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From AJR,   January/February 1998  issue

Into The Fray   

James Fallows wrote a searing, highly publicized indictment of contemporary journalism. Now, as editor of U.S. News & World Report, he's putting his ideas into practice. It's been an exhilarating, if bumpy, ride.

By Alicia C. Shepard
Alicia C. Shepard is a former AJR senior writer and NPR ombudsman.     

AT U.S. NEWS & WORLD REPORT,it's the job of section editors to meticulously edit all stories by reporters, contributors and freelancers that will appear in their sections. Then the stories are passed on to top management, often to the magazine's editor, the exacting James Fallows, who until October scrupulously--some say mercilessly--scrutinized everything that went into the magazine.

One section editor, George Stephanopoulos-lookalike Jim Impoco, has a goal each time he turns a piece over to Fallows: to give him a story that doesn't trigger any questions from the boss.

"I still find myself sweating before Fallows top edits a piece in my section," says Impoco, who for nine years was a correspondent for U.S. News and in the fall of 1996 became Business & Technology editor. "He's extremely rigorous." For a three-page section lead in December, Fallows only made two changes, says Impoco, obviously pleased. On occasion, though, Impoco has received 16 screenfuls of recommended changes.

Stephen Budiansky, who oversaw the World Report section until October, finds working for Fallows equally challenging. "Jim Fallows demands that stories be clear, be well-written and explain well why we are writing about this in a news magazine," says Budiansky, who has spent 11 years with U.S. News. "That historically has been one of our weaknesses. What a good editor does is set the tone. So when you're doing your job, you're thinking: 'What will Jim Fallows think about this?' "

Budiansky recently rose to become deputy editor. He splits responsibility for giving stories the last read with Managing Editor Harrison "Lee" Rainie and Fallows, who now edits only cover stories and business section copy. As World editor, Budiansky didn't score much better than Impoco. "Once in a while I would get, 'Great stuff,' says Budiansky. "But 19 out of 20 times, I'd get: 'This sentence in line 237 isn't in sync with the point of the story,' or 'Don't use cliches,' or 'Lapse of logic here.' "

Mind you, neither editor is complaining. Fallows, in his first year at U.S. News, has raised standards by demanding better writing and stories with indisputable internal logic. There's a teacherly aspect to Fallows. He doesn't just make corrections; he also explains why he's making them. He points out well-written articles as examples for others. He wants his writers to learn from the editing process.

His goal during his first year as editor has been to dramatically upgrade the magazine's content, although in the process Fallows admits he has alienated some of his writers. In a work week diary that appeared in the online magazine Slate, Fallows several times noted that some writers found his comments "insufficiently supportive."

"Probably a more charming person than I could have found a more exciting way to engage people about the adventure of high-quality writing," Fallows says. Yet others are thrilled to have someone of Fallows' caliber--magna cum laude Harvard graduate, Rhodes Scholar, former presidential speechwriter, author, magazine writer and editor--working closely with their copy.

"To know your boss will give you that sort of scrutiny makes you pretty conscientious," says Budiansky. "When it's presented in a way that's not personal, you realize it's just about improving the quality of the magazine."

And that clearly has been Fallows' aim since being handpicked by the magazine's mercurial owner, Mortimer B. Zuckerman, to take over in September 1996 (see "Walking the Walk," November 1996). Zuckerman offered Fallows the job not long after Fallows' book, "Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy," propelled him to the role of uber-press critic. "I seem now to be known always as 'press critic Jim Fallows,' as opposed to a guy who's written extensively about Japan and national defense," laments the 48-year-old editor.

In his book, Fallows--in the same spirit as a Washington Monthly piece he wrote at age 25 that attacked influential political columnist Joseph Kraft--takes aim at the news media for writing more about process than substance, being too chummy with politicians and too greedy in accepting lucrative speaking fees, and emphasizing personalities over issues. Too many journalists, he concludes, are pompous, egotistical, negative and often simplistic. "The institution of journalism is not doing its job well now," he wrote.

Given the considerable amount of attention, largely favorable, that the book attracted, Fallows set himself up for close, not entirely sympathetic examination when he took over at U.S. News. And that's what he has received. Not surprisingly, it's been a tough year for him. Critics assert that Fallows--and the magazine he runs--aren't sufficiently responsive to breaking news. Rumors swirl that Zuckerman agrees and that the controversial editor is on his way out. They were heightened last Thanksgiving when Zuckerman appointed former Random House President Harry Evans to oversee the editorial direction of his three magazines and the New York Daily News. And Zuckerman's track record--Pete Hamill lasted just eight months as editor of the News--isn't one that fosters a sense of job security.

Fallows has had to shift gears in his current incarnation, forsaking a life in which he wrote at home for the Atlantic Monthly and played tennis every day to working nearly around the clock. "At one point he was in control of his life," Rainie says. "Now the institution controls his life." Not only has he quickened the pace of his own life, he's shaken things up profoundly at U.S. News, both triggering an exodus and attracting new talent. Shortly after his appointment, the magazine received well over 1,000 job applications, and he has made about 40 hires.

Fallows took over a news organization marked by seven years of stability under a beloved husband-wife editor team, Michael Ruby and Merrill McLoughlin, better known to all as Mike and Mimi (see "U.S. Snooze Wakes Up," October 1992). Before them, the magazine had three editors in four years. Mark Godfrey, a former U.S. News director of photography, says Ruby and McLoughlin "got the train on the tracks and got it to run on time. Everyone thought it was wonderful. But then people got tired of the trains running on time. After a few years, they wanted a bar car, a parlor car and a faster engine. Mike and Mimi couldn't provide that."

By all accounts, Mike and Mimi's tenure ended amicably, with Ruby and McLoughlin leaving the editorship in August 1996 (they remain on the masthead as contributing editors). Then Fallows, who had worked for Zuckerman for 17 years at the Atlantic, arrived September 9. He promptly fired 11 people, dismissing the magazine's number two (Peter W. Bernstein) and number three (Christopher Ma) three days before he arrived. Soon after, a period of insecurity, not to say panic, set in among the staff of 200 as more people were told their services were no longer required. Doors stayed shut. Every action Fallows took, no matter how minor, was regarded with suspicion. It felt to many as if U.S. News' sheltered, cozy family was being torn apart after dad and mom, aka Mike and Mimi, had abandoned it.

"I came back three months after Jim arrived and I was absolutely stunned," says former Assistant Managing Editor Amy Bernstein, a veteran staffer who had been based in Los Angeles. "This had been a very hamische [homelike] place where everyone talked about their families. When I came back in December, it was as if the temperature had dropped 20 degrees. People would dart up and down the hallway. There was lots of suspicion and fear. It lasted for about two more months. And I'll tell you, it was as hard on Jim as it was on anyone else."

WHAT'S HAPPENED DURING FALLOWS' INITIAL tenure is what typically happens when a new editor or top boss comes into an organization. The new person arrives, brings in trusted lieutenants from outside and installs them in key roles. Those already there then begin living lives of nervous anticipation. Some in the old guard are excited about a new era and embrace the new leader. Some dig in their heels, certain the old ways worked best and that the new guy is clueless.

It's no different at U.S. News. Some longtimers are thriving. In fact, five of the eight assistant managing editors who put out the weekly sections of the magazine are members of the old guard. Fallows' current number two, Rainie, and three, Budiansky, are U.S. News veterans. Nonetheless, the division between new and old--albeit fading--persists. Some longtime staffers have left; others grumble.

One day when I was at U.S. News' Northwest Washington, D.C., headquarters an employee I had never met surreptitiously handed me a note. On it was an old U.S. News masthead with the names highlighted of everyone who had left. At least 37 people have departed since September 1996, including some of the magazine's higher profile staffers such as investigative reporters Brian Duffy and Edward T. Pound, political columnists Steven V. Roberts and Michael Barone and economics writer Susan Dentzer.

"The first thing Fallows said to me was that he didn't like political columns," says Barone, now with Reader's Digest. "I wrote columns. What could I think?"

The magazine's newcomers include a handful of people who grew up, as did Fallows, at The Washington Monthly under the tutelage of Editor in Chief Charles Peters, among them Gregg Easterbrook, who even the old guard acknowledges carries as much cachet as anyone who left. Few had been close readers of U.S. News, but they jumped at the chance to work with Fallows. Despite giving some veterans section editor titles, it's perceived that the real power center is largely occupied by people Fallows has personally hired.

In Washington Monthly and Atlantic Monthly tradition, Fallows would pass around manuscripts and solicit the reaction of selected staffers who had nothing to do with the particular story. This practice did not always play well and has tapered off.

Fallows notes hiring Russ Mitchell away from Wired, Marci McDonald from Canada's Maclean's magazine, Matthew Miller from The New Republic and Time, Damon Darlin from Forbes, Kent Jenkins Jr. from the Washington Post, to name a few.

And in December, Fallows convinced respected political reporter Ron Brownstein, 39, to leave a job he loved at the Los Angeles Times to write a column and do in-depth political reporting. The lure was Brownstein's desire to work for Fallows. "I'm intrigued by his trying to find a different way to make news relevant when there is so much news and so many mediums," Brownstein says. "They are trying to figure out how to do serious analytical policy-based journalism in a weekly format.... I want to be part of that."

"The key to understanding how Jim runs the magazine and hires people is a dual sensibility," says Associate Editor Jason Vest, hired in the fall of 1996. "There's the elite Harvard, big-think, intellectual tradition. The other part is small-town California [Fallows grew up in Redlands], Texas, Asia, more populist. It's a misconception to say Fallows has stacked the staff with Harvard/Washington Monthly cronies. They are a presence, and some internal friction has revolved around them. But his hires reflect his dual sensibilities."

Vest, 25, has no college degree and his background lies more in alternative media, although he did two internships at the Washington Post. Fallows, bemused by the Harvard question, points out that he has hired or promoted as many alumni of the University of California-Santa Cruz as he has hired graduates of the "dreaded" Harvard. "So," he wrote in an e-mail, "the Crimson and the Banana Slugs--which I think is still the UCSC mascot--are the two favored classes."

Senior writer Betsy Carpenter is an interesting "new" Fallows hire. Carpenter worked for U.S. News for eight years until September 1996, when she left to become an editor at Science magazine. She was happy at Science. Then last May she got a call from U.S. News section editor Steve Waldman. "The magazine seemed to be going in such a good trajectory, and I kept seeing this guy [Fallows] making smart management decisions," Carpenter says. "The story choice was better. The design was better. Some of the things I didn't like about the old U.S. News, you didn't see anymore: The inside details on small things going on in Washington that didn't have any relevance even to me as a person." Waldman enticed her back in August.

Another thing Fallows did was hire more women, as well as name them to more powerful positions. If you look at the masthead before he started, there's not one female among the key assistant managing editors involved in putting out the magazine each week. Now there are two, and the new director of photography, a position at the top of the masthead, is MaryAnne Golon, lured from Time magazine after 13 years there.

Thanks to his extensive connections, Fallows also has gotten many well-respected journalists to contribute on a freelance basis.

But he's hardly won them all. He tried unsuccessfully to recruit Evan Thomas from Newsweek and Howard Kurtz from the Washington Post. Critics say he hasn't hired nearly enough big name journalists to compensate for those who have left. Pound and Duffy, for example, are considered among the best investigative reporters in Washington. Pound is at USA Today, Duffy at the Wall Street Journal (see Bylines, December 1997). "Given what was happening there, with Brian leaving and Mike and Mimi, I felt this was a better opportunity, and it has been," says Pound.

The most stinging criticism is that Fallows, known more as a news analyst than a newshound, isn't all that interested in news. There's a persistent buzz that Zuckerman doesn't think Fallows is paying enough attention to breaking news. Rumors of the editor's imminent departure resurfaced in late November when Zuckerman named the flamboyant Harry Evans to oversee his publishing empire. But, according to a source close to Zuckerman, Fallows received a hefty raise shortly before Thanksgiving.

Nonetheless, despite Fallows' expressed enthusiasm for the Evans appointment, the internal tom-toms say giving Evans "total responsibility" for editorial direction and personnel is a warning to Fallows. The editor, clearly weary of trying to prove a negative, simply says he'd favored bringing Evans aboard long before it became public and welcomes his input.

Zuckerman declined to be interviewed for this story. Staffers say he has been showing up more frequently at cover meetings in recent months. "In the three months I've been here, Mort has been around a lot," Easterbrook says.

Fallows disputes the notion that he lacks a strong news sense. He points out that, as a regular commentator for National Public Radio, he was almost always spinning off of the news. Others believe Fallows is more inclined toward thoughtful pieces, sometimes at the expense of news. Zuckerman was said to be angry last summer when U.S. News didn't jump on the story of a Republican attempt to overthrow House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

But what constitutes news is to some extent in the eye, or mind, of the beholder. What's happening at U.S. News is a classic clash of news values.

"Most of the people here come from news," says former U.S. News AME Amy Bernstein. "Most of the staff has newspaper experience. I'd describe Jim as more of a news analyst. I think Jim does have news sense. But it's an analyst's news sense. I think Jim's natural bent is toward stories with long term impact. He likes macroeconomic or geopolitical stories. He thinks big. But part of what makes a magazine work like this is lots of different points of view. There are people here with old-fashioned news values, and they're vital."

Fallows believes that while a news magazine has many roles, its main function is to explain. "If you think just what's on CNN is news, that's very limiting," Fallows says. "News can involve everything that affects people's lives. We have a much broader conception of news than a wire service. If you had to choose the one function we should do, it would be explanation. What's the impact on you, the world and the future? How to put into context the news you will continue to hear."

Lincoln Caplan, special projects editor and a member of Fallows' inner circle, says, "The magazine is driven much less by a sense of weekly topicality and much more by a sense of what's really important to you. To do this is harder than simply covering the news." He believes a major element of U.S. News' role is to "help you figure out how you think about an issue."