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

Page 5 of 5

Lessons Learned

I want to go back to the main theme in your life's work, which is writing, articulating issues. For two years you were a speechwriter for President Carter. I'm curious what you learned from that experience, and what the difference is in the kind of writing that you do, which in a way lays out the geography as you travel from issue to issue or from place to place.

In terms of what I've learned about life in general, I learned a lot about government. In particular, the experience made me very skeptical of conspiracy views of history. I know that one of your guests was Oliver Stone. His movies I admire a lot. But he has a sort of conspiratorial view of life, which in government is very hard to believe because you see how mistakes are usually the explanation. Now maybe that was just the Carter administration, but it certainly [included] mistake, blunder, misinformation. So I learned that. I learned how hard it is to work in government. I learned that I, in particular, wasn't interested in doing that again. I was honored to do it for two years, but not any more.

What I learned about writing was actually useful in a way that you've gotten at, because I think of my own journalistic work as being constantly measured against the test of clarity. That what you want, finally, to do is to have the most clearly comprehensible description of how things are and how they fit together. In political writing that's not what you want to do. In political writing you want to be just clear enough that half the people will still agree with you. But when you're writing journalistically you want to say, "Okay, this is exactly what I saw." And people can agree or disagree. When you're writing for a president, you want to say, "Okay, this is the direction we should go" and you're only going to describe it so that 51% of the people will go in that direction. That was useful lesson to learn.

If students are watching this and they say, "Hey, I'd like to do some variant of what you do," how would you tell them to prepare for this kind of vocation?

That's an interesting question. One thing I'd say to them to begin with is that if they have the slightest inkling, the slightest interest in this, they should try it, because it really can be fun. I mentioned earlier that writing is hard, and it is. The actual writing of articles is the hardest thing that I know about doing. But it is enjoyable to be able to learn about things and try to make sense of them. Almost everybody I know who's wanted to make a career in the magazine world and book world has. So it's something that is relatively open. I think the best ways to prepare in both pre-college and college are number one, frequent practice in writing. It can be even e-mail, but anything that has you writing every day is important. And the other is if there's a single discipline ... Well, I was going to say if there's a single discipline to study ... I won't say it. There are two disciplines to study. One is history, because it is a very valuable trick and real thing to be able to put things in some historical context. To say, "Yes, there's a boom in Internet stocks in the 1990s. And how is that like the oil boom of the '70s or the gold boom of 1840s?" So history is very important. And technology is important, too, because more and more of the change in the world is driven by infotech and biotech, and so just being comfortable with those things. So learn history, learn technology, and get practice writing, and you'll be fine.

Jim, thank you very much for taking the time to give us this overview of your very exciting journey into topics that have taken you to different parts of the world.

This has been my pleasure, Harry. Thank you.

And thank you very much for joining us for this Conversation with History.

© Copyright 2000, Regents of the University of California

To the Conversations page.