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

  • 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 learn 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 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, then 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 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.

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  • 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.

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  • 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.

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  • 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. 

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  • 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.

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  • 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. 

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  • 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. 

  • John Boyd, From US News

    Appreciating "a towering intellect who made unsurpassed contributions to the American art of war"

    US News appreciation of John Boyd, 1997 (Pages photocopied from University of Miami library)

    I mentioned last week that among the contents of its pre-2007 archives that US News had irresponsibly eliminated, without warning, was a short essay I wrote when the military strategist John Boyd died. I met Boyd in the late 1970s, described him in (and was guided by him for) my book National Defense, and stayed in touch until his death in March, 1997. 

    Somewhere in the attic I have my physical copies of US News from that era, when I was its editor. But I am not there to go pawing through the boxes, so I am grateful to Bill Tallman of the University of Miami, who went to the library, found that issue, and made a photocopy of the page. 

    Below you’ll see the page layout with a picture of John Boyd in his Korean War-fighter pilot era, followed by the text of the article. I post it here partly in thanks to Mr. Tallman; partly to give this account of Boyd’s life and influence some continuing online existence, now that it has been zapped from its original home; and partly because the latest Pentagon budget (including the decision to discontinue the A-10 "Warthog" airplane) is the kind of thing Boyd would have had a lot to say about. 

    More on the substance later. For now, I give you John Boyd ca. 1997, from back in the era when Dick Cheney was among the "military reformers."



    A Priceless Original

    True originality can be disturbing, and John Boyd was maddeningly original.

    His ideas about weapons, leadership, and the very purpose of national security changed the modern military. After Boyd died last week of cancer at age 70, the commandant of the Marine Corps called him "a towering intellect who made unsurpassed contributions to the American art of war.'' Yet until late in his life, the military establishment resisted Boyd and resented him besides.

    Boyd was called up for military service during the Korean War and quickly demonstrated prowess as an Air Force fighter pilot. More important, he revealed his fascination with the roots of competitive failure and success. U.S. Planes and pilots, he realized, did better in air combat than they should have. In theory, the Soviet-built MiG they fought against was far superior to the F-86 that Boyd flew. The MiG had a higher top speed and could hold a tighter turn. The main advantage of the F-86 was that it could change from one maneuver to another more rapidly, dodging or diving out of the MiG's way. As the planes engaged, Boyd argued, the F-86 could build a steadily accumulating advantage in moving to a "kill position'' on the MiG's tail.

    Boyd extended his method--isolating the real elements of success--while maintaining his emphasis on adaptability. In the late 1950s, he developed influential doctrines of air combat and was a renowned fighter instructor. In the 1960s, he applied his logic to the design of planes, showing what a plane would lose in maneuverability for each extra bit of weight or size--and what the nation lost in usable force as the cost per plane went up. Within the Pentagon, he and members of a "Fighter Mafia'' talked a reluctant Air Force into building the F-16 and A-10--small, relatively cheap, yet highly effective aircraft that were temporary departures from the trend toward more expensive and complex weapons.

    Warrior virtues. After leaving the Air Force as a colonel in 1975, Boyd began the study of long historical trends in military success through which he made his greatest mark. He became a fanatical autodidact, reading and marking up accounts of battles, beginning with the Peloponnesian War. On his Air Force pension, he lived modestly, working from a small, book-crammed apartment. He presented his findings in briefings, which came in varying lengths, starting at four hours. Boyd refused to discuss his views with those who would not sit through a whole presentation; to him, they were dilettantes. To those who listened, he offered a worldview in which crucial military qualities--adaptability, innovation-- grew from moral strengths and other "warrior'' virtues. Yes- man careerism, by-the-book thought, and the military's budget-oriented "culture of procurement'' were his great nemeses.

    Since he left no written record other than the charts that outlined his briefings, Boyd was virtually unknown except to those who had listened to him personally--but that group grew steadily in size and influence. Politicians, who parcel out their lives in 10-minute intervals, began to sit through his briefings. The Marine Corps, as it recovered from Vietnam, sought his advice on morale, character, and strategy. By the time of the gulf war, his emphasis on blitzkrieglike "maneuver warfare'' had become prevailing doctrine in the U.S. military. As a congressman, Dick Cheney spent days at Boyd's briefings. As defense secretary, he rejected an early plan for the land war in Iraq as being too frontal and unimaginative--what Boyd would have mockingly called "Hey diddle diddle, straight up the middle''--and insisted on a surprise flanking move.

    John Boyd laughed often, yet when he turned serious, his preferred speaking distance was 3 inches from your face. He brandished a cigar and once burned right through the necktie of a general he had buttonholed. He would telephone at odd hours and resume a harangue from weeks before as if he'd never stopped. But as irritating as he was, he was more influential. He will be marked by a small headstone at Arlington Cemetery and an enormous impact on the profession of arms.

     

  • Happy and Unhappy in China

    Laughing through the airpocalypse, no longer laughing at a familiar joke

    This new video by Stephy Chung, shot over the past few days of worse-than-ever airpocalypse in Beijing, is worth noticing for several reasons:

    - If you've spent any time in Beijing, you'll recognize many of the scenes and even more of the details and moves. A high proportion of the people shown are foreigners, along with young Chinese dancing the way people would in any country. But the stretch from 1:10 to 1:20 is a little distillation of Chinese-style public dance and movement. On walks in Beijing I have stopped to watch the very people shown in this passage, and I've talked with the elegant woman who pops in at 1:15 (just before the pink-haired girl with Mickey Mouse sweater). Plus, where else do you see such enjoyment of haw-on-a-stick? (The red things starting at 0:47) And the heavy tarpaulins at subway and store entrances, and the little ceramic pots of yogurt, and lots more.

    - The clip also shows the hunkered-down nature of winter in big city China -- the bulky coats, the hats and gloves, the general discomfort. And of course the air, which I won't belabor except to say that all the messages I've received from friends in Beijing this week center on the unendurable new level of pollution. And the willed denial of those circumstances that is necessary to get through the day.

             ++ Bonus policy point: In the largest sense, "sustainability" is obviously the challenge for any society or economic system. But in a very immediate way, environmental sustainability is by far the largest and most urgent challenge for China. The country's blackened skies, poisoned lands and waters, and untrustworthy food are a public health menace; they are an emerging political threat to the government; they are the main challenge that China's rise creates for the world as a whole. ++

    - The video is obviously a planned and staged production, but it both portrays on purpose and captures by accident some of the individualistic spontaneity and chaos of Chinese life, which for me is an enormous part of the appeal of the place and its people.*

    - It's also a complement to the Pomplamoose version of the same song I mentioned recently. If you didn't see that before, you should see it now: it's embedded once more down below.

    On the other hand: yesterday the latest offering from the state-controlled China Daily arrived inside the WaPo at our house. The pages look a little wrinkled here due to exposure to yet another dose of the unending polar-vortex snow:

    I've always joked that the China Daily was my favorite newspaper, because it so often rivals The Onion in the earnest preposterousness of its views. 

    The joke is wearing off for me, because of the crackdown on international and domestic reporters underway this past year in China. It's harder and harder for outsiders even to get visas there. (On my latest trip three months ago, I got no word about my visa until literally the day before departure, and this for a gathering that the Chinese government itself had authorized. The visa was for a single entry only, and ten days' stay.) It's riskier for domestic reporters to look into "sensitive" matters, above all involving the personal fortunes of the rulers' families. Last month, civil-society advocates in Hong Kong were alarmed when the editor of a leading independent newspaper there, Kevin Lau of Ming Pao, was fired after his paper had undertaken some muckraking investigations of the mainland leadership. A few days ago in Hong Kong he was stabbed, in a still-unexplained but ominous attack.  (I discussed this yesterday on Here and Now, along with Shirley Yam of Hong Kong.)

    So drollery about "my favorite newspaper" doesn't seem as droll any more. And although I understand all the logical reasons why China Daily should be able to piggyback on the Washington Post -- it's a free country, the material is marked as a special supplement, closing down info is never a good answer, the WaPo needs the money --  the contrast is grating. At a time when China is trying to keep foreign reporters from even entering its country, it's injecting a direct shot of Chinese-government perspective into our capital-city papers. This is not "dangerous" in any way, but it's annoying.


    Bonus point one, the Pomplamoose cover of Pharrell Williams's Happy. 

    *Bonus point two, a passage from China Airborne that is relevant in weighing the always-mixed news out of that country.

    The plainest fact about modern China for most people on the scene often seems the hardest to grasp from afar. That is simply how varied, diverse, contradictory, and quickly changing conditions within the country are.

    Any large country is diverse and contradictory, but China’s variations are of a scale demanding special note. What is true in one province is false in the next. What was the exception last week is the rule today. A policy that is applied strictly in Beijing may be ignored or completely unknown in Kunming or Changsha. Millions of Chinese people are now very rich, and hundreds of millions are still very poor. Their country is a success and a failure, an opportunity and a threat, an inspiring model to the world and a nightmarish cautionary example. It is tightly controlled and it is out of control; it is futuristic and it is backward; its system is both robust and shaky.

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  • Why We Read More Than 1 Paper, Cont.

    The WSJ harmonization watch goes on.

    Thanks to Lawrence Wilkinson, @samsteinhp, and @bgavio for pointers to screenshot above and this installment in the ongoing saga. 

    Hypothesis undergoing long-term testing: Under the ownership of Rupert Murdoch, the "harmonization" of the Wall Street Journal shows up not on its editorial page, which was already the right-wing counterpart to Pravda, nor in the actual content of its articles, still the products of a generally first-rate reportorial staff.

    Instead it turns up in headlines, story play, and immediate Rorschach-test moments like this. Tonight's results once again fit the hypothesis.

    For previous steps down the harmonization road, see previous installments one, two, three, and four


    While I'm on the subject of the press, this update about US News. Lucy Byrd Lyons, a friend and former Atlantic colleague who now is communications manager for US News, wrote asking me to clarify my latest item about the magazine's zapping of its pre-2007 online archives. As part of the peroration I said, "The place where most people had assumed their work would 'live' for search and retrieval purposes, the magazine's own site, had been removed for the first 74 years' worth of the magazine's existence."

    Lucy Lyons reminds me that for most of the period after the magazine's founding in 1933, there was no Internet and thus no online version of its contents. Fair point! Even though many publications including the Atlantic have been investing for years in digitizing olden-days articles to bring them online. 

    Still, if anyone thought I meant that archives from the FDR or LBJ eras were being purged, sorry for the confusion. I didn't mean that. I meant that the first dozen-plus years of the magazine's online existence had, with no advance word, been eliminated. And while I'm at it, a representative message of the many I've received from the info-tech world:

    As someone who has been in IT technology for decades, the decision shouldn't be whether US News can afford to migrate the older archives into the new content management system (CMS) and if not, to remove them. 

    If it doesn't make economic sense to migrate them, then just leave them as is and have the new CMS provide a hook to the old system. With the low cost of servers and storage these days, running the old archive on a separate system would be cheap, although they may still have to maintain old software licenses. It may not be elegant but the new/old combination would work just fine, especially if there hasn't been a strong demand for the older archives. Access is key, performance is secondary.

    Here endeth the US News archive saga as far as I'm concerned. Although if anyone happened to store the USN appreciation I wrote of retired Air Force colonel and still-influential military theorist John Boyd when he died in 1997, I'd be glad to have it. I can't seem to find it online any more.  

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  • George Wilson

    A military reporter for whom combat was never an abstraction

    George Wilson

    I was sorry to learn today that George C. Wilson, a longtime and highly respected reporter on defense matters, had died at age 86. I knew him slightly, mainly during the years he worked at our sister publication National Journal, but I always admired the honesty, realism, and irrepressible and irreverent humor with which he covered questions of war-and-peace. He was also tremendously generous as a person and, to use a term you don't hear about a lot of writers, self-effacing—in the good sense, not wanting his personality to get in the way of the truths he was trying to tell.

    Our mutual friend Chuck Spinney has written a wonderful appreciation of George Wilson, which I hope you will read. It captures this side of his character. For instance:

    George Wilson was one of the great reporters and a friend...His call sign when phoning, at least among my group of friends in the Pentagon, was Captain Black.

    Captain Black always identified with the troops and low rankers at the pointy end of the spear, either on the battlefield or in the bowels of the Pentagon.  And he always did it with humor, modesty, and grace ... and occasionally indignation, especially when the troops were being hosed, but never with any sense of self - importance.  Captain Black did some great reporting on some really big serious issues, and he was at home in the General's offices and on Capital Hill.  But he also loved to walk the halls of Pentagon and pop in unannounced to shoot the bull and gossip -- always laughingly -- about the lunacy in the Pentagon.   It was this unprepossessing humor coupled with Captain Black's ability to skewer the high rollers that I remember the most.

    George Wilson spent most of his career with the Washington Post, which has run an extended and very good obituary by Martin Weil. It includes a photo of George Wilson in Vietnam that I would love to use but to which we don't have the rights. Check it out. 

    Also check out this story by George Wilson in the National Journal, about a Republican congressman from North Carolina who voted to authorize the invasion of Iraq. He later felt that the war, and his vote, had been terrible mistakes and wondered how he could "atone" (the Congressman's own word). As Chuck Spinney points out, George Wilson -- who had served in the Navy and been a combat reporter in Vietnam -- always, always converted discussion of military policy to what that would mean for people on the battlefield. This is a rarer and rarer trait in a political/media world in which people blithely talk about "kinetic options" and "surgical strikes," and it is one of many reasons to note George Wilson's passing and highlight the example that he set.

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  • In Honor of the Olympics, Let's Talk Filibuster

    What's the word I was looking for—the one that starts with "F" and applies when a bill gets 59 votes? Oh, yes, now it comes back to me: "Fail."

    Stop me if you've heard this one before:

    A large majority of the U.S. Senate votes in favor of a measure—in this case, senators representing nearly 70 percent of the U.S. population*. A minority threatens a filibuster to stop it. The majority falls just short of the supermajority needed to get its way. And our leading journalistic institutions tell us that ... the measure "failed."

    Yes, you have heard this before. But for the record, come on New York Times (source of the breaking-news flash above, and the story below, and which did get the word "filibuster" into the end of the second paragraph):

    And come on CNN (which did not manage to include the word filibuster):

    And come on Boston Globe—which in its defense was using the NYT story, though it presumably could write its own headlines:

     

    On the other hand, nicely done, Reuters!

    And welcome Politico!

     

    __

    *Fun fact for the day: By my ballpark count, the 59 senators who voted for the bill represented states with just less than 70 percent of the U.S. population. The 41 who voted no represented just more than 30 percent of the population. With only 70 percent support, no wonder the bill "failed."


    The nightmare of article-writing nears the end of its cycle, at least for this issue. Coming soon, more reports from up-and-coming parts of America, plus what I learned by watching the pre-opening night of the Winter Olympics.

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  • A New Year Starts, an Era Ends

    "So long, old friend."

    Happy New Year! And one reading tip for starting off the year is the latest issue of The Washington Monthly, which is shown at right and has a lot of great stories.

    I could go on about them in detail. For instance, a very good report, from an understandably pseudonymous author, about the "Disneyfication" of Tibet. Another very good report by Tim Murphy, which the cover appropriately bills as "Another Reason to Hate Dan Snyder," on the entirely non-football-related way in which the owner of the Redskins has earned his place as the most widely reviled person in the capital. Other great reports about the medical system, various higher-ed rackets, surprising changes in the West, and so on.

    But I mention the issue principally because of the last paragraph in one of its best-known features, the "Tilting at Windmills" column by my friend and first magazine-world employer, Charles Peters. He talks in the column about his work for Sargent Shriver in the original Peace Corps, before Charlie started the Monthly in 1969. (I began working there three years later.) Then he ends the column this way:

    Until we meet again

    As you gathered from the previous item, I’m an old guy. In fact, I just turned eighty-seven, and there’s not as much gas left in the tank as there used to be, so this is going to have to be my last regular Tilting at Windmills column.

    When I’ve written it, I’ve always felt like I was talking to an old friend who I haven’t seen for a while, and after the column is published, I always think of what I wish I’d said, or had said better, or of a funny story I forgot to mention. And then, as time goes by, I see new things in the news that fire me up, amuse me, and make me want to grab my old friend by the lapels. So you can be sure that if I’m able, I’ll be back here from time to time. But for now, so long, old friend, and thanks.

    I've written about Charlie and his journalistic influence over the years -- most recently here, on the premiere of Norman Kelley's movie about him. For now I'll just say that I hope you read his column and the rest of this issue. If you're thinking of a way to express appreciation for the mark he has made, you could consider subscribing to the magazine he started (The Washington Monthly) and others he has influenced (ahem, this one); or contributing to the foundation he established (Understanding Government). Or writing him care of the Monthly to say thanks. 

    Charlie Peters and his wife Beth, near their house in DC, earlier in their careers. Photo from Norman Kelley's The Charlie Project.

     

  • Next in our Special Series: Gas-Price Rise Means Drivers Pay More

    Good thing we have experts to explain these things to us!

    Front page headline in the WSJ today.

    Headlines are harder to write than you would think, especially for a one-column story like this. And the article itself is very interesting, so no offense to anyone at the WSJ. But I did find this delightful. 

  • Afraid of Free Speech, on Many Fronts: PEN, Google, China, Goliath

    Free societies depend on free-swinging critiques, even those that are "unbalanced" or "go too far."

    From left: Atlantic moderator, Doctorow, Nafisi, Gessen, Simon. Twitter photo by @David_MSullivan

    On Wednesday afternoon, as previewed earlier, I got to serve as moderator for a panel of four very eminent writers: E.L. Doctorow, Masha Gessen, Azar Nafisi, and David Simon. The discussion was co-sponsored by PEN, Google, and The Atlantic, and was held at the Newseum in Washington. Its topic was “Who’s Afraid of Free Speech,” which led to everything from the legal or extralegal controls on expression in China, Russia, Iran, etc.; to the ramifications of the NSA era; to the economic pressures affecting journalism, publishing, and academia; and a lot more. The “more” included some heated back-and-forth about one of our hosts, Google, and a literal call to the barricades by the senior person on stage, Doctorow. 

    I found it surprising and informative, and I hope you will too. For technical reasons, a webcast version of the program is not yet available. I’ll put up a link to it as soon as it’s ready. 

    As it happens: Just two hours earlier that afternoon, I was in the audience at another D.C. discussion. (And that morning, I'd had a chance to interview Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker at another Atlantic event, with transcript here.) The afternoon event was at the New America Foundation, and I mention it here on its own merits and because of a connection to the “Afraid of Free Speech” theme. 


    I’ve been involved with New America since its beginning in the 1990s, initially as chairman of its board and still as a board member. New America puts on well over 100 events each year—in D.C., New York, California, and elsewhere. To the best of my knowledge, this latest session was the only time we’ve been under public or private pressure to rescind an invitation for someone to speak. There could have been other cases, but I don't know of any.

    The event in question featured Max Blumenthal, who was being interviewed about his book on Israel, Goliath, by Peter Bergen, the well-known writer on war-and-terrorism topics. (Bergen is also a New America fellow; the latest of his many books is Man Hunt, about the Bin Laden raid.) In the week before the event, items like this one in Commentary had said that New America should not provide a platform for what it claimed was destroy-Israel hate speech. Some members of the board got personal email pitches to the same effect. 

    I wasn’t involved in inviting Max Blumenthal, but having read his book before the session and now having heard him speak, I am glad that New America and its president, Anne-Marie Slaughter, stood by their invitation. That was the right call on general free-speech principles, and also because this book should be discussed and read. [Extra disclosures: Both Slaughter and Bergen are long-time friends of mine, as well as colleagues via the The Atlantic, New America, and elsewhere. My wife and I have also been friends of Max Blumenthal’s parents for many years.]

    The case against Goliath, summarized here, is that it is so anti-Israel as to represent not journalism or reasonable critique but bigoted propaganda; plus, that in being so anti-Israel it is effectively anti-Semitic. With a few seconds of online search, you can track down the now-extensive back and forth. The furor has certainly helped publicize the book, but to me those claims about it seem flat mischaracterizations. Goliath is a particular kind of exposé-minded, documentary-broadside journalism whose place we generally recognize and respect.

    The purpose of this book is not to provide some judicious “Zionism at the crossroads” overview of the pluses and minuses of modern Israel. That is not the kind of writer Max Blumenthal is. His previous book, Republican Gomorrah, was about the rise of the Tea Party and related extremist sentiment within the GOP. In that book he wasn’t interested in weighing the conservative critique of big government or teachers’ unions or Medicaid. That’s Brookings’s job. Instead his purpose was to document the extreme voices—the birthers, the neo-secessionists, the gun and militia activists, those consumed by hatred of Barack Obama—who were then providing so much of the oomph within Republican politics. 

    That book was effective not because Blumenthal said he disagreed with these people. Of course he did, but so what? Its power came simply from showing, at length and in their own words, how they talked and what they planned to do. As Blumenthal pointed out in this week’s New America session, that earlier book argued, a year before the Tea Party’s surge victories in the 2010 midterms: These people are coming, and they are taking the party with them. His account wasn’t “balanced” or at all subtle, but it was right.

    His ambition in Goliath is similar. He has found a group of people he identifies as extremists in Israel—extreme in their belief that Arabs have no place in their society, extreme in their hostility especially to recent non-Jewish African refugees, extreme in their seeming rejection of the liberal-democratic vision of Israel’s future. He says: These people are coming, and they’re taking Israeli politics with them. As he put it in a recent interview with Salon, the book is “an unvarnished view of Israel at its most extreme.” Again, the power of his book is not that Blumenthal disagrees with these groups. Obviously he does. It comes from what he shows. 

    To see for yourself, just watch a few minutes of the video Blumenthal and his associates made a few months ago, about recent anti-African-immigration movements. The narration obviously disapproves of the anti-immigrant activists, but that doesn’t matter. The power of the video comes from letting these people talk, starting a minute or so in.

    Someone other than me can put in perspective all the offsetting forces within Israel’s current political-social dynamics. But I can say that Blumenthal has made a sobering prima facie case that there are extreme forces to be aware of, and reckoned with more fully that American discourse usually does. And, very importantly, his doing so is no more “anti-Israel,” let alone anti-Semitic, than The Shame of the Cities and The Jungle and The Grapes of Wrath were anti-American for pointing out extremes and abuses in American society.

    Or Death At Any Early Age or The Octopus or Black Like Me or Gentleman’s Agreement or An American Dilemma or The Other America or The Autobiography of Malcolm X or Mississippi Burning or Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee or any other documentary/dramatized polemic about American injustice. Or any more than David Simon’s magnificent The Wire saga was anti-American in portraying a society that, from top to bottom and in ways big and small, was violent and predatory and corrupt. To return to our PEN panel: Free societies need this kind of cleansing discussion, and they need to be able to tolerate and hear it even when it’s “unbalanced” or "goes too far."

    Here is the video of Blumenthal at New America two days ago. The first half is his recitation of his case, which frankly comes across like a recitation. I suggest you start around time 41:00, when the questioning begins. In the questions Blumenthal addresses two significant points.

    One is the very first question Peter Bergen asks him: Why, why did he use language notorious from the Nazi era—“Night of Broken Glass,” for instance—to talk about Israeli extremists? Many of his critics have claimed that he is likening Israel to Nazi Germany, which if you read the book you'll see is not true. But you can’t count on everyone having read it. So, Bergen asks, What was your intent in using language of this sort?

    Blumenthal’s answer was that he used these terms purposefully, to draw the universals from the “never again” message of the Holocaust. In its scale, he says, the Holocaust was uniquely devastating; but—his argument—the lessons of respecting rights and avoiding group discrimination should be more broadly applied. Logically he has a case, but this leading-with-the-chin bluntness gives critics too easy a target and tool.

    The other point, familiar to anyone with even modest exposure to Israeli discussion, is how broad the range of debate on Middle Eastern topics is within Israel itself, compared with the usual range in the United States. Israeli writers, politicians, citizens, etc., say things about modern Zionism, the “peace process,” the future of their country, and everything else that would seem dangerously inflammatory in U.S. discourse. In part that’s natural: We feel free to criticize our own but don’t like outsiders doing it. Yet Blumenthal had an illustration of its odd effect. In its English version, the Jewish Daily Forward excoriated his book: “Max Blumenthal’s Goliath Is Anti-Israel Book That Makes Even Anti-Zionists Blush.” Whereas the Yiddish edition of the Forward has a review that (I am assured by someone who can understand it) is quite respectful of the book and the importance of such criticism.  

    Maybe Blumenthal’s perspective and case are wrong. But he is documenting things that need attention; no one has suggested that he is making up these interviews or falsifying what he's shown on screen. If he is wrong, his case should be addressed in specific rather than ruled out of respectable consideration. If he's right, we should absorb the implications. 


    Let me bring this back to my normal turf. The China news of this past month involves ever darkening press prospects, for both domestic and international media. This is a genuinely bad situation, about which I'll say more soon. At the moment please check out Evan Osnos's update for the New Yorker. It includes this crucial passage:

    China is gradually losing interest in soft power. The Party spent much of the past decade seeking to project a more attractive and welcoming image to the world; [now] the leadership is signalling that it has concluded being liked is less important than simply surviving.

    I spent some time with a senior Chinese diplomat recently, and when I asked what motivated the threat of expulsion, the diplomat said that the Times and Bloomberg were seeking nothing short of removing the Communist Party from power, and that they must not be allowed to continue. That argument surprised me: I had expected a bland procedural defense—this was a blunt expression of fear.

    At a time when we're upbraiding China for trying to silence awkward critics, the last thing we should be doing is acting afraid of free speech, even the awkward kind, ourselves.

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Computer Vision Syndrome and You

Save your eyes. Take breaks.

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What Happens in 60 Seconds

Quantifying human activity around the world

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