dangerous: another airplane could theoretically be turning onto the taxiway just as the incoming plane was touching down, raising the prospect of a repeat of the deadliest accident in aviation history, the collision of two fully-loaded 747s on the runway at Tenerife, in the Canary Islands, in 1977. Why the current "overflight" incident, despite its safe conclusion, has gotten attention: for what it may show about pilot-fatigue and work-rule questions (plus the melodrama factor of passengers sitting, reading, dozing innocently while things in the cockpit are not as they should be; plus the melodrama factor of controllers, hearing nothing from the plane, not knowing whether it was another hijacking/terrorist episode). Why news coverage does not follow statistical risk of danger: this is life.

  • More on missing an airport (updated, on pilot fatigue)

    Not sure if this makes me feel better or worse. I mentioned yesterday that I had once inadvertently been steering a small airplane toward Ellsworth Air Force Base, in South Dakota, rather than the Rapid City airport a couple of miles to its side, where I really intended to land. (Pilot-world detail: Airports in the US are officially known by a four-letter identification scheme, starting with K, rather than the three letters familiar from airline tickets. Thus LAX is KLAX for purposes of filing a flight plan; O'Hare is KORD; Logan is KBOS; and so on. The airport in Rapid City is KRAP. For the record, Ellsworth is KRCA.) The two airports are close together; their runways are laid out the same way; and so on. Via SkyVector.com, here's the FAA chart of KRCA, nearer the top, and KRAP below it, with green circles on each. I was way off the lower right side of the chart when trying to find the airport.


    Now I hear from several readers that five years ago a Northwest Airlines flight from Minneapolis-St Paul (KMSP) did what I avoided -- went all the way and landed at Ellsworth, on a flight that was supposed to end at Rapid City. In my case I think that, even if a controller had not alerted me from ten minutes out that I needed to turn slightly to the left, I would have figured it out before I actually landed at an Air Force base. For one thing, the numbers at the end of the runway, which you can see from far away, would have been a clue. (The relevant runway would say 32 in big numbers at Rapid City, and 31 at Ellsworth. You know the number of the runway you're planning to land on, and if you see something different, it would give you pause.)  For whatever reason, this NWA flight made it all the way to a landing at Ellsworth.

    Sorry for the passengers, who had to spend several hours on the ground before the five-minute flight to KRAP, and sorry for the pilots too.

    UPDATE: This story in today's LA Times goes frontally at what I suspect will be the main question in the current "ooops, we missed Minneapolis" airline incident: whether, why, and how often airline pilots fall asleep in the cockpit. Obviously that was not the case with the five-year-old Ellsworth/KRAP incident discussed in this post. I expect this is just the beginning of broad discussion on pilot-fatigue issues coming out of the Minneapolis case. Thanks to reader D.L.

  • More on Chinese air

    Following this item and this article in our new issue.

    The pictures below are from an extremely powerful exhibition by Lu Guang, a Chinese photographer, about pollution and its effects in his home country. His photos have just won a major prize from the Asia Society. While not all of China looks like what he has depicted, I have seen things exactly like what is shown in these photos, and so has anyone else who has traveled outside the big cities or visited factories and mines. Two samples from Lu Guang's work: a power plant in Inner Mongolia, then a migrant laborer in the coal regions of Shanxi province.


    These are pictures to bear in mind the next time you read a "China is an unstoppable superpower with an ability to solve all problems" story; it's worth emphasizing, as I have here and elsewhere, that there is tremendous pressure within China to change course environmentally for the survival of its own people.

    Many pending messages in the queue with more info about the measurable health effects, for foreigners and Chinese citizens, of China's environmental situation. Will get to them in due course. Thanks to many people who have sent in notes about the Lu Guang photos.

  • On the Fox News / White House dispute

    I didn't see anything on Fox from mid-2006 through mid-2009; for better or worse, it's not carried in China. (The English TV news channels you can get there are BBC, CNN International, CNBC, sometimes Bloomberg.) I have seen it since coming back this summer. And in a way, I realize that I had been seeing it all along: except for more modern production values, it's the closest thing America offers to what it's like to be exposed to the Chinese government's 24/7 internal propaganda machine. When I saw the clip below from Media Matters, as highlighted by Andrew Sullivan, I thought: make it a little more boring, put it in Mandarin, and substitute "splittists" etc for the people Fox is talking about (maybe the Dalai Lama in place of Van Jones), and I could be right back in Beijing.


    Are Maddow and Olbermann on MSNBC comparably relentless and "biased"? Of course they are. But no one pretends their shows are "real" news operations or are "fair and balanced." And certainly they have become what they are as a market and political response to Fox's success. Indeed, the general polarization and spectacle-mindedness of the news ecology in part is homage to what Fox has figured out as a business and political model. Any fair person also has to acknowledge the better production values Fox brought to TV news over the past decade: it's lively, it's fast, it's interesting, the women on screen (to a shocking degree, if you've been away) set a new standard in physical looks, the whole thing gets your attention.

     But a crucial part of this clip, and of the White House complaint, is that it's not just the out-and-out commentators on Fox -- the Hannities and O'Reillies who begat Maddow and Olbermann -- who supply a one-note politicized world view. It's the texture of the overall operation. I can think of honorable exceptions among correspondents and anchors, like Major Garrett (whom I do know) and Shepherd Smith (whom I don't). But this clip suggests the seamlessness of the Fox News outlook, which has impressed me on watching it. Again something it shares with China Central TV.

    Main point: I disagree with my journalistic colleagues who are huffy because the Obama White House is treating Fox differently from the way it is treating other news organizations. Fox is different. As a practical matter, saying so could backfire on the White House. But as a matter of observing and stating reality, they're right.

  • Win 7, Nook, and other tech follow ups

    Windows 7: My wife will get it for the HP laptop she bought when we returned from China, since that qualifies for a free upgrade. Don't think I will myself. My original-Vista-blighted ThinkPad T60 is having so many other problems that I am keeping it alive purely for organ-farm purposes, serving as an extra hard disk on the home network. My three Macs (early 2008-vintage Air and Mini, new MacBook Pro) are all running WinXP in the Windows half of their brains, under VMware Fusion. Since installing Win7 on an XP machine involves backing up and removing all data, installing the OS from scratch, and then reinstalling all programs (the real stopper -- where are those install CDs?), making the switch does not seem worth it. Net result of three years of terrible experience with early Vista+ Lenovo-era ThinkPad: putting me onto a path that may keep me from ever seeing what's good with Win7. That's not quite true. Some day I'll get around to creating a Win7 "virtual machine" under Fusion and give it a try.

    The advance reviews are all positive, eg this from Wired. (It must be said: Vista was supposed to be good too.) Most interesting Win7 review I've seen is this one from Philip Elmer-DeWitt.


    Nook and Kindle: Via Chinese manufacturing- world contacts, I have known this was coming for a while. Looks nice (left), and even if it looked bad it would be a huge plus for the industry, the reading public, and the publishing world to have competition for Amazon and its Kindle. I say that as a member of a two-Kindle household who has spent a lot on e-books. I'll see if I can rationalize a "need" for the Nook at some point.

    All e-readers apparently need to have somewhat weird names that include a "K."  I suggest "Kewpie" for whichever one comes next. Or maybe "Amok." Keokuk? (Which has a charming little airport where I have landed.)

    On the social-benefit potential of e-readers in general, David Rothman, who has been on this case since long before the Kindle was invented, has a new argument here.

  • In case you were wondering.... (Updated)

    ... the Northwest Airlines flight that apparently "missed" the Minneapolis-St Paul airport today and overshot it by 150 miles did not make an ordinary mistake, like missing Exit 32A on a busy freeway and having to get off on Exit 32B.This is more like ... well, it's hard to think of a comparison, because it's pretty startling.

    Once when I was flying westward toward the Rapid City airport in South Dakota, I found myself lining up 25 miles away instead with the much bigger runway of Ellsworth Air Force Base nearby. I must not have been the first one to do so, because the controller said in a routine way, "What you're probably heading for is Ellsworth. You want to turn your head ten degrees to the left and look for a little airport that's closer. That's where you want to go." This was embarrassing enough, and it was just my wife and me, not a bunch of paying passengers. (Below, Google Earth's view of what caused my problems. The runways have similar orientation, and Ellsworth is the first one you see from a distance. And this is from straight overhead! I was looking from a slant, into a setting sun, from a relatively low altitude, way off in the distance. It's a miracle I saw either of them!)


    In contrast, from the air you really cannot miss a big, busy, international airport. It's unlike anything else you see -- especially when controllers are talking you every step of the way, as they are required to with airliners. Rather, I guess you can miss it, but it's a surprise.

    Glad everyone is safe. Will be interesting to hear the pilots' account. I have my own hypotheses, but it's fairer to wait.

    UPDATE: To avoid being coy about my "hypothesis," it's hard to imagine how this could have happened if the pilots were awake. There is too much going on in the last 45 minutes of a flight -- with procedures for arrival, approach, and landing, many checklists -- just to be "distracted." So most likely either they both fell asleep in the normal sense or, weirdly, were both disabled in a way they then recovered from. After a cockpit crew on Go! airlines fell asleep for fifteen minutes in Hawaii last year while their plane was headed out toward the open ocean, one of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin's readers offered this possible explanation:

    "Aliens I say. They took the pilots to their spaceship, then put them back in the plane. They were gone for 2 weeks, but only 15 minutes Earth time." 

    Bonus analysis point: on top of the Colgan crash in Buffalo early this year, plus that previous Hawaiian sleeping-pilots problem, we are bound to see more serious political attention to the question of work rules, fatigue, pilot training, etc under the new operating realities of the airline industry. Thanks to M. Griffith for the Go! tip.

  • 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.

    More »


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