The Outsider: James Fallows

journalism

THE NEW YORKER MAGAZINE – March 31, 1997

The Outsider

James Fallows is a thinker and a writer who is not beloved of the
Washington media establishment. Is he just what U.S. News & World
Report needs?

FORTY-EIGHT HOURS after Dr. Ian Wilmut, of Scotland’s Roslin Institute,
announced his breakthrough, the only questions at Time and Newsweek were
whether to use images of sheep (Time) or people (Newsweek) on the cover
and just how large a proportion of each magazine the cloning story would
consume. “It is a classic news-magazine story in the very best sense,” Rick
Smith, Newsweek’s president and editor-in-chief, told me a few days
later. “There aren’t that many mandatory covers a year. It
seems to me this is definitely in that category.

Meanwhile, down in Washington, James Fallows, who has
been the editor of U.S. News & World Report since September, was phoning
Mortimer Zuckerman, who owns the magazine, in New York. The scheduled cover
story was U.S. News’s annual “America’s Best Graduate
Schools” rankings, but Zuckerman wanted to go with a cloning cover.

“Hi, Mort,” said Fallows, standing
as he spoke into the phone, giving the bad news. “It looks as if
it’s logistically impossible to shift the grad-school package to
the following week.” That was because a tie-in paperback book,
with a more elaborate version of the magazine’s graduate-school
rankings, had already been shipped. “It would look odd to have
the book go on sale ten days before the magazine.”

When Fallows hung up, I asked him if he was upset
that logistics prevented him from putting clones on the cover. He smiled
and said, “You mean, given that it’s the most important story
of the last two or three decades? Yes.” Fallows’s central
exhortation to journalists, delivered in his influential 1996 book “Breaking
the News” and, staff members say, on the job week after week, is “Make
the important interesting.” Cloning is plainly both. All the same,
here was the aggressively high-minded new editor of a self-consciously
serious magazine meekly deferring to a modest commercial exigency. “But
with the imperfect justice of the weekly-magazine business,” he
insisted, “the treatment in terms of the story will be identical
to what it would be if we had it on the cover.”

A little later, his managing editor, Harrison
(Lee) Rainie, came in to tell him that the reporting staff was not enthusiastic
about what it might be able to produce. It was Tuesday morning, and U.S.
News doesn’t print until late Friday night. Still, Rainie said
to his boss, “We’re going to scale back our ambitions on
cloning.”

“Fine,” Fallows told him.

The next day, Zuckerman remained hopeful about
keeping the cover on the news. “We may have two covers—grad
schools on the newsstand and cloning for subscribers,” he said.
It was not to be: while Time gave cloning six separate articles in fourteen
pages, and Newsweek three articles in nine pages, Fallows stuck with
his twenty-nine-page “Best Graduate Schools” package and
devoted only five pages to clones. (As it turned out, the magazine had
miscalculated its rankings of law schools, and the paperback books—the
main argument for staying with the graduate-schools cover—were
recalled.) The reason he finally skimped on cloning, Fallows explained
after the issue closed, was that “we didn’t think there was
an enormous amount more to say than what was going to be said in the
newspapers.”

AND that is the problem of modern news magazines.
What can they bring to their readers that newspapers and TV haven’t
delivered days before? “The time when I seriously read news magazines
was when I first lived in Texas, in the late seventies,” Fallows,
who is forty-seven, recalls. “That was a different technological
era, when you couldn’t get a good daily paper there.” Outside
the big cities, news magazines “were indispensable as a source
of news.”

Fallows had touched the trailing end of that indispensability.
It’s hard to overstate the extent to which Time was the national
news medium during the forties and fifties. Newsweek and U.S. News (both
of which were founded in 1933, a decade after Time) were then decidedly
third-rate. What Time provided, even more than information, was reality—or,
at least, a snappy Ivy League Republican depiction of it. To appear on
the cover of Time was to receive mass culture’s unequivocal certification
of importance, and the annual Man of the Year designation seemed less
a gimmick than a kind of official occasion, the American equivalent of
the Queen’s New Year’s honors list. As a quasi monopoly,
Time could define newsworthiness at will, simply because it was what
it pointedly called itself: “The Weekly News Magazine.” Covers
were given to novelists, composers, architects, college presidents, religious
figures, African prime ministers, obscure Midwestern businessmen.

In 1961, after Philip Graham bought Newsweek for
the Washington Post Company, installed Osborn Elliott as its editor,
and promoted Ben Bradlee to be its Washington bureau chief, the magazine
turned into the serious competitor Time hadn’t had. And the period
from Camelot to Nixon’s resignation was a golden age for news magazines. “I
remember we’d go crazy with joy if we had a little paragraph of
something that nobody else had,” Bradlee told me. John F. Kennedy
was the perfect news-magazine President, and Camelot was the perfect
news-magazine story, its plots and subplots and epiphenomena filling
practically every section, from National Affairs to Modern Living to
People. The assassinations, the civil-rights movement, the ghetto riots,
the struggle with faith (“IS GOD DEAD?”), the updraft of
the counterculture and Vietnam—it all made for a vivid epic that
Time and Newsweek handsomely, lucratively serialized.

Then the rest of the media caught up. Thirty years
ago, the weeklies could uniquely promise intelligence, clarity, and depth
to a national audience—but then came “The MacNeil/Lehrer
NewsHour,” on PBS, and “Nightline,” on ABC, and CNN,
MSNBC, and the Fox News Channel, and the Internet. Thirty years ago,
the Wall Street Journal was not a first-rate general-interest paper,
and the Times did not have a national edition. Nor had the big dailies
yet remade themselves into daily news magazines, with sections devoted
to style, celebrities, the arts, science, and so on. Today, even small
provincial dailies are highly art-directed and filled with stories off
the Times and Los Angeles Times/Washington Post wire services.

If the news magazines, conscious of their eroding
significance, have developed something of an inferiority complex during
the last couple of decades, U.S. News, the smallest and uncoolest of
the three, suffers from a double case. To civilians, the differences
between news magazines can be subtle, and in major respects the readerships
of Time (4.1 million circulation), Newsweek (3.2 million), and U.S. News
(2.3 million) are almost indistinguishable. The median reader of each
magazine is a man in his forties with a household income of about fifty
thousand dollars a year. On closer inspection, however, the demographic
profile of U.S. News readers remains distinct. The magazine was founded
in Washington by David Lawrence, a pro-business, anti-Roosevelt journalist,
and some of that spirit still informs U.S. News today. The stereotype
of the U.S. News reader is a retired lieutenant colonel living in Phoenix,
and there may be a grain of truth to it. Zuckerman says his readers are “much
more conservative” than those of Time and Newsweek. His publisher
and president, Thomas Evans, maintains, “They’re more in
an information-processing mind-set. They tend to be more business-oriented.” The
readerships of the two other magazines, Evans says, “tend to skew
more coastal,” by which he means that his readers are slightly
more likely to be from Southern or mountain states. U.S. News devotes
its back-of-the-book to News You Can Use—service articles on subjects
like health-insurance deductibles and high-tech cameras. The almost generic
name of the magazine—U.S. News & World Report—has been
apt. It has been “Dragnet” to its rivals’ “Law & Order” or “NYPD
Blue.” Walter Isaacson, Fallows’s counterpart at Time, says, “Mort
bought publications that happened to become available”—The
Atlantic, which Zuckerman bought in 1980, and the New York Daily News,
in 1992, as well as U.S. News, in 1984—“and not necessarily
the ones he most wanted.”

Some of U.S. News’s difficulties are endemic
to the genre. As recently as 1988, the combined circulation of the three
American newsweeklies was about 10.3 million; today, it has drifted down
to around 9.6 million. Most of that loss is attributable to Time, whose
newsstand sales have declined by a third since 1987; Newsweek’s
have fallen by twelve per cent over the past four years. Time has cut
its corps of writers and correspondents from about a hundred and fifty
to a hundred. Newsweek has reduced its staff, too. Both magazines have
cut back sharply on researchers; indeed, an increasing number of Newsweek
stories no longer go through a separate fact-checking process. In the
early nineties, profit margins at all three newsweeklies were meagre.
Business was bad enough that executives of U.S. News and the Washington
Post Company, which owns Newsweek, began discussing a possible merger
of the two magazines’ circulation and ad-sales staffs, along the
lines of certain cities’ daily newspapers’ joint operating
agreements. (The talks went nowhere.) In the past few years, profits
have rebounded at Newsweek (to $22.8 million last year) and even more
strongly at Time (to almost twice that). But here, too, U.S. News has
lagged behind. The magazine has had two straight years of advertising
declines, and makes only a small profit. To increase earnings, U.S. News
needs to increase its ad sales, which means acquiring an aura of heat
among the people at advertising agencies. That’s where Fallows
comes in.

The business slough aside, everyone at U.S. News seems
to agree that the magazine was in need of editorial reinvigoration. U.S.
News has been the least writerly and energetic of the newsweeklies, and
in the past several years it seemed once again to be earning its old nickname:
Snooze. One U.S. News writer, a friend of Mike Ruby and Mimi McLoughlin,
the husband-and-wife co-editors whom Fallows succeeded, says, “They
were just plugging holes. When a first-rate person left, they would just
promote the second guy behind him, so no new blood was coming in. A lot
of the writers just went to sleep.”

When Fallows arrived, in September, he quickly replaced
nine writers and editors. “Jim came in and said lifetime employment
is not necessarily going to be the norm in the future,” James Impoco,
the business and technology editor, says. “Knowing Fallows the way
I do, I thought that would be the biggest challenge for him. I didn’t
think he would do it, because he’s a very nice guy—though that
would be disputed wildly now.”

U.S. News shares a bland, postmodern building with the
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in a quiet, nondescript section
of a city that does not regard nondescript as a pejorative. Jim Fallows’s
third-floor office has two computer workstations (one is for reading copy,
the other for everything else), but the personal touches—a messy
stack of jazz CDs, a plate of plastic spaghetti with a spaghetti-entwined
fork hovering above it—are bohemian by Washington-office standards.
It is the first real office outside his home that Fallows has had since
1978, when he quit as Jimmy Carter’s chief speechwriter. Probably
his most significant job before that was as a writer and editor at the
neoliberal Washington Monthly. A Rhodes scholar and Harvard graduate, he
arrived in 1972 and helped usher in that tiny magazine’s decade of
magnificently disproportionate influence. Although he has been on the masthead
of The Atlantic Monthly for seventeen years, Fallows has primarily been
an author, who grinds out big, serious books intended to frame and influence
major national debates.

“Breaking the News,” like Fallows’s
earlier books—on defense policy, on educational meritocracy in
America, and on the political economy of East Asia—is ambitious,
sober, and lucid. The book forcefully argues that the media spend too
much time and energy reporting the trivial and the merely contentious,
and that élite journalists tend to be out of touch with the concerns
of the little guy. He also loosely embraces the ideas of “public
journalism”—a movement emphasizing that journalists are also
citizens who bear some obligation in their work to help remedy community
and social problems.

His arrival at U.S. News as editor has naturally
meant that the magazine would be held to a grander, better standard than
that of the competition. Unfortunately for him, that’s a high bar—or,
rather, the existing bar is not as low as he suggested in his book. Time
and Newsweek, for all their coverage of O.J. and Princess Di, are staffed
with thoughtful writers who are given space for substantive and worthy
stories—at least as many pages in a typical issue as U.S. News
can spare for such stuff. And Fallows is well aware that virtuous intentions
are not enough to improve the magazine, let alone increase its ad sales. “Something
that drove me crazy in the reaction to my book was the idea that this
public-journalism concept was so doctrinaire,” he says. “That
it meant as soon as you went to any publication you would be saying, ‘Now
we have the public-journalism orders here from the Pew Charitable Trusts,
and then we’ll start having our uplifting stories.’ When
I came here, my idea was not to have a sort of utopian model farm but
to put out a good magazine—a good version of this magazine.”

As in the other American newsweeklies, there is
a front section of short articles, three or four to a page, and sections
devoted to domestic news, foreign news, business, and society-and-ideas
stories, with each article typically a page or two long. Then the major
genetic difference kicks in: Time and Newsweek run stories about movies
and show business and books and performers, and U.S. News pretty much
doesn’t. Although the magazine has pitched its obliviousness of
culture as a strategic choice, Fallows seems to feel a bit hemmed in
by it. “U.S. News is probably eight or ten pages shorter than Time
or Newsweek,” he says. “Part of that is deliberate and self-inflicted,
in having this ten-year-old franchise of News You Can Use. There’s
room in Time and Newsweek for regular reviews of movies, music, the theatre,
and art. That brings a kind of built-in sizzle to the other magazines.” The
News You Can Use section was recently expanded by half—at Zuckerman’s
direction—and, of course, that has further reduced the space Fallows
can allot to more consequential journalism.

He has also inherited an editorial apparatus that
is skimpy even when compared with the downsized Time and Newsweek. U.S.
News, with its Friday-night deadline, prints at least twenty-four hours
earlier than the others. “That difference is the one which veteran
newshounds—I’m saying those words ironically—would
most lament,” Fallows says. And the staff is small. U.S. News has
just twenty full-time domestic and foreign correspondents; Time has seventeen
reporters posted in Washington alone.

“He hasn’t really spelled out in great
detail exactly where he wants to take the magazine,” Impoco says. “He’s
been doing damage control, trying to bring the quality of the magazine
up to a level where he can contemplate that.” Because Fallows was
not a close reader of U.S. News before he took the job, he didn’t
realize that the prose was often mediocre. “The quality of the
writing surprised him,” one of his editors says.

“There are stronger and weaker contributors,” Fallows
says diplomatically. “I spend a lot of my time at simple copy editing
and story doctoring. I think it’s something I know how to do. It’s
somewhere I’m seen as having a legitimate judgment.”

Every Monday, he E-mails a memo to the staff filled
with assessments of the new issue—the usual back-patting and, often,
writing instruction. Some of the memos have been as long as fourteen
hundred words, but he says that lately “I try to confine them to
very brief lessons of the week—here’s the lesson about overusing
metaphors, here’s the lesson about clarity of a sentence.” He
pauses to annotate himself: “I’m using ‘lesson’ in
ironic terms.” But they are lessons. “In a news magazine
it’s usually not appropriate for the author to play a large first-person
role in the story,” one recent missive observed. “Metaphors
used with care can be tremendously effective in conveying meaning. .
. . We should try never to use familiar, empty images.”

As Fallows is aware, his sense of news inspires
less confidence at the magazine than his sense of language. It has been
a quarter of a century since he graduated from Harvard, where he was
the editor of the Crimson; since then, he has almost exclusively taken
the long view, producing essays and reportage that aim for relevance
not days and weeks but months and years hence. Although the ubiquity
of headline services—on TV, on the Web, and now on cell phones
and pagers—has obviated some of the week-in-review mission of news
magazines, they do remain newsweeklies. A newsroom urgency is, for most
of the people who produce the magazines and many who read them, part
of the attraction. Fallows doesn’t get off on that stop-the-presses
adrenaline.

Brian Duffy, who used to run U.S. News’s
investigative team and, after Fallows arrived, its national-news section,
recently left to work for the Washington Post. “My interests have
always been in covering the news as it happens,” he says. “And
Jim had less of an urgent sense about that than I did.” Duffy remembers
being incredulous last fall when Fallows didn’t want to schedule
a big story on the firefight between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian
security forces on the West Bank, which was “the biggest incident
since the start of the intifada,” Duffy says. “Mort told
me he was very surprised, and thought we should have done more on it.”

Nicholas Lemann is both Fallows’s professional
doppelgänger (Harvard Crimson president, Washington Monthly writer,
Atlantic correspondent, author of important nonfiction books) and an
old friend. Fallows “doesn’t have that much of a newshound
gene,” he concedes. “I’m not going to say he has this
inner sense of what a news story is. That’s not Jim. The question
is, does someone who doesn’t have a conventional news sense still
have the ability to make a news magazine work?”

“Sure, there are learning curves that go
with anybody who hasn’t done this,” Zuckerman says. “That’s
why it takes a little time for this transition to evolve. He has a sense
of news; it may not be quite as sensitive at this stage, but he’s
going to have other people around who will work with him on that.”

Fallows, for his part, maintains that he has a
perfectly fine news sense. His cover story a month ago on how drug cartels
have corrupted the Mexican government was impressively ahead of the curve.
And there is an old-fashioned news-magazine instinct that lets the Times
front page and the Associated Press wire dictate one’s journalistic
agenda. The wire-service-hack attitude has hung heavy at U.S. News, and
Fallows isn’t wrong to resist it. “My goal is to have serious-minded
coverage of the world that is not dull—and I stress the last part,” he
says. “The thing I have been spending most of my time on here is
not the serious-minded part but trying to make it more interesting, trying
to have funnier headlines, trying to have funnier covers, trying to have
things that you would actually want to read.” He illustrated a
cover story on jobs with a Roy Lichtenstein-like cartoon, a cover story
on Microsoft with Bill Gates as a martyred St. Sebastian, a cover story
on the Clinton Inauguration playing off the “Sgt. Pepper’s” album
cover. When I asked him his favorite articles so far, the first three
he mentioned were a contrarian history of Christmas, an article on the
risks of plastic surgery illustrated with a cover photograph of a bare
female back, and, most recently, “The Business of Porn: An Inside
Look at the Sex Industry.”

I asked him if such stories represent a deliberate
effort to disappoint those who expect a worthy, medicinal Jim Fallows
news magazine. “I’m sure at some buried level of my subconscious,
the idea may have occurred to me,” he says. More to the point,
none of these stories would have been surprising in Time or Newsweek.
Although he says that his magazine’s “long-run survival depends
on being different from Time and Newsweek,” his commitment to such
distinctiveness seems somewhat theoretical. What he describes as his
charter—“a kind of news-based explanation,” “a
sexy version of real news”—could be news-magazine boilerplate. “Maybe
this is a terrible thing to say, but I don’t read Time and Newsweek
much more closely than I used to before becoming editor of U.S. News,” he
told me. “I look through them without reading them seriously.” Without
a vision of a distinct editorial alternative to Time and Newsweek, however,
a generally improving U.S. News will almost inevitably become more like
its competitors—smarter, more literate, and more interesting to
Jim Fallows-like readers than it has been previously, but with a possibly
diminished reason for being.

Is he worried about alienating archetypal U.S.
News readers with his funnier, sexier stories? “It’s certainly
the case that you lose people faster than you get them,” he said
of the audience reaction to his editorial changes. “But this magazine
cannot afford not to bring new readers in. A certain amount of trade-off
and churning is necessary.” He concedes that the subscriber-renewal
rate has declined since his arrival, but says the decline is by only
a small margin and is entirely attributable to a five-dollar increase
in the subscription price which took effect last year. Unfortunately,
there’s no evidence that new readers are clambering in via the
newsstand, which sometimes happens when a magazine makes itself livelier.
Evans, the publisher, says that newsstand sales are “flat to down” since
Fallows has been editor.

Of course, cosmopolites—the overclass, the
chattering classes, the urban élite, whatever—were never
great news-magazine readers. In the old days, being unfashionable never
much bothered the people who produced Time and Newsweek, probably because
the institutional power of the publications made up for the fact that
one’s Manhattan friends didn’t always read what one produced.
Today, that power has ebbed. (Surely one of the reasons Time is willing
to pay its excellent art critic Robert Hughes so extravagantly is that
his presence makes staff members feel good about working at Time.)

In the short term, the presence of a well-known,
and even controversial, new editor is probably good for business. Walter
Isaacson says, “U.S. News doesn’t get much of a buzz, but
Fallows does.” And buzz, of course, is good. “Every few years,” Evans
says, “you want to be able to say, ‘This is new and different.’ Jim
has certainly gotten us a tremendous amount of visibility.” That
kind of thinking seems incongruous with the down-to-earth, businesslike
self-conceptions of both Fallows and U.S. News, but then selling a magazine
to its highly distinct constituencies—old readers, new readers,
advertisers—is a complicated, paradoxical enterprise. If a few
hundred journalists in New York and Washington are talking excitedly
about a magazine’s new editor, for whatever reason, soon a few
hundred ad-agency space buyers should be talking excitedly, too, and
then, if the magazine’s salespeople get lucky, the ads increase.
Bob Mancini, the director of print buying for the J. Walter Thompson-U.S.A.
agency in Detroit, controls magazine advertising for Ford cars, and he
told me, “By bringing in Jim Fallows, who is one of the more brilliant
writers around, U.S. News & World Report is doing an excellent job
of contemporizing itself.” By contemporizing, did he mean making
itself more like Time and Newsweek? “Definitely,” he said.

“FALLOWS is not part of my crowd,”

Ben Bradlee, the lord of Georgetown, says. “But
people are talking about him a lot, there’s no question about that.
He’s in, and the spotlight’s on him. My crowd talks about
him.” That doesn’t necessarily mean they have nice things
to say. In Washington, where Fallows and his family have lived for the
past six years, he is not an object of great affection. I asked him why
he thought that was.

“It’s a good thing that I am not a
politician, or a consumer product,” he replied. “Obviously,
my marketing has been faulty. My friends, I think, haven’t found
me a figure devoid of humor, yet somehow the public view of me is of
Cotton Mather redux. But my main answer is, I don’t know.”

The main answer is “Breaking the News,” with
its gauntlet toss of a subtitle—“How the Media Undermine
American Democracy.” The book not only reproves the national media
culture for being nihilistic and bloody-minded but also accuses by name
some of its most prominent Washington members—Judy Woodruff, Brit
Hume, Sam Donaldson, Cokie Roberts, Richard Cohen, and George Will among
them—of superficiality and venality. And when it comes to public
criticism no one is more thin-skinned than journalists.

Does anyone disagree with Fallows’s point
that TV’s ritualized ideological wrestling matches—“The
McLaughlin Group,” “The Capital Gang,” “Crossfire,” and
so on—are unenlightening? Even the participants don’t dispute
this, but they still loathe Fallows for making the case so emphatically.
And they squirmed at his assertion that the corollary practice of “buckraking,” whereby
name-brand journalists collect fifteen- and thirty-thousand-dollar speaking
fees from trade associations and businesses, might pose conflicts of
interest.

“I read his book,” Zuckerman says, “and
I knew all about it, yet it’s one thing to write about it in the
abstract and another thing to manage a staff.” Shortly after his
arrival, Fallows instituted at U.S. News a strict speaking-fee policy.
Zuckerman now says, “You can’t have too arbitrary a ruling—how
absolute you make it is really difficult. Look, this is an important
part of the income of some of these people.” Among these people
are the U.S. News political columnist and “Face the Nation” regular
Gloria Borger and the magazine’s editor-at-large, David Gergen
(who received almost half a million dollars in fees in 1992, according
to “Breaking the News”). After months of to-and-fro, it was
determined that the speaking-fee policy will not apply to either of them,
because they are freelance contributors, not full-time U.S. News employees.
Both are friendly with Zuckerman.

So was Steven Roberts, another prominent U.S.
News writer, of whom Fallows had been especially critical in “Breaking
the News.” Fallows fired him promptly, and Roberts became a kind
of Georgetown martyr. After Fallows pushed aside or drove out other,
less well-known staff members, the antagonism toward him acquired a pious
sheen.

“All these people who are horrified at what
Fallows is supposed to be doing to U.S. News never read U.S. News and
never cared about U.S. News before,” Nick Lemann says. Some of
the attacks do seem disingenuous, including a lot of the flak Fallows
gets because of his mild endorsement of public journalism. Advocates
of public journalism “do not have the complete or satisfying answer
to all of today’s journalistic problems,” Fallows wrote in
his book. “But . . . they are more right than wrong.”

This is not exactly zealotry. Yet, according to
a commentary in the Times last year by Howell Raines, the editorial-page
editor and former Washington editor, Fallows is “a fount of dangerous
nonsense,” and “journalists influenced by early political
employment are more apt to judge journalism by whether it makes life
easy for candidates and officeholders.”

A year later, Fallows is still steaming over Raines’s
broadside. “It surprised me in its obtuseness,” he says. “I
would assume that the person running the editorial page of the New York
Times could distinguish between onetime experience in government twenty
years ago”—Fallows’s two years in the Carter White
House—“and being a mouthpiece of the state, that such a person
could distinguish between criticism and nihilism, that these would not
be distinctions that escaped his mental grasp. It seems to me a willful
misreading. I can’t believe that people are stupid enough to think
the only choice is Izvestia or withering sarcasm.”

Raines and Fallows have a real disagreement about
the proper role of journalists—whether they should be prosecutorial
samurai or truthtelling wise men. But most of the Washington talk about
Fallows is, at its core, personal and visceral. As far as his peers are
concerned, it seems, Fallows is just not very clubbable. The role-of-journalism
debate that has swirled around Fallows, Bradlee figures, is “a
smoke screen.” What really bugs people, he thinks, is “the
air he has of being superior.”

Like Bradlee, Fallows is handsome and Harvard-educated
and frank. Unlike Bradlee, he strikes people as a goody-goody. He looks
like a son of George Bush, which in Washington isn’t necessarily
bad, but he comes across to some like a John Anderson—a sanctimonious
neo-something. “Washington particularly hates moralists,” Nick
Lemann says. “The Washington establishment really hates Ralph Nader”—for
whom Fallows once worked—“and it hated Jimmy Carter. It’s
an intensely practical-minded city. It’s a city that worships Sam
Nunn.”

Fallows is bracingly, admirably forthright, but
in the manner of a progressive Episcopalian from an earlier age. “As
observant staff members will have noticed,” one of his memos chirruped, “new
bodies (and accompanying souls!) keep filtering into the building.” He
described his weekly memos to me, probably with some irony, as “long
epistles” and “shorter epistles.” He is prone to speak
like an Edith Wharton character. “The main peril at the national
level,” he said to me one morning in his office, “is one
that makes the top of my head threaten to detonate in irritation.” Then
again, at other times he’ll spout the language of a bureaucratic
task-force leader. “I’ll work up an action plan,” he
says during a story meeting with twenty staff members, and, later, “Let
me make an action point.”

Show us a moralist and we can’t wait to
find the hypocrisy—such is the pathological skepticism of American
journalists, Fallows argues. The worst thing they can get him on is the
fact that after leaving the Carter Administration he wrote an article
for The Atlantic called “The Passionless Presidency.” Its
most memorable insider revelation—that Carter personally oversaw
the White House tennis-court schedule—became the paradigmatic fact
about Carter’s Presidency. “The new scolding Fallows,” Maureen
Dowd wrote in her Times column last year, “would probably find
the old scalding Fallows ‘cynical.’ ” Fallows’s
enemies, stretching the point, say that he was the seminal White House
tattletale—that Nancy Reagan’s astrologer and Dick Morris
are his spawn. “That’s sort of the Cokie Roberts–George
Will doctrine now,” he says. “I know I was not the first
person who was providing inside data about an Administration.” Yet
he does hold himself retroactively to his own rigorous standards, and
finds the Fallows of 1979 wanting. “In retrospect,” he says,
the tennis-court story “did no good whatsoever.” According
to Lemann, Charles Peters, the founding editor of the Washington Monthly,
had hoped to use Fallows as a “policy pipeline” to Carter. “It
looked like a very short step from chief speechwriter to chief adviser,” Lemann
says. “It was very devastating to Charlie as it dawned on him that
Jim was expected to only write speeches.” Did Fallows’s personal
disappointment that he didn’t assume the sort of role that Ted
Sorensen played for Kennedy or Bill Moyers played for Johnson fuel some
of his philosophical disappointment? “Yeah,” Lemann says. “I
think so.”

Fallows now finds himself both defending his high scruples
and disputing the charge that he is sanctimonious. I asked him what he
likes on television. “I religiously watch ‘The Simpsons’ and ‘The
X-Files,’ and not much else except sports,” he replied. “ ‘The
Simpsons’ I view as the greatest creative achievement of our time.
You could do worse than have ‘The Simpsons’ as the icon of
where this magazine should be.” After a pause, he added, “It
is alarming to me that the two shows I watch are both on Fox, because Fox
also puts out all this shit.”

U.S. News is the only one of Zuckerman’s
publications where he has installed himself on the masthead as editor-in-chief.
That desire for hands-on stewardship is one reason for the rapid turnover
of his first three editors. Another reason may be that none of the three—Shelby
Coffey, David Gergen, and Roger Rosenblatt—had ever run a magazine
before. Neither has Fallows. And, like Rosenblatt, he is a distinguished,
donnish, left-of-center author. But the betting among people who know
Fallows and Zuckerman is that this owner-editor relationship will not
explode. “Jim has a lot of advantages over me, innate and experiential,” says
Rosenblatt, who fought strenuously with Zuckerman before quitting, in
1989, and is now an essayist for Time and PBS. “Frankly, he has
the advantage of my having preceded him—I died that he may live.
I was a bull in an ammunition dump. If Mort felt strongly about not doing
something, I did it. It was foolishness on my part. I really was inept.
Also, Mort has learned a lot about running magazines. I can see it in
the product.”

“Of all the things I feared when Jim took
over,” one of his editors says, “it was a surprise that Jim
knows how to talk to Mort. Jim has handled Mort exceptionally well.” Last
fall, in the course of approving and tweaking a redesign that had been
undertaken by his predecessors, Fallows decided to dump the opening “One
Week” essay. A few weeks later, Zuckerman called to say that he
missed “One Week.” “One Week” returned. “Yes,” Fallows
says now, smiling, “and I was wrong.” As for the redesign
itself—an undramatic one—Fallows apparently accepted it grudgingly. “There
are parts I think are wonderful,” he says, constitutionally unable
to lie outright.

Under the previous regime, Zuckerman would critique
each new issue with the top editors. With Fallows, critiques are more
ad hoc, and may come during any of eight or ten conversations they have
during a week. Fallows says his editor-in-chief seldom reads stories
before they are published, and asks for changes in maybe ten per cent
of those he does read. “Though, like everybody else, he’s
fallible, he’s also an extremely smart person, whose judgment most
of the time is sound,” Fallows says. “Most of the suggestions
make the piece stronger, and the ones I think don’t make the piece
stronger we talk over. Compared to a lot of owners I can think of, I
find him extraordinary. He wants his publications to make money, but,
even more, he wants them to be good.” In the case of The Atlantic,
Zuckerman has spent about forty million dollars so far. “I’m
not a public company,” Zuckerman says. “I don’t need
to worry about quarterly earnings, or any earnings.”

Zuckerman sounds patient. Fallows does not. “This
is the kind of job that can be done too long,” he says. “I
like the other parts of my life.” Fallows’s intimates would
be surprised if he stayed more than five years. “I do not expect
him to do it for a long period of time,” Zuckerman says. When I
mention the editorship of The Atlantic, which William Whitworth has held
for the seventeen years that Zuckerman has owned the magazine, he perked
up and mused, “I wonder if Fallows would like to do that at some
point in his life.”

Fallows won’t speculate. “I don’t
want to encourage the philosophy of waiting me out,” he says. He
seems determined to succeed, undeterred by the fact that he has been
cast against type, and that Beltway swells reject him. Indeed, like all
good moralists, Fallows seems to have a taste for being a pariah. “There
are certain people I would like to punch, but I spend zero of my time
thinking about a Washington society I’m either snubbing or not
snubbing,” he told me. “To the extent I’ve thought
about it—well, I would think that it’s not that bad a positioning
item for this magazine to have its editor reviled by the Washington establishment.”

His peers in the magazine establishment don’t
revile him, but they don’t get him, either. Walter Isaacson says, “Not
doing Deng and not doing O.J.”—as cover stories after the
Chinese leader died and after Simpson lost the civil case—“you
can argue, but Jim seems way off the news.” Rick Smith, of Newsweek,
thinks that news-driven cover stories are essential to “remind
readers that there’s a reason they get it every week, and not every
two weeks, or every month, or every quarter.”

It is Fallows’s desire, of course, to bewilder
the people who have produced news magazines their whole lives. U.S. News,
he declares, “will give its main play to the stories that it has
decided are important for its readers—not the stories that are ‘out
there,’ or ‘have momentum.’ ” His outsiderism
and presumptively limited tenure could empower him to do more than simply
make U.S. News not bad, a Time without the arts coverage, a Newsweek
with more service pieces. If the big, well-funded rivals are the equivalents
of the Democratic and Republican Parties, nominally distinct but substantively
interchangeable, then the runty No. 3 might want to think of itself more
thoroughly and energetically as an alternative—as a can-do third
party with Fallows as its (saner, more trustworthy) Ross Perot. “According
to our internal research, the biggest thing about our readers is they’re
independent-minded,” Evans says. Many of the core readers—relatively
well-to-do, skeptical, Sun Belt guys—already seem to be Perotistas
by nature, and an anti-establishment, let-the-chips-fall candor ought
to work better for a magazine than it has for a political movement. Before “Breaking
the News,” the grassroots hatred of the news media seemed mainly
a matter of talk-radio ranting, reactionary and dumb. Now it’s
a respectable national conversation. U.S. News could work in an analogous
fashion, taking powerful left-field sentiments seriously. “I will
be perfectly comfortable, and I think Mort would be, too, if in a typical
week Time and Newsweek have the same subject on their covers and we have
something different,” Fallows says. He doesn’t even think
of them as his competition, he insists.

I asked Zuckerman if he thought Time and Newsweek
were the competition. “Sure,” he said.

The two men disagree, but it seems to be a comfortable
disagreement. Zuckerman, who has known Fallows for two decades, understood
he was buying a contrarian, and Fallows confounded expectations even as
the job was being offered. “To be honest with you,” Zuckerman
says, “I didn’t think he’d take it.” ©