The new editor of U.S. News & World Report has never shrunk from judgment. In James Fallows's world, there is right and there is wrong. "Without trying to pretend that I have encyclopedic knowledge of what is right or wrong, I do think there are certain things in our current business which are wrong," Fallows says in his tidy office.
He's a tall, slender, blue-eyed man who holds himself with a kind of fastidious reserve. Even though it's "casual Friday" and he's dressed in baggy corduroys and a tieless checked shirt, he seems buttoned, even battened, down. Since the publication last year of his manifesto, "Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy," he has donned the mantle of Reformer-in-Chief of Journalism-as-We-Know-It.
The business according to Fallows is obsessed with celebrity and indifferent to citizenship. It accentuates the negative, substitutes glib cynicism for serious thought and panders to the masses while at the same time dismissing them. Its practitioners reap fame from television and fortune from the lecture circuit as they thoughtlessly damage democracy.
These are the wrongs Jim Fallows seeks to right. And now, he's been given the opportunity. "The best journalist of his generation," the magazine's owner, Mort Zuckerman, calls him. "The most independent mind, the most rigorous of reporters. That's what I think the magazine needs." The proud owner, who also spoke in glowing terms about the five other editors he's hired or fired since 1986, adds: "He's one of the best-adjusted human beings I've ever encountered."
In the six months since he took over, Fallows has kicked some life into a place nicknamed "U.S. Snooze." He has violently shaken up the masthead of the No. 3 news weekly (circulation around 2.2 million, compared with Newsweek's 3.2 and Time's 4.1), the only weekly newsmagazine based in Washington. He's fired half a dozen top editors and writers (including pundit Steve Roberts and senior European editor Robin Knight), watched others leave on their own (notably political columnist Michael Barone and investigative journalists Brian Duffy and Ed Pound), and recruited and promoted others.
"For the first time this magazine has a moralist for an editor," says U.S. News writer Charles Fenyvesi, who has watched them come and go. Coming of Age
Fallows came to the task from a renovated attic off Foxhall Road -- where, in the big, handsome house he shares with Deborah Fallows, his wife of 25 years, and two college-age sons, he pursued a life of reading, thinking and writing books, essays and public radio commentaries.
"U.S. News has to be newsy, but less whipsawed by the news," Fallows declares. "What we're trying to do is to make what's important interesting."
He's not alone in his view that a newsmagazine's function is to explain and interpret events but not necessarily chronicle them -- a job daily newspapers and hourly broadcasts accomplish. Fallows believes it's for U.S. News to tell readers what's important (not O.J. or Princess Di), set the agenda for knotty issues and even propose solutions.
"When people decide to watch, read or listen to the news each day, they are not looking for a summary of what has gone wrong in the world," Fallows argued in a recent issue of the magazine touting "20 Ways to Save the World." Attacking "the widespread assumption that journalism's function is primarily to root out problems," he went on: "Sometimes they would like an idea of what might be done to fix a problem."
Despite his youth in Redlands, Calif., a small town outside Los Angeles, and despite sojourns in Austin (where he wrote for Texas Monthly) and Asia (where he wrote for the Atlantic Monthly from Japan and Malaysia), the 47-year-old Fallows has spent much of his career inside the Beltway, cracking the codes of policy and politics.
First he became the protege of Charles Peters at the Washington Monthly. In its heyday in the 1970s, it was famous for attracting an underpaid but brilliant collection of precocious Ivy Leaguers who, under Peters's tutelage, repeatedly challenged the cliches about what made Washington tick. "My dealings with Charlie were the troubled parental relations I never had with my real parents," says Fallows, who has a doctor father and a homemaker mother.
Then he was chief speechwriter to President Carter, and finally Washington editor of the Atlantic Monthly, which is also owned by Zuckerman. Thus Fallows made his considerable reputation not so much as a reporter who hits the street to gather facts on deadline but as an analyst, critic and occasional partisan -- rendering judgments and ruffling Establishment feathers.
Fallows's writing is informed by a Washington Monthly notion that the conventional wisdom is always wrong. At a time of major defense procurement, he warned against depending on high-tech gadgetry. When the United States was strengthening economic ties with Japan, Fallows sounded the alarm that Japan was not engaging in free trade so much as economic warfare. (Fallows's numerous detractors in the Washington policy wars point out that the weapons he deplored worked pretty well in Desert Storm, and Japan today is in a profound slump.)
Peters recalls the day in 1972 that Fallows showed up at his shabby office -- a gangly proselyte fresh out of Harvard and Oxford and a tour with Ralph Nader. "He looked like he was 14 years old," Peters says, "and my first reaction was: He wants a messenger's job and we can't afford a messenger!' " Fallows was hired at $600 a month, and he did become a messenger of sorts.
Still remembered by old hands in the nation's capital is his devastating vivisection, at age 25, of then-influential Washington Post columnist Joseph Kraft as the avatar of "the pallor and predictability of our columnists in general." In another 1975 Washington Monthly piece, "What Did You Do in the Class War, Daddy?," he confessed his guilt for having evaded the draft as a Harvard undergraduate, then rebuked all the "bright young college men" who, like him, let the "proles" fight and die in Vietnam.
"The Passionless Presidency," his two-part 1979 Atlantic Monthly expose on the troubled administration of Jimmy Carter -- filled with insights Fallows gleaned during his service as the president's speechwriter -- made Fallows a bona fide celebrity, worthy of profile in People magazine. It's still a sore subject among Carter's friends, who consider the damaging articles an inexplicable act of disloyalty.
Fallows famously recounted Carter's habit of personally scheduling staff use of the White House tennis court -- an illustration of the president's compulsion for pointless detail. But Fallows, perhaps the most enthusiastic tennis player on the White House staff, omitted a fact he was in a position to know: that Carter began the practice after he showed up one afternoon to play, only to find the court being used by staffers. The president was too polite to kick them off.
Fallows doesn't bother to defend the articles anymore. "I'm not in retrospect making the clear case this was the right thing to do," he says. He looks down and shifts in his seat. "I'm saying that at the time it seemed to be the right thing to do, and probably if I had complete foresight I would not have gone to work for Carter."
Fallows early on showed a knack for getting noticed. At the Harvard Crimson, where he started out selling ads and ended up president, "he was seen as godlike," recalls Harvard alum Robert Decherd, now chairman of the Dallas Morning News. Amid the tumult of the late '60s, Fallows was a beacon of calm.
"The range of debate was, if you were in favor of getting out of Vietnam tomorrow and kicking ROTC off all the campuses, and believed that the U.S. should hang its head in shame over the Vietnam War, then you were a fascist," Fallows recalls. "If you wanted to bomb all the U.S. military installations and actively exult at a victory of the Viet Cong, then you were a progressive."
Fallows was solidly in the "fascist" camp. But on at least one occasion, he followed the "progressive" line by making an anonymous 3 a.m. crank call to Harvard University President Nathan Pusey, rousting the great man out of bed and shrieking jungle noises into his ear.
"Um, ha-ha," Fallows says when asked to confirm this attack on the Establishment. "Nathan Pusey is still alive, I'll just leave it at that." Speaking Freely?
Fallows's influence on U.S. News is not yet readily apparent to outsiders. He says it will take a year for him to execute his ideas. But inside the magazine, he is making his presence felt.
One nagging problem he's been trying to solve is the practice of "buckraking" -- i.e., celebrity journalists speaking for fat fees to corporate interest groups, thereby creating potential conflicts of interest, and then refusing to disclose their financial arrangements. In his book he singled out the buckrakers for special opprobrium.
Fallows has painfully formulated a new policy to restrict paid speaking by U.S. News staffers to academic and other groups not engaged in public controversies, and to require that their fees be published in the magazine. As Fallows has written, "prominent journalists should disclose sources of their income from special interest groups, much as politicians are required to do."
The new guidelines don't apply to the most prominent journalists on the masthead, such as frequent television talking heads Editor-at-Large David Gergen and contributing editor Gloria Borger. (After they complained, Zuckerman determined that as part-timers, they're exempt.) But otherwise, the rules have been in force since Jan. 1.
If Fallows's standards strike some as fraught with difficulty, those people might take comfort in the knowledge that sometimes they strike Fallows that way, too.
In his book, which he finished writing in late 1995, he discussed his own speaking income -- never more than $26,000 a year, he wrote -- and says today that he, too, is abiding by the U.S. News guidelines. But that leaves unreported his 1996 lecture income, earned at a time when he was traveling the country inveighing against the sins of his colleagues.
During an interview that is interrupted as he fine-tunes Zuckerman's fortnightly column and puts the magazine to bed, Fallows stubbornly refuses to enumerate his paid speeches.
And what was the point of his declining to disclose?
"The point would be sort of gratuitous grandstanding," Fallows replies, smiling thinly. "When I was writing a book about this, I said, Okay, what about me?' " he continues. "I said, When I'm having a policy for the magazine, it'll apply to me, too.' I think you have a hard time making a case that this is some offense."
Under further interrogation, Fallows sighs an exasperated sigh. He rolls his eyes and exclaims, "Donnez-moi une break!"
"You know," he goes on, his voice rising, "there are such things as privacy concerns. . . . There are concerns of privacy everybody has, including even me. Even you!" He angrily purses his lips. "To be honest, for purely blackmail-type purposes, I will see if I can put together such a list, just to sort of get you off my case."
"Under protest," as he put it, Fallows tallied his speaking income last year at $45,100, largely from academic institutions and none from business or lobbying groups. This year's haul might be even larger. Last month, he accepted $30,000 to spend several days as the Centennial Lecturer at Arizona State University -- a fee he says he'll donate to charity. This year, he's committed himself to four more paid engagements through April.
After that, he says, he has resolved to stop speaking for money. Pointing Fingers
Many who would agree with Fallows's prescriptions nevertheless find his bedside manner infuriating -- a mix, say his detractors, of arrogance and sanctimony.
Last year, the conservative Weekly Standard lampooned Fallows with a satire titled "The Sayings of Archbishop James." It began: "When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one journalist to rescue, by force of sheer moral surety, the nation's capital from the ethical morass of its own making, it is usually I, James Fallows, who is called in to do the job."
One of Fallows's victims compares him to the Reverend Parris, the witch-burning hypocrite in Arthur Miller's play "The Crucible." Even Fallows acknowledges that among members of the Washington journalism Establishment he is occasionally derided as "The Rector."
But if Fallows has a streak of self-righteousness, he seems to come by it honestly.
"Jim's moralism gets back to the fact that Jim does not think of himself as a Washington person," says a friend, the author Nicholas Lemann, like Fallows a product of Harvard and the Washington Monthly. "He's from Redlands, California, and he has the moralism of a small-town kid from a very isolated rural area who is strait-laced, who believes he has a deeply held and well-fixed idea of what America should be."
Lemann continues: "If you're from that part of California, the whole East Coast feels like being in Europe. It's an old place with all kinds of customs and entrenched aristocratic class systems. It's corrupt, or prone to corruption."
Fallows likes to think of himself as "Mr. Small Town America." It's "an identity which may seem farcical now. It's been 30 years since I lived in California, but that's still the role I feel most comfortable in. Much like little geese being imprinted by whatever they see first, I feel like I was imprinted with that idea of American life."
"Jim's idea of what America should be is a completely democratic, open and classless society, devoid of pretension or snobbery," says Lemann. "So for Jim there is a lurking danger of America evolving into London or Paris and the corruption of the court atmosphere. So when it comes to the Washington Establishment, he tends to be moralistic."
Former Jesuit priest John McLaughlin -- whose raucous television panel show, "The McLaughlin Group," has been one of Fallows's prime targets ("This is the way morons talk," he has said) -- theorizes that Fallows's antagonism stems from disappointment that he wasn't invited to be a "McLaughlin Group" regular.
"In the 1980s he came on three or four times," McLaughlin says. "At some point he asked me how he was doing, and I said, I think your projection is weak.' He asked me for some help. He asked questions like, Should I wait for a signal before intervening? Is there a special language you use for TV? How emphatic should you be with your voice?' He was eager to improve. I did coach him somewhat, but he finally didn't make the cut."
McLaughlin adds that after a long absence, Fallows wrote him a letter. "This was either while he was in Japan or just after he got back. It was a very nice letter about how much he learned doing the show, how much he enjoyed it, and that he was available to do the show again. It was a hand-written letter with good penmanship."
Fallows bristles at this account of coaching and a letter. "That -- and I say this with deliberation -- is a flat lie," he maintains, though he concedes he appeared on the show three times.
In 1993, Fallows grew distressed at what he considered the wrongheaded Japan coverage by then-Washington Post Tokyo Bureau Chief T.R. Reid. Reid's stories, he believed, minimized the economic and cultural differences between Japan and the United States, and didn't appreciate Japan's competitive advantage because of its distinctive brand of industrial policy. But Fallows didn't tell Reid. And he didn't air his differences in the Atlantic Monthly or any number of other publications where he was writing extensively about Western views of Japan.
Instead, Fallows waged a private campaign with Reid's editors to alert them to the correspondent's alleged deficiencies. "I didn't do anything to cause him harm," Fallows says. "We represent opposite sides of the Japanology sphere, and I would say that to anybody who asked me. But that's different from trying to gut him."
But woe betide the critic who has flaws of his own.
Fallows recently apologized to Washington Post Assistant Managing Editor Bob Woodward -- and corrected the paperback edition of "Breaking the News" -- after Woodward informed him that, contrary to Fallows's assertion, Clinton health care coordinator Ira Magaziner did cooperate in the writing of Woodward's book "The Agenda."
The error was significant, because Fallows offered up Woodward's unflattering portrayal of Magaziner as proof positive that Washington journalists give better treatment to public officials who grant them access than to those who don't. Fallows later told Woodward that Magaziner was the source. But he didn't bother to get Woodward's version. (Yet Fallows's correction is grudging: In the new edition, he fudges Magaziner's conduct -- writing that he "appeared" not to cooperate -- and still portrays Woodward as punishing him for noncooperation.)
"The reformer has to be cleaner than snow," Woodward says. "To fail on such a fundamental point of basic journalism is inexcusable. I accepted his apology."
"I presented myself as pushing different ideas," Fallows says. "I have never presented myself as being above reproach." CAPTION: Media critic and editor James Fallows: After many years inside the Beltway, he still considers himself the quintessential outsider, friends say. CAPTION: James Fallows, editor of U.S. News & World Report, has cleaned house in his six months at the only weekly newsmagazine based in Washington.