James Fallows

James Fallows

A weeklong electronic journal.
Oct. 30 1997 3:30 AM

James Fallows

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       This was a terrible day. Its central event was a legal deposition, which is awkward for me to say too much about. But to borrow a form of discourse, to which I was subjected by lawyers for many hours, I will present it as a series of hypothetical questions.
       Suppose you had become editor of a newsmagazine roughly one year ago. Suppose that several years earlier the magazine had published an article that gave rise to a libel action. Suppose you had not read the article when it came out. Suppose you had never worked with the author. Suppose the author had left the magazine long before you arrived. Suppose you knew nothing about the topic of the article, the people it described, the legal principles that prevail in the state where those people live, or indeed anything whatsoever about the suit, its merits, or its consequences. Accepting these assumptions, dear reader, I direct you to answer this question: How enthusiastic would you be about being cross-examined for four hours concerning this article? Add a further hypothetical condition: that the questioning runs into Wednesday afternoon, just as blood pressure is rising, through mysterious tidal action, in every human body in the building.
       Your guess is right! In these circumstances you would be thinking, "Hmm, is a government of laws rather than men really such a good idea?" (Note to anyone involved with this case who may be reading: This is a little joke. I believe in the Rule of Law!)
       At least it is over. And at least the experience gave me a chance to do what industrialists have done for years: Learn From Japan. When I first got to Japan more than a decade ago, I couldn't figure out why I seemed to be getting nowhere when interviewing people. The problem was that a favorite American reporter's trick no longer worked. When conducting an interview in America, you can often provoke people to talk simply by acting disappointed or bored. The interviewee gets uncomfortable if he thinks that he's coming across as a drone or not living up to expectations--this is especially true of professional-class people--and he can end up saying more daring things than he really intended to. But this never worked in Japan. If the Mitsubishi managers or the foreign-ministry spokesmen saw my eyes glaze over, they were happy! The goal was precisely to avoid making waves.
       And so is that the goal in a deposition, at least a hostile one of this sort. Answer the question as specifically but tersely as possible, hoping to come across as limited and dull.
       "Why did the author say this in the article?"
       "I don't know. I didn't work here then."
       "What do you think of this court ruling?"
       "I don't think anything about it, since I do not live in that state and am not a lawyer."
       The greatest test of my dedication to blandness came at the end, when I was interrogated about a view on which I had once been quoted: "I consider The Simpsons to be the greatest creative achievement of our time." Did I really mean that? "I was using hyperbole." Did I mean they were better than opera? "Not necessarily." What I was not allowed to do was scream out, "What difference can this possibly make???"
       To be more precise about the day's toll:
       7:30 a.m. Wake up, type out yesterday's reminiscences on the ThinkPad, get out of bed. (This is the only picture-within-the-picture of the role of diarizing in this week's events.)
       8:00 a.m. Get dressed. Drive to work. Haul along a bunch of newspapers with the idea that it would be good to read them sometime today.
       9:00 a.m. Get to the office, quickly look through a bunch of market-oriented and other stories that have come in. On a normal Wednesday I'd spend the next three hours doing this. But ...
       9:30 a.m. Meet with "our" lawyers to get ready for deposition. Main advice: Listen exactly to the question, answer it precisely and honestly, but say nothing more than what is specifically asked. Hint on how the ideal deponent responds: "Will you state your name for the record?" "Yes." [Pause] "OK. What is your name?"
       10:30 a.m. Go to a little conference room in our building for the deposition.
       (Virtual world: At 11:30 a.m. we have the weekly cover-planning meeting. This is one of the three most useful mass gatherings each week, the others being the Monday morning pep rally and kickoff, and the Thursday morning "booking" meeting to plan for the issue we'll produce the following week. The idea at the cover meeting is to discuss ideas for long-term cover projects and shift around the schedule for the six or eight weeks immediately ahead. I'll have to hear about this later.)
       Hours pass. Sandwiches arrive.
       Much coffee consumed. One bathroom break permitted.
       2:20 p.m. Free! Dash to my office to see who has done what with what story.
       2:30 p.m. But not so fast! Time for another long-scheduled special meeting. Our talented circulation director, Hilleary Hoskinson, is about to leave the company for another job. He gives a valedictory presentation of the big, dramatic business dynamics of the newsstand business. Think that Time, Newsweek, Business Week, U.S. News, et cetera, are each other's main rivals on the newsstands? Not at all! The real enemies are giant soft-drink refrigerators, greeting-card racks, and pantyhose displays, all of which are dramatically gobbling up the sales area in retail stores. The whole newsstand business is shrinking, while more magazines are fighting for a piece of it. We discuss strategies for success in this war.
       4:10 p.m. Done with that meeting.
       4:20 p.m. But not so fast! Time for another special meeting, this one about several long-term plans for the magazine, which actually must remain secret.
       5:30 p.m. Done. Big plans made!
       Until 7:30 p.m. Series of 10- and 15-minute meetings with: Lee Rainie (managing editor), Linc Caplan (editor of special projects), MaryAnne Golon (photo director), Rob Covey (design director), and other pooh-bahs about problems for this issue and problems--I mean opportunities--ahead.
       Until 8:00 p.m. Prowling through the second floor in search of writers and editors at work. Talk with Nancy Shute, writing a big health story; Anne Smith, writing a big markets story; Damon Darlin ("News You Can Use" editor), editing same; Steve Waldman (national editor) and Chris Orr (his deputy), editing political stories; Linc Caplan, editing a bunch of stories. Then back to my bunker.
       Until 10 p.m. Sitting at the "Atex machine"--our antique-but-still-functioning production system, and working through one story after another scheduled for this issue.
       10 p.m. Drive home. Say goodnight to wife and son.
       10:20 p.m. Plug in the laptop and the ISDN line and see what has happened.
       10:45 p.m. Conclude that I am too tired and sign off.
       Escapist reading interlude.
       12:45 a.m. Sudden panic about one of the stories; neurotic plug-in to the ISDN line. Make supportive comment.
       1:00 a.m. Call it a day.

James Fallows is the editor of U.S. News & World Report.