Impressive journalism

For a "let's look on the bright side" moment, here are several items I've noticed in the last two days that have nothing in common except illustrating what journalism can do. Having been complaining about many things on many fronts recently, I wanted to distribute some compliments.

- "Bail Burden" special on NPR. Late yesterday afternoon I was trapped in traffic, but I barely noticed while listening to an absolutely riveting 20-minute (!) segment on All Things Considered, by Laura Sullivan, about abuses in the bail-bond system. This is an issue I had never spent one minute thinking about before, let alone 20. I will certainly think about it from now on. It's the first of a three-part series; based on part one, it's a combination of reporting and analysis applied in a very effective way. If there is any justice in the world (separate question), it will make a difference in law and policy.

- "The Listener," by the Atlantic's own Tim Lavin in our current issue (subscribe!). The issue is full of historical and analytical pieces, which are part of our bread-and-butter and, I think, work out well as a collection. But for as long as the magazine has been around, it has also featured the lovingly-detailed narrative about a person or development that is, just, interesting, and this profile of the successor to Art Bell as king of the overnight airways is a wonderful illustration. By the time you get to the part about the hotshot physicist Brian Greene appearing on the show, you'll know just what I mean.

- A news-analysis piece by Alec MacGillis in yesterday's Washington Post, about Senator-elect Scott Brown's actual views on health care reform. The phenomenon MacGillis had to explain was this contradiction: Brown had campaigned against all Obama proposals including health care reform, but as a state senator he had voted for the Romney plan that is very similar to Obama's, and one reason he opposed Obama's plan is that Massachusetts people don't need it, since they already have something similar. The standard newsroom way to handle this issue is the "sources say" approach -- quoting people who point out the tension between the views. Instead, the story clearly explained the complication and what it might mean for Brown's future positions. It was way inside the paper but was next to another very good explanatory story, by Steve Mufson in Beijing, about the non-obvious effects of internet censorship in China.

- "System Failure," by Christopher Hayes in the Nation last week. His perspective in this story -- political, generational, journalistic -- is obviously different from mine, but I felt this was the missing cousin to my own effort to answer the "Is America Going to Hell?" question in the current issue of the Atlantic. Again given the difference in starting perspectives, I was struck that we ended up in a very similar place on the "what is to be done?" front. Last month Hayes also did a very good, non-credulous story after his first trip to China.

Meta point: there is lots of value that "crowd sourcing" and spontaneous citizen journalism bring to the world. But I think each of these works illustrates the value of trained observers and analysts who can get their views out through existing channels -- and therefore illustrates the value of keeping these channels alive. Read, listen, enjoy.

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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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