The Charlie Peters School of Journalism

Reporters often cover government’s failures. He taught me to also cover government’s successes.

For the Washington Monthly’s 50th anniversary issue, twenty former editors revisited one of their most important stories for this magazine. They looked at pieces that had an impact on the world or on themselves; that presaged something big to come; or that were totally wrong in an interesting way. Below is one of the resulting essays. Read more of them here.

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In her celebrated 1979 book The Gnostic Gospels, the scholar Elaine Pagels argued that a dissident theme in early Christian doctrine could have set the whole course of Western religion in a different direction—one less patriarchal and more open to women—if its teachings had not been suppressed and forgotten.

That book came out a few years after I worked at the Washington Monthly. Since reading it, I’ve often thought about the parts of any movement’s founding message that end up being highlighted—and those that are overlooked. This can be true whether we are talking, as Pagels was, about a religion of world-historical importance, or, as I’m doing here, about something as limited and scrappy as the approach to journalism that Charles Peters invented fifty years ago—to which his young employees referred with affectionate mockery as the “rain dance” or, yes, the “gospel.”

Charlie brought to his new magazine insights from a range of his previous roles and experiences, including West Virginia state legislator and summer-stock drama impresario. But the one we staffers heard most about was his time running the Office of Evaluation and Research under Sargent Shriver at the newly established Peace Corps. There Charlie would send evaluators, many of them professional or in-training reporters, out into the field to see how things worked, and didn’t work, in Peace Corps projects around the world.

The second part of that function—learning how things didn’t work—was naturally aligned with what draws people to journalism. Getting the real story, “afflicting the comfortable,” asking the questions people would rather not answer, going places people would rather you not see—these are all functions that matter to the workings of society. They are also what most people who end up as reporters think of as the heart of our job and, to be honest, as much of the fun. It is why we read and admired Ida Tarbell and Lincoln Steffens from the muckraker era, Edward R. Murrow and Rachel Carson a generation-plus later, and a hundred other print and broadcast reporters who tried to reveal the unpleasant truths about mid-twentieth-century America, from formal and informal segregation to environmental poisoning to the war in Vietnam.

The years when I worked alongside Walter Shapiro at the Monthly—following the staff editor team of Taylor Branch, John Rothchild, and Susannah Lessard, and before passing the baton to Art Levine and Tom Redburn—were rich in this kind of investigative reporting. The Vietnam War was still on; Richard Nixon was running for reelection, scheming with his Watergate plumbers to maximize the scale of his victory over George McGovern. The Pentagon Papers had recently been published, as had Seymour Hersh’s exposé of the massacre of civilians at My Lai. I had come to the Monthly straight from writing two exposé books for Ralph Nader. Everything about Charlie’s exhortation to expose what wasn’t working made perfect sense.

But over time, I started remembering that Charlie’s “evaluation” model had always contained another part—which, fortunately, the Monthly has maintained more faithfully than the early Christian church heeded the Gnostic Gospels. In addition to fearless attention to how things went wrong in politics and government, Charlie’s gospel included paying attention to how, when, and why things sometimes go right. 

This may seem a banal point, since investigating, assessing, and telling stories of success has such an established place in many parts of our culture. Think of business books like In Search of Excellence or The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Think of “how they did it” narratives—from Moneyball to The Soul of a New Machine to The Right Stuff to, yes, the Hamilton musical. Think of . . . you get the idea. Knowing why things fail matters. Knowing why they succeed can matter at least as much. 

Anyone involved in journalism is aware of these examples—but also is aware of the internal and external cultural friction involved in explaining success rather than failure, especially when it comes to government. Erring 10 percent on the too-critical side is unfortunate—but in the culture of journalism it’s not usually a huge reputational or career risk. Far more perilous is erring the opposite way. If you’re too cynical, you’re “tough,” which is good. Too credulous, and you’re “soft,” which is not. 

In addition to fearless attention to how things went wrong in politics and government, Charlie’s gospel included paying attention to how, when, and why things sometimes go right.

It’s what the economists would call “asymmetric risk.” When writing exposés and critiques, you don’t feel duty bound to take note of every offsetting positive fact. Woodward and Bernstein didn’t need to buffer every news break about Watergate with “to be sure, Richard Nixon opened relations with China and founded the Environmental Protection Agency.” But any reporter knows the near imperative of buffering any positive story with the possible negatives. (“West Virginia has an impressive new public housing program—but what about
the opioids?”)

To say it again: Skepticism is a reporter’s first duty. But it’s not the only duty, or the only way to make a difference. And the fact that it is so satisfying and exciting to break a big story, and so much in sync with the incentives of the business and culture, is one of several reasons that reporters spend less time on “how things work” stories than they should. 

I think that’s part of what Charlie Peters was saying, in his own gospel of 1969. And I think of it now, on this fiftieth anniversary, because the Monthly has done so much to keep the tradition alive.

Charlie’s successor as editor is Paul Glastris, who in his own work as writer and editor has adhered for a very long time to both parts of the message—examining what doesn’t work along with what does. More than twenty years ago, when I had an improbable two-year run as editor of U.S. News & World Report, Paul was a writer and editor there. In 1997 he produced a special section called “Silver Bullets,” a compilation of specific, practical, proven ideas that could make a big difference. These ranged from congestion pricing for the most crowded freeways to new funding models for public schools, universities, and medical care systems. “Overhype by one inch and you sound like a sap,” I quoted Paul saying in my editor’s note introducing some of these ideas. But take the risk of vetting and presenting solutions to real problems, and you have done something valuable. 

Since Paul took over in 2001, the Monthly has continued to emphasize this part of the dual duty of journalism. To pull out just a few examples:

Phillip Longman, “The Best Care Anywhere” (2005)—In this groundbreaking piece, Longman told the surprising story of how the Veterans Health Administration had become the most effective health care system in the country, and how it provided a model for how to make American health care work better. It’s a beat that Phil and the magazine have returned to often over the years, challenging the anti-government right’s ongoing effort to portray the agency as dysfunctional and scandal ridden as a pretext for privatizing its functions.

Phil Keisling, “Vote from Home, Save Your Country” (2016)—Here, Keisling (a Monthly contributing editor and former Oregon secretary of state) made a sweeping case for what could be the single most effective way to reform the way we vote in order to strengthen election security, save money, and, most importantly, increase democratic participation: adopting universal vote by mail. In the years since, the Monthly has commissioned a pair of studies showing that states and counties that adopt a “vote-at-home” system see dramatically higher turnout—especially among the young. The reform continues to gain momentum around the country, and was included in House Democrats’ H.R. 1 omnibus democracy bill.

Tom Toch, “Hot for Teachers” (2017)—If there’s any epithet most commonly applied to the D.C. public school system, it’s “scandal ridden.” But in this article, the product of years of reporting, Toch showed how, in the aftermath of Michelle Rhee’s embattled tenure as schools chancellor and her ignominious departure, DCPS has quietly become a model for the sorts of reforms that teachers and education experts agree are the most important for raising student achievement: attracting top teacher talent; paying them well; and providing rigorous training, feedback, and opportunities for ongoing career development.

Grace Gedye, “System Update” (2019)—Inspired by lawmakers’ seeming inability to grasp the problems posed by the likes of Facebook and Google, Gedye made the case for why Congress must beef up its own capacity for legislating and providing oversight on tech issues—including by reviving the Office of Technology Assessment, a proven success that was murdered for ideological reasons during the Newt Gingrich era. The piece fits into a broader, ongoing argument that the Monthly has been making for years: As unpopular as Congress is, a major key to restoring it to some semblance of efficacy is for it to buck decades of anti-government dogma and restore its own capacity to actually govern.

I took me a while to recognize fully both parts of the founding Washington Monthly credo. I am glad that Paul and his colleagues have been on the case all the way along.

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James Fallows

James Fallows is a longtime writer for the Atlantic. He has written twelve books, including National Defense, and, most recently, Our Towns, with his wife, Deborah Fallows. He was an editor at the Washington Monthly from 1972 to 1974, along with Walter Shapiro.