Notes

First Drafts, Conversations, Stories in Progress

Charles P. Gorry / AP

This article is edited from a story shared exclusively with members of The Masthead, the membership program from The Atlantic (find out more). Atlantic senior copy editor Karen Ostergren walks us through her copyediting routine, and shares why copyediting is essential to our journalism.

There’s a moment in the recent film The Post when the reporters finish writing their first story about the Pentagon Papers and hand the draft to a copy editor; he immediately deletes the first sentence. I laughed out loud at this perfect misrepresentation of my job. Writers think I’m out to destroy their prose. Laypeople think I’m a human version of spellcheck. Neither is right.

Yes, copy editors are responsible for fixing the grammar and spelling in a piece, and that in itself is an important function. In a time when anyone can type out a few hundred words and post them online without a second thought, The Atlantic depends on its reputation for accuracy and integrity. If we can’t manage to get basics like spelling and grammar correct, why should readers trust that we’ve gotten our facts and analyses right?

But the responsibilities don’t stop there. The Atlantic’s copy editors think of our role as standing in for the reader. Before a magazine piece gets to the copy desk, it has gone through days or weeks or months of trimming, expanding, and rewriting with its main editor. It has ideally also been read by one or more of the magazine’s top editors to address any glaring holes. Our concern is thus: Would you, the reader, be able to pick up a copy of the magazine, open to the first page of a given article, and, without any prior knowledge or extra information, be able to understand what we mean to get across? Are any sentences so densely written that you’ll struggle to get through them? Will you be stopped by an excessive use of jargon? Conversely, are we explaining the subject in such dry or juvenile language that you’ll put the article down halfway through out of sheer boredom and frustration?

Protestors light fires outside the U.S. embassy in Seoul, South Korea, in 2002. Lee Jae Won / Reuters

In this item, I argued that America’s relationship with China really mattered, and was being disastrously screwed up. Then two readers said: Actually, the relationship with Europe, and with Canada and Mexico, matters more, and is more grievously in peril.

Here are three further entries in this cheery discussion. First, from a foreign-affairs writer now based in the United Kingdom:

I agree with everyone you have quoted, but they all miss the point: We have now picked a fight with every first and second division power centre in the world with the sole exception of India. Modi must be wondering why he has not been elected to the club. And we have simultaneously picked fights with a wide range of third division teams. With the exception of Israel.

George Washington warned against “foreign entanglements”. Surely he never imagined we would “entangle” ourselves with almost every type of foreigner at the same time.


Next, from reader Joseph E. Britt, in Wisconsin, who has a background in Republican politics and policy. He says I was right the first time, and that the screw-up with China is the one that matters most—because it is the one that might lead to actual war:

I'm afraid I need to push back on your correspondents who argue Trump is doing greater damage to our relations with traditional allies in Europe and elsewhere than he is with respect to China.

For me, the critical element is not what will happen, but what might happen. We cannot know the first; we can be aware of the second, of the possibilities in the future produced by decisions we make now.  Trump is surely doing damage to American relations with countries that have been our traditional friends and supports to American policy around the world.  The damage is serious, and it is being inflicted carelessly, frivolously—which makes it even worse.

It is not, however, likely to lead to war.

War is a real possibility in our future relations with China.

James Fallows

This past week I argued that the current U.S. approach to China mattered enormously, and was being grievously mishandled. The set-up for the argument was a ranking of which U.S. relationships were “most” by a variety of criteria, which the Atlantic.com’s editor Adrienne LaFrance brilliantly summarized this way:

Via Twitter.

Now, two reader reactions I’d like to quote. First, from the author (and veteran of congressional politics) Mike Lofgren, who says that I’m wrong to worry more about what’s happening with China than about the less sexy-sounding but more profound damage the United States is doing to its long-standing alliances in the rest of the Americas and with Europe.

Lofgren writes:

The US relationship with China is extremely important, and is being horribly fumbled—as is every other global relationship—but I think the relative novelty of China as a near peer (a country which, when I was growing up, might have been on the dark side of the moon, with Mao's Great Leap Forward reducing peasants to eating tree bark) has led pundits to overstate its singularity.

The old, boring EU is still the most important relationship, for the same reason people don't recognize it as such: it's been there for so long, and has been so deeply embedded, that we've taken it for granted. The EU has a greater GDP than China and a greater aggregate military budget; and more to the point, the deep cultural, political, and military ties make it a close cousin.

Endpapers from 'Our Towns,' with map of cities visited, color-coded by year. Pantheon publishers

On Tuesday of this coming week, May 8, the book that my wife, Deb, and I have been working on for many years will officially be published.

It’s called Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey into the Heart of America, and it’s the five-years-removed result of a post I put on the site back in 2013, asking readers for suggestions of smaller cities that were coping with dislocations of some sort—economic, political, demographic, environmental.

In the next few weeks, Deb and I will be on the road, at events in various parts of the country. You can see an interactive, updated list here. The first public event will be on Tuesday night, May 8, at the Brooklyn Public Library, in a discussion with James Bennet—known to the world now as editorial page editor of The New York Times, and known to us both as a long-time friend and as the person who made this project possible, during his time as editor-in-chief here at The Atlantic. (More info on the event here.) After that we’ll be in Washington D.C.; Greenville, South Carolina; Knoxville; Seattle; San Francisco, Palo Alto; Los Angeles; Kansas City; Louisville; Boston; and beyond.

Over the next few weeks I’ll be reporting news related to our American reinvention theme (as previewed in this article in the current issue). As we did during our years on the road, I’ll be reporting here on reader reaction, updates, pentimenti, press reactions pro and con, and other news on the theme that really engages us: how these promising local-level innovations across the United States can gain momentum, attention, coherence, and influence.  

For now, and to start out, here’s a segment from reporter Lee Cowan, producer Mark Hudspeth, and their colleagues at CBS Sunday Morning that aired this morning, which I thought did a superb job of distilling and conveying impressions like those Deb and I have gathered over the years. It features people we encountered in Duluth, Minnesota, and Greenville, South Carolina. (Brief pre-roll ad comes with this embedded video; full link here.) It features our friends at Bent Paddle brewing, at the Epicurean and Loll manufacturing companies, at Cirrus Aircraft, and others in Duluth, and Mayor Knox White and others throughout the city of Greenville.

Thanks in the short run to the CBS team, and more generally to the thousands of people around the country who have helped us learn about the ongoing realities of the modern United States.

Shannon Stapleton / Reuters

The new issue of The Atlantic has a long piece by me called “The Reinvention of America.” It’s different from, but tied to, the publication in two weeks of a book by my wife, Deb, and me called Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey into the Heart of America.

The main contention of the Atlantic piece is that at a time of genuinely serious problems for the country, from economic polarization to the opioid disaster, and of near-historic crisis in national-level government (“near” historic because this is still not 1861-1865), city-by-city across the country many Americans feel as if the direction of personal, economic, and public life is positive rather than negative.

A flood of response has come in, which I’ll begin sampling from over the next few days. To start off, here are two related notes, from the Great Plains states. The first is from a man I also quoted last year, about locally based efforts at land conservation (at a time when national policy is headed in the opposite direction). He is William Whitney, of the Prairie Plains Resource Institute in Aurora, Nebraska. Aurora is a small town in south central Nebraska, about 20 miles east of the Grand Island. Deb and I were in Grand Island several times during our travels; we’ve not yet been to Aurora, but hope to go soon.

William Whitney writes:

I can attest to what you say in your article on localization in America.

It is happening in Aurora, Nebraska, my home town to which my wife and I returned 40 years ago. And across the Great Plains in various ways.

I think the so-called millennials have an energizing effect. Life is still hard for people, and improvising is a critical ingredient, but the rural Nebraska towns and small cities, such as Aurora (pop. 4,500) or Kearney (pop. 35,000), have life.

Regarding conservation, we recently attended a very good conference in Kearney related to ecotourism on the Plains. There is a refreshing view that there is something neat about the whole region, which many people are discovering for the first time in this culture. People outside are looking in with interest.

Michael Doolittle

A week ago I quoted an unnamed “reader in New Haven,” who offered thoughts about “The Future of Elite Schools in the Trump Era.” That occasioned a lot of response, which is still coming in. I quoted some of it in “Trump vs. Harvard and Yale” and “The Future of Elite Schools, Continued.”

This next installment comes from the author of the original message, who is now willing to be identified. He is Michael Doolittle. As he explains, he is a Harvard College alumnus, and he works as a photographer in New Haven. In the message below he talks about the under-publicized but important role of sports in elite-college admissions. As he says an introductory note:

I have set up a website, www.michaeljdoolittle.com where readers can go and click on a black button titled "Introduction: Sports in Admissions" if they want more detail about a lot of these themes. You could just say that I am trying a writing project exploring why the US is the only major country in the world that has tied sports so tightly into their colleges and universities and what that says about admission policies.

Now, Doolittle’s response to those who have read and reacted to his original message. By the way, the photos in this post are by him, of scenes at Yale:

I’ve amazed that my ruminations on elite schools in the Trump era have garnered so much interest. I want to start by saying that my comments were broadly about the institutions. In no way am I saying that all students at elite school are entitled jerks. I believe you can be critical of systems, even those you admire, without criticizing every individual in those systems.

My thoughts are grounded by my personal experience and a research project that I’ve been working on for some years.

My name is Michael Doolittle and I have been involved, one way or another, with the Ivy League since 1979, when my parents bought a new school bus yellow Suburban to take my oldest brother Tim to Harvard. I have four brothers and four of us graduated from Harvard.

JF note: By chance I know Michael Doolittle’s parents and once worked closely with his father. Back to his message:

Peter Claeys, on the left, back in 2006, on the tarmac in Zhuhai after a perilous trip through Chinese skies. James Fallows photo

I was very sorry to learn this week that Peter Claeys, whom you see in action above and in the family photo below, had died recently in Lille, at age 62. With his  family’s permission, here is their announcement, followed by my appreciation:

A notice from the family of Peter Claeys, in Belgium.

Lucas Jackson / Reuters

As mentioned last week, I’m nostalgically trying to piece together some elements of the olden-days blogging culture in the current, very different online environment.

Today’s installment: A long note from a reader working through why he has changed his mind about Comey’s Choice™—former FBI Director James Comey’s decision to ignore the practice of his predecessors and comment openly about the investigative status of candidates during an election.

The reader begins about the overall process of collaborative thinking-out-loud:

I confess to using [emails to me and other writers] as a foil against which to flesh out my thoughts and ideas. I hope it hasn't been an irritating distraction. It's certainly helped me. I'm at least hoping that the elaboration of my own denseness has helped you to understand how much (or little) of the media's message is being absorbed and understood by people in the general population who think about it.

In that spirit, I just listened to the Colbert-Comey interview; I'd listened to the Maddow interview, and read summaries of a couple of others. [Update: I recommend listening to Michael Barbaro’s 42-minute interview with Comey on the NYT podcast The Daily, which goes into many of the questions the reader raises.] And I was about to sit down and ask you an honest question: Why was Comey's decisions to make public pronouncements about Clinton's e-mails wrong? The case he states makes sense, especially given the impossible consequences of going in either direction.

I've seen your many tweets challenging both the decision and the media handling of it. But his case still is highly persuasive. He was facing, in his statement, a Hobson's choice between tainting an election, or tainting a presidency, depending upon the outcome, given his perception that the independence of Justice (Loretta Lynch) being questioned.

And then, amidst my shower this morning, I got it. And I want to share it with you because, honestly, I haven't seen, or perhaps more accurately, been able to pull out of the mishmash of facts and events, a clear explication of why what he did was wrong.

Elise Amendola / AP

Last week I quoted a long dispatch from a Harvard graduate now living in New Haven, on why he thought the Trump era held more perils for elite-level schools like Harvard and Yale than they might be anticipating. Readers chimed in to agree, disagree, and share parallel experiences here.

I’ve received a flood of mail since then—supportive, angry, provocative in various ways—which I’ll work through and quote as circumstances allow. But for real-time reasons, I want to quote one of them today. It’s from Justin Kaplan, a current graduate student at Harvard, who is originally from southern Virginia and went to college at the University of Virginia. (He points out that he is one of a set of triplets, which has affected his parents’ ability to support his higher-education costs.)

Kaplan, whose name I am using with his permission, writes about a vote for graduate-school unionization at Harvard that is winding up today. As he points out, his experience should obviously not be taken as representative of elite universities in general, or Harvard in particular, or even his own graduate department. But accumulations of individual  experience have their weight, and this is his account:

Regarding your piece on “The Future of Elite Schools in the Trump Era,” I would love to share my thoughts and experiences of the “Present” at an elite school: namely, Harvard.

I will preface my comments with a disclaimer: I do not claim to speak for all students at Harvard, nor all students at the School of Public Health, where I currently pursue a master’s degree. I am just relaying the observations I have been banking since my acceptance and subsequent arrival here… It would be fallacious to generalize widely from my experience.

That being said, my best friend at Harvard is my therapist. Or maybe my psychiatrist, whom I see monthly at student health, and who recently comforted me with an age-old adage: “it’s better to be from Harvard than at Harvard.”

Windmills in Texas LM Otero / AP

In a few days, the May issue of the magazine will arrive for subscribers ( ! ) and appear on newsstands. It includes an article I’ve done as a more analytically explicit companion to Our Towns, the mainly narrative book that I’ve written with my wife, Deb, and that will come out next month.

In the Atlantic article I elaborate on a claim that I’ve been exploring in this space over the past five years of traveling through and reporting about “interior America.” It boils down to this, from the article:

Dysfunction at the national level genuinely is a problem, as the world is reminded every time the federal government shuts down. Some of that pathology has spread to the state level. But for us the American story was of a country that is still capable of functioning far more effectively than national-level paralysis would indicate or than most people unaware of the national patterns we are reporting would assume about the parts of America they’re not in.

The words I most want to emphasize from that passage are the final ones. People generally develop a more-or-less realistic assessment of the communities and institutions they experience first-hand. But more and more, they have come to believe that the world “outside” is full of dystopian horrors they are fighting off at home. The simplest illustration, which I mention and document in the piece: Polls show that by huge majorities, Americans think things are getting worse for the country as a whole. By similarly huge majorities, they believe that conditions in their own communities are getting better, not worse.

What explains this split awareness? It’s complicated. No doubt a significant factor is that politics at the national level have genuinely reached a point of crisis — and it’s tempting for people to base their judgments of local conditions on first-hand knowledge, and assume that the (abysmal) level of national politics is the default assumption about everywhere else. The decades-long fear-and-disaster emphasis of local news and cable news also has an effect. (“We’re not having many car hijackings / tornados / terrorist threats here locally, but they must be widespread because I see them all the time on the news!”)

In the article I also propose a way to test the proposition that America is, at a local level, positive minded. I offer this for the (no doubt substantial) number of readers who might start out skeptical. Further details when the magazine comes out. For the moment, here is a way to sample what it has been like to go city-by-city and ask about the most significant local developments.


While on a long drive yesterday, I listened on the radio to Joshua Johnson’s radio interview, on his 1A program, with Dale Ross, the mayor of Georgetown, Texas. Ross’s story, told last month in this Smithsonian article, is of a conservative-Republican mayor in a Republican-voting town, who has made Georgetown the largest town in America to run entirely on renewable power. Something similar is true of the also-Republican mayor of the also-conservative city of Lancaster, California, which has gone all-out in its transition to solar power.

Shannon Stapleton / Reuters

Recently I posted a dispatch from a reader based in New Haven, himself a Harvard graduate, who said that America’s elite-level universities were ill-prepared for what the Trump administration had in store for  them.

Here is a sampling of the response that has come in. First, the flippant:

Your blog post detailing a reader’s concern about the insularity and elitism of Ivy League universities made me think of a personal anecdote about the last time I visited Cornell.

It was my 24th birthday, and I was at an apartment party with a few friends. I was offered the chance to pick the music, and I decided to put on one of the greatest pop songs of all time, Mariah Carey’s “Emotions.”

Not only did no one besides me dance, but someone had the gall to change the track during the iconic vamp where Mariah hits the highest falsetto note of the song. Maybe it’s just me being petty, but that moment demonstrated the aloofness and entitlement of Ivy League students; if they wouldn’t let me finish listening to one of my favorite songs on my birthday, and an objectively fantastic one at that, how much awareness do they really have about their fellow American’s lives, and will they realize that their instincts and decision-making skills aren’t always right?

Yeah, I’m probably just being petty.

***

Much more substantively, from another reader, a young woman named Erica Yurvati :

I just read your post about the future of elite schools in the Trump era. I think I might have a unique perspective to add.

I grew up in Kutztown, Pennsylvania, which is a small town in the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch Country. It's definitely Trump territory. Most of my ancestors were farmers and my mom's generation was the first to go to college. I was an overachiever who made the most of the opportunities at my school and was lucky enough to have parents who supported me in activities outside of school.

When I got into Yale, I knew it would change my life and it absolutely did.

The opening of a new "story map" on the life of Coachella that goes on before and after the festival Douglas McCulloh / Esri story map

I recall the first time I heard someone in New York talk excitedly about plans to “go to Coachella.” What? I thought.

The Coachella I had known while growing up in the vicinity was a small desert town where irrigation made farming possible, and where the crops ranged from rows of vegetables to groves of citrus and date-palm trees. Under the blasting desert sun, its motto—“The City of Eternal Sunshine”—seemed a literally accurate description, except maybe for the nighttime hours. Every year the next-door town of Indio would hold the National Date Festival, where events included naming a Queen Scheherazade and her court. (That tradition continues: here’s the current queen, Keanna Garcia.) During Cesar Chavez’s heyday as an organizer, his United Farm Workers led a number of strikes and other actions among the mainly Latino work force in the area.

So to me, the name Coachella had always meant “date palms” and “farm-workers’ efforts.” But over the past 20 years, it has come to mean “Music Festival” to much of the world. In fact, the web address coachella.com takes you directly to festival information, rather than to a municipal site.

This tension—Coachella the real place, where struggles for economic and environmental progress have been waged for decades, versus Coachella the stylish venue toward which festival-goers are flocking right now—is the theme of an intriguing new “story map” produced by the novelist Susan Straight, the photographer Douglas McCulloh, and our friends* at the Esri corporation, of Redlands, California. The map is here, and a few details about it are after the jump.