When the DC-based journalist James Fallows takes the podium on Thursday at Crosscut’s first annual Courage Awards ceremony, his analysis and narrative will feel familiar to Atlantic readers and NPR listeners — and to members of the region’s software and aviation communities. A globe-trotting pilot and technologist, Fallows' reporting and commentary are marked by the sober, methodical reasoning of a pilot and a programmer.
We created the Crosscut Courage Awards to call attention to courageous leadership in our region — the kind that innovates despite challenges; goes against the grain, takes personal risks for the greater good. Those are the criteria Crosscut's editors used to select this first crop of Courage awardees. We will reveal the award winners on Thursday morning.
These courage criteria, in my view, characterize James Fallows’ work as a journalist.
He stuck his neck out in 1996 when he published “Breaking the News: How the media undermine American democracy.” The book is a sober, methodical indictment of his news media colleagues, the very group he has been a part of since the 1970s.
Fallows uses the book to ask this provocative question: “The press is quick to blame others for what’s wrong with America today. But what about its own responsibility?”
“When ordinary citizens have a chance to to pose questions to political leaders, they rarely ask about the game of politics,” Fallows wrote. “They mainly want to know how the reality of politics will affect them — through taxes, programs, scholarship funds, wars. Journalists … ask questions no one but their fellow political professionals cares about.”
Fallows saw then what has become apparent today: Americans distrust journalists even more than they do government officials. “Unless journalism changes," he warned, "it will destroy itself and severely damage American democracy.”
The American Journalism Review said of "Breaking the News" that, “Fallows writes with crystalline clarity and immense insight, and perceptively lays out the issues. It significantly escalates the debate for a mainstream journalist of his stature to turn on his own culture, reject the shopworn apologies for its failings and demand change.”
A few years after the book was published, I sat down for lunch with Fallows on the Microsoft campus where we improbably had become co-workers for a short time. Fallows was helping to improve Microsoft Word software, and I was busily defending the company as a corporate spokesperson during the Justice Department’s antitrust case.
I brought a copy of his book to lunch that day (March 12, 1999) and he kindly scrawled these words on the title page: “Good luck with those bastards in the press.”
Crosscut’s founder David Brewster, who also developed a friendship with Fallows during his stint in Seattle, invited Fallows back to Seattle to deliver the Courage Award keynote. In preparation, Fallows and I spoke by phone and I asked if he sees courage in the media today. He acknowledged that it’s a mixed bag across the various branches of the news, but that news organizations like Crosscut are working hard against great financial odds to preserve journalism’s tradition of informing the public.
I told him that Crosscut has been trying to define courage in public life, and asked him how he would characterize courage today. “It might be a shift in time’s field," he said. "By which I mean being aware, in real time, of how choices you are making will look five to 10 years after you’re long gone. It’s surprising how often that perspective pushes you in a better direction. How will this angry email look when people look back on it — and how will I feel? The easiest proxy for courage is thinking how the choices made today will seem when you are no longer here.”
I asked him if he saw acts of courage during the recent federal budget crisis in Washington, D.C. “This was a low moment in our public life,” he said. “The GOP by their own light were being courageous. They were wrong to resort to extreme measures, profoundly wrong, but they were by their own lights being courageous. “
Fallows’ conversations with NPR’s Jacki Lyden were a staple on the weekend All Things Considered program for four years; until this summer when Fallows launched a new reporting initiative for Atlantic and Marketplace Radio. “American Futures”, he explained, is “essentially a road trip by air through a small airplane to small-town parts of America that we feel have under-covered developments, economically, socially, demographically and all the rest. This is an old American tradition of reporting the country by road trip with the new innovation of our small plane. “
After his brief stay in Seattle, Fallows will hop a plane, a jetliner, for Australia. He is a visiting professor of U.S studies at the University of Sydney.