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.

James Fallows: The press

  • Iron Dome—Savior, or Sales Job?

    When the fighting is over in Gaza, one of these stories is going to look strange.

    Washington Post front page, July 15, 2014

    In its lead story this morning, the WaPo tells us that Israel's famous "Iron Dome" air defense system has been a huge technical success that has changed the realities of battle. The system, for the record, was developed in Israel, is produced by U.S. and Israeli contractors, and is mainly funded by the United States.

    That's the Post's front page you see above, with details here. Eg:

    “I can’t even explain with words how great it is,” said Sivan Hadad, 32, who has lived her entire life in Ashkelon and had grown accustomed to staying indoors when the rockets started flying. “Now I can go out. I still get scared, but not like before.”

    To Israeli security officials, the success of Iron Dome is akin to that of the separation barrier between Israel and the West Bank, which they say helped bring an end to an onslaught of suicide bombings in the early 2000s.

    The Iron Dome system has rendered rockets so ineffective that Hamas and its allies have, in recent days, been attempting more-creative ways of attacking Israel. 

    Here's why this is interesting. The effectiveness of Iron Dome has been much discussed in the technical press recently, and with a very different emphasis. Five days ago, in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, John Mecklin called Iron Dome "the public relations weapon," because it was always touted during battles for results that did not stand up on later inspection.

    Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, July 10, 2014

     

    A story that same day in Technology Review had a similar skeptical take:

    Technology Review

     

    An NPR segment on July 9 quoted the same technical expert, Ted Postol of MIT, featured in the other stories and was similarly cautionary.

    Part of Ted Postol's exchange with NPR's Robert Siegel:

    POSTOL: We can tell, for sure, from video images and even photographs that the Iron Dome system is not working very well at all. It - my guess is maybe 5 percent of the time - could be even lower.

    SIEGEL: As I understand it, for it to work it actually has to hit an oncoming rocket head on.

    POSTOL: That's correct. And when you look - what you can do in the daytime - you can see the smoky contrail of each Iron Dome interceptor, and you can see the Iron Domes trying to intercept the artillery rockets side on and from behind. In those geometries, the Iron Dome has no chance, for all practical purposes, of destroying the artillery rocket.

    SIEGEL: By way of contrast, when the Israeli Air Force strikes at targets in Gaza, is the weaponry substantially more accurate than these rockets?

    POSTOL: When you're talking about an airstrike from an aircraft, especially with the very, very highly trained pilots Israelis have and, of course, the very advanced equipment that they're using, you're talking about precisions of tens of meters - very, very high precision.

    ***

    Why such a difference in emphasis?

    One possibility is the Post has new information that offsets this raft of skeptical analyses, even though it doesn't mention any of these critiques. If so, that will be very interesting in technical and military terms.

    Another possibility is that when we eventually know what happened in these missile exchanges (and of course I hope no one on either side dies in any further attacks) , this story, and its lead-the-paper play in the Post today, may seem to be another illustration of Mecklin's hypothesis: that militaries hype the performance of high-tech systems during the heat of battle, and by the time the real results are in the press is onto something else. 

    I don't know which is the case, though I will say that there is a very, very long track record of the pattern Mecklin describes. And here is an intriguing journalistic detail that could be either insignificant, or a clue:

    The "Highly Effective Missile Defense" story has the featured, top-of-the-news position in this morning's print paper. Yet a few hours later on the WashingtonPost.com web site, there is no mention of it whatsoever on the home page. No link, no summary, no "see also," no "in other headlines." This is unusual enough—a story that leads the paper being nonexistent on the home page—that I saved a PDF of that page to be sure I wasn't misreading it.

    I called the Post this afternoon to ask if the story's absence from the home page was mere happenstance, or if for some reason the paper was distancing itself from it. The person I was eventually transferred to, a woman on the media relations team, said she understood the question and would get back to me. I'll update this when I hear more.

    Update Someone who asks to be identified as a Washington Post spokesperson sends this reply:

    The story you are referencing (Israel’s ‘Dome’ changes the fight) was featured in the lead position on The Washington Post’s homepage yesterday. The homepage has since been updated with the latest news.

    So perhaps I just didn't see it in time, although I can't help noticing that many other stories from today's print-paper front page are, unlike this one, still featured online. I appreciate the clarification, and we'll see how the Iron Dome story unfolds.

  • Sunday Readings on Media, Sports, and War

    Talk shows aren't bringing on Captain Hazelwood to discuss safe shipping. But they still can't get enough of the Hazelwoods of foreign policy. Also, whether the "New York Times paradox" applies to public radio.  

    Marilyn Monroe statue in Chinese scrapyard. Explanation below. (Reuters)

    A harvest of items worth attention:

    1) Media Decline Watch, public radio edition. Anyone who has spent time in Seattle knows the voice and sensibility of Steve Scher. He has been a long-time urbane host and interviewer on the public radio station KUOW. He has made a place in the public awareness similar to that of Michael Krasny on KQED in San Francisco, or Diane Rehm on WAMU in Washington, or Larry Mantle on KPCC in Southern California, or their mainstay counterparts across the country. I was on the show sometimes, and listened to it frequently, in the years we lived in Seattle.

    This story by David Brewster, himself a stalwart of Seattle journalism, on the regional news site Crosscut is a sobering account of why Scher decided to take himself out of the radio business. You can read the story yourself, but it helps illustrate public radio's version of what I think of as the modern "New York Times paradox."

    The paradox is that digital technology has made the NYT more influential worldwide than it has ever been before, and more than any other single news organization in history. And that same technology has put the Times in terrible economic straits. In the Times's case, I've always assumed that this paradox will be resolved in its favor. It will find a way to convert its global brand into some kind of sustainable business.

    The Scher story is a reminder that there may be a comparable "public radio paradox." In influence, public radio in all its incarnations is more important than ever. (The incarnations include the mother-ship NPR, PRI, APM (host of our American Futures-partner Marketplace), the numerous local stations, some state and regional alliances, and others.)  And yet NPR layoffs and cutbacks are always in the news, and many other parts of the public radio ecosystem are in financial trouble. This paradox will be harder to resolve than the NYT's, for a variety of reasons: because there are so many players, because there are rivalries among some of them, because they're not run as normal businesses, and because their governing structure is more cumbersome than that of a family business. But it's in everyone's interest that they succeed.

     

    2) A walk on the Aussie side, Baffler edition. On first exposure to Australia, many Americans think, "Hey, it's a nicer version of home." In many (pleasant) visits over the years, I've come to think that—both to its credit and not—Australia is a very deeply different place from the United States. In The Baffler, Sarah Burnside, an Aussie, explains some of the reasons why.

     

    3) Oh calm down, Boomer-finances edition. Scare-mongering is one of our national pastimes, in realms from aviation safety ("My plane almost crashed!") to China's rise or budget deficits. In the American Scholar, my friend Lincoln Caplan debunks a fiscal version of scare-talk: the idea that Boomer-era retirement and medical demands will bankrupt us all. Calm down, he says:

    A demographic tool has become an economic one, treating a demographic challenge as both an economic crisis and a basis for pessimism justifying drastic reductions in bedrock government programs, including those supporting children and the poor. Even at state and local levels, the aging boomer demographic is repeatedly blamed for our economic difficulties. That is a lamentable mistake... 

    The dependency ratio does not justify the solutions that the alarmists propose. Just as important, perhaps, it fails to account for the striking benefits accruing from the dramatic increase in life expectancy in the United States during the 20th century—what the MacArthur Foundation’s Research Network on an Aging Society called “one of the greatest cultural and scientific advances in our history.”

     

    4) Seriously, why are we still hearing from Cheney, Kristol, et al? After the Exxon Valdez, cable news wasn't bringing us Captain Hazelwood as expert commentator on maritime safety. After the next big air disaster, we're not going have the Malaysian aviation authorities on to offer advice. But when it comes to foreign policy, the analysts who have always been wrong and the officials who put wrong policy into effect keep commanding air time. Today, incredibly, ABC gave Dick Cheney an extended platform on This Week with more deferential questioning than Megyn Kelly had applied on Fox News.  

    Why? Why? If TV is not serving up Hazelwood or the Malaysian savants, or O.J. on managing a post-sports career, why are they bringing us Kristol and Cheney? In Foreign Policy, Stephen Walt offers not excuses but diagnostic-style explanations. You can see them here

     

    5) Sports news, throwing department. For background on the "Throwing Like a Girl" concept, please see this original article and follow-ups like this and this.

    The last of these links takes you to a slo-mo video of the Giants' Tim Lincecum throwing. Tim Heffernan suggests points to an incredible GIF of the Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw and says we need a new category, "throwing like a machine." I can't embed it, but you can see it here

     

    6) OK, what about Marilyn Monroe? My friend Adam Minter, author of Junkyard Planet, says that the standard outside reaction to photos of the statue in a Chinese scrap yard, has been some variation on: Oh, those wacky Chinese! To the contrary, Adam says. He explains why here.

  • Everything Old Is New Again, and Vice Versa: The Predicament of the Press

    Two in-the-moment writers wrestle with two for-the-ages questions.

    Detail from illustration of 19th-century Grub Street, showing the natural condition of journalism. ( Wikipedia )

    For as long as there have been readers, writers, and publishers, and even before people may have used those terms or the word "journalism," the business of providing information about the world has wrestled with two big, related questions. They are the questions that in 2014 go by the names "monetization" and "traffic."

    The monetization question: How do people who gather information, assess and analyze it, present and illustrate it, and make it available to the public pay their bills? How do they rent and heat the offices where they work, buy the printing presses (old) or servers (new) they need to get their product out, pay for their own food and clothes and medical expenses? In general, how does an information system match its output—"news" in all senses—with revenue that lets it pay for necessary inputs of every sort.

    The traffic question: How does a news organization set, re-set, and adjust every day the balance between sizzle and steak, between glitter and grist, between what's fun to know and what's important to know? News has to always be both and can't ever be just one. If it's just froth and eye-candy, it's not news but entertainment. If it's just worthy lectures, it's boring and goes unseen. Professors can make students read their books. Reporters and editors can't. Thus everything in our business is, and must be, up for constant re-assessment and change. 

    The questions are related: solving the traffic issue can help solve the monetization problem. And they're different: a rich owner, or a non-profit organization, may decide to monetize something despite low traffic. Beyond these two is the real question of journalism: what we now call the "content" issue, of how you discern and explain what's important and true.

    Four years ago in the magazine I did a story about how that era's Internet was changing our business. ("How to Save the News.") Three years ago I did a followup on how things looked as of 2011. ("Learning to Love the [Shallow, Divisive, Unreliable] New Media.")

    As for the 2014 version of the eternal questions, let me recommend two recent essays in the consistently interesting LadyBits collection of Medium. LadyBits itself is about to close down move away from Medium, a year after it began—which illustrates the problem these essays describe. But please check them out in detail.

    • "Your Newfangled Media Algorithms Are Bullshit," by Erin Biba. Yes they are. Just as it would have been bullshit a generation ago to say that TV Guide was 20 times better than The New Yorker because it had 20 times more subscribers.  Sample of Biba's approach to the eternal monetization/traffic questions:

    [W]hile I’m all in favor of this new world of media startups, where truly well-intentioned people are trying to figure out how the heck to make money from journalism on the Internet, I just need to step up right now and call bullshit on pretty much all the algorithms. Cause you guys just aren’t understanding the importance of a good writer.

    • "LadyBits' First and Last Year on Medium," an envoi by its founder and editor, Arikia Millikan. Sample:

    It would be comforting to believe that we live in a world where quality content chosen by experienced editors and authored by talented people will get more clicks than celebrity gossip, fear-mongering headlines, and snake oil salesmen peddling the next generation of tech bubble pyramid schemes. But that’s almost never the case.... 

    Medium stopped curating a universal homepage where people browsing Medium.com would be exposed to the best writing on the site. That meant that the people who were coming across LadyBits content because it was good, who wouldn’t normally have been exposed because they weren’t searching for feminist tech perspectives, weren’t finding us. Our traffic fell by about 50%, as did our income.

    Naturally any comments like these from writers come across as special pleading. "We're doing great work. You should love us more!" But whether that's part of these writers' tone, or mine, these essays are raising today's version of the contradictions every one of our predecessors has wrestled with. We'll figure out some balance now, and then it will all change once again. 

  • Telling the Difference Between Danger and Fear

    Bathtubs should be 365 times more frightening than sharks. So why aren't they?

    A shark alleged to have attacked four people in Egypt. He was an exception that supports an unfortunate anti-shark stereotype. (Reuters)

    A few days ago I pointed out that yet another popular news item had described how frightened an airline passenger was, about a situation that was objectively not dangerous at all."Yet another" because stories like this -- there we were, about to die! -- are journalistic staples, now as much as ever. (Two examples from the NYT, here and here.)

    In part this reflects the bone-deep suspicion that people shouldn't be sitting and reading in a tube 30,000 feet above the ground. In part, it's the famous human difficulty of distinguishing things we're scared of from things that really threaten us. On average, one American dies each day in a bathtub accident -- and one American dies each year from a shark attack. Bathtubs should be 365 times as frightening as sharks, but it's the reverse. We don't have "Bathtub Week" on the Discovery Channel.

    David Ryan, who under his previous pseudonym Tony Comstock was a guest blogger here, talks about this fear-versus-danger confusion, as it shows up in his work as a charter-boat captain. After reading about airplanes that (allegedly) came within "scraping distance" of each other (actually 5+ miles), Ryan wrote:

    We use an AIS (Automatic Identification System) transponder for identification of nearby traffic and collision avoidance. Here's my "scraping distance" story. [And a recent photo of his craft, crew, and passengers en route.]

    In May of 2010 after 13 days at sea, during which time we rarely saw more than one vessel a day, on AIS or visually, we found ourselves just south of the Nantucket traffic separation zone (shipping lane) running east and west out of New York Harbor. Now, rather than one or no targets of interest, we had a dozen vessels, some very large and moving very fast, to keep on eye on.

    It was dusk and the light was fading when we ID'd a west-bound freighter on a course that would make a close pass with us as we headed north towards Montauk. 

    This is what we did:

    Using the AIS we ascertained the vessel's name, course, and speed.

    Using our VHF radio we made contact with the bridge of the other vessel and inquired whether or not they could see us. The replied they had us on radar, AIS, and visually.

    I communicated our concern that our courses might bring us closer than comfortable. Being a sailing vessel, we were the stand-on vessel, but the Law of Gross Tonnage ultimately rules. We asked the freighter if he would like us to adjust our course to ensure we took his stern.

    The freighter replied that we should stand-on and he would increase his speed to pass in front of us well before we were anywhere near each other.

    We thanked him, stood by on #16 and then watch the freighter pick up it's pace and pass in front of us about three miles ahead.

    The entire encounter was, for us, tense. We wanted to be sure there were no misunderstandings, or if there were, that we would be ready to respond sufficiently to get out the way of the much larger vessel.

    The next day I was in the front passenger seat of our family minivan taking crew to various airports and train stations so they could find their way home and I was TERRIFIED!!!

    Just 12 hours earlier I had been in a tense situation where my boat was going about 5kts, the other vessel was going about 20kts, and the distance between us was measured in 1000s of yards.

    Now I was barreling down the highway, at closings speeds in excess of 100 miles per hour, sometimes with mere inches to spare. In other words, we were driving down a two land country highway at 55mph with on coming traffic. I resolved my terror by closing my eyes and going to sleep.

    In case my point is not clear, we are more comfortable with familiar sensations and risks than unfamiliar ones. Two weeks on a nearly empty ocean made the shipping lanes seem like rush hour traffic, and the "rush-hour" traffic of the shipping lanes made a drive down a country highway pure terror (I really did close my eyes and go to sleep because I couldn't just sit there flinching in horror every time we closed with another car). No doubt the  author of "I almost died" felt as scared during the plane's descent as I did as we barreled down Route 27 at 10am. The fear is real. The danger not so much. 

    We all know what he means. For me, it's the contrast I feel at the end of every trip in my small airplane. Over the previous few hours, I've been in the middle of an activity that is objectively dangerous -- but from which I could safely turn my attention for 30 seconds at a time to look at a chart or check the weather, except during the couple of minutes of approach and landing. (Or on an instrument procedure, or inside the clouds, or on takeoff, or in other "high-workload" phases of a flight.) Then when I get in the car to drive home, other vehicles are whizzing past me with very small clearance, and if anyone stops paying attention for even a few seconds, the results can be dire. Yet we all treat this as routine.

    Main lesson for writers and editors: If you want to talk about an experience that was frightening, talk about how scared you were. That's real. Not about how close you came to dying, because that probably had no relationship with how you felt.  

  • Why the Latest Air-Scare Shows How Safe Airline Travel Is, Not How Dangerous

    The flying world's counterpart to your car's airbag and anti-skid brakes.

    Yesterday I mentioned a widely circulated web account from an author who felt he had narrowly avoided being part of what would have been history's worst airline disaster. Indeed, that was the headline on Kevin Townsend's post on Medium: "Two Weeks Ago I Almost Died in the Deadliest Plane Crash Ever."

    While the episodea sudden if brief descent by a United air crew over the Pacific, to be sure it stayed out of the path of another planemight well have been frightening, the hundreds of passengers on the two planes never faced any danger of a mid-air crash. The quick descent indicated the safety of today's air-travel system, not its brink-of-disaster shoddiness.

    Think of the analogy of car airbags. When an airbag goes off in a car, I am sure it scares the bejeezus out of anyone on board (I've never experienced it), plus possibly bruising them and, for infants in the front seat, doing real damage. But that detonation, frightening as it is, is part of a system that has made car travel safer rather than more dangerous. Something similar is true with anti-skid braking systems—they can frighten you, but they help protect you. And the same goes for today's aircraft collision-avoidance technology.

    I mention this to introduce a note I have gotten from someone with first-hand experience with "TCAS," the automatic collision-avoidance system that ordered the descent on Kevin Townsend's flight:

    I work in the aviation industry as an engineer, and have gotten more and more familiar with FAA requirements for aircraft design. I wish the flying public understood how precisely-engineered each piece of critical avionics must be in order to satisfy FAA regulations for a "safety of life" application

    TCAS -- and its successor,TCAS-II -- is one such piece of avionics hardware. By all accounts in the Townsend post, TCAS did its job in resolving airspace issues between what is known in FAA jargon as two cooperative aircraft. And the pilots did what they were supposed to do in taking the correct action.

    It is vital that pilots trust their instruments because the avionics driving those instruments (and their design requirements) are engineered with that in mind.

    Believe me, I know. I've spent the bulk of my career designing, writing software for, and testing the integration of, avionics. If TCAS says "go up", there are thousands of hours of engineering behind that system making sure that "up" is the right decision.


    Let me clarify, too, that I am not picking a fight with Kevin Townsend, with whom I've had a pleasant and mutually respectful exchange of messages. He wrote a post on a genuinely frightening experience withoutas he has pointed out to me in emailthe benefit of subsequent info on how far apart the planes had actually been (at least five miles, probably eight) or other technical analyses of what was going on.

    I thought the original headline on his item was an enormous reach ("I almost died"), plus the idea that the planes were in "scraping distance" of each other. But, as he has also pointed out to me, if he had foreseen how widely this would be picked up in "peril in the skies" coverage, he would have been more statesmanlike in telling the story. (Plus, he is doing the Lord's work on the filibuster.) This is very different from a flat-out fake air-peril story last year in the NYT Magazine, and another over-hyped one in the same paper.

    Why am I going back to this story? The immediate reason is because Townsend's account has generated another flood of email from newly re-frightened fliers. The larger point is one that Patrick Smith has often emphasized at Ask the Pilot. Something deep and primal in human beings, namely the fear of unnaturally being up in the air, easily spills over into something with no rational basis behind it: namely, the belief that airline travel is riskier than normal life, when it fact it is vastly safer than driving, biking, or walking across the street.


    Update: Mark Bernstein, chief scientist of Eastgate software (and one-time guest blogger here), writes about an unforgettable part of Kevin Townsend's account. That was during the zero-G descent when he was "weightless and staring downhill at the thirty-some rows of passengers ahead of me." Bernstein writes:

    ….back of the envelope suggests that a zero-g descent gets you down 600' in just about 6 sec.  And I expect that one would not pull negative G's in a passenger flight, especially without warning, given any alternative. Surely the writer would have remarked on the experience of negative G's with stuff (and people) flying everywhere.  So that's a boundary. 

    In fact, I believe we get to the normal descent rate, 1800'/min, with a second of zero g. 

    The point here, again, is not to nit-pick the original account but to underscore the difference between subjective experience of frightening events, and the objective reality of what is going on.

    A month or two ago, I was flying into a small airport in the South when, at about 500 feet up on the final approach for landing, there was a very strong wind gust from the right. At the time I "felt," and actually told another pilot I saw after I'd landed, that the gust had "almost upended" the plane. I'm sure if there had been a film it would shown nothing remotely close to that. Probably at most a momentary 45-degree bank to the left, which I'd offset within a second or two. So it is with anything involving the unnatural act of human beings up in the air: our senses tell us one thing, and our minds (when they can act calmly) tell us something else. The calm-mind view of air travel underscores its safety, whatever else our senses may tell us.

  • The China Story You Should Pay Attention to, and the One You Should Ignore

    Skip past anything that talks about a coming dawn of the Chinese Century. Go straight to stories on the complications of China in the here-and-now.

    The New Number 1? Actually, no. ( Wikimedia commons )

    First, the China stories you should skip. Using up my once-per-lifetime pass for such activity, I am about to show a screenshot of a tweet that I myself put out two days ago. 

    The backstory here is the newly released result of a big, years-long, international (UN) effort to calculate price levels around the worldand thus to improve the "Purchasing Power Parity" figures for comparing spending power in different countries. Simplest example: a few years ago, 1 U.S. dollar was officially worth about 8 Chinese yuan renminbi, or RMB. That rate is not set on an open market like, say, dollar-euro rates, but instead is carefully "managed" by the Chinese government. But if average prices in China were only half as high as in the U.S., then on a PPP basis the Chinese economy would be twice as large as the official exchange rate made it seem, since the RMB would go twice as far in buying things.

    The newest results show (to oversimplify) that effective Chinese prices have been even lower than assumed, and therefore the purchasing power of Chinese RMB has been even greater. After these adjustments, the overall Chinese economy is deemed to be about 20 percent larger than previously believedand therefore either it already has, or it very soon will, "overtake" the United States to become, in PPP terms, the world's biggest economy.

    Thus silly (over)reactions like this, from The Economist:

    Just for the record, my initials are the same, but the "J.M.F." listed as one of the authors is not me. And this from Bloomberg View:

    Headlines and reactions like these are ridiculous, as I'm sure both publications are aware and as each of the articles concedes further down in the stories. Compared with one week ago, when China's economy was much "smaller" than America's, nothing economic has changed in either China or the United States. With these new figures, we may have a closer approximation of how circumstances for China's recently urbanized hundreds-of-millions compare with others around the globe. But the differences not captured by such figuresfreedom to or restrictions on travel within a country, who can and cannot go to school, the still-unfolding enormous effects of mass urbanization, the nature and availability of health-care systems, above all the country's environmental catastropheare also part of any serious attempt to understand how "rich" or "poor" China is. 

    Rather than belabor that point, let me turn you to an excellent ongoing discussion at ChinaFilewhose reaction could not be more different from agog headlines about a new Chinese Century. For instance, this  installment from Arthur Kroeber, who has been on-scene in China for many years and understands how little such statistics signify:

    ...this is a “who cares?” moment. It has been obvious for quite some time that China would soon overtake the U.S. in sheer economic size. If one doesn’t accept the current PPP conversion rate then just wait five or ten years and China will be bigger at market exchange rates. But basically, all that this shift tells us is that China has way more people than the U.S.— 4.2 times as many, to be exact. So, as soon as China stopped being fantastically poorer (per capita) than the U.S., and became simply a lot poorer, its total economy surpassed that of the U.S. (And still lags that of the European Union, which is arguably the world’s biggest economy, if one takes economic integration rather than political boundaries as the criterion.) Big deal....

    Fundamentally Damien [Ma] is right that this “who’s on top?” discussion misses all that is truly interesting, namely how China and other countries manage social tensions, income distribution and other problems arising from high speed economic growth. Because of its sheer bulk, China is indeed wealthy and poor at the same time, and the responses to that paradox are a far more fascinating target of study than the mere size of the economy.

    There is a lot more nuance in that ChinaFile discussion, which I highly recommend. As a handy guide the next time you see some pie-eyed headline about the PPP:

    • As a matter of individual or family welfare, this is a reminder of how much poorer the average Chinese person remains than the average North American or European.
    • Also on the individual or family basis, the average Chinese person is actually further behind than these figures suggest, because (as Arthur Kroeber points out) so much less of the nation's total output goes to individual consumption relative to Europe or North America, and so much more to infrastructure or export.
    • Still for individuals and families, if there were any PPP-style adjustment for environmental costsepidemic deaths especially in Northern China from air pollution, the emergence of "cancer villages," increased rates of birth defects, destruction of fisheries and arable landChina's wealth would be much more heavily discounted than that of other large economies.
    • And if we're considering the national scale, as implied by loose talk of the Chinese Century, then the largest measures of national influence and potential come into play. From universities to global corporations to "soft power" to, of course, the military. No sane person contends that we are anywhere close to the "Chinese Century" in this senseas Arthur Kroeber and others say in today's discussion, and as I argued at length in China Airborne.  
    • Plus the ongoing mystery of which statistics out of China can and cannot be believed, and when and why.

    China is a big, fascinating, fast-moving society that I learn from practically every day, whose continuing rise has done much more good than harm, and that I do my best to interest outsiders in. But Economist and Bloombergcome on.


    Next, a China story you should read. Over the months I've written about allegations that the Bloomberg journalistic empire has defanged its coverage of China (especially corruption stories), to avoid jeopardizing its terminal-and-data business there. Some previous items here, here, here

    No one at Bloomberg has ever agreed to respond on the record to these contentions. The only official reaction I have ever received, via spokesman Ty Trippet (with whom I've talked before or after each installment and again just now), is that the company "has no comment." Over the months I have heard from a very large number of current and former Bloomberg employees, most of whom have been very concerned that I not identify them, their geographical locations, or their exact roles in any traceable way.

    Now Howard French—a veteran international correspondent, long with the NYT and now at Columbia Journalism School, my friend and colleague first in Japan and then in China, author of an Atlantic article on and now a great new book about China in Africa—has a much fuller account of the Bloomberg-and-China story in the CJR. It is definitely worth reading. 

    At the end of his story, French does get a reaction beyond "no comment" from Matthew Winkler, Bloomberg's editor in chief and a man whom French reports to be in the middle of the China-coverage controversies:

    Several days after our initial email exchange, Winkler, the editor in chief, wrote back to provide his sole quote for this account. “I’m proud of our reporting and our work speaks for itself,” it read. 

    Asked via email if that applied to the now apparently dead second investigative take on high-level corruption in China, Winkler replied, “The statement covers our work.” 

    Here is the problem Bloomberg is creating for itself by refusing to engage in discussion of this issue. The company is full of first-rate reporters and editors, including a lot of people who are my long-time friends. It is one of the great news organizations of the era. In China as everywhere else it has very good people doing very good work. 

    But: over a long period now, named individuals have made specific and very serious allegations about the organization's trustworthiness on a crucially important ongoing story of these times. Think for a moment of any other institution facing comparably specific questions about its decisions and values: a politician about conflicts of interest, a company about product recalls, a university about controversies over athletics or sexual assault, a tech company about protecting privacy or handling government pressures. In any of these situations, Bloomberg's tough reporters would be among the first pushing for specific answers, beyond "no comment" or "our work speaks for itself."

    It is long past time for someone senior at Bloombergthe former mayor himself, editor-in-chief Winkler, chairman Peter Grauer, or anyone else in a position to speak for the firmto do what Bloomberg reporters would expect of other institutions, and accept questions and give answers about the allegations that have mounted up. 

    Previous post                                                                   Next post

  • Bad News, Good Headline

    The importance of one verb and one noun

    On the New York Times site just now:

    What is very good, and accurate, about this headline: the verb "blocks" and the noun "filibuster."

    On why those two words are important—in contrast, say, to the word "fails" in the headline below from the same paper (and same reporter) in similar circumstances less than three months ago—see this compendium of items on reporters' and editors' discomfort in using the plain word "filibuster" to describe what is going on.  

     

    Poorly done, Senate Republicans; nicely done, NYT.

    Update: The headline on today's story was better than the article itself, whose second paragraph read as follows:

    The vote was 54 to 42, with 60 votes needed to advance the measure.

    For "advance the measure" read "break a threatened filibuster."

    Previous post                                                                Next post

  • I've Got the Next Great Story Lead for CNN

    Maybe a former finance minister of an African nation was also on the flight?

    Black hole? Bermuda Triangle? Now another possibility for Team CNN. ( Mediaite )

    If you're anything like me, you're already worried about how CNN will keep going, once even they recognize that there is no conceivable extra angle to wring out of the sad mystery of MH370. What new questions will Don Lemon have for his daily six-expert panel of analysts? What will those panelists do with their evenings? What will "breaking news" and "developing story" refer to at the bottom of CNN's screens? This air disaster really is sad, and it really is mysterious, but even the saddest, most puzzling, and most dramatic sagas eventually drift from the center of attention.  (For instance: the 1980s "dingo baby" tragedy in Australia. Now there was a dramatic and mysterious story, and while it gave rise to many good books plus one of Meryl Streep's Oscar nominations, nowadays entire years can go by without it being mentioned on the news.)

    Therefore I perked up when I saw this item in the morning's mailbag. I pass it on gratis to CNN's bookers and producers. It's from a very nice-sounding young woman in China, and I see lots of possibilities for CNN here.

    Dear new friend,

    I am a Chinese, 20 years old girl and will like to need your advice over my parents’ property. My father is Chinese as well as my mother. They own two big businesses, one is an electronics warehouse in China and another one is a garment factory in Cambodia. 

    Recently, my parents are still missing in Malaysian airplane because they were flying back to Beijing to celebrate their 28thanniversary of marriage. 

    Now I am studying business management in Cambodia and I hope I will be helping my father’s business after my studies. But after hearing this big shock for me about the missing airplane so I want to sell my father’s garment factory in Cambodia. Because of instability in garment business in Cambodia, I decided to sell this factory $23,000,000.00 but the government agreed to pay me US$17,000,000.00 out of money after deducting salaries for factory workers, environmental damages and other costs. 

    I really need a guardian to help me to manage this big amount of money and the warehouse in China as I am just a university student. I want to move out of this country and start refresh in a new country with you. Please reply me back out of pity on me and help. 

    After I receive your caring and supportive reply, we will talk more in details to make things work faster for both of us. 

    Sincerely, 

    I'm looking forward to hearing the panelists's views—or a one-on-one with Richard Quest, as the bereaved young lady guides him on a tour of her family's factory in Cambodia. Her contact details available if you ask.

    ___

    To answer the obvious question: If I think this coverage is so nutty, why do I watch it? I don't really. But several times per day I want to click over to CNN to make sure they're still on the story. And they still are!

    Previous post                                                          Next post

  • Michael Janeway and The Atlantic

    A man who played a large role in shaping the magazine you see today.

    I was sorrier than I can say to have learned today that Michael Janeway, a friend who influenced many journalistic institutions but probably most of all The Atlantic, had died of cancer.

    The Boston Globe, where Mike held a sequence of editing roles including that of editor in chief, ran a wonderful appreciation by Joseph Kahn, which is true to the range of achievements and complexities in his life and career. I mention it both in hopes that you'll read Kahn's article and as an excuse to offer a screen shot of the Globe photo by Stan Grossfeld that accompanied the obit, which is of Michael Janeway in his mid-40s and captures him at his sunniest.


      


    Mike Janeway is known in journalism for a series of influential roles: at the Globe, where he fostered talent and invented or revitalized sections before a stormy period as head editor; then as a book editor at Houghton Mifflin; then as dean of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern, where he foresaw and discussed many of the trends all of journalism is now coping with; then as a professor at Columbia Journalism School; and as an author, including of a history-memoir of the New Deal-and-afterwards policy intelligentsia.

    This last (The Fall of the House of Roosevelt) was cast as memoir because Mike's parents, the economist Eliot Janeway and the novelist Elizabeth Janeway, were in the middle of this group, and Mike grew up hearing stories about them and meeting luminaries around the house. It also turned on Mike's difficult relationship with his then-quite famous father, as you can see from the book itself or via Michael Beschloss's fine review in the NYTBR. Among the Janeways' New Deal contacts had been the rising Congressman Lyndon Johnson. As a teenager Mike had a summer job working on Capitol Hill for Senator Johnson, and he remained deeply interested in the grandeur and the tragedy of the ultimate Johnson saga: the ambitions for a Great Society and a "we shall overcome!" civil-rights movement, the disaster of Vietnam. The circle of people grappling with the contradictions of Johnson -- of whom Robert Caro is best known now but that also includes Billy Lee Brammer, Bill Moyers, Doris Kearns Goodwin, James C. Thomson, Harry McPherson -- very much included Mike Janeway.

    That's the journalism world in general. His influence on the Atlantic specifically was profound. In 1967, five years out of college, he joined the magazine as a staff editor. Robert Manning had just become editor and was shifting the magazine toward coverage of the great upheavals of that time -- race relations, wealth and poverty, Vietnam, all the rest. On their watch the magazine published probably the best real-time assessment of what was going wrong in Vietnam, James C. Thomson's "How Could Vietnam Happen? An Autopsy" -- and a long sequence of other journalism that stands up nearly two generations later. In 1968, when Mike was 28, he and Manning co-edited an influential book of writing about Vietnam, called Who We Are. The magazine you see today is an extension of what Manning, Janeway, Richard Todd, Louise Desaulniers, Michael Curtis, and others (including Elizabeth Drew, the Washington correspondent) created in those years.

    I was in college then, and I would rush out to the newsstand -- yes, that's how it worked in those days -- to get the new issues of The Atlantic, and Harper's, and the nascent Rolling Stone.I barely dared imagine then that I could eventually write for one of these publications, and that I managed to write for the Atlantic is due to Mike Janeway.

    After I heard the news about Mike today, I stopped to reflect that a small group of people (outside my family) gave me crucial opportunities, support, and direction at important early moments in my path. One, perhaps improbably, was Ralph Nader, under whose auspices and at whose prodding I ended up writing two books very soon after leaving college. Another was, of course, Charles Peters, whose role in training generation after generation of reporters and writers at The Washington Monthly is well-known at least within the business.

    Another was Michael Janeway. After I had finished my Washington Monthly stint and was trying to get a start as a free-lancer based in Texas,he entertained one proposal for an Atlantic story. After he nursed me through that one, there was another, and another. Years later, when he was at Houghton Mifflin and I had run into trouble with a different publisher with my idea for a book, he took it over and guided it to what I found a very satisfying conclusion. (This was More Like Us.) When he was dean at Medill-Northwestern, he invited me to give a speech that became the outline and impetus for my book Breaking the News. All of this doesn't matter to anyone else, but it mattered a lot to me, and his example (plus others') is in my mind as I think about dealing with people now trying to get a start. 

    As Joseph Kahn's excellent Globe story conveys, Michael Janeway was not always an easy-going man -- toward others, or on himself. I am glad for the reports that he became more contented in his latest years. I am sorry that I did not think to tell him directly how much he had meant to his profession, and to this magazine, and to me, but I wanted to say it to his family members now.

    Previous post                                                                     Next post

  • Today's 777s-in-Peril Update: Asiana 214, MH 370

    Lawyers offer their contention of why a pilot is not to blame for one accident. A former NTSB investigator directs blame at the pilot in another.

    How a plane looks just before touchdown into a strong crosswind. This is hard. The Asiana landing at SFO should have been easy. ( YouTube )

    1) Asiana 214. If you'd like to see professional pilots landing big airplanes, under difficult circumstances, with hundreds of lives at stake, watch any 20-second portion of this video below, taken at Dusseldorf airport during a very strong crosswind. Even the first 15 seconds will give you the idea. Or the elegant maneuver by an Air Berlin crew from 1:40 to 1:55.

    What you'll see in all cases are pilots executing the familiar "crab-into-kick" procedure for crosswind landings. First the plane "crabs" -- it approaches at an angle, to keep its direction of flight aligned with the runway. Then, just as the plane is about to touch down, the pilot "kicks" the rudder to align the airplane itself with the runway. That allows the plane to land without putting impossible cross-stress loads on the landing gear.

    Some of the landings in this clip are more precise than others, and some of that variation is beyond the pilots' control, depending on last-minute gusts and shifts in wind. But all of them show the proficiency expected of professional flight crews. 

    Watch a little of that, including artful landings of Boeing 777s, and then consider the claim from Asiana airlines' lawyers, as reported yesterday in the NYT, that autopilot software was somehow to blame for the crash of an Asiana 777 at SFO last year.

    Remember that this crash -- which killed three people, injured many more, destroyed the airplane, and shut down the airport for a time -- happened on a clear day, with light winds, in what would be considered the very most benign flying conditions. Remember that according to cockpit recordings, other members of the flight crew were warning the captain that he was mis-flying the approach and letting the plane get too "low and slow." And consider that in the two decades of the 777's operation, with many hundreds of thousands of landings worldwide by the more than 1000-strong airplane fleet, there appear to have been zero reported incidents of autopilots causing the plane to land short of the runway. You can read a 777 accident/incident list here. The one other episode involving auto-throttles and landing problems, in 2008, was traced to ice that obstructed the fuel system and kept the engines from responding properly. This was not a factor for the Asiana at SFO.

    Of course we shouldn't prejudge the legal process. And if you were a lawyer for Asiana, you'd probably try to push this "the autopilot made me do it" argument too. But, c'mon.

    [For the record, I am an admirer of NYT reporter Matthew Wald, but -- as he knows -- I disagree with the implication of the lead of his story. It was this, with emphasis added:

    While the world has been fixated on the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, the Korean carrier involved in the crash of a different Boeing 777, the Asiana flight into San Francisco last July, raised design issues on Monday that put another question mark over the model of jetliner.

    The Asiana and Malaysia episodes have absolutely nothing in common, and from my perspective nothing in the Asiana lawyers' filing "puts another question mark" over one of the world's most widely used and best-safety-record airplanes. To me, this connection is like saying that a car-jacking put "another question mark" over a certain model of car, if that car had also experienced carburetor problems.]

    2) Malaysia 370. No theory of the plane's disappearance makes sense. But I've mentioned several times that I thought the "Chris Goodfellow scenario" required few logical leaps than most. Goodfellow, a Canadian who now lives in Florida, has hypothesized the following sequence: a sudden inflight emergency, followed by a turn back toward airports in Malaysia, followed by a still-unexplained incapacitation of the crew, and a still-unexplained flight out over the ocean.

    If you would like to see an argued-out (rather than merely speculative) version of a contrary hypothesis, check out this on Leeham News and Comment. The item is based on an interview with Greg Feith, a former NTSB investigator, who argues (a) that the wreckage might well never be found, and (b) that the most likely scenarios, in his view, involve one of the pilots deliberately bringing the plane down. Sample:

    Feith believes there will be several plausible theories that all will point to a deliberate act by someone with intimate knowledge of flying the Boeing 777, most likely one of the pilots.

    Too many deliberate actions maneuvering the airplane and turning off communications systems occurred to have any plausible mechanical failure explanation. He completely discounts theories that a fire, either in the electronics bay or involving lithium-ion batteries being transported in a cargo bay, disabled the airplane.

    He also discounts a theory that there was a depressurization that incapacitated the pilots and allowed the 777 to meander over the skies of the Gulf of Thailand, Malaysia and the Strait of Malacca before turning south 3,000 miles over the Indian Ocean before running out of fuel.

    No one knows what happened, and it's possible that we may never, or not for a very long time, get conclusive evidence one way or another. But this article is worth considering as a strong counter to the inflight-emergency view.

    Previous post

  • Where to Get Your Next Fix of MH370 News

    Chris Goodfellow, who has offered the so-far least-unlikely explanation of what happened, does a 90-minute Q&A.

    Evolving search areas for Malaysia Air 370. ( via VOA )

    Executive summary of what you'll find below: If you're looking for more discussion of MH370, please swap the first 90-minutes of this "Google Plus Week" (embed below) for the next 90 minutes you would spend with cable news. It features the person who came up with the at-the-moment-least-implausible explanation of what happened, and its BS/insanity quotient is practically nil, in stark contrast to the normal cable level.

    Now the details.


    Yesterday I was on CNN's Reliable Sourceswith Brian Stelter (and Poynter's Andrew Beaujon), talking about the way CNN, in particular, has decided to go wall-to-wall in covering the missing airplane. Stelter pointed out that when CNN dealt with MH370, its ratings went up; when it didn't, the ratings went down. Therefore the network had quite rationally decided to make itself into the Missing Plane Channel for the foreseeable future, much as it became the Gulf War Channel in the early 1990s, in the period that first established its worldwide role.

    I replied: I understand this business logic, which fits the reality of the modern highly diversified news ecology. If you want to find out, right now, what's up with sports, or weather, or the stock market, or political trends, you know where to go. If you want to find out about the MH370 search, you know you can go to CNN.

    But my main complaint was that CNN had been so undiscriminating in filling these hours with nutso speculation -- black holes, "radar shadow," attack on Israel -- right alongside people who kept their discussion within the realm of the plausible. It's one thing to say that almost nothing is known about what happened with the plane. It's something else to have people gas on about things with no evidence to support them and with strong common-sense obstacles to being true.

    Political analogy: no one knows who will be elected president in 2016. But if we treated electoral handicapping the way cable news has often treated MH370, we'd have panelists speculating how Megyn Kelly might do against Stephen Colbert in the crucial swing states. ("Kelly will help the Republicans with the youth vote, and women, without in any way depressing interest from their traditional base of older white men. But Colbert, who is from South Carolina, could open new possibilities...") After all, you can't prove they won't be the nominees.

    Which brings us to Chris Goodfellow. Nearly three weeks ago, when most discussion concerned hijacking or pilot criminality, he offered on Google+ a different MH370 hypothesis. In essence it was: that some mid-flight emergency (probably a fire) had broken out on the plane; that the pilots had immediately turned back toward the nearest big airport, which was on an island off Malaysia; that for some still-unknown reason they had become incapacitated or disabled; that also for unknown reasons, possibly fire that disabled their radios, they had not been able to communicate; and that the plane, on autopilot, had flown on until it either ran out of fuel or crashed for another reason.

    Soon thereafter, I wrote that this was the first hypothesis that made face-value sense to me. Maybe things didn't play out this way --  but this scenario started out with the Occam's Razor advantage of requiring fewer assumptions or suspensions of probability than others.

    An item in Slate immediately and with great certainty declared that Goodfellow's scenario could not be true. Its author, Jeff Wise, became a regular on CNN making that same point -- and meanwhile promoting the hypothesis that the plane had landed in Central Asia. Eg, "the 777 is capable of landing on small airstrips and on relatively unimproved surfaces, such as packed dirt and dry lake beds. In such a scenario, the odds are good that, unless they were murdered, the passengers remain alive." (Also here. For the record, in his original anti-Goodfellow item Wise included me among people who he thought had been taken in by Goodfellow. He knows that I disagree with him.)

    This weekend Chris Goodfellow did a Q-and-A session on the "Google Plus Week" channel on YouTube. The next time you're looking for 90 minutes' worth of discussion of what could have happened, what we know and don't, and why the plane's reported cargo of lithium ion batteries deserves attention, I'd recommend this over any comparable time with cable news.

    It could turn out that Goodfellow's view is entirely wrong, but his pattern of thinking about the puzzle is systematic and worth hearing.

    Previous post

  • Bloomberg in China: It's Not About the Terminals, It's About the Data

    Either way, there's a tension with the company's journalistic operations.

    Bloomberg Terminal ( Museum of American Finance )

    In an item yesterday about the latest Bloomberg-in-China flap, I quoted a note I'd received late last year from someone inside the company:

    Outsiders think the worst explanation for this controversy is that it's concerned about selling terminals within China. It's bigger than that. Really it's about continuing sales all around the world, if Bloomberg can't promise having the fastest inside info from China.

    Just now this note arrived, in the same vein:

    I don't work for Bloomberg.  But I do work for a competitor.

    The primary reason for the suppressing China investigating reporting is not about terminals.  It is about DATA.

    Bloomberg terminals are clunky and old, but what makes the terminals valuable is the timeliness of information and data that the terminal delivers.

    The data part is the most important asset for financial professionals that use Bloomberg terminals.

    Bloomberg is afraid of being shut out of access to economic indicators and statistics for China.  Granted this information/data as of today is unreliable and sketchy, but as China is forced to become more transparent (i.e. globalization of the yuan as a currency) it is going to have to provide more transparency on economic/financial indicators and statistics.  

    Bloomberg pulling back is not primarily because of terminal sales, although this is important,  but access to financial information.

    For the record: I've asked for on-the-record responses from Bloomberg spokespeople or officials; the one person I have heard back from said that the company declined to comment. Also, check out this ChinaFile conversation on the topic. 

    Previous post                                                                          Next post

  • Bloomberg and China, TL;DR Version

    What would Bloomberg's best reporters make of an institution that tried to stonewall its way past a controversy?

    A little while ago I put up an extended Q-and-A with Ben Richardson, the latest member of the Bloomberg news team who has resigned in protest of the company's approach to stories that might offend the leadership in China.

    I hope you read it; its main payoff are Richardson's answers to the questions, and a timeline of how this story has evolved through the past four months.

    But here is the central point: fundamental questions about Bloomberg's integrity as a news organization have been raised by its own employees over these past few months. Its responsible leaders have -- so far -- refused to say anything in detail (apart from "it's not true"), or to entertain on-the-record questions about these allegations. And one of the rare on-the-record comments, by its chairman, has seemed to confirm assumptions that Bloomberg has decided to place its journalistic operation second to its financial-terminal business.

    On All Things Considered today, David Folkenflik said that ex-mayor Michael Bloomberg had told his staff that they should think of themselves as journalists first. Great! If so, how about saying that in public, and taking questions on it?

    I think I know what Bloomberg's best reporters would make of an institution that refused to answer questions about its decisions and relied on the stonewall policy.

    Previous post                                                              Next post

  • Another Bloomberg Editor Explains Why He Has Resigned, Over Its China Coverage

    "For the international press, there are many reasons for crimped ambitions."

    A graphic for "China's Red Nobility," from a 2012 investigative series on corruption among the country's leading families. ( Bloomberg )

    Four months ago, The New York Times ran a big story contending that Bloomberg editors had quashed an investigative report about corruption among leaders in China. The Times story was clearly based on informed comment from people inside Bloomberg who were unhappy about the result. It said that higher-ups at Bloomberg were worried that the story would hurt the company's sales of financial terminals—the mainstay of its business—inside China, since the main purchasers would be directly or indirectly subject to government control.

    Like the NYT and some other Western news organizations, Bloomberg was already "on probation" with the Chinese government, because of some very brave and probing official-corruption stories the previous year—including the one on "Red Nobility" that is the source of the graphic above.

    As a reminder, here are the main story steps since then:

    • The FT did a similar report (here, but paywalled), also clearly based on inside-Bloomberg sources and also saying that Matthew Winkler, Bloomberg's editor-in-chief, had ordered the story killed, for fear of ramifications inside China.
    • Bloomberg denied the reports, in categorical but not specific terms. I.e., variations on: Of course we didn't bow to political pressure, and the story was just not ready yet.
    • Amanda Bennett, a long-time editor and reporter with experience in China (she was co-author of Sidney Rittenberg's book, The Man Who Stayed Behind), promptly resigned as head of Bloomberg's investigative unit. She did not explicitly address the controversy but made her feelings clear in her resignation statement. It said: "I am totally proud of the work of the Bloomberg Projects and Investigations team over the past five years....  I’m also most proud of the groundbreaking June 2012 story that the team led, that for the first time exposed the wealth of the relatives of China’s top leaders. I’m proud of the courage it took from top to bottom in Bloomberg to make that happen."   
    • Michael Forsythe, the Bloomberg reporter who had worked for decades in China and was involved in these corruption-investigation stories, was quickly suspended by Bloomberg. He later joined the NYT staff.
    • Bloomberg continued to deny the allegation of knuckling-under but refused to address any specifics. The story that reportedly was underway has not yet appeared.
      Soon after the flap broke, I received several calls from people inside Bloomberg, all of them insisting that I say nothing that could identify them, or even about the fact that we had talked. One was from a person who warned me that it would be a big mistake to put too much faith in what this person said were competitively motivated attacks by Bloomberg rivals. The other calls were from Bloomberg reporters or staffers, who said that the NYT and FT reports were essentially accurate. I wrote to the man who reportedly gave the spiking order, editor-in-chief Matthew Winkler, and did not hear back.
    • Then, last week, the chairman of Bloomberg L.P., Peter Grauer, seemed to confirm the original accounts by saying that it had been a mistake for Bloomberg ever to deviate from its business-oriented coverage. 
    Ben Richardson,
    from Bloomberg.

    All this is prelude to the latest news, which is Ben Richardson's resignation as a Bloomberg editor. Jim Romenesko had the story yesterday, followed by this from Edward Wong of the NYT, who also had the story about Michael Forsythe back in November.  

    After I saw the item on Romenesko, I wrote to Richardson asking if he would say more about the situation. He agreed. What follows are my emailed questions to him and his replies:



    James Fallows: Four months ago, during the Mike Forsythe episode, Bloomberg officials contended that his stories just "weren't ready," and that the accounts in the NYT and elsewhere were misleading or incomplete. What was your understanding of the episode and whether the company's claims were correct?

    Ben Richardson: I was one of the two editors on the story that was spiked last year, and one of three who helmed the 2012 stories on the hidden wealth of China's Communist Party leaders, so I have a pretty intimate knowledge of what happened. Unfortunately, I am bound by a confidentiality agreement that prevents me from disclosing the details. That said, much has already become a matter of public knowledge. 

    I felt the NYT and FT articles were a fair account. As often happens in news coverage, the stories painted the picture in stark black and white when in reality it was more nuanced. However, the contention that the story "wasn't ready" is risible: the only proof of readiness is publication. The real question is whether the story had any merit, and if it did, how could we get it to press?

    That's a simple question. So if Bloomberg felt the story had no merit, then why has the company not explained its reasons? Four seasoned, veteran journalists (with help from many others on the periphery) laboured for months on this story. Were we all wrong? All of us deficient in news judgment?

    JF: Amanda Bennett left the company at that same time. I know you can't speak for her, but should outsiders see her departure and yours as similar reactions to a trend in coverage?

    BR: Amanda Bennett must speak for herself on this. The only comment I can make is that her departure coincided with the decision to spike the China wealth story and the effective dismantling of her Projects & Investigations team -- along with the sacking of a number of seasoned and award-winning journalists. At the same time, the company is shifting ever-more resources into the short, bullet-point end of the news spectrum. That trend isn't unique to Bloomberg and is undoubtedly sound business, but the overall direction is clear.

    JF: What happened, now, in March, 2014 to persuade you to leave the company, versus the controversy in November, 2013? 

    BR: Time. Like most Bloomberg staff, I have a family to support, credit card bills, taxes and a mortgage to pay. I timed my departure to the company's annual bonus. 

    JF: Is the main change that is afoot here on the Chinese side, in decreased tolerance for any investigation into (especially) leading-family corruption issues? Or is it on the Western-press side, in decreased willingness to run these risks?

    BR: It's hard to say. I'm not aware of any reporting of this nature up until Bloomberg and the New York Times stories of 2012, so there's little to gauge the government reaction against. Those stories were published against the backdrop of a power transition, the purge of Bo Xilai and incoming president XI Jinping staking his legitimacy on cleaning up graft. And on top of that, growing inequality and soaring home prices are stoking public resentment of corruption -- making the government even more sensitive.

    As for the international press, there are many reasons for crimped ambitions. The first is that these stories are immensely expensive to execute. Even if a news organisation has the money, it may not have enough people with the right skills. And then it needs the will.  I don't know whether it was bravado fueled by ignorance or true cold-steel nerves, but Bloomberg stood up to intense bullying by the Chinese government in 2012. Last week in Hong Kong, Chairman Peter Grauer made it clear that China is just too big a market to miss out on. The jury's still out on how most other big organisations would handle a similar situation.

    JF: If you were in charge, how would big Western news organizations set this balance? To be more precise, Bloomberg is in a different situation from NYT or WSJ, in that its main business is not reporting but financial services. How should Bloomberg set this balance? 

    BR: I'll combine this with your next question, "What is the main thing you would like people without experience in China to know about your situation and decision?"

    Bloomberg has to act with the interests of the majority of its employees at heart. The company provides a good living for thousands of people. The vast majority of its news is untainted by the kind of constraints you see in China. If that's the kind of news its clients want, give it to them. The world is full of news organisations that feed different parts of the spectrum -- including many trade and specialist publications that never write critical articles of any kind. I think the debate should now move beyond Bloomberg.

    Business and political power are inextricably linked everywhere. That's especially so in China, where both are largely in the hands of a single, unelected political party that forbids the free flow of information and ideas and operates behind a veil of secrecy. Lack of transparency and accountability fuel rampant corruption, human rights abuses and environmental crimes. As China goes global, those values and practices are in danger of gaining currency elsewhere.  

    The question is a bigger one for society as a whole. What value do we place on investigative journalism? If the world's best-resourced news organisation leaves the field, who will fill the gap?


    I'm grateful to Ben Richardson for his quick and forthcoming answers. This may be the time also to share something I received from a person inside Bloomberg at the time the news first broke, which is a useful complement to what Ben Richardson says. This Bloomberg employee said:

    There is a bigger contradiction for the company than most people perceive. Outsiders think the worst explanation for this controversy is that it's concerned about selling terminals within China. It's bigger than that. Really it's about continuing sales all around the world, if Bloomberg can't promise having the fastest inside info from China.

    Everyone knows that it's a company that exists on the terminals. But now that they have saturated the US market, all of the growth will come from areas with these deep contradictions between the company's financial-business interests and its journalistic aspirations. 

    Until very recently, the very fact that Bloomberg was not principally a journalistic company seemed to be its greatest strategic asset. It could use the stream from those financial terminals to bankroll ever-expanding coverage, while companies that were mainly or only in the troubled journalism biz kept cutting back. 

    From Citizen Kane onward (and beforehand), it's been obvious that these extra-journalistic business ties can complicate news coverage. It's time for someone with standing-to-speak for Bloomberg values—Winkler, Grauer, or the mayor himself—to address these concerns directly. 

    Previous post                                                                                  Next post

  • Chinese Media: The Bad and the ... Puzzling

    黄皮白心”的香蕉人" and other great moments in international understanding. Bonus: the person Megyn Kelly should meet on her next trip to Beijing.

    Gary Locke on the job in China. ( AP photo, via NPR )

    1) Banana Man. Based on everything I have heard and observed, Gary Locke has done an excellent job as U.S. ambassador to China these past two and a half years. He managed the Chen Guangcheng episode with aplomb; he streamlined the visa-application process for Chinese visitors, which had been a chronic source of unnecessary friction; he was a tough advocate for U.S. commercial and technical interests; especially in his early days he was lionized by the Chinese public for his non-big-shot style of life, in sharp contrast to that of many Chinese grandees.

    Banana Man character from Adventure Time

    And of course as the first Chinese-American to head the embassy in Beijing, he personified something valuable about the United States and about U.S.-Chinese ties.

    It was this last point that occasioned an unbelievably ugly parting shot at Locke last week in the state-controlled media. As you've read in the press, and as you can see discussed in enlightening detail through a series of exchanges on ChinaFile, the government-run China State News called Locke "banana man." It helpfully explained that this meant someone who was yellow on the outside but white on the inside.  (黄皮白心”的香蕉人", or "a yellow-skin, white-heart 'banana man'"). Of course this was a fair term for Locke because he served white masters in Washington rather than being loyal to "his" people, fellow Chinese.

    Lots of good reading at the ChinaFile site, including this in the kickoff post by Kaiser Kuo:

    In the context of this regrettable editorial, which was as subtle as a barking doberman, “banana man” was meant with unmistakable malice—that Locke is a “race traitor” who lacks the political loyalty to the Chinese nation that his blood should somehow confer. This is of course naive nonsense, and the patent ridiculousness of that phrase should have been obvious even to a writer totally unfamiliar with the complexities of the American discourse on race.

    But while there will be many Chinese—indeed, already have been many—who will object to the editorial’s broadsides against Ambassador Locke, I suspect they’ll focus much more on the irony that state media would call out Gary Locke for living well but projecting everyman simplicity rather than on the “banana” comment, as many American commentators have. The expectation that anyone with a Chinese phenotype will have a “Chinese heart” to match, even at multiple generations of remove, is widespread in Chinese society. The plasticity of identity in multiethnic societies—that what you “owe” the race or the old country as, say, an American is entirely up to you—is still a fairly alien concept for most Chinese. We see this at work in the way Chinese law enforcement treats naturalized Chinese with U.S., Canadian, or Australian citizenship. It reminds us of the truth in what the late Lucian Pye said about China’s fundamentally civilizational notion of itself.

    I mention this partly to point you to the interesting back-and-forth about "race treason" etc. at ChinaFile but mainly to seize the occasion to note the good use that Gary Locke has made of his time in Beijing. We are used to public figures falling short of potential, and the Obama-era ambassadorial corps in general has come in for its share of ridicule. On the principle that you should miss no opportunity to give a deserved compliment, I wanted to say that Gary Locke has represented his country very well and will be missed.

    2) What can this mean? Let's hope it means something good. In politics, we will long remember the spectacle of Karl Rove marching with Megyn Kelly to see the "real" results from Ohio in 2012. Everything Rove had heard told him that Romney was going to win. So why wasn't reality conforming to the selective version of it he'd cocooned himself in?

    This is the problem generally known as "epistemic closure"—walling yourself off from facts that don't fit your world view—and for a while after 2012 the GOP debated what to do about it. We can all think of other domestic illustrations. An international one is the role of the Chinese state media, who have viewed part of their mission as squelching complaints about whatever the government has decided to do.

    Thus it is intriguing to see this item by writer Shan Renping in the state-controlled, tough-toned Global Times arguing that China was putting itself at a disadvantage by declaring certain topics undiscussable. Whoa! Here is the headline... 

    ... and a specimen quote. (It refers to the "two sessions," an annual big legislative fandango now underway in Beijing that gets extensive coverage.) Emphasis added:

    There will be public  press conferences every day during the two sessions. Mainland reporters [from China itself] may restrain themselves, but their overseas counterparts will ask taboo questions. The wonderful nature of the two sessions' press conferences lies in the bold questioning by non-mainland reporters, which exposes the disadvantage of mainland media and demonstrates the aggressiveness of their outside counterparts. 

    This is a predicament for China's soft power. There is a reason for the country to keep its current practices when dealing with sensitive issues. However, at the same time it damages the credibility of the mainstream media.  

    When Megyn Kelly goes to China, I hope she meets Shan Renping. 

Video

Where the Wild Things Go

A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.

Video

Adults Need Playtime Too

When was the last time you played your favorite childhood game?

Video

Is Wine Healthy?

James Hamblin prepares to impress his date with knowledge about the health benefits of wine.

Video

The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air

Writers

Up
Down

From This Author