James Fallows

James Fallows
James Fallows is a staff writer at 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 Jimmy Carter's chief speechwriter. He and his wife, Deborah Fallows, are the authors of the 2018 book Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey Into the Heart of America, which was a national best seller and is the basis of a forthcoming HBO documentary. More +
  • Local Efforts in a Time of Extreme Global Stress

    A weekend market in Ajo, Arizona, in 2015, back when people were encouraged to congregate.
    A weekend market in Ajo, Arizona, in 2015, back when people were encouraged to congregate. What will it take to keep small businesses like these alive? James Fallows / The Atlantic

    The theme in this “Our Towns” space has been, and remains, the sources of vitality, practicality, generosity, and renewal in local-level America, despite bitter polarization in national-level politics.

    The series began almost seven years ago, when smaller communities across the United States were still trying to rebuild their economies after the financial collapse of 2008 and beyond.

    Now, with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the very people and groups that led the way in local recovery—small businesses, innovative start-up organizations, locally oriented restaurants and bookshops and bars and civic spaces—are exposed to a sharper, more sudden, and potentially more devastating shock than the one they endured a dozen years ago.

    National-level and international responses obviously will determine much of our collective public-health and economic future. But in the past two weeks, Americans have already seen governors and mayors, schools and hospitals, religious organizations and foundations and nonprofit groups taking the lead while the national government has faltered.

    The upcoming theme in this space will be on-the-ground reports on the way the economic, civic, and medical dramas are playing out. Part of America’s future is being determined right now in the U.S. Senate, at the Centers for Disease Control, and in the White House. But what is happening in the rest of the country matters at least as much, and probably more.

    Let me start with a reader’s note that directly addresses this point, and then a few resources from people who have been thinking about equalizing opportunity around the country, before the current cataclysm. The reader’s note is below.

  • 2020 Time Capsule #7: ‘I Don’t Think I’m Going to Learn Much’

    Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

    Being president is even harder than it looks. Success in the job requires a wider range of talents than any one human being has ever had: Private persuasive and horse-trading skills. Public ability to inspire. The analytical capacity to grasp decisions that lack any “good” answer. The emotional capacity to read the moods and needs of the country, as those change. Physical stamina. Psychological balance. A ruthless ability to judge character, especially among allies and staff members. A similarly steely ability to block out bitter and hurtful criticism—otherwise, you couldn’t function—without becoming deaf to warnings of genuine problems. And that’s just the start of the list.

    As I noted in a piece about Barack Obama as he neared the end of his first term, these demands of office are so many, so different, and so complex that the question is not whether a given president will fail in office. All of them will fall short in some parts of the job. The relevant question is whether the areas of each president’s inevitable failures will matter more, or less, than those of his success. John Dickerson went into the ramifications of “The Hardest Job in the World” in a big Atlantic story two years ago. (Update: Dickerson did an eloquent brief segment on the requirements of presidential leadership-in-crisis, on Face the Nation yesterday.)

    Because this job is impossible, people who hold it go through a predictable change of attitude toward their living predecessors. On arrival, new presidents usually think: Look at me! I’ve won the biggest prize in public life. I don’t know why these other guys messed things up so badly. Let me show them how it’s done!

    The years go on; the problems mount; Congress is a headache; the public can’t be pleased. Predictably, presidents develop “strange new respect” for the only other human beings who understand what they are going through. Usually when running for the office, presidential candidates criticize those who came before—directly, if mounting a challenge, or indirectly, in suggesting how much better things will be under new management. But after a president has been roughed up for a while, he’s more careful in his criticism. (Really, it’s hard to find on-the-record examples of many of the first 44 presidents criticizing their predecessors.) Sometimes in public, more often in private, presidents go to those who have left office to ask: What do you think? Or: Can you help us out?

    This reality was the premise of a question an hour into Donald Trump’s very long press appearance yesterday afternoon. In the exchange—which you can see starting at time 59:00 of this video—a reporter asked Trump:

    In previous crises like the tsunami, and Katrina, past presidents have called their predecessors and said, Hey I need you to step in, and do something like that.

    Do you have any interest in reaching out to presidents Bush, Clinton, Obama, Carter—

    Before he finished the question, Trump was talking over him to challenge the premise. Trump answered:

    Look. I have the best people in the world. I think we’re doing an extraordinary job.

    If you look at the H1N1 [under Obama], if you look at that whole—that was a disaster, that was a tough period of time for our country. You look at so many other things that weren’t handled very well, whether it’s Katrina [under GW Bush] or something else.

    Look, I respect everybody. But I feel I have an incredible team and I think we’re doing an incredible job….

    I don’t want to disturb them, bother them. I don’t think I’m going to learn much.

    What this reveals about Donald Trump’s self-regard and Dunning-Krugerism is too obvious to need elaboration. Also his intolerance for even imagined criticism, and his instinct to respond with an attack. In this case, the question invited him to step into the  long tradition of presidents facing crisis. Instead he used it not only to elevate himself but also to diminish the others. (“So many things that weren’t handled very well.”) Others presidents likely thought such things to themselves, especially early in a term. But they would not have said them—on nationwide TV, during a crisis, when supposedly trying to inspire, unite, and heal.


    Two other remarkable events of the day:

    • When told by a questioner that Mitt Romney had isolated himself (presumably after meetings with his Senate colleague Rand Paul, who yesterday tested positive for the disease), Trump acted surprised. “Romney’s in isolation?” he asked. When told it was true, he said, with obvious sarcasm, “Gee, that’s too bad.” (You can judge the tone for yourself, starting at time 43:40 of this clip.)

    Again, many public leaders might have thought this of their rivals. No others would have said it out loud.

    • I mentioned earlier the extraordinary position of Anthony Fauci, during the pandemic. He has a lifetime’s worth of credibility behind his words and advice. But he is being made to stand almost every day, on live TV, behind a president saying things that Fauci then needs--tactfully—to correct.

    The Atlantic’s Peter Nicholas had an interview with Fauci yesterday morning, in which he said that the administration had not pressured him to be more visibly supportive — “I’m not sure why.” Later in the day, Jon Cohen of Science published an interview unlike any I have read from a figure who was still serving within Trump’s orbit. A sample:

    Q: You're standing there saying nobody should gather with more than 10 people and there are almost 10 people with you on the stage….

    A: I know that. I’m trying my best. I cannot do the impossible.

    Q: What about the travel restrictions?… It just doesn't comport with facts.

    A:  I know, but what do you want me to do? I mean, seriously Jon, let’s get real, what do you want me to do?

    What I want, as of today, March 23, is for him to stay there, as long as he can.

  • 2020 Time Capsule #6: The Press Conference

    Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

    These things were notable about yesterday’s installment of what has become the regular daily White House briefing on the coronavirus pandemic:

    1. That it happened at all. Early last year, Donald Trump directed Sarah Huckabee Sanders, then his press secretary, to stop conducting daily press briefings, which had been routine for press secretaries for decades. Sanders held her last briefing a little more than a year ago. Her successor, Stephanie Grisham, has not held any at all. Until this month, Trump himself had appeared at very few formal press conferences. The last one I find a record of was in September, 2018. Instead Trump would talk at informal press scrums, usually while walking to or from a helicopter.

      Now Trump is on TV, answering questions, day after day, including the weekends. This brings us to…
        
    2. That it was a virtual campaign rally, At two of the briefings this week, Trump had dropped his previous pooh-poohing of the virus threat, and his personal criticism of media figures and other politicians, and had instead struck a somber, “we’re in this together” tone. As I noted here, this shift in tone was greeted by some in the press as a sign of Trump’s new statesmanship.

      In the past two days, Trump has been back to the more accustomed tone of tweets and his rallies. In those settings he has had two constant themes: that he is so great, and that his critics are such cheating losers, each point usually based on information that was false.

      The tone, and the false data, returned yesterday. Much of what Trump said was false: Most dramatically, his claim that the FDA had just approved use of an anti-malaria drug for treatment of COVID-19, and that it would be a “game-changer.” (FDA officials immediately clarified that they had done no such thing.)

      Trump’s new fondness for these “briefings,” and their increasing conversion into Trump campaign rallies with scientists rather than local-government officials as the supporting cast, should cause cable-news producers to reflect on the path they are headed down.

      In the year after Trump declared his candidacy in the summer of 2015, cable channels ran so many of his “Lock her up!” rallies live and at full length, that the coverage amounted to hugely valuable free campaign publicity. One source calculated the free-airtime values as being worth several billion dollars.

      From Trump’s point of view, it makes sense to turn these events into the unfiltered airtime he used to count on at mass rallies. From the media’s point of view, it made sense to cover the first few of them live. But given the rising  falsehood quotient in what Trump says, and his determination to cut off or divert questioners who try to ask about these falsehoods, cable networks should stop airing these as live spectacles and instead report, afterwards, with clips of things Trump and others said, and whether they were true.

      Their real reason for live coverage back during Trump’s rise was that ratings went up: People wanted to watch these spectacles. Even if that’s still true, we certainly have learned that Trump will use most of his time to attack and lie, and that panelists’ corrections never catch up. In time of crisis, cable-news channels are making the public less informed, and thus increasing public danger, by providing such a convenient platform for lies.

      Also, as a practical matter, if the briefings were no longer covered live, Trump would lose interest in attending himself. Then the scientists could come back on stage—and eventually they could be covered live again.
         
    3. That Trump edited the script. As Jabin Botsford, a Washington Post photographer noted, Trump scratched out the word “corona” in his speaking script, and replaced it with “Chinese,” so that he would talk about the threat of “the Chinese virus.” When he read most of the rest of the prepared text, Trump sounded as if he were seeing it for the first time. This was a word he cared about.
        
    4. That he ended with … this question. I lack the spirit to go into all of this now. You can read the story here and here. Again, nothing like it had ever happened at the White House before.

    Update: As I write I see that Jay Rosen, at his Press Think blog, has come to the same conclusion about live event coverage. His item covers many other steps in what he calls “emergency mode” handling of Trump, but on live events he says:

    Switching to emergency mode means our coverage will look different and work in a different way, as we try to prevent the President from misinforming you through us….

    We will not cover live any speech, rally, or press conference involving the president. The risk of passing along bad information is too great. Instead, we will attend carefully to what he says. If we can independently verify any important news he announces we will bring that to you— after the verification step.

    I agree with that, and with Rosen’s conclusion, addressed to readers:

    We feel we cannot keep telling wild and “newsy” stories about the unreliable narrator who somehow became president. Not with millions of lives at stake. We have to exit from that system to keep faith with you, and with the reason we became journalists in the first place

  • 2020 Time Capsule #5: The ‘Chinese Virus’

    Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

    In a tweet last night, Donald Trump resurrected the term “Chinese Virus,” for the pathogen otherwise known (including by Trump in many earlier tweets) as the coronavirus.

    Via Twitter

    This afternoon, at the now-daily press presentation about the virus and disease, Trump was asked why he used this term—given the bitter public and governmental response it has evoked in China, and recent reports of racist anti-Chinese reactions inside the United States. (For instance, the starting entry of a widely shared Twitter thread yesterday from Jiayang Fan, a writer for the New Yorker, is below.)

    Via Twitter

    At today’s conference, Cecilia Vega, of ABC, mentioned the possibility of racist backlash to “Chinese Virus.” She directly asked Trump, “Why do you keep using this?” (You can see the exchange starting at time 1:44 of this video.)

    Trump snapped back with what amounted to two points: First, that he was just calling things by their real name, and second, that he was getting back at China for suggestions that the U.S. was really to blame.

    Why keep using the term?

    Because it comes from China. That’s why. It’s not racist at all. I want to be accurate.

    I have great love for all of the people from our country. [sic] But as you know, China tried to say, that it was caused by American soldiers.

    That can’t happen. It’s not going to happen. As long as I’m president.

    My purpose for the moment is not to review the full history of pejorative names for diseases—for instance, why syphilis was called “the French disease” by 16th-century Italians, to which the French responded by calling it “the Neapolitan disease.” Nor about the acute sensitivity in China to being seen as a source of filth and disease—something that would be an insult anywhere, but which in China comes with a distinct historical background that makes it particularly inflammatory. (Rough parallel: Think of any familiar defamatory stereotype used against Africans, or Latin Americans, or Jews, or any other group. Then think of a U.S. president using that in tweets and statements.) Nor about the point my colleague Graeme Wood astutely makes: that the real scandal is what the administration does (and fails to do), more than what it says. Nor the likelihood that the animal-human transfer that gave rise to this pandemic probably occurred in wild-animal markets in China. (Evidence suggests that the transfer that gave rise to the H1N1 “Swine Flu” epidemic a dozen years ago took place somewhere in North America, but the disease was not generally known as “the American Flu” or “the Mexican disease.”)

    Rather it is to note this moment in the United States’s relationship with its most consequential foreign partner-and-competitor. While the combined public-health and economic catastrophes of the moment are commanding attention, the China-U.S. interaction may have moved in a distinctly darker direction.


    Neither the United States nor China is big and dominant enough to force the other country—also big, also dominant—to do something its leadership or public genuinely does not want to do.

    But both the United States and China play a large enough role in the other’s economic, strategic, environmental, cultural, and overall situation that each can make life significantly better, or worse for the other—not to mention effects on the rest of the world.

    The story of the past nearly five decades, starting in the Nixon-Mao era, is of U.S. and Chinese public and private leaders generally looking for ways to work together as wary partners, more frequently than they looked for ways to confront each other as outright foes. (I described this dynamic in an Atlantic article, “China’s Great Leap Backward,” four years ago.) And the story of the past five years, as I described in that same article, is of sharper and sharper differences between the countries. That was even before the trade-war confrontations of the past three years.

    Now the leadership of each country is acting, in public, as if it has nothing to lose by insulting and provoking the other. Witness the accusations from Chinese officials that the U.S. may have intentionally engineered the virus and unleashed it on an unsuspecting Chinese public, or the public use of “Chinese Virus” by a president, in full awareness that it is a flash point on the other side, and the reported private use of “Kung-Flu” by a White House staffer.

    Yesterday the Chinese government took a step that even the most grizzled China hands found shocking: It revoked the press credentials for U.S.-citizen reporters from the three leading U.S. newspapers—the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal—and began the process of expelling them from the country.

    During the long ups and downs of U.S.-China relations—with the lows of Tiananmen Square in 1989, the U.S. bombing of a Chinese embassy in 1999, the Chinese military jet that ran into a U.S. Navy surveillance plane in 2001, the recurring trade disputes, plus the assorted highs—Chinese officials had never taken this step before.

    As with most things in China, the logic of this move is probably mostly internal, as part of the ongoing years-long domestic crackdown underway in the time of Xi Jinping. (Alex Dukalskis of The Wilson Center and University College Dublin laid out internal-Chinese dynamics in a tweet thread today.) But it is a very significant escalation of the U.S.-Chinese showdown — and one that, as best I can tell, went unmentioned by the U.S. president yesterday, and today until the press-questioning part of his presentation today.

    Late in the press conference, a reporter asked Trump what he thought of the Chinese move, and “what is your message to the Chinese about transparency.” (You can see it starting at time 2:08 here.)

    “I’m not happy to see it,” Trump said, as if he were talking about the latest fall in the stock market, or problems for the cruise industry. Then:

    I have my disputes with all three of those media groups. I think you know that very well.

    But I don’t like seeing that at all. I’m not happy about it at all.

    And then he moved on. Just looking at the words, you might imagine it was a Voltaire-like “disagree with what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it.” But if you watch you’ll see that it came across as a minor issue—an occasion for registering his unhappiness with these same three papers, and to shift to something more interesting.

    I hope that this most consequential relationship for the U.S. will not be another casualty of the pestilence. But as I write, on March 18, it appears to have taken an under-publicized turn for the worse.

  • 2020 Time Capsule #4: Trump Is Lying, Blatantly

    Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

    During press questioning at the White House today, Donald Trump was asked whether his tone about the coronavirus challenge had suddenly changed. For weeks, he’d been mocking the virus threat—at rallies, in tweets, and in press remarks. But both yesterday and today, he’d suddenly shifted to warning that the public-health and economic problems were real, and would remain so for a long time.

    What changed?

    Trump denied there had been any shift in tone, and said (as you can see here):

    “I have always known. This is a real pandemic. I felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic....

    “I’ve always viewed it as very serious.”

    This is a flat-out lie.

    Setting the lead for many Republican politicians and for most coverage on Fox News, Trump had for many weeks pooh-poohed the idea that the virus should be taken seriously.

    • He has said it was “contained” and “under control” (as McKay Coppins pointed out).
    • He has said “It’s going to disappear” and, “We have very little problem in this country” (as David Leonhardt pointed out).
    • He said three weeks ago that the U.S. had “15 people, and the 15 within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero, that’s a pretty good job we’ve done.” (as the White House briefing transcript shows).
    • He tweeted just eight days ago that “The Fake News Media and their partner, the Democrat Party, is doing everything within its semi-considerable power (it used to be greater!) to inflame the CoronaVirus situation” (as The Hill pointed out).
    From Twitter.

    From growing global awareness of the disease in January, until his press conference yesterday, March 16, Trump had consistently minimized the medical and economic danger. He frequently likened the virus to the seasonal flu, and at a rally said that criticism of his administration’s virus responses was “a hoax”—indeed, a continuation of the impeachment “hoax” by other means.


    That Trump has shifted his tone so dramatically says something about the scale of the disease and its impacts. I hope it says something positive about the upcoming federal commitments to join the effort against it, so far led by governors and mayors.

    But that he believes he can baldly zap away all memory of his words and deeds and reinvent himself as the man saving his country from pandemic—another Anthony Fauci, but with executive powers—reveals something  about Trump’s mind and character, and something about his assessment of public life.

    • About his mind it suggests: He lives in the moment, and whatever he wants to be true at this instant, is “true” for him, at least while he’s saying it.
    • About his assessment of others it indicates: He is betting he can get away with it. At some level he must know that half the press is weary of writing the 900th story pointing out his falsehoods. The other half is hungry for some way to show its “balance,” and to avoid using the plain word “lie.” And meanwhile the constituency Trump said would stay with him if he “shot someone on Fifth Avenue” may still be aboard.

    An assessment on CNN just after the press conference indicated the kind of response Trump might be betting on. The estimable Dana Bash said of Trump’s comments, “He is being the kind of leader that people need, at least in tone, today and yesterday.” We’ll see what the online stories tonight and the print headlines tomorrow morning say about Trump’s shift.

    Will “today and yesterday”—the subdued tone yesterday, the “I have always viewed it as very serious” Orwellian big-lie today—enter public consciousness as the time when Trump “got serious” and “became a leader”? Or as the time when he finally went too far with a blatant lie?

    As I write this, in real time, we can’t be sure. I have my own guess, which I hope proves wrong.

  • Jim Urquhart / Reuters

    The Airport Chaos Is the Product of Negligence

    The Trump administration asked the wrong question.

  • 2020 Time Capsule #3: ‘I Don’t Take Responsibility at All’

    Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

    This afternoon, on the heels of a widely panned formal Oval Office address, Donald Trump assembled a group of scientific and corporate leaders to talk about dealing with the coronavirus. You can watch the whole thing on the White House YouTube channel.

    I suspect that we’ll see one line from this conference played frequently in the months ahead. You can watch it starting at around 1:22:00, when reporter Kristen Welker of NBC asks Trump whether he takes responsibility for the lag in making test kits available.

    Trump’s reply:

    No.

    I don’t take responsibility at all.

    Narrowly parsed, and in full context, Trump was referring only to the test kits — and was continuing his (fantasized) complaint that rules left over from 2016, under the Obama administration, are the real reason the U.S. has been so slow to respond to this pandemic.

    But filmable moments in politics are not always taken in full context, and at their most narrowly parsed logical reading:

    All of these—in full context, and most-sympathetically read—had a meaning you could understand and perhaps defend. None of that context or meaning survived, as those went from being phrases to weaponized symbols.

    Will that happen to “I don’t take responsibility at all”? We will soon see.


    Other stage business points:

    • A series of CEOs came to the microphone to describe what their companies were doing to speed testing or help out in other ways. Trump caught the first three or four of them unawares, by shaking their hands as they moved away from the lectern. All seemed startled, as you can see in the video.

      Then the other CEOs began to catch on, and a following group of them scuttled away from the microphone before Trump could grab them for a handshake, or held their own hands clenched together, in a protective prayer-style grasp.

      Finally, (at 1:06 in the video) you can see Bruce Greenstein, of the LHC group, surprise Trump with an elbow-bump rather than a hand shake. Trump himself seemed completely oblivious to the idea of social distancing. It was also notable that one speaker after another touched and moved around the same microphone, and put his her hands on the sides of the same lectern.
    • I mentioned earlier today the uneasy and evolving position of Anthony Fauci, who has been the “voice of science” through this episode as he has during previous medical emergencies. The uneasiness lies in the tension between his decades as a respected scientist, and his current role as a prominent member of Team Trump. Can he retain his long reputation as a straight shooter? While maintaining any influence with Trump?

      Make what you will of his body language through the events today. (He is at far left in the picture below.)
    • White House

    • Also today, I mentioned the inevitable-for-Trump, though inconceivable-in-other-administrations, ritual of Trump subordinates limitlessly praising the goodness and wisdom of their leader. It was striking to see all the CEOs skipping right past that formality.

      But if you felt a phantom-limb twinge in the absence of these comments, all you had to do was wait for Mike Pence. You can hear him starting at around 1:07, with comments that began “This day should be an inspiration to every American” and built in earnestness from there.

    There was much more from the question-and-answer session, but I don’t want to spoil the experience of discovery for anyone who has not seen it yet.

    Two hundred and thirty-five days until the election.

  • 2020 Time Capsule #2: The Exceptional Dr. Fauci

    Leah Millis / Reuters

    As of today, March 13, 2020—three-plus years into the current administration, three months into public awareness of the coronavirus spread, seven-plus months until before the next election—Anthony Fauci is playing a role in which no previous Trump-era figure has survived.

    One other person has been in the spot Fauci now occupies. That is, of course, James Mattis, the retired four-star Marine Corps general and former secretary of defense for Trump. Former is the key word here, and the question is whether the change in circumstances between Mattis’s time and Fauci’s—the public nature of this emergency, the greater proximity of upcoming elections, the apparent verdict from financial markets and both international and domestic leaders that Donald Trump is in deep over his head—will give Fauci the greater leverage he needs, not just to stay at work but also to steer policy away from the abyss.


    Why is Anthony Fauci now, even more than James Mattis before him, in a different position from any other publicly visible associate of Trump’s?

    1. Pre-Trump credibility, connections, and respect. Fauci has been head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, at the National Institutes of Health, since Ronald Reagan’s first term, in 1984. (How can he have held the post so long? Although nothing in his look or bearing would suggest it, Fauci is older than either Bernie Sanders or Joe Biden. He recently turned 79.)

      Through his long tenure at NIH, which spanned the early days of the HIV/AIDS devastation and later experience with the SARS and H1N1 epidemics, Fauci has become a very familiar “public face of science,” explaining at congressional hearings and in TV and radio interviews how Americans should think about the latest threat. He has managed to stay apart from any era’s partisan-political death struggles. He has received a raft of scientific and civic honors, from the Lasker Award for health leadership, to the Presidential Medal of Freedom, awarded by George W. Bush.

      Thus, in contrast to virtually all the other figures with whom Trump has surrounded himself, Fauci is by any objective standard the best person for the job — and is universally seen as such. This distinguishes him from people Trump has favored in his own coterie, from longtime consigliere Michael Cohen to longtime ally Roger Stone to longtime personal physician Harold Bornstein; and from past and present members of his White House staff, like the departed Michael Flynn and the returned Hope Hicks and the sempiternal Jared Kushner; and fish-out-of-water Cabinet appointees, like (to pick one) the neurosurgeon Ben Carson as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.

      Put another way: Very plainly, Trump needs Fauci more than Fauci needs Trump. This is not a position Donald Trump has ever felt comfortable in— witness the denouement with Mattis.
        
    2. The ability not to abase himself before Trump. The first Cabinet meeting Donald Trump held, nearly three years ago, was unlike any other conducted in U.S. history, and very much like subsequent public appearance of Trump in company with his appointees.

      In that meeting, on June 12, 2017, as TV cameras were rolling, Trump went around the table and one-by-one had his appointees gush about how kind, wise, and far-sighted he was—failing only to compliment him on his humility. (Tina Nguyen described the meeting at the time in Vanity Fair.) After praising himself, Trump called on others to praise him, starting with the reliable Mike Pence. “It is the greatest privilege of my life to serve as the vice president to a president who is keeping his word to the American people,” Pence began. All the others followed his example—with the prominent exception of Mattis. He spent his “praise” time instead complimenting the men and women in uniform he led.

      No public event like that Cabinet meeting had happened before in the United States, simply because no other president has been as needy for in-public adulation as Trump is. Of course most politicians and all presidents are needy; you could not run for the presidency if you had a normal temperament. (Background reading on this point, while you’re “socially isolating”: Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men.) Every political leader eats up the praise in private—“Wonderful job today, Mr. President—you were really connecting!”, not to mention Veep—but all the rest of them have been savvy enough to know how tacky this looks in public. The modern exception-illustrating-the-rule might have been Lyndon Johnson, with enough of the Sun King in his makeup to enjoy having people humble themselves before him. But holding a public adulation-fest? If George W. Bush had heard, say, Karl Rove start in that way, he would likely have said, “OK, Turd Blossom, what are you angling for?” Barack Obama—or John F. Kennedy, or Jimmy Carter— would have arched an eyebrow as if to ask, “Hey, did you think you were still playing in the minors?”

      But what we saw in that Cabinet meeting, we have seen again and again from those around Trump. The most humiliating recent examples come from the people in charge of the coronavirus response: Pence again; Alex Azar, head of Health and Human Services; Robert Redfield, head of the Centers for Disease Control; and Seema Verma, in charge of Medicare and Medicaid. The beginnings and endings of their public statements, and the answers to many questions, are larded with praise for Trump and his “decisive and visionary action.” (For the latest example, see Verma under questioning from Martha MacCallum of Fox News. Verma repeatedly dodges MacCallum’s direct question about whether hospitals have enough ventilators and other supplies (as Fred Barbash laid out in the Washington Post. MacCallum makes one last try—and Verma seeks refuge in saying, “And that’s why the president has taken such a bold and decisive action.” That claim made no logical sense to MacCallum or the listeners, but it reflected the inescapable logic of what is expected from members of the Court of Trump.)

      There is one exception: Anthony Fauci. He has occasionally said that he agrees with aspects of the administration’s or the president’s policies, but he has avoided the ritual self-abnegation. Of course Fauci held his job long before Trump came to town, and is not part of the normal round of high-level appointments each new administration makes. (To the best of my knowledge, though, directors of NIH institutes, like Fauci, serve “at the pleasure of the president” and so could be removed. If I’m wrong on that, will update. Update: Several NIH veterans have written in to say that Fauci’s position is officially different from that of the NIH director, and is not directly a presidential-political appointment. Recent history teaches that a vindictive president can make things difficult even for career civil servants. But I am grateful for the clarification. )

      But Fauci’s polite but consistent reluctance to grovel cannot have gone unnoticed by the audience-of-one for all the other appointees: Trump himself.
        
    3. Daring to contradict Trump, in public. This is a step beyond anything Mattis attempted. Through the first two years of the administration, background-sourced stories and reports based on “those in a position to know the Secretary’s thinking” laid out the increasing distance between Mattis’s view of American interests and what Trump was saying and doing.

      But there is no precedent, from Mattis or anyone else, for what we have seen these past few weeks from Fauci at the podium. Is the coronavirus problem just going to go away (as Trump had claimed)? No, from Fauci. It is serious, and it is going to get worse. Is the testing system “perfect” (as Trump had claimed)? No, it is not working as it should. Is the U.S. once again the greatest of all nations in its response to the threat? No, it is behind in crucial aspects, and has much to learn from others.

      Fauci is saying all these things politely and respectfully. As an experienced Washington operator he knows that there is no reason to begin an answer with, “The president is wrong.” You just skip to the next sentence, “The reality is...” But his meaning—“the president is wrong”—is unmistakable.

      Anthony Fauci has earned the presumption-of-credibility for his comments. Donald Trump has earned the presumption that he is lying or confused. A year ago that standoff—the realities, versus Trump-world obeisance—worked out against James Mattis. Will the balance of forces be different for Fauci? As of this writing, no one can know.
  • 2020 Time Capsule #1: Four Ways Trump’s Oval Office Address Failed

    Tom Brenner / Reuters

    Four years ago, when Donald Trump was on his rise—from apparent-joke candidate, to long-shot, to front-runner, to nominee, and on to electoral winner—I wrote in this space a series of “Trump Time Capsules.”

    They started with #1, back in May, 2016, when a Paris-bound airliner plunged into the Mediterranean and Trump immediately declared that the cause must have been terrorism. “What just happened?” he shouted to a rally crowd before wreckage had even been found. “A plane got blown out of the sky. And if anybody thinks it wasn’t blown out of the sky, you’re 100 percent wrong, folks, OK? You’re 100 percent wrong.” (Naturally, French authorities later determined that the crash arose from a mechanical problem.)

    They ended with installment #152, just before the election, at the time when James Comey’s last-minute reopening of the Hillary Clinton email case was dominating headlines. In between there were installments about Paul Manafort’s fishy-looking role, the “grab ‘em by...” moment, Trump’s comments about theMexican judge,” and the shift of one-time Trump ridiculers like Lindsey Graham and Mitch McConnell into a Vichy Republican coalition.

    Through all the posts, the idea was to record in real time what people knew about Donald Trump, about the country, and about the issues and stakes in the election, before any of us knew how the contest was going to turn out. As I wrote in introducing the very first installment four years ago:

    People will wonder about America in our time. It can be engrossing to look back on dramatic, high-stakes periods in which people were not yet sure where things would lead, to see how they assessed the odds before knowing the outcome. The last few months of the 1968 presidential campaign: would it be Humphrey, Nixon, or conceivably even George Wallace? Or 1964: was there a chance that Goldwater might win? The impeachment countdown for Richard Nixon, in 1974? The Bush-Gore recount watch in 2000?

    The Trump campaign this year will probably join that list. The odds are still against his becoming president, but no one can be sure what the next five-plus months will bring. Thus for time-capsule purposes, and not with the idea that this would change a single voter’s mind, I kick off what I intend as a regular feature. Its purpose is to catalogue some of the things Donald Trump says and does that no real president would do.


  • An Action Plan for the Future of Media

    Bob Garfield
    Courtesy of Bob Garfield

    From an author’s point of view, the most important quality of any book is its done-ness. Once you accept that a book is as good as it is going to be, and as finished as you can stand to make it, the miasma lifts and you can move on—to the next writing project!

    From a reader’s point of view, the most important qualities of a certain kind of non-fiction book are brevity, specificity, and humor. I’m talking about “theme”or “argument” books that address a current issue—as opposed to, say, biographies, which can be at their best when long and meandering, or narratives or histories, which are designed to immerse you in the details of another time and place.

    When the purpose of a book is to advance a new or different way of thinking about a topic, it should be: as short as possible (so the reader gets the point efficiently); as specific as possible (so the reader can test the argument, and perhaps change future ideas or behavior); and as droll as possible (because, obviously).

    American Manifesto: Saving Democracy from Villains, Vandals, and Ourselves, a new book by Bob Garfield, passes these tests. It is short, specific, and droll. It is very much worth reading, for ideas about the next stage in the world’s recovery from failed, weak, and in other ways troubled media systems.


    Garfield is known to most of the world as co-host, with Brooke Gladstone, of the public radio show On the Media, from WNYC in New York. I’ve known him in that way, from listening to the show regularly and being an occasional guest on it. But I’ve also followed Garfield’s work through the years on the topic of this book—actual programs and systems to improve the media, both financially and substantively. In American Manifesto he pulls together many of the themes he has developed. The result is something that’s neither, on one extreme, a detailed, step-by-step “white paper”-style report on media improvement—nor, on the other, just an op-ed-scale lament.

    Instead it’s part diagnosis, part prescription. As he puts it in the early pages, in a passage that gives an idea of his writing tone:

    This book is a cry for help in three parts. The dry way of describing it: “An examination of the tragic confluence of the American preoccupation with identity and the catastrophic disintegration of mass media, yielding a society that may be irretrievably fractured, unless we act now.” A less dry way of putting it: “Run for your life. We’re being Dumptied.” As in Humpty, the self-satisfied jumbo egg that once sat atop a big, beautiful wall and wound up in countless irreparable pieces.

    Take note: I am not speaking of Trumpty Dumpty. The greatest threat we face is not from a rogue president, but from ourselves.

    The three parts that follow are about, first, social and political division; and second, the collapsing economics of traditional media. (“Media have been ‘disrupted’ like the Hindenburg was ‘disrupted.’ A three-century-old mass-media model has been blown to smithereens, and the surviving journalistic fragments are not only too poor to adequately watchdog the government, but also algorithmically segregated from huge swaths of the electorate. O, the humanity.”) The concluding third section is a six-point action plan for individual, corporate, and political remedies.

    For most people who have followed the future-of-media debate, the book’s greatest value will be in part three, the recommendations. I won’t give away all of Bob Garfield’s action plan. But I will say that one of its main public-policy proposals involves modernizing antitrust laws and enforcement, to catch up with the technological, financial, and social realities of this age.

    The title of that chapter is “No, Really, Trust Busting.” The term “trust-busting” comes of course from the original Gilded Age era, when new and maturing technologies (railroads, automobiles, mass production, mass communication, industrialized agriculture) created new fortunes and new inequalities. The Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890, the Teddy Roosevelt trust-busting efforts of the early 1900s, the rise of the labor movement, the state-by-state spread of reform laws—these were all responses. For democracy and civil society to survive after our Second Gilded Age, something comparable is necessary now. So Bob Garfield argues, and so I agree.

    (By the way, one of the best political speeches I’ve heard on this topic was by a U.S. senator, back in 2016. You can read about the event where the senator spoke, which I happen to have attended, here, and get a PDF of the speech text here. Spoiler: The senator was Elizabeth Warren, and the speech was given long before she launched her presidential run. The event was titled “America’s Monopoly Problem: What Should the Next President Do About It?” It took place when most of the political world assumed that the “Next President” in question would be Hillary Clinton, because of her then-enormous lead over Donald Trump in the polls.)

    I was glad to have read American Manifesto, and I think most media- or politics-minded people will be too. Congratulations to Bob Garfield on its done-ness, and good news for the rest of us in its brevity, specificity, and wit.

  • James Keyser / The LIFE Images Collection / ...

    Two Titans of Journalism

    Bill Greider and Ward Just were two of the great writers of their generation—and both passed in December.

  • Dayton, Ohio, Is ‘a Place That Knows What It Is’

    Main campus of Sinclair Community College, in downtown Dayton, Ohio
    Main campus of Sinclair Community College, in downtown Dayton, Ohio Courtesy of Sinclair Community College

    Let’s take another look at Dayton, Ohio. For context, here is a report on how the city has dealt with the loss of major industries over the decades, and with the mass shootings in its nightlife-and-cultural Oregon District this past summer. And here is a report on how the University of Dayton—a private, Catholic, research university located a few miles from downtown—is reconceiving its mission to emphasize revival of the community as a whole.

    Today’s subject is another major part of the local higher-ed equation, Sinclair Community College. Sinclair is very large as community colleges go, with an enrollment of about 28,000 students per year in college-credit courses, and another 12,000 in other programs.

    It also has a very long history. It was founded in the late 1880s, growing from vocational-training programs that a young Scottish immigrant named David Sinclair had established at the local YMCA. The main clientele was factory workers, many of them immigrants, who were pouring into this part of Ohio (as with other midwestern cities) during its industrial-age boom. The original Sinclair’s ambition was to provide specific technical training and general “Americanization” courses in civics and language.

    “Many community colleges around the country are celebrating their 50th or 60th anniversaries now, because they were part of the big post-World War II educational expansion,” Steven L. Johnson, who has been president of Sinclair since 2003, told me in Dayton last month. “We’re into our 133rd year.” He said that while some institutions might have predated what David Sinclair and his contemporaries set up in Dayton, today’s Sinclair Community College appears to have the longest history of continuous operation among all U.S. community colleges.

    David Sinclair (center, in black suit), namesake of Sinclair Community College, in the late 1880s. (Courtesy of Sinclair Community College)

    In dispatches from around the country, Deb Fallows and I have argued that community colleges are the indispensable part of this era’s U.S. educational establishment. We’ve seen and described this in Mississippi, and in rural post-tobacco Virginia, and across Michigan, and many places beyond. I still believe what I argued about community colleges earlier in this journey — namely, that while every branch of American education is always “important,” from preschool and K–12 to the most intense research universities, community colleges really are the crucial institutions of this economic and political moment. That is because:

    1. They’re local- or state-based, and thus far freer to experiment, adapt, and innovate than most federally run institutions are at this moment of paralyzed national politics.
    2. They’re more and more the institutions that feel responsible for matching people who need opportunities with the fastest-growing opportunities of this era. (For instance, in much of the country there have been more openings than candidates for relatively high-wage “skilled trade” jobs: from welding and construction, to engine and robotics maintenance, to many aspects of the ever-expanding health-care industry. Many community colleges emphasize preparing graduates for jobs that are in demand right now, while also developing skills and adaptable-learning techniques that will apply for whatever jobs emerge a decade from now.)
    3. Because they’re often dispersed across a state, with branches in smaller cities and rural areas, many of them have taken a lead in devising region-wide and rurally focused development plans. Most everyone knows that America outside the big cities faces its own set of challenges, from attracting new residents to creating new economic strongholds to dealing with physical and mental-health problems. The people working hardest toward solutions, at least among those I’ve met, are disproportionately at community colleges.

    Sinclair students in a machine-tool workshop. (Courtesy of Sinclair Community College)

    What makes Sinclair unusual and worth notice, apart from its long history? I was struck by three aspects.

    • First is the sheer scale of its impact on the community. According to Sinclair officials, at least half of all Dayton-area residents have taken classes there at some point.
    • Second is the way it is trying to broaden access to its programs—for groups ranging from high school students to people in correctional institutions.
    • Third is its integration and cooperation with other parts of the region’s educational and economic structure. You don’t always see research universities and community colleges working together; in Dayton they appear to be doing so.

    First, the scale. When I met Steven Johnson and Adam Murka, his chief of staff, on Sinclair’s campus, I asked about their claim that half of Dayton-area residents had taken classes there. How could this possibly be true?

    “Let’s do the numbers,” Johnson said, all of which highlighted the fact that Sinclair is a large institution in a medium-sized town.

    The city of Dayton itself has just under 150,000 people. Depending on how you count, the surrounding metro area totals somewhere between 700,000 and one million. Beyond the tens of thousands of students Sinclair enrolls each year, it employs about 3,000 people. Spurred in part by an Ohio program that encourages high-school students to take local college courses, nearly 8,000 Dayton-area high-school students take classes for credit at Sinclair before they graduate from high school. When the local economy goes down, as it did dramatically after the 2008 financial collapse, Sinclair’s enrollment goes up further still, and people who have lost jobs re-train in hopes of finding new ones.

    Steven Johnson, president of Sinclair Community College since 2003 (Courtesy of Sinclair Community College)

    “We know that if you add it up, every decade we’re educating about 125,000 different people in the area,” Johnson said. “Over time, it means that we’ve directly touched the lives of about half the people within an hour’s drive of here.”  

    I asked Johnson and Murka if they knew of any other community college with proportionately as large a regional impact. “We wouldn’t know about all of them, but I’m not aware of any,” Murka said. Johnson, who has been an administrator at colleges in Arkansas, Texas, and Florida, said that in his experience, “this footprint is unique.”

    We met in the college’s Building 12, its main administration building, which includes large meeting spaces. “It’s not a joke; everyone in the community has been here at some point,” Johnson said. “Every gala, every civic event, every big gathering has happened here. We are just part of this place.”

    Like many other community colleges, Sinclair offers programs in health care, and law enforcement. “Whenever you hear a siren in the Miami Valley, there’s an 80 percent probability that someone in that emergency vehicle—fire, police, paramedic—is Sinclair trained,” Johnson said.

    The scale of the Sinclair commencement ceremony, held at the University of Dayton Arena (Courtesy of Sinclair Community College)


    Second, the ambition to broaden and include. For residents of Montgomery County, of which Dayton is the county seat, Sinclair tuition is now $3,500 per year, which the college says is the lowest in Ohio. Over the past dozen years, the number of students completing a degree or certificate has gone up more than five-fold—low completion rates being one of the long-standing failures of America’s community colleges. In 2005, about 1,500 Sinclair students completed their degrees or certificates. Last year, more than 8,000 did. The number of degrees and certificates completed by minority students has also risen sharply. (From just over 500 in 2012, to nearly 2,000 last year.)

    The broadening strategy that most got my attention was Sinclair’s “Prison Education Program,” to offer people still in correctional institutions courses that lead to certificates or associate degrees. “We have all this human talent—latent talent—now incarcerated,” Johnson said. “What they need is not random ‘enrichment’ courses, but a pathway, to something specific.” The courses lead to certificates and degrees in food-services, addiction counseling, social work, agriculture and forestry, supply-chain management, and other fields. About 2,000 incarcerated students are now enrolled, at 15 institutions across the state.

    “This program is also unusual in its scale,” Adam Murka said. “Lots of states are involved in prison education, but I’m not aware of anybody doing as much as we are, toward credentials where people can actually get jobs.” He pointed out that people with felony records are barred from future employment in some fields, notably including teaching and medical care. “We’re concentrating on fields where they can find work.” According to Sinclair, recidivism rates have fallen dramatically among people who have completed these courses.

    Third, collaboration between this community college and the area’s main research institution, the University of Dayton. Sinclair and UD are not the only important higher-ed organizations in the region—another important one is Wright State University—but they have a long history of collaboration, as opposed to the arm’s-length, disdainful, or competitive attitude with which some four-year universities  view their community-college counterparts. For instance, since 2016 the two institutions have offered a program called the “UD Sinclair Academy.” Under this system students start at Sinclair, earn an associate degree there, and then transfer their courses for full class credit at the (much more expensive) University of Dayton.


    There are many more aspects of the Sinclair story that I won’t go into here. The one that tempts me most: their advanced work in “Unmanned Aerial Systems,” or drones, including a very high-ceilinged “Indoor Flying Pavilion” (video here) where the little devices can fly and be tested and calibrated in all weather.

    Opening of the Indoor Flying Pavilion, in 2015 (Courtesy of Sinclair Community College)

    Instead I’ll return to the question I earlier asked the leaders of the University of Dayton: how the rest of the country should think about the situation of Dayton, with all it has lost and all it is trying to regain.

    Steven Johnson grew up as part of a large farming family in rural Wisconsin. Adam Murka is from the Dayton area and graduated from the University of Dayton — before working as an aide for the area’s Republican congressman (and former Dayton mayor), Michael Turner.

    How does each of them think about Dayton now—and think it should be understood, by the rest of the country?

    “Dayton is proud,” Steven Johnson said. “I like to say, having lived in Austin [where he went to graduate school, at the University of Texas], that Dayton was the Austin of the Industrial Age in America. It was the place in the 1930s, 40s, 50s, 60s. It was a booming place. People really didn’t see themselves in any way, shape, or form as ‘second class,’ compared to the very biggest cities. That consciousness remains.

    “This is an extraordinarily competent place,” he said. “People here understand how to do things. And it’s a big enough place to have all the components of a city’s life—and small enough that it’s not siloed.”

    Both he and Murka said that everyone in Dayton was aware of the larger “declining Rust Belt” perception mage applied to the region as a whole, and the particular way Dayton’s opioid and factory-closing problems have dominated national-media attention to the town. “There’s this image, ‘Dayton was once great and booming, and now it’s just horrible,’” Johnson said. “It’s frustrating because I think, Would you look more closely at this region? There is a lot happening here. On average, the quality of life is very high. Of course I immediately have to stress on average, because of our obvious problems. But if you take me to Austin, in five minutes I can show you all its problems and contrasts too.”

    About Dayton’s woebegone image, Adam Murka said, “Among Daytonians, and maybe everywhere in the Midwest, there is a very strong allergy to self-promotion.” Murka said that he had spent an earlier part of his career in Washington D.C., “where that allergy does not exist. I don’t necessarily mean that as a slam,” he said, “But—of course you promote yourselves! Or in Texas they might say, ‘It ain’t bragging if it’s true.’ Here that’s just not done.”

    With appropriate allowances for broad-brush regional caricatures, Murka said there was an upside of this taciturn midwestern approach: “It means it’s a great place to do business. If somebody makes you a promise, they’ve very likely to keep it. The downside is that people don’t know about all the promise you have.” He said that if he told a loyal New Yorker, “Man, your city must be a terrible place to live,” then “in the best case, they say ‘What the hell is wrong with you?’ And in the worst case it degenerates quickly.” But tell a Daytonian about the city’s woes, and the reply is likely to be, “Yeah, we’ve had some hard times here ...”

    “I have seen more optimism in the last five years than in the past 15,” Steven Johnson said, about the developments in downtown Dayton and varied business and cultural startups. Adam Murka made a similar point in a different way.

    “One of the nice things about having gone through catastrophic change, is that you have gone through it,” Adam Murka said. “You know you can do it.”

    “We are a place that knows what it is. The smartest thinkers in the world say that the rate of change is going to increase exponentially. We know we will be able to adapt to those kinds of changes, because we’ve already done it, several times.”

  • The University of Dayton Is Reinventing Town-Gown Relations

    Archway Entrance for the University of Dayton, in Ohio. "The city is in our name," says the university's president. "It's our future." Courtesy of the University of Dayton

    It’s time for another report on Dayton, Ohio, subject of this introduction last month.

    A century ago, Dayton was known mainly for the things it created, from the Wright Brothers’ airplanes to the cash registers used around the country and produced by Dayton’s home-grown National Cash Register corporation, later NCR.

    Over the past generation Dayton has often been the dateline for stories about things older Rust Belt communities have lost. In Dayton’s case, these include a major GM assembly plant, whose closing two days before Christmas in 2008 was chronicled in the HBO documentary film The Last Truck, by local filmmakers Julia Reichert and Steve Bognar. A few months after GM’s departure, the city lost NCR itself, which in 2009 delivered the shocking news that it was moving its headquarters to Atlanta and abandoning the riverside office park in Dayton that it had built for itself back in the 1970s, during the heyday of the sprawling “office-campus” trend.

    At the time of the move to Atlanta, some 1,250 NCR employees were working in Dayton, most within earshot of the imposing Deeds Carillon, built by one of the company’s early leaders and an all-around civic titan, Col. Edward Deeds. As the New York Times’ Dan Barry pointed out in an artfully acidic piece the year after the move, the Carillon remains even as other traces of NCR have vanished. Barry noted that the NCR executive who presided over the change, a controversial figure named Bill Nuti, had himself declined ever to shift his residence from New York to Dayton—and was prominently featured in the Atlanta press saying that the relocation out of Dayton was “great for NCR.” Perhaps so, but for Dayton it represented the loss of its last remaining Fortune 500-company headquarters and a large number of high-end jobs.   

    Work room at the bustling National Cash Register company in Dayton, in 1904. A few months earlier, Dayton’s own Orville and Wilbur Wright had made the first-ever flight of a powered aircraft. (Geo. R. Lawrence Co. via Library of Congress)

    But, as noted in this previous post, things move on. The closings weren’t the end—for the physical structures that GM and NCR has abandoned, or for the town. After The Last Truck, Julia Reichert and Steve Bognar made a celebrated followup Netflix documentary, American Factory, about the Chinese glass-making firm Fuyao that has set up operations in GMs old plant. NCR’s expansive former suite of office buildings and factory structures near the Carillon are now occupied by research centers for GE and the electronics company Emerson, Cox Media’s broadcast and print operations, a variety of others firms, and many operations of the University of Dayton, located nearby. “The footprint NCR left in Dayton is large,” Ty Greenlees, of the Dayton Daily News, wrote last year, in an updated look at the site NCR had left behind. “But many in the community saw opportunity.”


    Today’s subject is how one of the city’s major institutions, the University of Dayton, has decided to throw itself all-in, to the effort to find new opportunities in and for the town. (Another of these institutions, Sinclair Community College, is similarly all-in on the Dayton-renewal effort. More about what Sinclair is doing in an upcoming report.)

    GE Aviation’s new research center, on the site of former NCR factory buildings (Courtesy of the University of Dayton)

    “The city’s name is in our name,” Eric Spina, an engineer who came from Syracuse University to become president of the University of Dayton three years ago, told me when I visited the town last month. “The health and vibrancy of the city, especially of the urban core, are central to our ability to exist—to attract the best faculty and staff, to convince parents that this is where they want to send their kids. So bringing vitality to this city and region really is an existential question for us.”

    This past spring, I reported from Muncie, Indiana, where Ball State University—a large, public institution—has taken responsibility for the city’s troubled K-12 public schools. To the best of my knowledge—and that of the Ball State authorities—this is the first time a U.S. public university has directly run a community’s schools. The Ball State move is a particularly clear-cut example of a trend that Deb Fallows and I have seen around the country: The commitment by four-year and research universities, which might traditionally have tried to wall themselves off from urban problems through a widening town-and-gown separation, instead to view their future as linked to the community’s.

    The University of Dayton is a private, Catholic, relatively prosperous research institution, founded by the Marianist (Society of Mary) order of the church. Geographically, its lovely main campus is set apart from downtown Dayton and its struggles—across the boundary of an interstate, miles from the main manufacturing centers, in the sylvan riverside area next to where NCR also chose to build its campus.

    One strategy for universities like this, in towns like this, would be to say: Hey, that’s them, too bad for their problems, but come see how nice life can be within our sheltered enclave. Another approach, of which we’ve seen more and more examples, is for university leaders to say: This is us, we rise or fall together, let us prepare our students for their broad global possibilities by teaching them responsibility for where we are now.


    What are illustrations of the University of Dayton’s investment in the city? I mentioned last month Eric Spina’s speech at a Dayton-renewal conference where he said that the university, as an “anchor institution” of the community, was there to stay. “We’re not moving to Mexico City,” he said. “We’re not moving to Atlanta,” an NCR reference that everyone in the audience understood.

    In practical terms this means several physical commitments:

    One is the university’s investment in the $90-million-plus renovation of the Dayton Arcade—a century ago the focus of downtown commerce, but for the past generation another derelict structure. (I’ll have more to say about this project, and the downtown as a whole, in another report.)

    Under-construction view of the downtown Dayton Arcade, future site of University of Dayton centers and other businesses and offices (Courtesy of University of Dayton)
    Drawing of how the Arcade is supposed to look, within a year or two (Courtesy of University of Dayton)

    Another is its financial and reputational commitment to the “onMain” project, in partnership with the large regional health system Premier Health, toward creating “Dayton’s Imagination Zone.” The project will involve re-use of a long, 38-acre tract of mostly undeveloped land formerly occupied by the Montgomery County Fair. It conveniently runs the distance from downtown Dayton to the university district—and from the university to the river.

    “This is not a 5-year project, or 10, or 20, or 30,” Spina told me. “This is a 150-year investment. How often do you get 38 uncontaminated acres in the middle of a city? Not very frequently, and we are all determined to do this right.”

    Doing it right, in his view, would involve a sustained investment in mixed-income housing, locally focused retail, parks and amenities, and other aspects of the modern urban ideal. When completed, it is meant to foster a connection rather than a separation between town and gown—and explicitly a closer connection between Dayton’s black and white communities, for which the Miami River has been a historic dividing line.

    Plans for the future development of the former fair grounds, on land connecting the University of Dayton (to the left in this image) with downtown (further to the right) (Courtesy of the University of Dayton)

    Why bother? I asked Spina why development of Dayton-the-city should be part of his franchise as leader of Dayton-the-private-university. He told me his views on that topic—and also about what people misunderstand about a “declining” midwestern city like this.

    On the university, he said that its Marianist heritage predisposed its students and faculty toward community involvement. But beyond that, he said, “I see two primary reasons for deeper engagement.”

    One was “our fiduciary responsibility to students—making sure that they have the best possible education.” Rigor in the classrooms is supposed to be taken for granted. But, he said, “I believe that education is optimized if we get students out of their bubble.” Through engagement in the community’s struggles, “they may come to understand that they aren’t going to solve any of these problems. They are there to contribute—their knowledge, their skill, themselves—to a team that can address big issues. That is learning to be a leader, in the Marianist way of life.”

    The other motivating force, he said, was the school’s like-it-or-not connection to the city’s progress and reputation. “We are here,” he said. “We employ more than 3,000 people. We have, with grad students and undergrads, more than 11,000 students.”

    “We own homes here. We spend money here. We recreate here. We have an extraordinary research institute, which has grown from 400 employees to about 600. We want this region to be successful, and we believe we can contribute to that. In this day and age, when fewer institutions seem to have both a longer vision and a sense of connectivity to the local and and a commitment to the public good, I think we have to remember that universities should be committed to the public good.”

    Eric Spina, president of the University of Dayton since 2016 (Courtesy of the University of Dayton)

    The other topic I asked Eric Spina about was the outlook and self-image of Dayton. When national media go there, it’s usually for a “Rust Belt city in crisis” story, or for a followup to the Oregon District shootings in downtown Dayton this past summer. What was it like to lead a major institution there, day in and day out?

    “We can argue about whether downtown Dayton is at the [positive] tipping point or not,” he said, referring to the blocks around the arcade project. “I do think a few more things need to happen. But all of a sudden, there are successful developers from outside the area who have begun projects here. All of a sudden, many people are living downtown, and even in the suburbs you have this awareness that there are free concerts, restaurants, arts, other interesting things going on downtown.”

    A building in the Fire Blocks District of downtown Dayton, which holds a growing number of apartments and condos (James Fallows / The Atlantic)

    I asked him what he said to prospective faculty members or students, about deciding to commit to this town. “First I say, forget what you’ve heard about the ‘rust and decline.’ Think about the people. The people here are highly collaborative. They work together and they get things done.” He gave the example of bigger-city arts organizations, where the ballet and the symphony and the opera would talk about joint efforts—but feud, compete, and don’t move past talk. “Here we have the Dayton Performing Arts Alliance,” with combined calendars and ticket sales for a range of arts organizations. “That’s one illustration that speaks to the heart and soul of the community, where the dominant culture is practical-minded, toward getting things done. It’s a place where there are collaborators, and the quality of life is high.”

    Five years ago I wrote about the unofficial and mostly joking civic motto for the fast-growing city of Greenville, South Carolina: “Greenville, are you kidding?” When a company transferred a family to Greenville from a more “glamorous” location, the first reaction was typically, “Are you kidding?” But as the city’s mayor, Knox White, told us, “They wouldn’t come here—until they came here, kicking and screaming, and the next thing you know, they’d bought a house.” (The rapid in-migration to Greenville makes this more than just a boosterish claim.)

    The Dayton version of this joke-motto is that the city is a “two-cry” place, a term particularly widespread among the military families transferred into and away from the adjoining, huge Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. Many people I met told me about this concept, including Eric Spina: When he was in his final interview with the university’s presidential-selection committee, his wife, Karen, went to lunch with some Dayton residents. “They told her that Dayton was a ‘two-cry’ town,” Spina said. “She asked, What do you mean? And they said: You cry when you hear that you have to move to Dayton. Then you cry when you hear you have to leave.”

    Is this the view of someone with an interest in putting the community in the best light? Of course. Does it fully represent all the outlooks, heartbreaks, and divisions in a still-troubled region? Of course not. But this perspective is different enough from the standard media view of places like Dayton, and also representative enough of the institutional innovation we’ve seen from central Oregon to southern Georgia, to be worth attention.

    Next up: another important and nationally significant part of Dayton’s educational mix.

    In the background, Curran Place, once site of the NCR World Headquarters, now home of the University of Dayton Research Institute. In the foreground, “solar prairie.” (Courtesy of the University of Dayton)  
  • New Jobs, New Residents, and New Possibilities

    A man drills into wood as he makes furniture
    crazybear via Shutterstock

    Here are news items and developments related to trends we’ve been covering in the recent “Our Towns” series, and elsewhere:

    1. The furniture business returns, and is looking for furniture-makers. In a series of dispatches from Danville, Virginia, and its environs, Deb Fallows and I talked about this region’s reaction after the three previous pillars of its manufacturing economy collapsed more or less at the same time, over the past generation.

      Those pillars were tobacco-growing and related activities, which for obvious public-health reasons have been in long-term decline; textile mills and clothing-makers, also shrinking over the past generation due to competition from the Caribbean, Mexico, China, Japan, Korea, and elsewhere (we wrote about effects of this shift in South Carolina, southwestern Virginia, and Mississippi); and furniture-making, again mainly due to lower-cost competition from China.

      This week The Wall Street Journal reports on the return of furniture-making jobs in North Carolina—not to the levels of the late 1990s, but steadily increasing through the past decade. What’s the main limit on the expansion? For now it is the supply of skilled trades workers for these jobs. This is connected to two other trends we’ve seen and written about across the country in the past few years: the continued growth in relatively well-paying skilled trade jobs across the country—in construction, advanced-manufacturing, health services, repair-and-maintenance, wind- and solar-power projects, and so on. See a report from NPR here, and from a trades group here.

      The other trend is the crucial role of community colleges, and “career technical” programs in K-12 schools, in equipping students who need opportunities for the opportunities that now exist. I keep arguing (for instance, here) that community colleges are the institutions-of-the-moment, in increasing the chances for really inclusive economic growth. Soon I’ll give another example, from Dayton, Ohio. It’s one more reason to reading this WSJ piece by Ruth Simon.
    1. People who leave small-town America, and people who return. This week, the PBS News Hour had a report by Jeffrey Brown on Millennial-generation Americans who have a choice of where to work and live—and are choosing to live in small towns or rural areas. Obviously this is just in sync with what Deb Fallows and I have been observing from coast to coast.

    Of course this development does not mean that the pressure on very small areas has abated—the steady disappearance of rural-health facilities is one of the biggest challenges for small and rural areas trying to remain viable. And of course it does not mean that New York, Seattle, and San Francisco will lose their roles. But it’s an important complicating reality: the re-peopling of some parts of “left-behind” America, with people who are looking for ways to bring new life to these areas.

    1. A “revenue lab” for local journalism. The 10-year-old nonprofit The Texas Tribune has been one of the most important state-scale models of how journalism can re-establish itself, with a new financial model (as discussed here and here). This week it announced a new “revenue and training lab,” to systematize, improve, and share models for sustainable local journalism.

      As Evan Smith, CEO and co-founder of the The Texas Tribune, wrote in an announcement: “We’re creating our first-ever revenue and training lab—a freestanding entity, housed in our Austin newsroom, where we’ll experiment with innovative ways to fund local news, model best practices that we hope will benefit the entire ecosystem, and mentor and coach dozens of our would-be peers …. The RevLab, as we’ve already started to shorthand it … [will be devoted to] this noble pursuit of sustainability strategies for our industry.”
    1. Examples of smaller-town functionality. As part of CNN’s “Fractured States of America” series, kicked off by Ken Burns, Deb Fallows has a piece today on cases she’s seen of communities trying to heal rather than intensify national divides. It starts in our favorite southern-Arizona community of Ajo and moves to Sioux Falls and elsewhere. It also includes a photo of a very powerful piece of civically important public art: the monument erected in Duluth, Minnesota, site of the northernmost lynching in U.S. history, to the three men unjustly killed there.
    The Duluth monument to the three victims of a lynching in 1920 (James Fallows)

  • Report for America Goes Big

    Sixty one members of this year's Report for America corps at their training session in Houston this past summer. RFA has just announced that it will send four times as many reporters to local newsrooms next year.
    Sixty-one members of this year's Report for America corps at their training session in Houston this past summer. RFA has just announced that it will send four times as many reporters to local newsrooms next year. Courtesy of Report for America

    It has been another rough period for the financial models behind journalism in general, and local news outlets in particular.

    Last month Brookings released a sobering report about the spread of “news deserts” across the country, driven especially by the collapse in newspaper advertising revenue. In 2000, according to this report, newspapers took in more than $70 billion in total ad revenue (measured in 2018 dollars). By 2018, that number had plummeted to about $14 billion. Local papers have been harder hit than the industry as a whole. As Clara Hendrickson, the Brookings author, put it: “While [Google and Facebook] account for 58% of digital advertising revenue nationally, the two companies account for 77% in local markets.”

    Also last month, a merger between the country’s two largest newspaper chains, Gannett and New Media Investment Group (parent of GateHouse) was completed. GateHouse, which owns hundreds of newspapers and community publications across the country, has a richly earned reputation for accelerating the destruction of local papers. Its track record with small papers—for instance, in this Massachusetts example—is to boost their profit margin in the short run, by slashing expenses (notably in the newsroom). As the publications dwindle into local insignificance, revenues and expenses chase each other down. Eventually the withered titles are combined into a regional chain or shut down entirely.

    Will this formula now be applied across the Gannett empire, from USA Today on down? Last month I posted a brave defense of reporting ambitions from the editor of a Gannett (now GateHouse) paper in Tennessee. We’ll see how things turn out, there and elsewhere. One ominous indicator is the contention from both Gannett and GateHouse that their combined company could “save” hundred of millions of dollars in operating costs. As Richard Edmonds wrote last month on the Poynter web site:

    Big layoffs are looming as the combined company (to be called Gannett) attempts during the next several years to deliver a promised $275 million to $300 million in cost-saving synergies….

    At both companies (as throughout the industry) newsroom staffs have been reduced as revenues and profits contract. That is particularly true in the smallest markets. Sources have told me that at each company at least a third of the titles are so-called “ghost newspapers” with as few as one, two or three locally based reporters or editors.


    But there are developments on the other side as well. I’ve been reporting on a series of them in this space: from Mississippi; from Maine; from Massachusetts; from Southern California and the San Francisco Bay Area; from Massachusetts again; from the Hudson Valley of New York, with more ahead.

    Over Thanksgiving weekend, I watched the #SubscribeSunday concept, apparently originating at The Boston Globe, gain traction—which I hope will increase over the years. Yes, it’s become a gimmick to piggyback names for the post-Thanksgiving sequence of themed days: first “Black Friday,” and then, “Small Business Saturday,” “Cyber Monday,” “Giving Tuesday.” But I’m all in favor of promoting the idea that people should think consciously about paying for journalism. Many nonprofits receive a huge share of each year’s donations in the final few days of that year. In part that’s because as December 31 draws near, many people (including me) start to think: Gee, I really should be giving XX amount this year, what are the main places I’ve left out? Developing a “gee, I really should … ” consciousness about reporting will take time but is important. (For instance, with this very magazine.)

    Every element of today’s journalistic establishment is trying to experiment its way to a new financial footing and a new connection with communities and readers. This week there is genuinely positive news about one of the experiments I wrote about this past summer: the Report for America initiative, which sends experienced-but-still-rising reporters and editors to news outlets across the country, especially in small towns and rural areas hardest-hit by the pressures on local news. It’s growing four-fold, from its second year of operation to its third.


    My jacket, with a Report for America pin (James Fallows).

    In 2018, when Report for America first started, it sent a total of 13 reporters to local news rooms. This past summer, Deb Fallows and I met in Houston with a group of 60-plus journalists, who made up RFA’s second annual corps. This week, Report for America announced that it would send 250 reporters to 164 newsrooms in 46 states across the country. “This is probably the largest hiring blitz in local news in recent memory,” Steven Waldman, a veteran journalist and tech entrepreneur who is co-founder of Report for America, told me after the announcement. “I think it ought to give people a sense of hope that this crisis of local news is solvable.”

    You can see the whole list of news organizations here, along with the beats to which the new reporters will be assigned. For instance, “Vietnamese and African American neighborhoods,” for the Sun Herald in Biloxi, Mississippi. Or “Rural healthcare” for the Post Register in Idaho Falls, Idaho. Step one of RFA’s annual process, whose results are just being announced, is securing commitments for new reporting slots, and choosing the news rooms best qualified for RFA support. Step two will be choosing among applicants for these postings. Applications for these positions are open until the end of January next year.

    That these are new beats is an important part of the Report for America model: It asks publications to specify what they’d do if they had more resources, then helps them fill that gap. Its funding model, described in detail here, is also designed to pull new money into local journalism, including from local foundations and donors in each area. To oversimplify: the local newsroom, the national Report for America organization, and local philanthropies all share the cost of employing additional reporters. The annual cost of a new reporter averages about $40,000. Report for America puts up about half the money; the news organization and local philanthropies share the rest.

    “We’ve been putting out the message that community foundations and others can have really big impact for their dollar, if they invest this way,” Charles Sennott, a former Boston Globe reporter who is head of The GroundTruth Project which launched Report for America, told me this week. “If they invest $10,000, they can make a significant difference in local coverage.” Toward its goal of mobilizing more city-by-city philanthropic support, Report for America recently hired Todd Franko, former editor of the now-closed Youngstown Vindicator in Ohio, as its “Director of Sustainability.”


    “Of course everyone is focused on the bleakness out there [in local journalism], and it is quite bleak,” Steven Waldman told me. “But there is also a lot of great creative energy.

    Waldman said that the first part of the conversations he, Sennott, or other RFA representatives would have with local newsrooms could be depressing. “Sometimes it was heartbreaking, the kind of fundamental accountability-reporting that just wasn’t getting done any more,” he said. But then, he said, “It was also inspiring to hear from editors all around the country, who were trying against great odds really to address these needs.”

    Waldman said that local journalists or civic figures naturally had a more acute sense of the gaps that needed to be filled in local coverage—compared with an outsider’s guess. As an example: immigrant and ethnic-minority communities began growing in many small towns, at just the time local newsroom staffs were shrinking. Thus many of this year’s newsroom slots involve coverage of these communities.

    “We have seen a tremendous appetite among creative newsrooms, and talented journalists, and quite a few philanthropists” to devise new approaches, Waldman said. “So if we bring them all together, and wrap it in a spirit of public service, we can really create something better than we’ve ever had before.” He said that his conversations with local editors and reporters had reminded him that they “already have in their bones the sense of news as a public service. They just need a way to keep doing that.”

    “We see some light, at a time that feels like it’s dusk in American local journalism,” Charles Sennott told me. “We can see that emerging journalists are answering a call to service. We’re starting to feel momentum to restore journalism from the ground up.”

    More from this series

  • Democrats Should Talk About Place-Based Policy

    Deb Fallows on part of the farm near Guymon, Oklahoma, where Caroline Henderson wrote her “Letters from the Dust Bowl” series for The Atlantic in the 1930s. At the time, the area was a thriving farm community. Now it is deserted.
    Deb Fallows on part of the farm near Guymon, Oklahoma, where Caroline Henderson wrote her “Letters from the Dust Bowl” series for The Atlantic in the 1930s. At the time, the area was a thriving farm community. Now it is deserted. James Fallows / The Atlantic

    Staying versus moving is one of the eternal tensions of American life.

    Americans have frequently moved: Consider how the geographic center of the population has shifted over the centuries, from east of Baltimore, when the Constitution was written, to west of the Mississippi now.

    The “mean center of population”—the point where half the U.S. population lives to the North and half to the South, and half to the East and half to the West—has shifted westward and southward over the years. (US Census Bureau)

    Tales of location and dislocation, voluntary or forced, are at the heart of American history and literature. They range from Lewis and Clark and The Oregon Trail, to O Pioneers! and The Grapes of Wrath—from The Warmth of Other Suns to On the Road, from Easy Rider to Thelma and Louise and Ladybird, and a thousand other illustrations before and after.

    But of course Americans, like people of any culture, have at the same time craved connection, place, family, roots—the sense of being at home. This is part of our literature and life as well: The Education of Henry Adams in the Boston Brahmin way, and Where We Come From, by Oscar Cásares, as a very different recent illustration, with its account of life along the Rio Grande in Brownsville, Texas.

    My goal is obviously not to sum up this unending tension in the national life. It is instead to tee up one practical aspect, as a prelude to this evening’s debate among 10 Democratic candidates.


    Through America’s history, there has been a long dying off of the very smallest hamlets and settlements. In the 1870s, a small rural town might support several farming families, a general store and a school teacher and perhaps a newspaper publisher and an undertaker. Now if that village or settlement exists at all, it might just be a retired farm family, or someone working as an employee for a corporate owner, or someone who drives 50 miles to work in an Amazon or Walmart warehouse. Our literary reference here is Larry McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show, about the withering of his North Texas hometown of Archer City, Texas.

    The 21st-century view down the road to what had been Caroline Henderson’s farm house in the Oklahoma panhandle. A century before, farm families and small businesses existed in this area. Some of America’s smallest rural settlements, like this one, have just gone away. But mid-sized cities are not going to disappear; the question is how to enhance their prospects. (James Fallows / The Atlantic)

    As we described in Our Towns and related articles, you can see the evidence of this smallest-town attrition perhaps most easily from above:

    Even in South Dakota’s fertile East River, you can easily trace from low altitude what the railroads ushered in 150 years ago, and how their impact has ebbed. As we flew along one of the east-west lines that brought settlers into these territories and carried crops out to markets, we would see little settlements every few minutes. In the 1800s they were set up at roughly 10-mile intervals, an efficient distance when farmers were delivering their harvests by wagon. Now it seems that four out of five of those towns are withering, as farms are run with giant combines and crops are hauled by truck.

    So, there will continue to be some communities—of a few hundred people, or a very few thousand—that are just too small to survive.

    But what about those settlements that are large enough that they are not going away? Charleston, West Virginia, has lost more than a third its population, compared to its peak before the decline of the coal and chemical industries. Countless mid-sized cities in Pennsylvania and Ohio have fewer people than they did 30 years ago. The same is true in many Plains states.

    And yet many of these cities, while smaller than they used to be, are still sizable in population terms and richly endowed with the physical legacy of their long decades of boom and growth. Big churches and synagogues; once-grand civic buildings and banks; department stores and concert halls—the many other reminders of the architectural ambitions and grandeur of an earlier American age. In some places across the country, the tattered parts of this heritage are being renewed. (For instance, like this, from Danville, Virginia.) In others, the decay goes on—fewer restored downtown apartments, more tattoo parlors and for-pay blood banks. But even the most struggling of these cities, unlike the Dust Bowl settlement where Caroline Henderson lived, is not simply going to disappear. Many of their people are not just going away.

    Jason Segedy, of the planning department of the city of Akron, Ohio, wrote recently on his Tumblr—called “Notes from the Underground”—about what he called “the U-Haul school of urban policy.” That is the idea that if you can make people more geographically mobile—moving them out of a place where opportunities are dwindling, and into a place where new possibilities are opening up—you will have done much of the work that matters, toward making the U.S. economy fairer, more open, more inclusive, more dynamic, and so on.

    People still are going to move, Segedy and others emphasize. But that’s become harder in various ways than it might have been a generation ago (for reasons Segedy goes into), and it doesn’t address the prospect of those who want to, or have to, stay.

    Segedy’s whole post is worth reading—as is this complementary 2018 reported essay by Alec MacGillis in ProPublica, and Chris Arnade’s powerful and much-discussed book, Dignity. For the moment, I’d like to emphasize this part of Segedy’s argument, as part of his list of the modern limits of the “U-Haul solution” for America:

    4) The Enduring Importance of Place: ...When people left behind small communities in Appalachia or the rural South, in order to improve their individual economic prospects, it was undoubtedly a hardship for the people who were left behind in those places, but the number of people who were impacted was relatively small ….  

    That obscure, old, abandoned silver mining town in the Colorado mountains that you can’t name might have been a one-industry town, just like Youngstown was, but the similarity ends there.

    Whether we’re talking about a smaller city like Flint or Youngstown, or a larger one like Cleveland or Detroit, we’re looking at established places with tens or hundreds of thousands of residents, surrounded by hundreds of thousands or millions more. The critical mass of people, and economic activity, even in a massively shrinking city like Youngstown, is staggering.

    The notion that large numbers of people can just walk away from larger urban regions in the Rust Belt, without disastrous social (and, increasingly, political) implications is naive in the extreme.  Encouraging everyone to abandon their friends, family, and community, and head for greener pastures might be a solid course of action for an individual person or household, but it is suicidal as a regional economic development strategy.


    Nearly everything that matters in life is contradictory. Through our years of living in China, Deb Fallows and I were continually re-amazed about the opposites that were simultaneously true in that country: Rich and poor. Modern and backward. Tender and cruel. Controlled and chaotic—all true, all at the same time.

    The American version of that outlook that I’ve come to believe, through our travels, involves opportunity and inclusion. America should make it easier for people to move—toward new places and possibilities, toward better versions of themselves. And America should make it better for people who stay. Again, as Jason Segedy put it:

    In case I haven’t said it enough:  

    I’m not arguing that people should never move away from where they live.  

    But, I am arguing that we need a better answer than “You need U-Haul” for the economically struggling people in the cities of the vast post-industrial heartland of this troubled nation.

    Formally these two approaches are known as “mobility-based” and “place-based” strategies. As Segedy, MacGillis, Arnade, and many others point out, “mobility” policies have usually seemed more high-brow and respectable than place-based approaches. Helping a talented young person go from a hick town to a research lab is a commencement speech-worthy illustration of the American Dream. Helping that hick town improve itself can seem like more pork barrel. But America’s version of China’s endless contradictions is that both of these opposites matter: Helping people, and helping places. A fairer chance for people who go, and a fairer chance for people who stay.

    Where this is leading, in today’s installment, is my ever-increasing interest in groups, thinkers, organizations, and others who are trying to systematize “place-based” policies. To give just three illustrations, from many possibilities:


    The latest addition to this list is the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, based in Kansas City, whose focus over the years has been America’s entrepreneurial economy. Recently it released “America’s New Business Plan,” described in detail at this site, with a detailed set of recommendations for how cities and regions can foster the new businesses that, collectively, account for nearly all of the net job growth in the economy. “A lot of policy makers have a misguided emphasis on attracting big, established businesses,” Victor Hwang, Kauffman’s vice president for entrepreneurship, told me about this study. “Think of the big fight over cities trying to get [Amazon’s] HQ2. When you think about what could have been done with a fraction of that money, to foster new businesses, it’s very significant.”

    What, in specific, could have been done? The Kauffman report, available online here and as a 25-page PDF here is designed especially to redress a funding-and-opportunity gap that has penalized women, people in rural area, and non-whites across the country. “Women, black, and Latinx entrepreneurs disproportionately struggle to raise the funds their businesses need,” the report says. “While 45% of men say that getting the money to start a new business is difficult, 63% of women report the same. On average, black entrepreneurs start with much less capital, have less family wealth to rely on, and are much less likely to get bank loans or other forms of investment than equivalent applicants who are white or of other racial identities.”

    What makes this report valuable, from my point of view, is that it is chock full of specifics. They come in four main categories: 1) improving financing for new businesses; 2) sharing practical know-how in business operations; 3) streamlining regulations that burden small businesses in particular (as opposed to a general anti-regulation crusade; and 4) buffering some of the external risks that may deter people from taking a plunge-into-the-unknown by starting a business.

    What’s an example of category four? Health-insurance costs and student-loan burdens. The Kauffman report goes into detail about proposals that could (in theory!) get bipartisan support, and that could create “a safety net that supports entrepreneurial risk-taking.” There is a lot more in the report.


    Why mention this today? Because one more Democratic debate is about to begin. Lord knows there is a lot of other breaking news right now that is likely to dominate the questioning. But sooner or later, attention will turn again to the economic problems—both person-based and place-based—doing such damage in the country. Whoever emerges from the Democratic field will need ideas and plans for dealing with them. Fortunately the supply of such ideas is starting to grow.

  • In Defense of The Commercial Appeal

    Mark Russell, executive editor of The Commercial Appeal in Memphis
    Mark Russell, executive editor of The Commercial Appeal in Memphis Courtesy of The Commercial Appeal

    A few days ago I published an item about a new online journalistic site in Tennessee, The Daily Memphian. In that item, I quoted some Daily Memphian officials saying that they had been prompted to action by the shift of the long-established local daily, The Commercial Appeal, to a more statewide emphasis in its reporting, under its current Gannett ownership.

    Yesterday I quoted a response from a reader (and friend) in Knoxville, who noted the shift away from local emphasis but said there were virtues in statewide-network coverage.

    Now, here is a response from the executive editor of The Commercial Appeal, Mark Russell. At his suggestion and request, this message quoted below is the same as what he published in his newspaper, under the title: “Enough! Time to Set the Record Straight About the CA.”

    Here is what he wrote:

    The Atlantic, as part of an ongoing series, recently profiled the Daily Memphian and described the non-profit’s journalistic mission. In doing so, the Atlantic and its reporter, James Fallows, asserted that The Commercial Appeal is declining and included quotes from DM leaders falsely asserting that Nashville reporters are routinely writing stories about Memphis and that The CA is not focused on the city where it has been based for 178 years.

    All three assertions are hogwash and can be easily dispelled by the simple, easy-to-see facts. In response to such hyperbole from DM leaders, including CEO Eric Barnes, I’ve taken the high road, preferring to let our strong journalism speak for itself. But the misstatements have become so frequent—and are littered throughout this Atlantic story—that I thought it was important to set the record straight.

    First, some relevant background. The DM built its staff last year by raiding The Commercial Appeal of 10 veteran staffers. It also hired several younger staffers, both from The CA and other Memphis newsrooms.

    That staff exodus gave The CA a chance to recruit energetic local and national talent and we did that in quick fashion, rebuilding the newsroom. We added a second investigative reporter and hired a food writer and sports columnist. Our staff today is aggressive, passionate about telling the stories of Memphians, and is far more diverse and reflective of our city than before the DM raid. I am proud of the team we’ve built and how readers have responded to their work. For the last six months, we have seen a significant increase in our digital audience, an important measure of reader engagement.

    For the last two months, our monthly page views have exceeded 8 million.

    Our paid digital-only subscribers have increased by just shy of 10% so far this year and our overall market footprint dwarfs the Daily Memphian's. For example, our recent coverage of the Memphis Tigers and the NCAA’s action on James Wiseman generated some of the highest readership numbers this year, along with 50 new subscribers. So much for a declining CA.

    I often hear from other journalists, but not many readers, that The CA has fewer staffers than it had a decade ago. That is true, and it’s also the case at every newspaper in the nation because of profound changes in journalism’s business model. The then-and-now comparisons are interesting footnotes, but add no context about the current work we do and The CA’s relevancy in the market.

    Our staff size has been largely stable for a year, and we have more journalists covering Memphis and Shelby County than we had the day the DM raided our staff. Those staffers live in Memphis and the surrounding suburbs. None of them live in Nashville or any other city outside our market area.

    The only Nashville-based reporters routinely writing about Memphis are doing statewide investigative or issue stories or writing about Gov. Bill Lee or the Memphis delegation to the state legislature. We’re similar to the DM in that regard; the Daily Memphian has employed a Nashville-based reporter, Sam Stockard, to write about the Shelby County delegation.

    Regarding the “Tennessee network” branding that Barnes called the last straw for some readers, I’ll demystify what he miscast as simply branding. In fact, the USA TODAY Network allows The CA to punch above its weight class, to use a boxing metaphor. We routinely publish important, statewide stories on opioid abuse, state education and political issues because we are part of a statewide network. Our watchdog work has had a profound impact on issues affecting Memphians. We’ve broken critically important stories around TennCare, the state’s Medicare program. Despite Barnes’ parochial assertions, Memphians and other West Tennessee citizens do care about issues that affect the entire state. We also routinely fight for journalists’ First Amendment rights, spending thousands in court fees to stand up for our readers’ right to know.

    The Network ensured that we had the most expansive coverage of the gubernatorial and Senate elections last year and Memphians got a chance to hear candidates themselves; we hosted a gubernatorial debate at the University of Memphis.

    We at The CA are passionate about covering Memphis and shining a spotlight on important issues, such as our recent investigative story on the misleading ballots that some politicians paid to get on ahead of the Oct. 3 election. I also welcome the added journalism competition. It makes us all better and news consumers are the beneficiaries.

    I thank Mark Russell for taking the time to respond; I regret using the opinionated word “declining” and have removed that from the original post; and I recognize the complexities of anyone in journalism trying to find a path forward. I agree with him completely that the competition among different business models of journalism, and different approaches to coverage, is beneficial to all in the community.

  • On the Virtues of Statewide Journalism

    The Daily Memphian is trying to revive local news in Memphis, Tennessee
    The Daily Memphian is trying to revive local news in Memphis, Tennessee Sean Pavone via Shutterstock

    A few days ago I published an item about a year-old online effort to revive local news coverage in Tennessee, The Daily Memphian. It was part of an ongoing series about efforts to revive, reinvent, preserve, and in other ways shore up the crucial-but-imperiled function of local journalism. Links to previous pieces are at the bottom of this one.

    In that item, I quoted some Daily Memphian officials saying that they had been prompted to action by the shift of the long-established local daily, The Commercial Appeal, to a more statewide emphasis in its reporting, under its current Gannett ownership.

    Here is a note from a reader on the other side of Tennessee from Memphis—Neil McBride, who lives in Knoxville—about a virtue of the statewide-network approach that he thinks has gotten short shrift. McBride, whom I have known since we worked together on a Ralph Nader project in Georgia back in the 1970s, is the former director of a public interest law firm that focused particularly on health policy and poverty issues in the South. He is now on the board of the Tennessee Justice Center, where you can read more about his background.

    Neil McBride writes:

    In fairness, it is important to acknowledge some of the benefits of the statewide newspaper network that we now have, even while recognizing it has drawbacks.

    In Tennessee, the trend toward statewide ownership of media has had some negative effects on local news coverage, and probably on local circulation. But it is also important to acknowledge that local readers across the state now have the significant benefit of reporting by investigative journalists from different local areas.  

    Nashville reporters, especially, are effectively covering important policy issues that affect all of Tennessee:

    • In recent months, they have produced national-caliber reporting on several state policy failures and changes that vitally affect families across Tennessee.  
    • They have produced (and the local Knoxville News-Sentinel  has been publishing) long-running, readable and detailed stories that have exposed several critical failures of state policy.  
    • They have addressed the state’s previously-unreported failure to spend over three-quarters of a billion dollars in unspent federal funds for assistance to our neediest families—funds which it is apparently now holding for general purposes in the state budget.  
    • They have consistently published similar reports on Tennessee’s failure to accept and spend tens of millions of dollars for medical assistance to working families, children and the elderly, and on the impact of  these policies on rural hospitals as well as family health.  

    Tennessee leads the nation in its rate of hospital closure and is one of the most unhealthy states in the country. Some of this reporting has attracted our new governor’s attention, and may stimulate changes in state budgeting. These are vitally important but complicated issues, which have been actively hidden from public and sometimes even legislative scrutiny.  

    These policies might not even be in debate now but for the statewide reporting and publication that has become possible through consolidation. And, of course, these policies affect the people of Memphis more than any other community.

    I am grateful to Neil McBride for spelling out this side of the balance. The tradeoffs in local journalism were so much easier to deal with, when papers from the Los Angeles Times to the Louisville Courier-Journal were cash cows. In those days, papers could just throw more money at whatever seemed to be the problem of the moment. In future installments I’ll try to go deeper into the complexities of the chain-versus-local, business-owned-versus-nonprofit, print-versus-digital tradeoffs today’s news sources are wrestling with.


    For previous installments, please see these items: from Mississippi; from Maine; from Massachusetts; from Southern California and the San Francisco Bay Area; from Massachusetts again; from the Hudson Valley of New York; from Tennessee; and from points beyond.

  • Planting a ‘Trail of Giants’

    Giant Sequoia seedlings, planted at Otis College of Art and Design, in Los Angeles
    Giant Sequoia seedlings, planted at Otis College of Art and Design, in Los Angeles Courtesy of WildPlaces

    Last month, as part of a “Big Little Ideas” series, I mentioned a surprisingly valuable short-term step that communities can take, on their own, for positive climate effects. That is to start planting trees. More on the science behind the idea, plus discussion of exactly how much difference trees can make, from: MIT Technology Review, the long-established Arbor Day Foundation and Nature Conservancy, the newer One Tree Planted and Plant for the Planet organizations, and Cool Antarctica, with links at these sites to much more.

    Short version of what you’ll find: Intensified tree-planting obviously is not the full answer to the climate crisis. But it’s a step in reducing atmospheric carbon levels, and potentially an important one.


    Last week, a team from Otis College, or formally the Otis College of Art and Design, in Los Angeles, put this outlook into effect with its “100 Giants” project. The idea originated with Shelley Forbes, an Otis alum who is circulation manager at the campus library, as part of Otis’s centennial observations last year.

    The goal was to plant 100-plus seedlings of the famed giant sequoias of northern California’s forests; nurture them to the stage where they could be transplanted; and then ship them northward, for permanent rooting in the Giant Sequoia National Monument. The organization WildPlaces, which focuses on conservation and “re-wilding” in the Giant Sequoia National Monument, was a partner in the project.

    Sequoia seedlings in the background, at Otis College, growing before their transplantation at the Giant Sequoia National Monument in northern California (Courtesy of Fawad Assadullah / Otis College of Art and Design)

    They grow up so fast! This past week, the Otis community bade farewell to their year-old, several-inch-high seedlings, which began the trip north. As an article by Anna Raya on the campus news site said:

    Spread across The Commons lawn they stood—staffers were proudly taking selfies with them, students were wandering amongst them, saying their names: Charlie Brown, Little Buddy, Paisley. These were the 100 Giants of Otis College, Sequoia tree seedlings that were whisked off this week to their final home in the Trail of 100 Giants in the Giant Sequoia National Monument …

    “The front of the library will seem very naked now that the trees are gone,” says [library official Shelley] Forbes of the popular growing spot on campus for the seedlings. “I am, however, very excited that the trees are going home to their native lands.”

    Mehmet McMillan, founder of WildPlaces, and Shelley Forbes, of Otis College, at the seedling-shipping ceremony last week (Courtesy of Fawad Assadullah / Otis College of Art and Design)

    “From a scientific point of view, giant Sequoias are one of the best carbon sinks there is,” Mehmet McMillan, founder of WildPlaces, said of the project. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, giant sequoias are the largest and most massive trees on Earth, and their trunks and limbs contain more carbon per tree than any other species. “Imagine a tree growing massively over two- or three-thousand years,” McMillan said. “it’s holding carbon [all that time] … Spiritually, it goes without saying that being in a forest with big trees is going to help your spirit.”


    Grow well, little trees. In their prime, giant sequoias can gain one and a half to two feet in height per year. Thus it will take centuries for any of them to reach the species’ peak height of 300 feet or more.

    None of the students or staffers at Otis will see their trees at full maturity. But if the best time to plant a sequoia is 500 years ago, the second best is now.

    At Otis College’s ceremony last week, as they sent off the seedlings (Courtesy of Fawad Assadullah / Otis College of Art and Design)

  • ‘The Tragedy of the American Military’ Remains

    U.S. Army marched in the Veterans Day parade on November 11, 2014.
    The U.S. Army marched in a Veterans Day parade on November 11, 2014. Mike Segar / Reuters

    On November 11, known as Remembrance Day through the countries of the British Commonwealth, the public honors those who died in the military service of their nations.

    The same date is observed as Armistice Day in France and Belgium, in observance of the armistice ending the “Great War,” the First World War, 101 years ago today.

    In the United States, November 11 is Veterans Day, to honor all those who have worn the nation’s uniform. (Memorial Day, in May, is the U.S. counterpart to Britain’s Remembrance Day, to honor those who died in service.)

    On this day, most public presentations in the U.S. include the line, “Thank you for your service.” In a long cover story for The Atlantic nearly five years ago, I argued that the real way today’s American public could honor the tiny fraction of its members in military service would be different.

    (For perspective on the “tiny fraction”: At the time that I wrote that article, a total of about 2.5 million Americans, roughly three-quarters of 1 percent of the population, had served in Iraq or Afghanistan at any point in the post-9/11 years, many of them more than once. These days America’s total active-duty forces, in all branches, number less than 1.5 million, or well under one-half of 1 percent of the population. This is a different concept of “the 1 percent” than references to the economic elite.)

    The article was called “The Tragedy of the American Military,” and the opening page summarized its argument this way:

    The American public and its political leadership will do anything for the military except take it seriously. The result is a chickenhawk nation in which careless spending and strategic folly combine to lure America into endless wars it can’t win.

    After that article came out, I received thousands of responses from service members or their families, a number of which you’ll see quoted in the posts in this thread. The vast majority were “positive,” in discussing the military’s keen awareness of its status in a “chickenhawk” era—one in which the country was constantly in battles, but only a handful of its people were directly exposed to the costs.


    Some circumstances have changed since that time; most have not. The phenomenon of “honoring the troops,” but then skating on to other matters, has, if anything, grown all the stronger over the years.

    The article is here.  I hope you will find a chance to read it; if there is further response, I’ll revive this discussion thread.