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.
  • Beijing construction triptych #2: Guomao

    First picture: Google satellite view of the I-10 / I-405 intersection on the west side of Los Angeles. This is where the Santa Monica freeway meets the San Diego freeway, an extremely busy piece of thoroughfare. The only airline flight I've ever missed in my life was because of a jam at this very intersection -- my mother was driving me to LAX for a flight back to college after my first year's Christmas break, and we sat for two hours on one of the connectors shown below. (Part #1 of the Beijing construction triptych here.)

    LAFway.jpg


    Next picture: the Guomao intersection in Beijing, where Jianguo Lu meets the East Third Ring Road. Our apartment building is just off screen on the lower right corner of the picture; subway entrances are on the other three corners but not on ours:

    GuoMao3.jpg

    From my point of view, main difference between these intersections: no sane person would try to cross I-10/I-405 on foot. But many tens of thousands of pedestrians, including me, have to cross the Guomao intersection every day.

    More »

  • As a reminder ....

    ... that this issue is still with us, three clips from web-based environment sites, all taken within a few-minute span.

    1) Real time map of particulate pollution across the US. This map shows PM2.5, the smallest particulates which are most damaging to the lungs:
    Air4.jpg


    2) EPA explanation of what the color-coding means.
    EPA2.jpg


    3) What today's real-time monitoring of PM2.5 in Beijing shows. (Background here.) Note that the EPA charts have no reading or category for levels above 300, like the current 311 in Beijing.
    Air3.jpg


    Substantive update on anti-pollution efforts in China coming shortly, following this item a week ago. For now, think I will skip the gym today.

  • Wrapup on papers, Craigslist, etc

    Thanks for numerous responses to yesterday's message from my Google friend about how newspapers could, and presumably still might, take advantage of the shift to web-based advertising. Short version: the need to have the business (as opposed to purely journalistic) swagger of predecessors like William Randolph Hearst:

    Hearst, were he living as a 'Rupert Murdoch' of today, would own Craigslist by now, would have an industrywide micropayment system, would have recruited legions of readers as hyper-local bloggers, and otherwise employed the tools and resources of our day to advance his cause just as he brought cartoons, drawings, and later photographs and color to his readers in his. 

    This is a very thoroughly discussed issue, so only a few reactions -- then back to queued-up reactions on Chinese education!

    First, from a reader in Australia, about what brought on the crash and a hoped-for solution:

    My wife owns a boutique real estate agency in Sydney, Australia.  Every Thursday she'd have to submit the ads for her properties to the Sydney Morning Herald who had a monopoly on real estate advertising -- pre internet.  The likelihood of the desired ad appearing in print, in the desired location, on the desired day was about 60%.  (Imagine her customers looking through the ads for their house and not finding it!) The service was arrogant as well as unreliable and my wife wouldn't mind seeing the SMH go up in flames.  On the news side, the SMH is now about splashing electronic ads right in the middle of a story I might be reading: equally arrogant! This feels very much like a fat monopoly that will be overtaken by something better.

    I used to be a print subscriber to the SMH; when their internet site caught up and I upgraded to a decent LCD monitor, it was easier to read online without having to consume and recycle a broadsheet containing 90% unconsumed waste.  I am a news junkie and I seriously worry about losing access to good journalism.  However, I am willing to pay a few cents per story per day and I am sure that somehow, someday, someone will find a way to aggregate my pennies with everyone else's to give good journalists a good living.

    After the jump, another reader's suggestion of a potential opportunity. It begins:

    It seems to me there is a huge advertising hole that newspapers could fill when they are ready to move past the blame game and start thinking more creatively.

    More »

  • More on Google, Craigslist, and who's killing newspapers

    A few hours ago I mentioned that a friend from Google had tipped me to a new Pew study showing how big a hole Craigslist (and similar services) had blown in the classified-ad portion of newspaper revenue. I signed off by saying that the distinction -- Google's not killing the news business, Craigslist is! -- was "worth bearing in mind for precision in blame-casting."

    My friend, who was up in the middle of the night in California, immediately wrote back to say that I'd misunderstood the point. With his stipulation that he is speaking for himself and not the company, and with my clarification that he is not one of the household names at Google who by definition are always speaking for the company, here is his note:

    It's not at all about blame-casting. It's about proper diagnosis for treatment and recovery. If papers are critically ill from classified revenue woes (Craigslist, eBay, informal email, ...) but they falsely self-diagnose as being sick from over exposure in Google News, then they'll end up closing their borders by withdrawing from news aggregation sites at Google, Yahoo, MSN, and elsewhere. That won't hurt Internet companies [like Google] at all, but it will leave publishers with fewer new visitors, less online monetization opportunities, and still obliviously infected with disappearing classified revenues. They will get sick faster, and journalism as democracy's conscience will weaken. That will hurt every other company, every citizen, and nearly every country. 

    The only blame belongs to the publishers. Craigslist, like all startups, was originally funded with pennies on the dollar compared with what media empires spend. It still is! Craigslist has not been bought/co-opted/copied by any of the major publishers even though doing so would have been a natural idea. Readers are moving online but publishers act as though they will go there only if dragged rather than racing to their only life saving destination. News is valuable, but you can no longer get it in printed form as it is hours old by the time you get your paper -- CNN and online news sites had it hours ago! Analysis is worth waiting for, but that is what magazines like The Atlantic are all about. Newspapers will never be about selling your old BBQ again. Ads at random, scattered between unrelated stories, are not part of the future of shopping. 

    These are the issues for papers to agonize about; to wring their hands about; and maybe even to beg money to solve. Unfortunately, they've been copying the ideas and technologies invented and introduced by William Randolph Hearst for so long that they forgot his example of how to innovate for the modern day. Hearst, were he living as a 'Rupert Murdoch' of today, would own Craigslist by now, would have an industrywide micropayment system, would have recruited legions of readers as hyper-local bloggers, and otherwise employed the tools and resources of our day to advance his cause just as he brought cartoons, drawings, and later photographs and color to his readers in his.

    Extra thought on my end: if this is what someone not in the writing biz can crank out at 4:40am his time, while up with eye problems and a splitting headache, maybe the publishing industry has even more to worry about from web-based competition than we thought!

  • Who exactly is killing the press

    A friend who works at Google wanted to be sure I'd seen a new study from the Pew Internet Center* about what exactly is cutting the heart out of advertising revenues for the newspaper business. The headline on a CNET story about the study gets right to the point:

    Craigslist1.jpg

    The Pew study also contains this "story of an industry's decline in one chart" graphic, showing how classified ad revenue for papers has fallen from around $20 billion a year to under $10 billion during the era of Craigslist. (And, yes, the study argues that there's a causal connection here, not just a coincidence of timing.) A ten billion dollar revenue hole says a lot about why all papers -- well run, poorly run, concentrating on local issues, concentrating on national and world affairs, up market, down market -- are in trouble, all at the same time.

    Craigslist2.jpg

    To Google, it makes a difference whether the shorthand slogan in people's minds is "Craigslist is killing off newspapers" rather than "Google is doing them in." For the papers themselves, it's a fine distinction -- sort of like dinosaurs spending their last moments arguing whether it was a giant meteor strike or a bunch of volcanoes that was wiping them out. Still, a distinction worth bearing in mind for precision in blame-casting.
    ___
    * Which is run by another friend, Lee Rainie; my wife has done Pew Internet studies too.




  • PR updates: NPR, Stanford Review, WNYC, plus NYT Mag

    - On the Media interview with Bob Garfield, here, about the media-politics of health care reform. Back in 1995, I wrote this Atlantic article about the way the Clinton health-care proposal fell apart -- including the damaging role played by a hugely misleading article by Elizabeth "Betsy" McCaughey. Interview covers whether it could happen again.

    - Online Q-and-A with the Stanford Review's Bellum project, here.

    - Interview last week about China with Brian Lehrer of WNYC, here. These all for the record.

    Also for the record, let me join others congratulating the Atlantic's Megan McArdle for what she has reported about Edmund Andrews' gripping account of his descent into deadbeat hell.

    Having had some experience with writing confessional, "here's a mistake I made, and what I learned from it" articles, I understand the fundamental premise of the tell-all bargain. You're asking for the reader's trust and, if not forgiveness or respect, at least forbearance because of your brave candor in facing unflattering truths. But in those tell-all circumstances, you really do have to tell it all. There would ordinarily be no reason whatsoever for Andrews to embarrass his wife by talking about her past financial problems (two declarations of bankruptcy) -- unless he undertook to write a warts-and-all book about how his household got into financial trouble. This is also connected to the first item, above, about the health care debate. For all the mixed effects of the internet on mainstream journalism, there is a fast-feedback loop now that can correct errors that would otherwise have stood.

  • Now I truly feel like Mr. Beijing

    I know people who've lived here for decades, for their entire lives, and have not had the full immersion in Beijing-ology that I have recently been exposed to: an air journey from Nanyuan Airport!

    The authoritative Insider's Guide to Beijing is somewhat dismissive of this travel experience:

    "Thirteen kilometers south of Tian'anmen, deep in Fentgai district, likes the purgatory of Beijing air travel: Nanyuan Airport. Only travelers with frightening karmic debt end up here -- and all clients of China United Airlines, formerly a military carrier, which bases its operations at Nanyuan."

    Probably I have the karmic debt, and for sure I was traveling on CUA -- but I found the experience weirdly charming. It was like a little trip back into the Beijing I first saw in the 1980s: an airport in the middle of a rural neighborhood, trees all around the runways, little hutongs and five-story Mao-era apartments just outside the airport fence. Few intrusions of modernity, like: taxicabs with meters (you bargain) or the for-sissies effect of translated signage. This is definitely not the new Beijing Capital Airport. (Below, my fellow travelers for Linyi, headed toward our CUA airplane on the tarmac at Nanyuan. Linyi, in Shandong province, is another of those Chinese cities few foreigners have heard of but is larger than nearly any city in the US.)

    http://i142.photobucket.com/albums/r96/jfallows/IMG_6957.jpg

    I'll take my nostalgia wherever I can find it. This was an unexpected dose.

  • Beijing construction triptych #1: Mandarin Oriental

    Three and half months ago, during the climax of the Spring Festival/Chinese New Year fireworks insanity bacchanalia, the nearly-completed Mandarin Oriental Beijing hotel, designed by Rem Koolhaas, was engulfed in flames. It soon emerged that fireworks on the nearby CCTV tower, also by Koolhaas, had been the source. (Reuters photo of the fire, Feb 9)

    CCTVFIRE.jpg

    The fire and its aftermath will make a great book topic for someone (not me), because of all the intriguing "this is modern China!" strands involved. The climax of architectural ambition / hubris in Beijing. News media intrigue about exploring the cause of the fire. Backlash against CCTV, for whom the complex (including famous odd-shaped tower) is being built. Many, many other subplots -- as suggested eg here.

    What strikes me at the moment is that the building stands untouched, looking months later just as it did when the ashes cooled. Two days ago, looking east from about half a mile away, across the Third Ring Road:
     
    http://i142.photobucket.com/albums/r96/jfallows/IMG_7004A.jpg



    http://i142.photobucket.com/albums/r96/jfallows/IMG_7007-1.jpg


    Sometimes structures in big Chinese cities appear -- or disappear -- practically overnight. Other times, they sit for a very long period in limbo. I'm not sure of all the reasons why the hotel has this frozen-in-time aspect, but it's startling whenever I see it.

  • On Obama's security speech

    Carried overseas on BBC, and in prepared text here from the Washington Post. WhiteHouse.gov site, by the way, is once again weirdly behind-the-curve in getting material up.

    Argumentative crux of the speech to the left (emphasis added):

    I have opposed the creation of such a Commission because I believe that our existing democratic institutions are strong enough to deliver accountability. The Congress can review abuses of our values, and there are ongoing inquiries by the Congress into matters like enhanced interrogation techniques. The Department of Justice and our courts can work through and punish any violations of our laws.

    This is the reply to people, including me, who think there needs to be some kind of investigatory commission. Taken at his word, he's saying: Congress can do the investigating, the courts (and my Department of Justice) can prosecute. In theory, this works out well. A new president moves ahead; the System provides accountability. We'll see.

    Argumentative / explanatory crux of the speech to the right:

    I do know with certainty that we can defeat al Qaeda. Because the terrorists can only succeed if they swell their ranks and alienate America from our allies, and they will never be able to do that if we stay true to who we are.

    This has been, from the start, the central indictment of the Bush-Cheney approach to al Qaeda. Anything-goes tactics may or may not win battles, but they certainly lose wars. Dick Cheney's speech, cut off by BBC about ten minutes in, is ineffective not just because of its anger/contempt but also because what is billed as a response is in fact one cycle late, simply re-stating the claims Obama went out of his way to rebut (rather that keeping up with the cycle by answering anything Obama said).

    Subtle harpoon crux of the speech, in the last paragraph:

    We will not be safe if we see national security as a wedge that divides America - it can and must be a cause that unites us as one people, as one nation. We have done so before in times that were more perilous than ours.

    The entirety of the Bush-Cheney approach rested on the assumption that there had never been a threat as great as the one demonstrated by 9/11. Condi Rice said this explicitly, in her disastrous (and, in a just world, career-damaging) "al Qaeda was more dangerous than the Nazis" comment at Stanford. The parts of Cheney's speech I saw today, and everything we know about Bush's decisions and statements in office, assumed without argument that they faced choices between due-process and national security more painful than those that George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, or FDR wrestled with. A reminder that others have faced difficult choices and dire threats is useful for judging our response and placing it in the long context of American values that Obama repeatedly emphasized.

  • For you fans of Chinese reality-TV


    WinInChina.jpg

    In the spring of 2007 I wrote about a campy / idealistic Chinese reality show called Win In China, which was designed to select, train, and motivate future entrepreneurs. The film maker Ole Schell has produced a documentary about the program and its aftermath, which will be shown at the Asia Society in New York on Tuesday evening, June 2. Details here.

    I haven't seen the film, though I was one of the "what it all means" interviewees, but I watched Ole Schell getting lots of background footage as the show was underway. I think this should be very interesting. Make your Gotham travel plans accordingly!





  • Compare and contrast: "quarantine" in the US and China

    Below on the left, the image from the recent diary of a (perfectly healthy) AP correspondent who, with his wife, ended up in Chinese quarantine for a week, simply because their plane had stopped at a Mexican airport. Starting on the right, an account from a reader in the US who has an actual swine flu patient in her house. The eccentricities of each country's approach are on display here -- along with, as discussed earlier, the reasons why China's reaction might understandably differ from America's or Europe's. The reader begins:

    Quarantine.jpg"In striking contrast to the story of quarantine in China, I am here in Illinois with a house guest with the swine flu, and only the vaguest instructions about avoiding spreading the infection.  The young woman came down with the flu Monday morning, after not feeling great on Sunday.  Since her health insurance is an HMO from another part of the country, it took several phone calls to insurance companies, doctors, etc., to get an appointment - not that the current round of health care reform is likely to address this ridiculous bureaucracy, but that's another topic.

    More »

  • In case you've been wondering about Macau

    You should, of course, start by reading my description of the casino economy as it was fully  opening up two years ago, here and here.

    But on the remote chance that's not enough, it is surprisingly interesting to get the email updates from an operation called "Destination Macau." At first glance I thought it was just another local-booster site. But here is a representative passage from the latest newsletter:

    "If a president of most companies we know were to stand up in public, after having recently posted a solid rise in quarterly earnings amid a bearish economic environment, and announce he is looking to cut nearly a quarter of his workforce, his audience might be forgiven a gasp of astonishment. Not when that president runs the Las Vegas Sands Corp.

    "This week, the company's recently installed president, Mike Leven, announced in Las Vegas that he was going to cut another 3,000 to 4,000 jobs at the Macau subsidiary, taking the total workforce to around 13,000-14,000 from its current level of around 17,500, and down from a high that once scraped the 20,000 mark. This is despite the fact that the Venetian Macao posted a 10 per cent rise in first-quarter EBITDA and continues to hoover up the city's visitor market... Job cuts and the redrawing of organization charts seem to have become routine at Macau's most profitable gaming concessionaire as it struggles under the weight of a massive debt load.

    "Needless to say, the Venetian Macao is not a happy camp for an expatriate to be in at the moment. Given that locals are protected by divine right to employment in an election year, every Filipino, Nepalese, Malaysian, Singaporean and, yes, American and Australian that walks the floors of LVS's Macau properties can be forgiven their long faces...

    "A black joke doing the rounds yesterday was that all of these cuts could be made without having to go beneath the vice-president level."

    For specialized tastes only, but engagingly done.

  • About corruption, meritocracy, and "fairness" in Chinese life

    A recent "Red-diaper perspective" on Chinese schooling and the nationwide "gaokao" admissions tests said that distortions in Chinese education were related to the nervousness of a Chinese elite that was not sure it could pass its advantages on to its children. Here, from another Chinese reader, is a dissent. Climax of the argument below; full text after the jump.

    The anonymous reader blamed that China gaokao system is brutal.  I got news for him:  The reality in China is brutal.  A population of 1.4 Billion makes any resource and opportunity extremely scarce.  This is why a fair system is so important: if you deny the poor the educational opportunity to climb the social ladder by reserving the precious slots in elite school for those who have, the next thing will be that the poor overthrow the elite class physically, as it happened several times in Chinese history.

    _____

    More »

  • Chinese newspaper discussion of the "creativity" problem

    Is the discussion about whether Chinese schools foster "creativity" and "critical thinking" confined to foreigners, or to Chinese writing in English?

    Apparently not. Today's People's Daily has a big story on the results of the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, just completed in Reno. (The Chinese team, from People's Daily.)
    IntelFair.jpg


    The article notes that mainland China had a large number of entries and won many minor prizes. But it had no real successes -- and the question was why.
     
    Intel2.jpgThe three overall grand-prize winners were all young women from American high schools, shown here. For individual best-in-category prizes -- 18 total according to People's Daily, 19 total according to Intel -- all but one went to American students. That one exception was from Taiwan.

    What's the problem?  The article discussed some obvious barriers -- language, resources -- but quoted a number of Chinese authorities saying that the real problem lay in the way Chinese schools taught people to think for themselves -- or, didn't. Too much emphasis on rote, detail, and following procedures; too little encouragement to reflect about the process of discovery. An analysis very similar to what we originally heard from a foreigner. I do not pretend to be able to follow arguments in the Chinese press with any nuance. I offer this (tipped from a contact at Intel, then labored-through by me) as evidence of a parallel, and obviously authorized, Chinese-language discussion, and as a resource for any Chinese reader who might have missed it.

  • Very interesting flu-quarantine diary

    Will Weissert, an AP correspondent based in Havana, traveled with his wife to China for a wedding -- and ended up spending a week in quarantine. His account of the quarantine, here and with pictures beginning here, is very interesting on the nuts and bolts of how the system works. It's not a complaint, though there are some complaining details. Mainly a chronicle, with details I hadn't seen elsewhere.

    Here is his wife in the quarantine-hotel room, as Chinese officials take notes on her condition.
    Quarantine.jpg

    And here is the intro to his account of how they ended up in this situation:

    My wife and I are in perfect health, but after flying to China for my college friend's wedding we're being quarantined in a remote hotel for seven days. The reason: Our flight from our home in Havana included a layover in Cancun, and China is taking no chances with swine flu.

    Never mind that we were in Cancun for only two hours, that we didn't leave the airport and that Mexican doctors with electronic thermometers checked us for fever on arrival and departure. Never mind that when our Continental Airlines flight from Newark touched down in Shanghai, we and everyone else on board were not allowed to leave our seats until health workers clamored aboard and pointed a blue beam at our foreheads to take our temperatures.

    The Mexican stamps in our passports -- my wife is Chilean, I'm American -- are enough for authorities to pull us out of line at immigration and send us to a medical room where attendants in white lab coats take our temperature yet again and give us surgical masks...

    After 3 1/2 hours, a man in uniform -- speaking by phone with a communist official everyone calls "the leader" -- announces we will be confined to a hotel room for seven days.

    We say we'll simply fly back home. He tells us that isn't possible.

    Worth reading the rest. (Thanks to Daniel Lippman.)

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