Did Gasoline Cause a Crime Wave? Journalism 101, Cont.

A few minutes ago I mentioned a dicey example of journalism gone bad, or at least gone mushy, from one of our most respected mainstream-news publications.


Here's an example of journalism from a less-mainstream source grappling seriously and impressively with a very challenging topic. It's Kevin Drum, in Mother Jones, writing about an under-appreciated reason for America's violent-crime epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s. 

At first impression, Drum's argument seems far-fetched enough to produce an "Oh, sure!" reaction. He asserts that the main variable in the rise and fall of violent-crime rates over the past generation was not the crack cocaine phenomenon, or changes in police procedures or sentencing standards, or poverty or family structure, or any other "normal" factor. Instead, he argues, it was the level of lead pollution in the environment, mainly from leaded gasoline and also from lead-based house paint.

"Oh, sure," I thought, and you will think. But Drum approaches the evidence with his own "Oh, sure" sensibility and goes systematically through the reasons to take this correlation seriously. I don't know all the potential counter-arguments, but at face value he has made a strong case for thinking of lead as a central causal factor -- and for the sometimes-surprising policy steps that would follow. Very much worth checking out.
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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.

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