Twenty years ago, I was honored to be asked by the NYU Journalism School to be a judge for the selection of the greatest works of journalism of the twentieth century. They asked me again ten years ago to help choose the best journalism of the first decade of the 2000s, and again some months back for the years 2010-2019.
The way it worked was that all the judges — comprising the NYU faculty, plus Madeleine Blais, Leon Dash, Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, Wesley Lowery, Greil Marcus, Nilay Patel, Dorothy Rabinowitz, Dan Rather, Frank Rich, David Remnick, Walter Shapiro, Sree Sreenivasan, Sarah Stillman, and yours truly — were asked to submit nominations. Then the full list of 122 nominees was sent out to everyone, and we were to vote for our top ten, in order.
My ballot, including the way I ordered my votes, was admittedly strategic. That is I put a couple of selections in high places not because I could or would make an air-tight case that they were the third and fourth best pieces of journalism of the decade, but because I thought they were absolutely great and they hadn’t quite gotten the recognition they deserved. Conversely, I left out a couple of works because I knew they would (deservedly) get a whole lotta love from the other judges.
Beyond that, I valued works that:
*Afflicted the comfortable.
*(Even better) Comforted the afflicted.
*Displayed disciplined, brave and indefatigable feats of reporting.
*Were stylistically excellent or innovative.
*Moved the national conversation.
*Represented work by a person or organization that had been doing great work for a long time and I felt deserved this level of recognition. (You could call this the John Wayne Oscar phenomenon.)
*I was a bit of a hard-ass on definition of journalism, meaning that I sometimes looked askance at works that seemed to belong more to memoir, essay, or history.
Six of the works on my ballot did not make the top ten. So I will list the six here, in alphabetical order, with descriptions provided by the NYU folks, which I’ll in some cases add my two cents to. And then I’ll give the works that did make it.
The six I voted for:
Matthew Desmond, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. “An amazing work of immersion journalism.” “Gripping … offers not only a close-up examination of its subjects lives but a meta-analysis of the larger problem.” “The reader understands profiteering from the ground up.”
One thing that excited me about Desmond’s book was the way he landed it on the precise intersection between journalism and ethnography (with a good dollop of public-policy thrown in).
Glenn Greenwald, Barton Gellman, with Laura Poitras and Ewen MacAskill, Revelations of NSA domestic surveillance based on documents from Edward Snowden, The Guardian US, Washington Post. “Changed the world.”
Glenn Kessler and Fact Checker Team, Database of Donald Trump’s false or misleading statements, Washington Post. “A rigorously reported and continually updated list of false statements by the president, numbering more than 19,000 by June 2020. The project is a sterling example of what journalists should do — holding the powerful accountable by using reporting and facts.”
As of July 9: 20,055.
N.R. Kleinfield, “The Lonely Death of George Bell,” New York Times. “A detailed examination of what happens after the death of an obscure hoarder — followed by an account of the man’s life that lifts him out of obscurity. Kleinfield’s article represents the pinnacle of narrative feature writing — scrupulously reported, ingeniously structured, and written with clear-eyed empathy.”
I think I actually wrote that, so I’ll add only that the fact that “Sonny” Kleinfield never won a Pulitzer for feature writing is a scandal and a travesty.
Ira Glass, Julie Snyder, Ben Calhoun, Alex Kotlowitz, Linda Lutton and Robyn Semien, “Harper High School,” This American Life. “At Harper High School in Chicago, twenty-nine current or recent students were shot in the span of a single year. Learning of this staggering statistic, This American Life embedded three reporters at the school for five months” — Peabody Awards website.
This was an admirable package–but I wanted to recognize “This American Life” because Ira Glass’s now venerable program really did create a great and new form without which it would be hard to imagine “Serial” and just about any other worthwhile narrative journalism podcast that’s not just one or two people sitting around talking.
Frederick Wiseman, In Jackson Heights. “From-the-ground-up portrait of a Queens neighborhood in transition, from the dean of American documentarians. Wiseman has been doing amazing work for more than half a century.”
In Jackson Heights is a great piece of work, with the rigor, indelible characters, intermittent exhilaration and occasional frustration (10-minute dialogues in Spanish with no subtitles) one expects in Wiseman, but I voted for it in recognition of his amazing body of work.
And here’s the NYU top ten:
Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Case for Reparations, The Atlantic.
“Beautifully written, meticulously reported, highly persuasive …” “The most powerful essay of its time.” “Ground breaking.” “It influenced the public conversation so much that it became a necessary topic in the presidential debate.”
Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration.
“It’s a masterwork by one of our greatest writers and most diligent reporters. Exquisitely written as it is researched, embracing breadth and detail alike, essential reading to understand America.” “A masterpiece of narrative nonfiction.”
“A chronicle of the #MeToo era.” “A pitch-perfect primer on how to take a hot-button-chasing by-the-minutes breaking story and investigate it with the best and most honorable journalistic practices.” “This is one of the defining issues of our times, one whose impact will be felt for a long time.”
Katherine Boo, Behind the Beautiful Forevers.
“Unbelievably well written and well reported portrait of a slum in Mumbai.” “Vividly reports on the life of this slum’s inhabitants.”
Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.
“The book demonstrates the ways in which the War on Drugs, and its resulting incarceration policies and processes, operate against people of color in the same way as Jim Crow. Powerful on its own terms and crucial as an engine toward transforming the criminality of our ‘justice’ system.”
Julie K Brown, “How a Future Trump Cabinet Member Gave a Serial Sex Abuser the Deal of a Lifetime,” Miami Herald.
“Investigative journalist for The Miami Herald, examines a secret plea deal that helped Jeffrey Epstein evade federal charges related to sexual abuse.” “Brown essentially picked up a cold case; without her reporting, Epstein’s crimes and prosecutors’ dereliction would not be known.” “Great investigative reporting.” “Documenting the abuses of Jeffrey Epstein when virtually everyone else had dropped the story. “What makes this particularly compelling for me is that Brown did the reporting amid the economic collapse of a great regional paper.” “A remarkable effort to empower victims.”
Sheri Fink, Five Days At Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital.
“In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. This is narrative medical journalism at its finest: compelling, compassionate, and unsettling.”
Nikole Hannah-Jones, Matthew Desmond, Jeneen Interlandi, Kevin M. Kruse, Jamelle Bouie, Linda Villarosa, Wesley Morris, Khalil Gibran Muhammad, Bryan Stevenson, Trymaine Lee, Djeneba Aduayom, Nikita Stewart, Mary Elliott, Jazmine Hughes, The 1619 Project, New York Times Magazine.
“Explores the beginning of American slavery and reframes the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.” “A definitive work of opinion journalism examining the lingering role of slavery in American society.”
David A. Fahrenthold, Series of articles demonstrating that most of candidate Donald Trump’s claimed charitable giving was bogus, Washington Post.
“By contacting hundreds of charities — interactions recorded on what became a well-known legal pad — Fahrenthold proved that Trump had never given what he claimed to have given or much at all, despite, in one instance, having sat on the stage as if he had.”
Staff of the Washington Post, Police shootings database 2015 to present.
“The definitive journalistic exploration and documentation of fatal police shootings in America. In a decade defined, in part, by the emergence of Black Lives Matter, this Washington Post project set a new standard for real-time, data journalism and was a vital resource during a still-raging national debate.” “In the wake of Ferguson, newsrooms across the country took up admirable data reporting efforts to fill the longstanding gaps in existing federal data on police use of force. This project stands out both in its comprehensiveness and sustained dedication.
NYU put together a pretty impressive (all things considered) Zoom presentation on the night of the announcements, with almost all the winners on hand to offer appreciation for the honor and heartfelt words about what their projects meant to them.
The photo at the top of the post is a screengrab of David Fahrenthold’s remarks. I was moved to grab it because on his bookshelf (circled in black), I spotted a copy of The Art of Fact: A Historical Anthology of Literary Journalism, edited by Kevin Kerrane and me.