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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Ideas that Matter

Let's talk about some of your work. One of your first books was National Defense and your last book, Breaking the News, is a critique of the media.In both cases you're looking at institutions. book cover On the one hand, what you see is their decline. On the other hand, you're going in and you're trying to understand what's going on. But also you find the rays of hope -- the places where people are dissatisfied and are seeking reform. And in both cases you have to give the reader a comprehensive view of what's going on.

Well, people who don't like me, of whom there are sufficient number, would make two criticisms of this kind of approach. First they'd say that it's too scolding and "Nyeh, nyeh, nyeh" -ish.

Your work?

No, me personally. This general school of thought. They think I'm too scolding and fault-finding. And second, that the people presented there are not sort of novelistic, Dostoyevskian, rich characters; they are just proxies for the points I'm trying to make. And I will somewhat concede the second point. Often, I'm not Tom Wolfe or John Updike with memorable characters. I do my best, but I often think of the characters in their instrumental role. Of how they're advancing or retarding these various institutional struggles.

On the other point about scolding. I think I'm trying to do as you described it: saying that institutions go through healthier and less healthy stages of evolution. And it's interesting to see what are the patterns that make institutions struggle, whether it's the U.S. auto makers in the mid-seventies before the Japanese shook them up, or the Defense Department after Vietnam, or, I'd say, the news business now. And what can be done about that? What made it go wrong and what can be done? It's interesting to me to find the people who are responsible for big decisions. The people who are trying to change things. So that's why I describe these institutions in the way that you were talking about.

And, in fact, it's those people who reflect some of the ambivalences and tensions of what's going on.You seem to be suggesting -- let's take these two books -- that some of the better people lose sight of the central purpose of the activity. In the case of the analysis of the profession of being a soldier, what you found was that many of the soldiers were being asked to be business managers.

Right.

And procurers of defense weaponry of very high sophistication. In the case of journalists, you were arguing that many of them were becoming celebrities. In both cases they were deviating from the central purpose of the institution. In the case of soldiers, to fight wars. In the case of reporters, to tell the story so people can understand.

Again, I hadn't thought of the connection in just this way until you raised it. But there is this other theme linking these two cases. There's certain institutions where if people just follow the incentives that are most tempting before them, that will be good for the whole institution. For example, in most of the business world, if each individual tries to get rich, that would probably be good for the business, because the business is a matter of trying to look for market opportunities, etc., etc. But there are certain institutions where that's not so, and these are institutions where the fundamental purpose of that whole body is something other than the simple market success. Education is one of those, child-rearing, medicine, the military, and journalism. And so there is a tension between some of the alluring market incentives on people in those businesses and what the whole institution is called upon to serve. book cover If soldiers mainly become careerists just looking for a promotion, that could be bad for the institution. If journalists mainly are looking for maximizing their income -- the same with educators -- there's always a tension because people are people, people care about money, about name, about influence, etc. But there are certain institutions where it's a more complicated balance than it might be in the bond-trading market where everybody just wants to get rich and that's all it's about. It's about more than that in the military, and more than that in journalism, and so that complicated tension is something that I think connects these fields.

Is there something common about the people in these different institutions who want to reform things, who want to make them better?

Yes. They have the burr under the saddle that makes them attractive to people like me. In the crassest sense, the reason they're attractive to journalists is they've often done a lot of the thinking for you. For example, I talk about the military reformers in national defense: Chuck Spinney, John Void, Pierre Spray, others whom I haven't thought about for a long time, but still really respect, who had thought for quite a while about what is structurally wrong with the design of the F-15. What is structurally wrong with the way the air force buys planes in general? What's wrong with the career path in the army? And so you can happen upon these people as I did. They've worked on this for years, and you can spend three months listening to them and sort of imbibe their wisdom. Same, in journalism. Reformers in general are interesting people. I like them by temperament. And they've done much of my work for me. So that's why I gravitate towards them.

Now, after all of this discussion of the work you do and how you do it, what is implicit is your philosophy of journalism. I draw the sense that you see your mission as one of public education, of contributing to a general understanding of a problem. Is that fair?

Yes. Although the word "public education" makes my back hairs rise.

Okay, give me a better word.

There are two reasons why I resist that. One is it suggests a kind of didacticism and talking down to people, which is not what I mean. As you and I speak, the U.S. has recently gone through an election campaign where one of the problems for Al Gore was that he had a great difficulty explaining things to people without seeming to talk down, without seeming to be educating the public. Whereas Bill Clinton, a brilliant man in my view, was able to explain things without ever seeming to patronize in that same way. So I don't mean patronizing education. And also there is a camp within journalism which takes up its arms over the idea that there's any kind of informative or improving role in journalism. I would put it this way: journalism is the sense organs of society. It is the eyes and ears and smell and touch, and to some degree the brain. If we do our job well, people have a realistic picture of what's out there, where they're moving, what's behind them. And if we don't, people have a fantasy picture. Either they're ill informed or they have a kind of fun-house vision of how things are. So our highest purpose is to be good sense organs and do some of the initial processing, saying, "Here's what we see, and here's what we think it means, but our conclusions about what we think it means are provisional. But we're going to tell you what we see. That's our job."

There's a tension in your work which has been reflected in our conversation, which may go back to those early days in California. On the one hand, it's what I would call looking for what is new and understanding it, which you've discussed. But the other is a sense of being true to yourself. And, in fact, that is a theme in your book More Like Us, that we need to reform and adapt in the face of some of the economic challenges we're experiencing. But that in the end we have to be true to ourselves. Talk a little about that. Do you agree with that assessment of your work?

Yes. And the point of this book, which I actually had a lot of fun writing, was that there are real differences among societies. One of the points I was trying to make there is that Japan, for example, works best when people have a clear sense of what their place is. Of how they stand relative to everybody else. How they work as a unit. Whereas America worked best when people had no sense of their proper place and thought, like my dad, they could imagine some new future for themselves tomorrow. You could move to Alaska, take on a new name, and your past is erased. For Japan that would be bad, for us it's good. Institutions work best, and so do people, when they are the best versions of themselves. Just think of the whole range of this [idea]. I have two children. One's still in college; one's recently graduated. They are extremely different kids. They're both very talented. I love them both dearly. But they're very, very different. And each of them will probably end up doing a different thing in his life, and that's good, because they would be unhappy in each other's roles, proper walks of life. And so: have journalists be the best version of journalists. And me being the best version of the kind of writing I can do. And America had the best version of venture capitalism it can do -- that's one of the things I am preaching. Although the word 'preach' I resist ... I regret the instant it comes out of my mouth.

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