Jim and Deb Fallows: Insights on Journalism, Politics, China, and Love

On Century Avenue had the opportunity to sit down with esteemed journalists and writers James and Deborah Fallows during their visit to NYU Shanghai. James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic, and the author of “China Airborne” — an outlook on China through aviation. Additionally, he also rid the world of the dreaded “Clippy” paperclip on MS Word during his tenure at Microsoft. Deborah Fallows’ latest book, “Dreaming in Chinese”, discusses her experiences with learning Chinese, whereas previously she has written about the trade-off between one’s career and the responsibilities that accompany parenting. They have both recently launched their American Futures Project, through the course of which they tour small U.S. towns on their plane.

Through this insightful conversation the Fallows open up about their college romance, Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, and China from the lens of “China watchers.”

Mr. Fallows, as editor of the Harvard Crimson, and Mrs. Fallows, as a linguistics major, you were both ultimately in two very different circles. How did you meet at Harvard and how did the college romance blossom from thereon?

James Fallows: It’s a long story so we will give you the abbreviated version. We met on a blind date, it was somebody who was on The Crimson, who was also a friend of (Deb’s). She was the girlfriend of a friend of mine on The Crimson and she was a friend of (Deb’s) from the dorm and they were having a party. We got set up on a blind date. As I was working on a story, I got there fairly late to pick up Deb, but fortunately she waited and we have been together even since. That was when we were eighteen. We got married when we were twenty-one .

Deborah Fallows: Honestly we did get married kind of early. Jim was one year ahead of me in college and we met when I was a freshman and (Jim) was a sophomore and we got married right when I graduated. So we were twenty-one. I would also just like to add that Jim was the nicest person on the newspaper. One of the nice ones!

JF: And if we hadn’t have met then, we probably would have never met. Just because we were going in different directions.

Consequently, both of you studied together at Oxford University. How did this pan out and lead you to your respective careers?

JF: It was a complicated overlap. I graduated from college a year ahead of Deb in 1970 and I had a Rhodes scholarship and in those days you couldn’t get married for the first year, but after that the prohibition had run out and like many of our friends, we got married. Then Deb was also at Oxford. Deb had a great job in the experimental psychology lab, working with rats. Then we came back to Washington for two years and I started working in the magazine world, for Washington Monthly. Then we went to Texas, for Deb to do her graduate work in linguistics.

DF: That was about two and a half to three years I guess. I was in school and Jim was working for a start-up magazine in Texas at that time, called The Texas Monthly, so that was really good luck that we both had something interesting to do in the same place.

JF: Then we came back to DC and that’s when our kids started appearing. Our first one was the first baby at the Carter administration so his appearance was announced at a White House press conference in 1977. We did that and then we moved to Texas again.

In the modern day, the issue of work- personal life balance has become more and more prominent. How have you managed to balance, not only your individual lives, but both your careers and family?

JF: I think that each of us has continued to accommodate the other’s needs.

DF: I hate to sound like some old married person who is giving marriage advice or something, but I think we were very fortunate. We were very fortunate because we did get married when we were really young and in a sense grew up together. We were only twenty one and we were just getting out of college. It was also important that it was an era during the Vietnam War when there was so much chaos in America, that people didn’t plan their lives in the way that they do now. It was like you don’t want to be in this war, you want your country to be out of this war and there was an overriding sensibility surrounding the country that was driving things. You didn’t really have time to think about your own personal lives because the country was in such a mess. So that was the thing that was driving everything and the thing that made our lives and I think friend’s lives a lot less self-orientated.

JF: We came to DC to work with magazines, so I could work in magazines. we went to Texas because that is where Deb wanted to go and we found a way that was really great for us. We have each had a centre of gravity at different times.

DF: We haven’t deliberately counted off and traded off, but it was in our minds for each of us to get a chance to do things that we wanted to do individually. I wouldn’t have normally moved to DC and Jim wouldn’t have normally moved to Texas, but we did those things for each other. Also, during that period of time, again it was kind of shaped by the era. About the time we were having kids, feminism had really started and it was in full force. But it was a very strict idea that for women the definition of a successful woman was that you could do it all at once. Have your kids, have your career, be a superwoman. So I really subscribed to that at the beginning, but then when we had our second child, I realised that it was working for me the way I was told it was going to work.

In response to this ‘superwoman’ mentality, you wrote your first book, “A Mother’s Job” in 1985. This book was instantly criticized by Elizabeth Crow, in a review she wrote for the New York Times criticizing your career choices, and saying very little about the contents of your book. How did you respond to such harsh critique?

DF: It was a difficult time. The point of the book was to say it is a legitimate choice to say I don’t want to work during this period and I want to spend time raising my children. But the whole national mentality of that argument was that it was a pretext – that just meant you weren’t strong enough to do it. It was a very controversial thing to say, that I am making this deliberate positive decision to step away from my career for a while and raise these kids because I think it is important and that is what I want to do. So it took me a long time to write that book, but it was important to work through that decision in my mind. It was also difficult because I had no idea what I was stepping into.

At any point were you discouraged from writing again?

DF: I wrote this book and it came out and there was a very strong reaction to it on one side and on the other side. But oddly the people that were embracing me were all the people on the far right and the people that were criticising me were far left. It was a real growing experience. If I had written about it now, I would have known what was coming and how to handle it. But now, I think it is a legitimate choice, without such a judgemental overtone.

JF: It was a deeply dishonest review. If she (Elizabeth Crow) were looking back on it, I am sure that she would recognize that it was a political war and we just happened to be on the other side from her. The book review editor chose to write that review intentionally because it was part of the cultural war of that era.

In terms of the cultural war, the eighties did see a rise in consumer journalism. With this, was this article an example of presenting what sells, rather than what is responsible?

JF: From my perspective the war against Deb’s book was less about journalism and was more the result of a deep political tension in the US. An example now in the US would be suppose somebody was writing a memoir about his or her’s immigrant experience. The reviews from the right wing wouldn’t care about the book at all, it would just be we don’t like immigrants. I think the tensions in journalism between what you think people want to know versus what they should know, that’s just eternal in journalism.  The challenge is finding the balance because you can’t make people read things. It’s just giving them enough of what they should know in a way that is as interesting as it can be. That is the eternal juggling act that you do with OCA, that we do at The Atlantic, that everyone does.

Mr. Fallows, you have consistently followed the political tension in the US – starting with your job as speechwriter for Jimmy Carter. In terms of working for one of the most controversial US presidents, how did this job affect your political beliefs?

JF: I started working for the Washington Monthly right after graduate school and the person who founded that had been a one time politician in West Virginia. He said that if you are going to write about Public Affairs, it is very valuable to gain some experience in government and politics. So it is all not just at arms length. I always thought that in principle I would like to do it one time. One time is different from zero. So, when we were in Texas I was working for a magazine that was getting going and this chance came out of nowhere to get on to a presidential campaign when I was twenty six. Why not?

Although working for Jimmy Carter did pull you in closer to the political world, how did you manage to separate journalism from politics or your personal beliefs?

JF: If you’ve worked in the government, even in the White House, you never believe any conspiracy theory. Most things that happen are by accident, confusion or by stupidity. Most people just can’t carry out plots. When I was working for the Carter Administration, people would say “Carter is carrying out a secret plan,” and you knew it was simply that somebody forgot to return a phone call. Most things are somewhat chaotic. It’s like coming to China, you see most things here are kind of chaotic. Also, a major factor in how politics work is just people being too tired and not having enough sleep. That’s almost always the reason. So, I know these things in my bones now having done it for so long.

On the other hand, I didn’t want to go back and forth, sort of auditioning for political jobs, even though we have known Bill Clinton a long time, we didn’t want to deal with their administration. So, when I read about politics I say, you should know that I once worked for a Democratic president, but this is why I think the Iran deal is good, this is why I think the Iraq deal is bad, etcetera. As long as you make a point to disclose your background, that way nobody can say “Of course he’s said that. He once worked for a Democratic president.”

You recognize the influence of personal bias. However, how do you think this shapes what is published? Do you think that the news is influenced primarily by the interests of journalists or the interest of the public?

JF: I think that for individual reporters the pursuit of readership is a minor factor, people are generally in the business because they are interested in these topics. Here’s how you know if you want to be a journalist in the long run. The two main impulses of a journalist are 1) you want to find things out, and 2) you want people to listen to you once you found those things out. Of course, that is the eternal challenge of journalism: how to get a big enough audience without pandering. I think that in every culture, every individual has these acknowledged biases, so all you can do is expose yourself to as much outside criticism and pressure as you can. And, social media helps with that because people can jump in and say, “why aren’t you writing about this?”

I think that in this stage of media, any story you want to find you can find. So, for example, my friend Lawrence Wright who I worked with at the Texas Monthly, has worked on the story of Saudi Arabia’s involvement for years. I think if the editor of The New Yorker, The New York Times or The Washington Post was here right now they would point to six stories they have done about this. Each of us have a way in which we want the individual stories to be played higher. But, the professional organizations do their best to embrace all these different narratives.

Moving towards current U.S. politics, The Atlantic recently published an article about what the left is expecting from Hillary. What is your personal take on Hillary’s campaign?

JF: This situation is genuinely unprecedented. It is not just the first woman with a plausible chance of being elected, not simply the first spouse, but there has never been somebody who has been this much a prohibited favorite before. So there is no experience to judge this from. On the one hand it is hard to see how she could be elected. You know, Clinton, Bush, Clinton, Bush. But on the other hand, it is hard to see who could beat her. It’s a puzzling situation. I suppose if you had to bet money, you would bet on her being the next president. But it is still a year and a half before the election, things can change. I would be amazed if any scandal could hurt her. They have been in the public eye for thirty years. People who hate them are going to hate them, people who love them are going to love them.

I also think that it is a very different campaign from the one four years ago. The main reason is there is no Obama. If you think in recent politics there have been three exceptional talents. Bill Clinton is one, he is just a born political genius. Ronald Reagan was an exceptional talent and so was Obama. But there is no Obama running against her this time. As Obama had the first ever pedigree on racial issues, she does have it on women’s issues, so there is that. Four years ago I was for Obama and not Clinton and now I recognise that Clinton seems to me the most plausible democratic candidate. The other thing was the Iraq war vote. That was the only reason Obama had an opening against her four years ago. That’s gone away by now. Another thing that is strange is that it doesn’t really matter what campaign she runs, presidential campaigns are essentially white, southern men who are Republicans and everybody else, who essentially go for the democrats. So she would have to run a very bad campaign and something would have to go very wrong to give her a disadvantage against any of the Republicans. That is just the demographic contest. If you look at the divisions, women are Democratic, young people are Democratic, latinos are Democratic, highly educated people are Democratic, older, white men from the south is the only Republican stronghold.

Departing from politics and focusing on China: what inspired your move to East Asia, and specifically, to China? At what point, Deborah, did this move inspire you to write your second book?

JF: We saw China’s rise in the mid-80’s. The reason we came back again in 2006 was partly because I had been doing all this Iraq War coverage, and it was horrible. I wanted to get out of that. We wanted to be able to have a sense of China without just visiting a few times.

DF: We were ready to leave DC and get on the road again and thought that no other place in the world was more exciting than China. So we arrived, and I had no idea what I was going to do. But it’s always been part of my job description as part of the family to work on the language of the place we end up, so we could function in those places. When we got here, I started learning Chinese in one of these commercial schools as hard as I possibly could, because it was quickly apparent that it was very necessary here. Then, there was this stroke of fate. We were back in the United States about a year later, and it happened that the people renting our house in DC was a journalistic couple. The guy was head of the Times in London and his wife had just started a new publishing house in England with a friend of hers. We had naturally become friends with them, and when we went back I was talking to Rebecca (the wife) about this crazy life we were living in China, and from my linguistic background, about how equally crazy the language was. Chinese worked in a way that no other language should work. She and her friend said out of the blue that I should write a book for them. They were looking for books and so we talked about it. That was the beginning of it, and it was the idea that it would be a look at Chinese culture through the lens of the native language.

JF: They wanted to call it Shanghai in Pyjamas.

DF: But it became Dreaming in Chinese. So when we came back to China, I kept studying the language, but  was also looking more closely at how culture matched up with language.

From the West’s perspective, individuals go into China looking at how China develops, as journalists or politicians, etc. However, from the East moving to the West, individuals are perceived as immigrants. How do you think that disparity plays out in understanding China?

JF: It’s an asymmetry in many ways. The West has been a developed society in the time that China and others have been aspiring, and I do think that people around the world under-appreciate how important it is to the United States, that it is this immigrant-absorbent society. There is a fundamental difference between a large, continually immigrant society and one like China, where we are all here as non-Chinese, but we are not going to become Chinese. That creates strengths and weaknesses from both sides. From the U.S. it’s a fundamental strength that so many other countries are just there part of the stew, and it probably makes it easier for an immigrant society to have connections to other countries. I think that on the one hand, a lot of people in China have an understanding of the U.S. that it is different from most Americans’ understanding of China. For example, Xi Jinping’s daughter went to Harvard. There’s a kind of stake that the standing members have family in the US. And that’s not true the other way around. On the other hand, a lot of Chinese people think that America equals New York, or America equals Los Angeles, and they don’t have a sense of how chaotic and different it really is.

Your new American Futures project, aims to show people another side of the U.S., rather than just the big cities. Could you tell us more about this project and where the inspiration came from?

DF: It was like a scientific experiment that kind of came to a moment where it became obvious what we should do. We had been back in DC for a number of years and we were ready to do something a bit different.

JF: I was also so sick of writing about politics and more about Iraq and all this nightmare stuff.

DF: We were ready for something else. We spoke to our older son about what we should do and he said that it was very obvious. He told us to think about the things we love, and we loved going around China and learning about all these little towns, and we loved flying around in a small plane. We also had a different sense of what America was in comparison to the story that was being told in national press. So, he told us to go around to small towns in America and see what we learned from that.

JF: It’s been really interesting. As Deb was saying, we thought that the part of America that wasn’t LA or San Francisco or Boston was being neglected, and we wanted to see if things looked better or worse, when we looked at third and fourth tier cities, as they call them in China. We also did this at a time where it looked like the U.S. was still going down. We wanted to see what the recovery would be like. On my website, we asked people why we should come to their town, and like a thousand people wrote in. It’s been fascinating and really a different understanding of the country. The national level of politics in the U.S. really is profoundly broken. But at the regional and city level, it is very functional. You have compromise and partisan issues don’t matter. You have innovation in schooling and manufacturing recovery, and a sense of local pride –  all the things you would like to think are part of the fabric of the country don’t exist at the national level, but instead are quite strong at the regional level. There is also a talent dispersal point. You think of all the talented people and you think they only go to six big cities, but, in fact, somebody might decide to go to Greenville, South Carolina and build their new company there. That’s really interesting.

DF: One other reason this worked for us is because we really felt comfortable going to small towns. We both grew up in small towns. It’s not like we were city kids going to see some country folk. When we would go to a place, it just seemed very familiar, because it was the same social structure and cultural structure that we had grown up with and recognize.

JF: The Atlantic some years ago hired this French writer to go travel to small towns, and he was more focused on these curious Americans in small towns. For us, it’s where we’re from and where we feel comfortable.

On a final note, students at NYU Shanghai are here as a part of a US-China experiment. How do institutions such as our own play a role in US-China relations?

DF: I think that it’s impossible to tell. This in China and only certain things are under your control. I hope that this is an irreversible change, because it seems like a tremendous experiment. Maybe even more so than Abu Dhabi, because it is China and there’s such global opportunity and need for this to happen. I can’t imagine that many other universities could use this as a model. I’m sure that they could pick out the pieces that have worked best, but the idea of turning out 300 to 500 students a year, with these kind of relationships and exposure you have, eventually, could change the world order of global education, because it’s not just those 500 people. It’s everybody else in their world and in the world of education.

This article was written by Isabella Farr and Alhan Fakhr. Send an email to managing@oncenturyavenue.com to get in touch.
Photo Credit: Sunyi Wang