20 for 2020

December 20, 2019

It’s been a tough decade for journalism. It’s as beleaguered as coal-mining. Some days it seems there is no space for anything but sensationalism and cheap aggregation. But in the last ten years a few stories have risen above the noise, and even suggested a path forward—in audio, in video, and in text. We don’t presume to suggest that the pieces below are the best of the decade. But they’re ones we loved. They moved and inspired us. And they give us hope for the next ten years. 

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Fatal Distraction: Forgetting a Child in the Backseat of a Car Is a Horrifying Mistake. Is It a Crime? by Gene Weingarten (The Washington Post)

Like any good investigator, Weingarten nails the who and the what and the when. His story becomes unforgettable when he digs deeper into the how and the why. Weingarten allows the presumptive villains in his story the dignity of personhood. He layers science and statistics on top of good reporting. He has a perceptible willingness to listen and look even when it’s painful.


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The Runaway General by Michael Hastings (Rolling Stone

For several years, journalism existed in an uneasy detente with the government and military. This piece by Michael Hastings—a swashbuckling, brave reporter—shattered that idea by showing generals and their aides as just guys. Flawed, comical, pissed off at their bosses. It’s also a wonderfully written magazine story that inspired a new era of war reporting.


The Two Cultures of Life by Kristin Dombek (N+1)

Dombek writes about abortion, murder, and animal cruelty in a sprawling essay that is ultimately about the ease and consequence of belief.


Transfiguration by Raffi Khatchadourian (The New Yorker

You’ve been electrocuted. In the hospital, you are wrapped in gauze, a provisional substitute for the skin and cartilage that once made up your face. Your doctor doesn’t know if your brain still works. Your wife holds your hand and hopes to see you again. That is what happened to Dallas Wiens, the subject of an extraordinary profile by Raffi Khatchadourian, whose gift for meticulously-researched storytelling is on full display. In a gripping narrative account of a face transplant, Khatchadourian writes, “Wiens would become a man disguised as himself.”


If He Hollers Let Him Go by Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah (The Believer)

In the opening of this brilliant, beautiful essay about Dave Chappelle, Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah writes of a weeklong trip to his native Ohio, where there is “space for people to do what they want.” Chapelle is, perhaps uniquely, a celebrity who is both widely revered and considered relatable, yet understood to be someone we cannot ever fully know. Years of speculation about his motives to walk away from a hit show were intensified by his choice not to participate in this profile. Still, Ghansah is able to write insightfully about the family, attitudes, and politics that produced him and his work. Ghansah wrote once about the terms under which she accepts writing assignments; one of them is that she writes her own headlines, no matter what. In that way, she and Chapelle seem kindred spirits, both demanding space to do what they want in a country and in industries that have not been set up to accommodate them. The most striking moment in the piece is when Ghansah runs into Chapelle in a coffee shop in his hometown. Despite the desperation she feels to use the opportunity to engage with him, she simply says hello, pays for her drink, and leaves. What better way to demonstrate, with grace, the reality that we as journalists are no more entitled to people’s time and stories than anyone else?


This Old Man by Roger Angell (The New Yorker

There is a fear, as we age, that we will become invisible. Roger Angell, in his nineties, makes himself seen with wisdom and humor. This piece is about death and living and finding yourself at any age, macular degeneration be damned. “More love; more closeness; more sex and romance,” he writes. “Bring it back, no matter what, no matter how old we are.”


Serial by Sarah Koenig, Julie Snyder, Dana Chivvis and Emily Condon (WBEZ)

Serial’s first season, released in 2014, secured a rapt national audience as Sarah Koenig examined the case of Adnan Syed, convicted in 2000 for the murder of Hae Min Lee. Last month, the US Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal from Syed. But that the story, and our attention, persisted for five years is a testament to the show’s restless curiosity. 


The Case for Reparations by Ta Nehisi Coates (The Atlantic)

When an author can write so persuasively that the topic of a piece makes its way to congressional hearings and presidential debates, its worth cannot be denied. Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “The Case for Reparations” did just that and five years later, its impact hasn’t faltered.


The Human Factor by William Langewiesche (Vanity Fair)

William Langewiesche sees people as people, not as heroes or villains. This story is about a plane crash. But it’s really about the foibles of human beings, and the foibles of the computers they create to ameliorate their foibles. It’s beautiful and horrifying. And it’s the only thing you ever need to read about artificial intelligence.


The Agency by Adrian Chen (The New York Times Magazine)

Before Donald Trump’s impeachment, before Robert Mueller’s investigation, before Russia’s election interference, Adrian Chen went to St. Petersburg, where Vladimir Putin’s troll army was already wreaking havoc on the internet. Little was known of the Internet Research Agency, as the department is called, and Chen managed better than anyone to reveal its architecture and methods. What elevates the story into greatness is the twisted ending, in which Chen himself becomes the target of a brazen scheme to smear his reputation online.


Hot Startup Theranos Has Struggled With Its Blood-Test Technology by John Carreyrou (The Wall Street Journal

Carreyou’s damning investigation was famously undersold by its headline. The article fatally punctured the facade of Elizabeth Holmes, an entrepreneur who sold herself to a fawning Silicon Valley as the next Steve Jobs, and provoked national disillusionment at the unicorn startup culture that enabled Holmes’s years-long deception.


Seafood from Slaves by Esther Htusan, Margie Mason, Robin McDowell, and Martha Mendozathe of the Associated Press (AP

“If Americans and Europeans are eating this fish, they should remember us… There must be a mountain of bones under the sea,” Hlaing Min, a runaway slave from Benjina, told the AP. This series detailed kidnappings, graveyards filled with falsified names to hide evidence of a slave trade, and the brutal working conditions of enslaved fisherman calling out for home. Ultimately, it revealed that slave labor delivers much of the seafood we (and our pets) consume. More than 2,000 slaves were freed.


The Wayfarer by Ben McGrath (The New Yorker

One morning, a strange traveler pulled his canoe up to the bank of the Hudson River, by the home of Ben McGrath. The canoeist, Dick Conant, was a 63 year-old “riparian Santa” in denim overalls and muddy boots. He was on a solitary journey across America’s waterways marked by chance encounters and dreams of true love. McGrath was one of many people who intersected with Conant, felt a connection with him, and were changed by the experience. Readers of McGrath’s story, written with close attention and deep empathy, will be moved, too, by its central character. Rarely has a writer been so matched with a subject; as the piece paddles along Conant’s voyage, McGrath guides us to profound edges of humanity. 


Minding the Gap by Bing Liu (Hulu)

Director Bing Liu seamlessly wove three storylines together, using the shared activity of skateboarding to break down each of the characters’ experiences with domestic violence. One of those stories that stays with you for days after you watch it.


The Panama Papers: Exposing the Rogue Offshore Finance Industry by ICIJ (Various)

With The Panama Papers, a coalition of reporters from the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists wrote a suite of fascinating articles in newspapers around the world describing the private economy of the ultrawealthy and how astonishingly free they are from the reach of any country’s laws. You didn’t need to be an accountant to be outraged that so much of the sanctions-dodging, self-dealing, and money laundering was effectively legal. 


My Four Months as a Private Prison Guard by Shane Bauer (Mother Jones)

Using his real name and CV, Shane Bauer applied to work as a prison guard at the Winn Correctional Center in rural Louisiana. When he got the job he went to work with an audio recorder disguised as a pen in his shirt pocket. Four months later, he had a blockbuster story filled with horrifying quotes about the brutalization and rape of inmates by the officials who were supposed to be guarding them, shameful living conditions, and abuse of the mentally ill and impaired. After the article’s publication, shares of the Mephistophelean company that owns the prison went into free-fall. Its reputation permanently tainted, it remains under serious journalistic scrutiny even after a rebrand as CoreCivic.


Former USA Gymnastics doctor accused of abuse by Tim Evans, Mark Alesia and Marisa Kwiatkowski (The Indianapolis Star

For decades, gymnastics officials failed the young athletes in their care, and so did the press. Though some reporters had tried, valiantly, to draw attention to structural abuses present in USA Gymnastics, it was a team at the Indianapolis Star whose tenacity and sensitivity delivered the first of what would ultimately be a series of near fatal blows to a flawed institution that for too long had protected predators as it prioritized medals over people.


Why The Scariest Nuclear Threat May Be Coming From Inside The White House by Michael Lewis (Vanity Fair

In his reporting on the management and significance of the United States Department of Energy, Michael Lewis looks beyond the tedious to point out what’s terrifyingly urgent. With a knack for translating bureaucracy into a story about what it is—people doing their jobs—Lewis makes eating your vegetables seem like dessert. 


Harvey Weinstein Paid Off Sexual Harassment Accusers for Decades by Jodi Kantor and Meghan Twohey (The New York Times

In October 2017, institutionalized sexual harassment of women was nothing new, especially in Hollywood. But this Times investigation ignited a global conversation about the abuse of women that is still raging. When reporters Kantor and Twohey had difficulty persuading women to speak on the record about the abuse they suffered, they built their investigation on a paper trail—records of payouts and nondisclosure agreements—that couldn’t be as easily ignored, discredited, or intimidated. 


Perversion of Justice by Julie K. Brown (The Miami Herald

Julie K. Brown’s year-long investigation into Jeffrey Epstein, a hedge fund manager with friends at the highest reaches of power, brought down one of America’s most notorious sex traffickers of underage girls. The story, a crucial breakthrough for the #MeToo movement, has continued to have influence reaching as far as Buckingham Palace and the White House. 

The Editors are the staffers of the Columbia Journalism Review.