James Fallows Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

A Journalist's Craft: Conversation with James Fallows, National Correspondent, the Atlantic Monthly, 12/7/00 by Harry Kreisler.
Photo by Jane Scherr

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Being a Journalist

What were your first writing jobs as a journalist?

Well, it depends on whether you're counting a job as something you get paid for. I came back from England in 1972 to work for Ralph Nader, who I'd worked for before. I actually wrote a quickie book for him in 1970 and one again in 1972.

On what topic?

The one in 1970 was called The Water Lords. It actually is a respectable book. It was the case study of one city, Savannah, Georgia, and the way a big company there ran the city. The one in 1972 was called Who Runs Congress? Mark Greene, who is now a politician in New York, David Zwick, who's now a lawyer, and I were locked into a basement for two months and we produced this book at the end of it, a paperback book, which sold like hotcakes, although we got none of the money. We got, I think, $500 for the summer. But that was my first quasi-paying job. I then worked for the Washington Monthly for a couple years, the Texas Monthly after that.

Let's talk a little about journalism, because some of the people who might read this might be interested in going into that field. There are a number of topics I want to talk about; the first one is how do you find your subjects? Or do your subjects find you?

Let me answer that indirectly, and then say what it is you're trying to do in this business, or what at its best the business can be.

I always mistrust people in journalism who say they like writing. Because almost anybody I know who takes writing seriously, who does it for a living, really hates the actual writing. I just hate writing things. It's always difficult. And it's the hardest thing I routinely do because you're always trying to figure, "How can I make this clearer? How can I get the point I'm really trying to make get across? How can I convey what I've seen?" The reason you do it, despite that penalty of the unpleasantness of writing, is the thrill, the satisfaction, the enjoyment of seeing things. Of just being able to learn about new things.

So, to me, the proper subject is usually the latest thing you've seen that you want to tell somebody about. The guiding impulse for journalism usually should be, "Hey! You can't believe what I just saw." You know, just wanting to grab somebody by the lapel and say, "I just saw the most interesting thing. And here's what you'd know if you had seen it, too." So, in process terms, choosing subjects involves the editor you're working for, the reporting you've done, the ways you cultivate all these things. But the underlying impulse is saying, "I've just seen something interesting and I'd like to tell you about it." It all flows from that.

In your case there seems to be a focus on recurring themes. You seem to be interested in the interface, among other things, of culture, society, and technology. What are the roots of that? Other than what we just talked about with regard your father?

Yes. Again, I'll answer this somewhat indirectly. I have always liked, perhaps to a fault, being in different places and doing different things. I view a satisfaction of journalism, the fact that it essentially gives you virtual lives. You're able to have the experience of people in ten or fifteen different livelihoods in one lifetime. A penalty for that is that you never build up the institutional connections in a certain place, in a certain field, in a certain kind of expertise.

But, for example, after my wife and I got married in the summer of '71 -- we had known each other in college. We got married after my first year at Oxford. Our honeymoon was a couple of months on a work gang in Ghana. And it just was interesting to see what Ghana was like.

You were writing about that?

Ah, no. Actually, the reason we did this was there was a postal strike in England for four months before this. And we couldn't write anybody. There was no e-mail then. We couldn't write to people. We couldn't afford to telephone them to figure out something to do in the summer. So we saw these posters on the wall in Oxford: "Free Summer Work in Africa." It seemed warm, and it was free. So, we ended up being on this labor gang in Ghana. And it just was interesting to see another place. And I wanted to tell people about what it was like in Ghana. And so since then, every two or three years, except when our kids are in high school, we've moved some place else and done something different. And so I think the experience of seeing a lot of different ways of life makes you reflect on what it is in the culture that affects how people achieve, how they don't achieve, what their material circumstances are, etc.

In addition to moving around and looking at different worlds, you emphasize in one of your books the importance of looking, learning, and reporting. You also emphasize the importance of not losing sight of the facts. This comes as part of the critique of today's journalism. Tell us a little about that, because it's very clear that in your work process, you inundate yourself with written material, but also you go there and experience it yourself, which is what you did when you wrote your books on the Asian economies.

I don't know if this is a temperamental matter that draws people into journalism or if it's something that people develop when they're in journalism. But I find it almost impossible -- or really nervous-making -- if I'm writing about something that I haven't seen. Or writing about a person whom I haven't talked to.

I think it's a combination of nature and nurture. That you feel as if you can't describe what a city looks like if you haven't actually been there. Now I'm sure historical novelists get around this by reading things about, you know, the layout of ancient Baghdad or whatever. Maybe this is putting a gloss on something that actually is a consumer benefit of being a journalist: I'm getting to go see different things. But I feel as if the basic claim on legitimacy from the reader's point of view that you have as a writer is that they know you've been out there and seen things. And you can say, "Number One: I saw this. Number Two: I learned these things, which I'm passing on to you. I didn't know before, so perhaps you didn't know before. And number three: on the basis of having seen and learned these things, I concluded the following. And I'm going to try to persuade you to think the same, too." So I think it's that one, two, three process. And when journalism errs, perhaps to anticipate your next question, is when either the cultural imperatives or other things get people away from taking in new information. It becomes all the processing of the spin. I like that as much as the next person, but I think it's divergent from what the real mission of the business is.

Let's get to the facts right here. When in the late eighties Americans were being stunned by the economic challenge from Asia, you took your family and moved there and for a number of years traveled all around, coming to understand what was at the heart of these new economies that posed such a threat to our economic way of life.

It was tremendous fun. We were in Asia for about four years. Our kids, when we left, were five and eight. We came back when our older son was going into eighth grade. It was time to get back and to be in a more normal situation, because they'd been in Japanese public schools for awhile, and they'd been out of school for a year or so as we traveled around. It just was fascinating to see such a variety of cultures, from Korea to Burma to Indonesia to Japan to China. But also to see the countries at a time of ascent, and to try to guess how much of this ascent was temporary, how much was based on governmental institutions, how much was based on culture. Just to try to deal with all those things. For similar reasons, I wanted to see Silicon Valley in the last year or two, because with the Net boom, it's been interesting to see this culture in ascent and then try to assess it in similar terms.

Your insights emerge out of this process, from going there, seeing different places, reporting what you see, and then putting it down on paper. But putting it down with a clarity that can help people understand what's at work.

I appreciate your putting it that way. Journalism has lots of different branches. Writing has lots of different branches. The part I think I should stick to, the part I feel most comfortable in, is more or less what you described: going out and trying to see things the reader may not have seen. Serving as sort of the remote intelligence system for the reader. (I'm using "intelligence" not in the IQ sense, but in a CIA-type sense of getting new data.) And then offering this bargain to the reader: if you give me your time and attention, I will at least give you some new information you didn't have before. I'll tell you something about how Bangkok looks. Or how Rangoon looks. And then I will at least present a way to think about this. You don't have to accept Part Two. You don't have to accept the way of thinking about it, but I'll show you the stages that led to my conclusion, and you can see whether that'll give you a more useful lens for viewing these things in a different framework.

So you feel the responsibility to shake people up with your view of things, even if they disagree?

Yes. Yes. The idea is that people need the inchoate data and they need categories. They need ways of saying, "Okay, this is important and this is not. This is rising, this is falling. This is good; this is bad." And so -- well, I hadn't thought of it in just these terms before you were asking this -- I do think that that one-two combo of new information and a new and perhaps clearer way of thinking about things, even if you disagree with that framework, is of some value.

In the course of gathering this material, the on-site interview is very important to you. Talking to the people who were making the decisions, or by the way they live, changing the world around them. Or anybody else, to get a complete picture of what's going on. What's the key to doing a good interview?

There's another temperamental factor, which in my experience is true. And I'll talk about procedure, too.

I think it was Harrison Salisbury, who was a correspondent for The New York Times in Vietnam and Russia and every place else, who pointed out that many people who went into journalism were by nature shy people, who are looking for a structural excuse to go ask about things. That's true in my case and true of a lot of people I know. You look for an institutional reason to pry into things -- what you wouldn't do in your natural state of mind. The impulse is to learn about things.

My basic interviewing technique is not Mike Wallace on Sixty Minutes, saying, "Well, when did you stop beating your wife?" It's essentially saying, "Can you explain this to me? Can you tell me what you're doing here? And what's important about it?" You know, "What's interesting about it?" I usually go in there and just try to ask the person a number of framing questions: "How did you end up doing what you're doing now? What are the big three things that go in here? What are you concerned about? What are you worried about? What do people misunderstand about what you're doing? What are the two strongest arguments against your theory? What was the most important thing that led you to your conclusion?" You can then get them to do some of the work, some of the thinking for you, because they've spent more time thinking about it than you have. There's all sorts of raw material you can then use to share with the reader later on.

This non-confrontational, empathetic relationship helps us understand something that emerges in all of your work, which is an effort to give the de Tocquevillian rendering of a situation

I'm flattered. I, of course, like any "quality lit" - type of comparison.

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