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.
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.
Herewith an item from the email inbox. The sender is someone I don't know, and the country he is discussing is one I have never been to or written about.
Most reporters get lots of PR pitches each day. This one seemed worth sharing as a little glimpse into today's news ecology.
We’ve never actually worked together, but I’m hoping to build a stronger relationship between my practice and The Atlantic.
I recently accepted a position in [a big PR firm's] Foreign Governments practice, and will be representing a number of foreign entities that you’ve covered in the past. I’d love to take you out for a drink or a cup of coffee to figure out what topics you’re interested in and discuss how I can connect you with the appropriate foreign officials.
On another note, next week, two human rights experts from [a country sometimes in the news for human rights issues] will be in Washington, DC to discuss the report they’ve just published that directly challenges the United Nations Human Rights Council’s (UNHRC) methodologies in investigating human rights violations. Using [their country] as a case study, their research reveals evidence that raises serious questions about the UNHRC’s impartiality and its ability to be an effective oversight body investigating human rights violations.
Given the heightened activity level of the UNHRC right now and some of the serious charges raised in this report, this is going to be a topic US and foreign policymakers are talking about in the coming months. They have a number of meetings lined up next week, but given your knowledge on the subject, I’d appreciate the opportunity to introduce them to you.
The two experts who are visiting are both [Country X]-based international affairs experts.
[ ... Extensive details on the two experts ... ]
I would be happy to provide you with copies of the report in advance and make both available to you during their visit to Washington.
I will call you later this week to inquire about a possible meeting, but in the meantime, I may be reached by replying to this email or calling 202-xxx-xxxx.
Looking forward to connecting,
For previous installments in the "glamorous life" series, you can start here or here or here or get a big collection here.
On return from a long spell away from the Internet, I was going to recommend that you read Jeffrey Goldberg’s interview with Hillary Clinton, and not just the setup but the transcript as a whole. But such a recommendation is hardly necessary, since for several days the interview has been making news worldwide.
There are two ways to think about the political and policy implications of Hillary Clinton’s deciding to say what she did, during this strange limbo period when she is clearly preparing to run for president but has more to lose than gain by officially saying so.
• One approach would be to think that we’re primarily witnessing a media event—journalists doing what journalists do. It's in our nature as reporters, even when representing an institution as august as a 157-year-old magazine, to highlight what has changed rather than what’s constant, what is controversial rather than what’s agreed on, the one juicy, taken-in-isolation sentence that will make people stop and say, Did you see that? And it is in nature of the political commentariat to seize on any sign of rancor or big-shot melodrama.
Therefore if our Atlantic site runs a headline suggesting that Hillary Clinton is all but blaming Barack Obama for the ISIS/ISIL menace (“Hillary Clinton: 'Failure' to Help Syrian Rebels Led to the Rise of ISIS”), or if we emphasize the few places where she departed from his policy rather than the many more where she supported it, maybe we’re just revealing the way we journalists think. When politicians start complaining that some comment was “taken out of context,” this is the point they’re trying to make. And in fairness, anyone who reads the whole transcript will find that the tabloid version of her comments—weakling Obama lost Syria!—is cushioned in qualifiers and complexities.
If this is the way the Clinton camp feels about our presentation of the interview, they are perfectly well versed in all the the formal and informal ways of getting that message across. Indeed, just this afternoon, a little while after I started typing this item (but several days after the interview ran), the first such indication appeared, in a "no criticism intended" story via Politico.
• The other approach is to think that Hillary Clinton, as experienced a figure as we now have on the national scene, knew exactly what she was saying, and conveyed to an interviewer as experienced as Goldberg exactly the impression she intended to—including letting the impression sink in through several days' worth of op-ed and talk-show news cycles before beginning to offset it with an "out of context" claim.
That impression is a faux-respectful but pointed dismissal of Obama's achievements and underlying thought-patterns. It's a picture of the president approximating that of a Maureen Dowd column. It also introduces into Democratic party discourse the “Who (re-)lost Iraq?” “Who lost Syria?” “Who lost Iran?” and “Who is losing the world?” queries that the Republicans are perpetually ready to serve up. All this is presumably in preparation for Clinton's distancing herself from a "weak" Obama when she starts running in earnest to succeed him.
If the former interpretation is right, Clinton is rustier at dealing with the press than we assumed. Rustier in taking care with what she says, rustier in taking several days before countering a (presumably) undesired interpretation.
I hope she's just rusty. Because if she intended this, my heart sinks.
It sinks for her, that she thought this would make her sound tough or wise; it sinks for the Democratic Party, that this is the future foreign policy choice it’s getting; and it sinks for the country, if this is the way we’re going to be talked to about our options in dealings with the world.
The easiest and least useful stance when it comes to foreign policy is: Situation X is terrible, we have to do something. Or its cousin: Situation X is terrible, you should have done something. Pointing out terribleness around the world is not even half of the necessary thought-work in foreign policy. The harder and more important part—what constitutes actual statesmanship—is considering exactly which “something” you would do; and why that exact something would make conditions better rather than worse; and what Pandora’s box you might be opening; and how the results of your something will look a year from now, or a decade, when the terribleness of this moment has passed.
E.g.: Yeah, we should have “done something” in Syria to prevent the rise of ISIS. But the U.S. did a hell of a lot of somethings in Iraq over the past decade, with a lot more leverage that it could possibly have had in Syria. And the result of the somethings in Iraq was … ? A long story in the NYT tells us that the current leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the caliph himself, drew his political formation from America’s own efforts to “do something” in Iraq:
“He was a street thug when we picked him up in 2004,” said a Pentagon official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters. “It’s hard to imagine we could have had a crystal ball then that would tell us he’d become head of ISIS.”
At every turn, Mr. Baghdadi’s rise has been shaped by the United States’ involvement in Iraq — most of the political changes that fueled his fight, or led to his promotion, were born directly from some American action. And now he has forced a new chapter of that intervention, after ISIS’ military successes and brutal massacres of minorities in its advance prompted President Obama to order airstrikes in Iraq.
Of course everyone including Clinton “knows” that you should only do something when it’s smart and not when it’s stupid. In her books and speeches, she is most impressive when showing commanding knowledge of the complexities and contradictions of negotiating with the Russians and Chinese, and why you can’t just “be tough” in dealings with them. In those specifics, she can sound like the description I just came across, in Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers, about some pre-World War I Balkan leaders: “It is a characteristic of the most skillful politicians that they are capable of reasoning simultaneously at different levels of conditionality. [One Serbian figure] wanted peace, but he also believed—he never concealed it—that the final historical phase of Serbian expansion would in all probability not be achieved without war.”
But in this interview—assuming it's not "out of context"—she is often making the broad, lazy "do something" points and avoiding the harder ones. She appears to disdain the president for exactly the kind of slogan—"don't do stupid shit"—that her husband would have been proud of for its apparent simplicity but potential breadth and depth. (Remember "It's the economy, stupid"?) Meanwhile she offers her own radically simplified view of the Middle East—Netanyahu right, others wrong—that is at odds with what she did in the State Department and what she would likely have to do in the White House. David Brooks was heartened by this possible preview of a Hillary Clinton administration's policy. I agree with Kevin Drum and John Cassidy, who were not. Also see Paul Waldman.
But really, go read the interview. Either way, the presumptive nominee has, under Jeffrey Goldberg's questioning, shown us something significant.
1. A colleague at TheAtlantic made a major journalistic error this week. As he has himself admitted, in the first half of a post on our site. Of course, I am talking about David Frum, who sent out a series of tweets that flat-out and falsely claimed that The New York Times had highlighted a “faked” photo of Palestinian casualties. Frum was entirely wrong; the photo was all too real; and now Frum has apologized, to the photographers and for his snap misjudgment.
I am late to this discussion because I have been out of the country, in Europe, for a week (and still am) and only learned about it today. I want to say something about the case not to make further trouble for Frum, with whom I agree on some issues and disagree on others and am on friendly terms. Nor do I mean to offer anything like an official statement from TheAtlantic, which it is not my place to do.
Rather I want to emphasize a point about journalism that is often misunderstood or overlooked, especially when reporters are attempting to chronicle events as gruesome and politically white-hot as those in Gaza now. I am talking about something at the center of our purpose as journalists, which this episode highlights in the clearest possible way.
2. Reporters have different interests and styles and predilections, different strengths and weaknesses, different stories of having ended up in this craft. But there is one thing they—we—have in common. It is the fundamental drive that makes us stick with this odd line of work, the usually unspoken but immensely powerful source of pride in what we do. It is summed up by three words: I saw this.
People in this business exist to witness, and to report. Those in this business can tell themselves: As a reporter I saw people doing their work, abusing their power, helping their friends, creating their businesses, doing this and that and whatever is significant in the world. I saw this with my own eyes. As a reporter, I heard people, with my own ears, answer questions, explain their views, avoid or embrace the truth. As a reporter, I traveled to see what a city, a prison, a factory, a war zone actually looked like, up close. All reporters get things wrong and have imperfect information and are "unscientifically" swayed by what they happen to observe or miss. But they are generally trying their best to see more.
Having observed all this, a reporter naturally wants to tell everyone what he has seen, and heard, and found. But the desire to tell, and be listened to, is the second most-powerful impulse among reporters. The desire to see—to hear, to experience, to ask, to attempt to know—is the most powerful of all.
Let me give you two examples, both involving people now at TheAtlantic, and both involving the question of “faked” or real victims of violence in the Middle East.
3. Ten years ago the man who is now TheAtlantic's editor-in-chief, James Bennet, was the Jerusalem bureau chief for TheNew YorkTimes. There was an episode between Israeli forces and Palestinians; a number of the Palestinians ended up dead. But why? And killed by whom? As a reporter Bennet went out to see the bodies. His story began:
Set in fields of white, pink and red carnations, the giant cooler here, which usually holds vegetables or flowers for sale to an Israeli company, has been turned over to the dead.
It was to this cooler that, inevitably, the Palestinian doctor came Wednesday morning, when, just as inevitably, the latest Israeli Army raid touched off a parallel struggle to define reality. Were there, in fact, children among the dead, as the Palestinians claimed? How many? Did they die from Israeli sniper fire or from militants' explosives?
The doctor, Ahmed Abu Nikera, had had enough of these questions. In the dank, shadowy room, he yanked and pulled to open the bloodstained white cloth wrapping one of the bodies as tightly as a mummy.
''This is a child,'' he said, after he revealed the pale gray face of Ibrahim al Qun, 14. ''This is the exit wound.'' He pointed at the ragged, softball-sized black hole where the boy's left eye had been. A sniper's bullet entered at the back of the boy's head, he said....
Dr. Nikara untied a cord binding the cloth around [another] child's neck, then pulled back Asma's hair to reveal a hole the size of a half dollar over her left ear -- an exit wound. She had no sign of shrapnel wounds.
''This is what the Israelis call an accident,'' the doctor said.
[This child's brother] Ahmad lay in the flower cooler. He had a similar hole in his head, above his right ear, and he did not have shrapnel wounds.
If you read the full story, you will see that James Bennet emphasizes the murkiness and unknowability of the situation as a whole. But he knows what he saw—the little bodies, the entry and exit wounds—and he tells us that directly, with the authority of a first-hand witness, with no “some people claim” equivocation. If someone 5,000 miles away would speculate, "You know, I bet a lot of this is fake," a reporter like Bennet could have replied: At some other times, a lot of it might be. But I was there, and you were not, and I am telling you what I saw. (For the record, I did not tell James Bennet that I planned to mention this article of his.)
4.Now, the other example. About a year before Bennet’s piece, when the U.S. invasion of Iraq had just begun, I was in Israel, learning about another bitterly disputed death. This was the case of Mohammed al-Dura, a Palestinian boy in Gaza who, according to many Palestinians and other Arabs, had been mercilessly shot by Israeli soldiers as he crouched in terror behind his father. The episode was so famous that the image of the frightened and martyred boy was shown on postage stamps from some Arabic states. But according to another narrative, the boy was not shot by Israeli soldiers—and perhaps had not been shot at all, the whole episode being staged to reinforce a "blood libel" against Israel for its willingness to slaughter gentile children.
You can read the details of what I found in the resulting article, "Who Shot Mohammed al-Dura?" The similarity with James Bennet's story is that I wanted to see for myself. Not the boy, which was impossible, but as much forensic information as was available, and people who had looked into the case. My conclusion, based on what I saw and heard, was that some things were knowable: in particular, that the boy could not have been shot by the IDF soldiers known to be in the area. The physics of trajectories, sight lines, and bullet damage did not match up. What did happen to the boy—still living? accidentally shot? shot intentionally by soldiers in some other location, or by someone else?—was unprovable at the time (I asserted) and might never be known.
5. This last point brings us back to David Frum. Both my story and James Bennet's touch on the reality Frum raises in the second part of his post: that images of bloodshed, warfare, and atrocity have often been manipulated for propaganda ends. This has happened as long as there have been images, and it frequently happens now in the Middle East.
It is because of that possibility that James Bennet wanted to see the little bodies in the morgue. And because provocative imagery is sometimes faked, a few people I interviewed in Israel and the United States claimed that it must have been faked in the al-Dura case. The boy could not possibly have been shot! The whole thing was staged by the "Pallywood" propaganda film industry.
People argued to me then, and a decade later are still arguing via email and letters, that a Pallywood staging hadto be the explanation. They thought I was naive and gullible to think otherwise. From my point of view, I was applying normal skepticism. Yeah, maybe it was Pallywood. But where's the proof?
Erik Wemple argues in a very tough critique of Frum's claims for The WashingtonPost that imbalanced, one-sided skepticism was the main problem with Frum's apology. He was willing to believe the worst about the motives and standards of the nation's leading news organization, while accepting at face value some Pallywood-style fantasies about all-fronts fakery. (Ali Gharib spoke at length with one of Frum's original sources. The results are fascinating. Bag NewsNotes also applies a convincingly skeptical view to this source. For the record, I have also seen tips from this source but didn't write stories about them because I didn't find them believable.)
6. Now, at last, the real issue. Most of us argue about Gaza from a safe distance. Meanwhile people there are being killed, injured, displaced, and terrified—the vast majority of them of course Palestinians (more than 96 percent of all deaths so far) and also Israeli soldiers and some civilians. The Israeli soldiers are there because of national policy; the Palestinians of Gaza have no choice. But also there with them, exposed to danger, are relief workers and reporters, determined to see what is happening, and through their broadcasts and their photos and their articles and their interviews to convey that reality to the rest of the world.
We all dislike something about the press, so we take for granted rather than glorify the fact that these are people taking real risks for usually minimal pay. And glorification would be beside the point. From my time in even faintly similar circumstances (during the anti-government riots in South Korea, with a rebel group in Mindanao, in Burma during the 1988 upheavals) I know that people do this for adrenaline and camaraderie and a host of normal, non-glorious reasons.
But respect is called for. For all their blind spots and flaws, reporters on the scene are trying to see, so they can tell, and the photographic and video reporters take greater risks than all the rest, since they must be closer to the action. For people on the other side of the world to casually assert that they're just making things up—this could and would drive them crazy. I'm sure that fakery has occurred. But the claim that it has is as serious as they come in journalism. It goes at our ultimate source of self-respect. As when saying that a doctor is deliberately misdiagnosing patients, that a pilot is drunk in the cockpit, that a lifeguard is purposely letting people drown, you might be right, but you had better be very, very sure before making the claim.
As he would point out quickly himself, David Frum is not of this part of the journalistic world. If he were, he would have known how grave an accusation he was making, and he would not have made it without being sure. I respect him for promptly* apologizing and saying that he had been wrong. And I have written this dispatch to express, and encourage, respect for the reporters in the Middle East and elsewhere now taking risks to tell us what they have seen.
* Several readers have noted that the apology came six days after the original tweets, so I shouldn't have written "promptly" the first time. The rest of the sentence stands.
Also Michael Shaw of BagNewsNotes has written to ask that he be given full credit for the original demolition of the "source" on which Frum wrongly relied. Even though this isn't really the subject I was writing about, I know how frustrating it can be to have broken a story and not get credit for it, so I am happy to point readers to Shaw's original post.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
While the episode—a sudden if brief descent by a United air crew over the Pacific, to be sure it stayed out of the path of another plane—might 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 without—as he has pointed out to me in email—the 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.
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 world—and 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 believed—and 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 figures—freedom 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 catastrophe—are 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 ChinaFile, whose 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 costs—epidemic deaths especially in Northern China from air pollution, the emergence of "cancer villages," increased rates of birth defects, destruction of fisheries and arable land—China'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 sense—as 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 Bloomberg—come 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 Bloomberg—the former mayor himself, editor-in-chief Winkler, chairman Peter Grauer, or anyone else in a position to speak for the firm—to do what Bloomberg reporters would expect of other institutions, and accept questions and give answers about the allegations that have mounted up.
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.
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.
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!
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 Globestory 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.
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.
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 Sources, with 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 Slateimmediately 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.