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BEST OF JOURNALISM 2018
Pity the honest media critic.
No, we mean it!
Public critics of journalism face a perverse set of incentives compared to their peers in other fields. Most writers or analysts who offer critiques for general consumption are rewarded for finding what’s good and only occasionally for exposing what’s bad.
If Tom Sietsema couldn’t find the best places to eat in Washington, he wouldn’t prosper. You don’t become a revered restaurant critic talking about how to find the worst food at a greasy spoon in an industrial park.
The same goes for books, movies, music, cars, electronics, rookie quarterbacks and mail-order alpaca hats. You’re really only supremely useful if you can find and know what’s excellent — to know why it’s excellent and to understand why others might agree.
Savage limnings of artists or craftspeople who have the temerity to offer their goods or services for profit or appreciation offers a limited horizon for a journalist even in our age of casual cruelty.
That’s what Twitter is for.
So what makes a journalism critic legendary or even just successful?
While those other subjects may become politicized, news reporting is inherently political. We cover politicians. We substantially direct (though seldom in harmony) the political discussion. Voters rely on our work to render their judgments. Leaders draw conclusions based on our work. This stuff really matters.
Therefore, journalistic criticism reaches its zenith not like a restaurant review but rather a health inspection. The good ones aren’t examining the subtle and surprising note of pickled Hatch chilis in an otherwise pedestrian fish taco. They’re elbow deep in the grease traps looking for rats. As another fabulist showed us again this year, the stakes are too high and perils too present for lax public hygiene in our trade.
Remember also that media criticism is a useful tool for politicians and partisans who would rather make us the story then keep the focus on themselves. If you don’t want to talk about the news, just talk about the way the news was written.
Further complicating matters is that the best critics in other fields aren’t competitors of the creators. If Sietsema gave a brutal caning to a new spot you’d probably look askance if you found out that he owned a place across the street. In the news business, however, we mostly police each other.
So there are a lot of incentives for journalism criticism that is a) partisan/ideological b) negative or c) both.
With ALL of that in mind, we like to every year offer something unusual: some examples of the very best our profession produces.
We do not include here the good work done by our colleagues at Fox News. We would have a list at least twice as long if we did.
Chris Wallace’s interview with Vladimir Putin, Bret Baier’s knockout election coverage, Martha MacCallum’s powerful presence on the debate stage and the growth and success of shows helmed by our beloved friends and colleagues Dana Perino, Shannon Bream, Bill Hemmer and Sandra Smith would all be there.
And that’s to say nothing of the superb work by hundreds of colleagues whom you don’t know. The number of hands that turn to bring you a pixel, podcast or program is a thing of fearsome beauty.
And don’t even get us started on the correspondents and field producers! Neither rain nor sleet nor snow will keep them from making the shot and getting it damned well right.
So maybe we’re a little partial, too...
That’s why we limit our praise to our competitors, peers, betters and up-and-comers — all people who make their living in the honorable vocation of journalism. And there is so much from which to choose. Lordy day.
As fashionable as it is now to lament the death of American journalism, the truth is that there has never been so much great work being done by so many great journalists. It doesn’t seem that way perhaps because of all of the negative criticism (much of it earned) and because in a atomizing media world you really have to know where to look.
That’s why we look far and wide over the landscape, careful to avoid partisan barriers and with an eye for what’s small, new and geographically diverse. We tend to focus on politics and government because, well, duh. But there’s room for all kinds of stories — things that might suit our “Time Out” or kicker items or merit discussion “From the Bleachers.”
So without further ado, here is some of the best of journalism from 2018:
‘Is Democracy Dying?’ - The Atlantic: It was perhaps not a perfect year for the magazine’s effort to broaden its intellectual horizons. The hiring and firing of Kevin Williamson in submission to an internet outrage mob was a real lulu. But in its edition and ongoing series on the challenges facing American-style democracy here and abroad, The Atlantic distinguished itself. Jeffery Rosen’s piece on how James Madison might receive our moment was so well done. But truly remarkable was the work of Eliana Plott, “The Bullet in My Arm.” The distance between pro-gun and anti-gun America looks insurmountable if you read most coverage, but Plott, an Alabamian who has rapidly risen in the ranks of elite journalism shows that those are false assumptions built on flimsy understanding.
‘George H.W. Bush: 1924-2018’ - The Weekly Standard: There will be much to miss from the recently euthanized Weekly Standard. Whatever you thought of the magazine’s politics, its cultural coverage and veneration of good writing was something precious and rare. And there were none better there than Andrew Ferguson, and we can think of no better example than his obituary for the 41st president. There was an enormous amount of coverage surrounding Bush, his legacy, our current cultural and political moments and the passing of a generation. Much of it was good, but Ferguson stood out (as he often does). “We are each of us a black box, and I scarcely knew him,” he begins. “but even I could see there were many keys to George H.W. Bush.”
‘The Lessons my father, Charles Krauthammer, taught me about being thankful’ - Washington Post: Speaking of remembrances, seldom have we ever seen such uniformity of sentiment and depth of consideration at the passing of a journalist as we did for our friend Charles Krauthammer. There were many fine pieces produced at outlets across the ideological spectrum, as befitted a man who did not reserve respectfulness for his friends nor correction for his foes. But it has been his own beloved son, Daniel, who emerged not just to keep the flame but fuel it in his father’s absence. Daniel put together his dad’s posthumous book “The Point of it All” and has written and spoken widely on the subject. But we were particularly taken with his Thanksgiving column at the WaPo. “On this day, we give thanks for our country’s natural bounty — but even more, for its moral and philosophical bounty, of which we are history’s lucky inheritors. Our gratitude should prompt us to accept the responsibility for safeguarding it and passing it down to the next generation so that they may continue to enjoy its blessings. On this day, I am thankful to my father for passing it down to me.”
‘‘I think I’ve been shot’: Nighttime raid in Afghanistan reveals new U.S. strategy’ - Wall Street Journal: If the Afghan conflict has become this generation’s forgotten war, don’t blame Michael Phillips. The WSJ war correspondent has been on the front lines in some of the worst places in the world since 2001, but his work has never been better or more useful than his recent coverage about the changing conflict in Afghanistan. His early December dispatch on the efforts by American forces to succeed at often contradictory missions is indicative of the kind of work from Phillips on which we’ve come to rely.
Trump engaged in suspect tax schemes as he reaped riches from his father - New York Times: It would be hard for non-journalists to appreciate just how much went into this investigation into the finances of the president, his family and his father. The piece got a great deal of attention from Democrats who were delighted by new revelations of just how much President Trump’s wealth derived from his fortunate birth. But that overlooks a more remarkable story about the man behind our president. Whether you like or dislike the choices Fred Trump made, no one could fail to be impressed by his ingenuity and ability to remain an unknown even as his fortune surpassed that of so many better known New York businessmen. The team at the Times gave us a great gift in trying to understand how we came to the Trump era and what is likely to descend from it.
‘Five Capital Gazette employees dead after shooting’ - Capital Gazette: What could better exemplify journalistic professionalism and duty better than the surviving members of the Annapolis, Md. newspaper covering the massacre that killed their friends and colleagues? A terrorist’s objective is to change behaviors in targeted populations. Fear and anger can do damage far beyond the attack itself. So no response could be more fitting to an attack aimed at shuttering the paper than putting out the paper anyway.
Groundbreaking study examines effects of screen time on kids - CBS News: It will be many years before Americans come to terms with the ways in which the digital revolution has changed us. It will be even longer still before we are sensibly able to sort out what we got right and what we got wrong as we led our species through the most consequential change since the Industrial Revolution. One of the most momentous questions is how we should regulate access to the now ubiquitous screens for children. A report from CBS News offered some stark realities for parents, educators, tech companies and political leaders about the long-term emotional and cognitive consequences of too much screen time. We are still at the beginning of the discussion on this subject, and will need lots more work in this vein before we can maximize the benefits and minimize the damage of this new age of wonders.
‘Dan Crenshaw started the week as a punchline and ended it as a star. The real story came before that.’ - Washington Post: Depending on your preferred narrative for the 2018 midterm elections, there’s probably a particular story from campaign coverage that gives you the tingles. Well, we are not immune. That’s why we honor the work by Dan Zak, who so effectively encapsulated a story about how Americans are starting to step back from the brink of a national divorce. The story of how Texas Rep.-elect Dan Crenshaw won his upset victory by addition rather than division would have been a good and rare enough yarn. But the fact that Crenshaw demurred when offered the chance to take a free swing at someone on the other side of the divide was downright remarkable. The name of the political game in 2018 is victimhood — who can claim and press the deepest grievance as a political weapon. Zak wonderfully traces Crenshaw’s decision to reject victim status and try to lead by example.
‘God made me black on purpose’ - Politico: Everybody writing long-form political journalism had better get used to surfing in Tim Alberta’s wake. Alberta has grown into the master of the political profile. If character really does count in our leaders, then his gift for revealing the inner life of public figures is much needed these days. South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott is one of the most fascinating political figures of our time but also one of the most enigmatic. He’s an open book in so many ways, but closed off in many others. Alberta’s profile pushes past the convenient tropes and gets closer to Scott’s real story then we’ve seen anyone else be able to do.
How the seeds of today’s partisan deadlock were sown during the 1990s - Washington Post: We all know Chuck Lane is a very good writer, but he had a leg up in his review of the book “The Red and the Blue” by Steve Kornacki. The book, thoroughly researched and even-handed in its analysis, tells the story of how partisanship spilled over the banks of the river of our republic a generation ago. And the water’s still rising. If that’s a matter of interest to you, Lane’s review should be enough to get you sucked in completely.
‘A polite word for liar’ - Revisionist History: Our difficulty in picking a favorite podcast for 2018 is a wonderful reflection of how the medium is thriving. The rebirth of Freakonomics, the continued excellence of the Intelligence Squared debates, the always surprising interviews on the Joe Rogan Experience and the perspicacity of Jonah Goldberg’s The Remnant all argue for inclusion. But in his second season, Malcom Gladwell’s Revisionist History really hit its stride. Particularly impressive was his work on memory, perception and character. Good journalists challenge our thinking without being argumentative. Gladwell’s got that down pat.
Chris Stirewalt is the politics editor for Fox News. Brianna McClelland contributed to this report. Want FOX News Halftime Report in your inbox every day? Sign up here.