The Best of Journalism 2019


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THE BEST OF JOURNALISM 2019
Celebrating journalism these days feels countercultural.

The current president and his supporters are hardly alone their contempt for the press and loathing of journalists. Bernie Sanders, in yet another commonality between the nationalists and the socialists, sounds positively Trumpian in his attacks on the Washington Post.

Or how about this one? The student newspaper at Harvard University was covering a campus protest against the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. As any cub reporter would know, this would obviously require speaking to the people at the agency that was the very object of that protest. Or so they thought.

The outrage mob turned on its fellow students at the newspaper, and now with the support of student government are scourging The Crimson for “cultural insensitivity” for reaching out to I.C.E. “In this political climate, a request for comment is virtually the same as tipping them off,” the petition intones. Snitches get stitches, don’t you know.

Talk about unworthy of their privileges: Students at a school that has produced some of the great thinkers on individual liberty and free expression reduced to this cheap authoritarianism. For all their scorn for President Trump’s policies, there’s no difference between their bully tactics and the “fake news” chants and taunts at a Trump rally. 

As the American right and left come to act and think more alike, one of the main points of concurrence is a growing disdain for press freedom. The stakes are just too high, the reasoning goes, to risk reporters just saying whatever they want.

Critics point to the many failings in journalism today – bias, inaccuracy, sometimes outright fabrication – to suggest that press freedom is no longer deserved. That, of course, misses the whole point. The Bill of Rights doesn’t say only deserving folks are safe from improper searches and seizures or that only people with the right ideas are allowed to have firearms or associate with others freely.

These 10 liberties were so enshrined because they are the most attractive ones for governments to abridge. These are the messy parts. But like the others, a free press is worth having even when we get it wrong. It’s not a privilege, it’s a right.

That’s not to say that we shouldn’t always try to do better and to hold ourselves and each other to account for our failings. But the right to say what you want, when you want, how you want is as central to Americanism as any freedom.

We’ll give the last word on that to Crimson editors Angela Fu and Kristine Guillaume.

“A world where news outlets categorically refuse to contact certain kinds of sources – a world where news outlets let third-party groups dictate the terms of their coverage,” they wrote, “is a less informed, less accurate, and ultimately less democratic world.”

Now that we’ve banged on about why journalism is important whether you like it or not, let’s not forget that there is so much great journalism to love. And we don’t want to waste any more time before we unwrap this year’s presents.

One caveat: We have not included any of our fantastic Fox News colleagues. The remarkable work done by the men and women of our network’s news division gives us great pride every day. That’s why we make a point of sharing share their best with you. Plus, we are hopelessly biased in their favor.

Without further falderal, here’s what made us think, made us angry, made us laugh, made us see things differently, made us joyful and made us better humans in 2019.

REPORTING
The Miami Herald is getting lots of plaudits for its work in finally bringing down the monstrous Jeffrey Epstein. Guess what? They deserve all of them. The paper not only helped bring the notorious sex trafficker to justice but also put a major crack in the edifice of the corrupt system that protected him. We talk a lot about the importance of local papers in helping Americans be more rooted in their communities. But there’s another advantage: When national outlets have moved on, local reporters can stay on a story. A serial abuser arrested, a cabinet secretary forced out in disgrace, the second son of the British monarch ruined; not too shabby…

All of Ronan Farrow’s success comes with one downside: No one will ever underestimate him again. Farrow’s work exposing the reticence of his former employers at NBC News to frankly address sexual misconduct in their organization was a showstopper.

Year after year, Michael Phillips of the Wall Street Journal distinguishes himself as one of the finest writers in the business. The fact that he has made his career out of reporting on combat zones from the front lines makes his gift for prose even more impressive. Where others could get by on an impressive dateline and a little Hemingway swagger, Phillips is the real deal. To wit: We dare you to remain dry eyed in reading his story on Marine Col. Randy Hoffman. You will not think about the war in Afghanistan, post-traumatic stress disorder or the American military the same way.

Battlefield reporting has been particularly challenging in Syria and Iraq. Shifting lines, changing alliances and uncertain objectives make reporting not just complicated but potentially bewildering. Holly Williams and her crew at CBS News have done an impressive job in a difficult space. Her report from inside a militia prison for ISIS members is just one example of their great work.

The world has been gripped with the images coming out of Hong Kong in the recent months of violent protests. There are countless photographers who go to dangerous places to bring these realities home, like AP photographer Kin Cheung. The AP Photos piece about protestors’ use of medieval weapons shed light on how dire the situation had become.

Reader Ann Ali submitted a piece by her friend, Bryant Somerville, a local reporter in Columbus, Ohio. After watching his story about a young boy’s lasting legacy in their community we had to include it as an example of exemplary local news. Whether it is to keep up to date with daily events or to be reminded of the good in our neighbors, like eight-year-old Braxton Long’s Lego drive, local news is both necessary and needed.

POLITICS
Darn you, Harry Enten. The biggest story of the Democratic primary this year was right under everyone’s noses, but you were among the first ones to sniff it out. In the pre-pre-primary phase, the conventional wisdom cooled and congealed quickly around the notion that Bernie Sanders had really won the 2016 primary and that his ideas about democratic socialism were not only just ascendant but were now the dogma of the entire party. A year later, as we look at the smoldering wreckage of once promising campaigns like those of Sens. Kamala Harris and Kirsten Gillibrand, we see how wrong those assumptions were. Enten was among only a handful of political analysts to figure out early on that the Democratic base was not nearly as liberal or radical as the experts assumed – or the obsessive coverage of a certain freshman House member from the Bronx would have suggested. Who knew being bullish on the party’s popular former vice president would be the zag to everyone else’s zig?

Writing about polls is tough. Trust us, we know. But the WSJ’s Aaron Zitner has really distinguished himself not just for his accessible explanations of his own outlet’s polls, but also for his useful analysis of polling trends. Good stuff!

We wish Dan Balz would just go easy on us and adopt some elder statesman shtick and quit producing powerful, detail-driven, thoroughly reported political journalism. You’re making us all look bad! There are not enough words to praise Balz for his career or his current work, but every political reporter remains in his debt.

The NYT’s Sarah Lyall has always been a great read on topics as varied as baseball, European politics, economics and the novels of Ann Patchett, but it sure seems like she has found a new gear with her coverage of the 2020 campaign. We loved this piece on the outbreak of nervosa democratia, but she has been gimlet-eyed, wry and useful in everything she’s done on the campaign.

We told you people that Tim Alberta would do a Cracker Jack job as a debate moderator, and he surely did. We found it particularly funny that Alberta, among the most evenhanded and dispassionate reporters we know, was being called out as some sort of partisan shill ahead of the Politico/PBS debate last month. lawlz. Aside from his star turn, Alberta continued to distinguish himself week in and week out as the finest long-form politics writer working in the business today.

Far too much political analysis is algebraic. Writers are solving for a variable, and that variable is too often their own bias of attitude or ideology. “If only Senator Creamcheese had said all of the things I had been saying all along surely he would have won the debate.” Blah, blah, blah. Noah Rothman is a marvel not just for his clear concision, but also for his ability to get outside of his own worldview to see things better.

- We’re also excited about the newest addition to the world on political newsletters, the morning offering from The Dispatch, the new media venture from Jonah Goldberg and Steve Hayes. After a decade in which such offerings tended to be breathless disgorgements of reporters’ notebooks with little regard for context or priority, it’s nice to see somebody trying something meatier. We’ll keep our inbox open.

COMMENTARY
The highest compliment one writer can pay another is absolute anguishing jealousy. Reading Caitlin Flanagan in 2019 was that way. She’s like a surfer who knows just where to paddle out – even if it’s too close to the rocks, even if it’s too far from the shore – to catch the big waves. Her January piece on the Covington Catholic debacle should stand as the last word on the topic and would merit her laurels if she never hit another keystroke. But it was her June essay on the story of a California high schooler, the pornography industry, media standards and the duties of adulthood that really blew our doors off. Flanagan was truly the indispensable commentator of the year.     

- We try not to have too many firm opinions around here. They’re luxury items of which we can afford very few. But one that we firmly hold is that while George Washington created the American presidency, Abraham Lincoln has been the greatest of his successors. Former Defense Secretary James Mattis’ essay applying Lincoln’s wisdom and foresight to our moment was nothing short of masterful.

Many thanks to Tom Junod for sharing his own story, the inspiration for the Fred Rogers’ biopic “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”

We should probably disqualify Kevin Williamson at some point since he has made this list every year, but dang it, he always seems to find a new way to impress. His dispatch from the front lines of the trade war in farm country reveals a journalist whose reportorial skills have grown to match his fearsome gift for commentary.

- We’ll acknowledge right up front that we like Tim Carney. He’s a friend of ours. A former co-worker. A great dad. But even if he was a lout, a crumb and a Cubs fan, we would still be thoroughly impressed by his work on social alienation and its consequences for American politics. His book “Alienated America” is a great, useful and sobering read. And his journalism has reflected the knowledge gleaned along the way.

There’s nothing like a little perspective when it comes to love and relationships. Nancy French does just that in her piece about her whirlwind engagement and early weeks of marriage to David French. Readers may anticipate a heart wrenching story from the title, but instead we are treated to one about the resilience of love. And wrong phone numbers.

Three cheers for Matt Ridley, or perhaps we should say the 5th Viscount Ridley (quite so…). He’s a member of the British House of Lords and a science writer. But we were most impressed with his willingness to be – heaven forfend – sincere and optimistic in 2019. The easy way out these days is to be cynical and negative. Ridley’s piece “We’ve just had the best decade in human history. Seriously” was a great antidote to a popular culture that carries all of the sunny optimism of a Smiths’ album.

CRITICISM
If you’ve been reading the Halftime Report in recent months you’ve likely noticed we use Garden & Gun pieces in our Time Out section quite a bit. Spoiler alert: It’s become one of our favorites and tops our list for the best in criticism for 2019. Though the topics range from Southern food to style to travel to music to art, they are always a celebration of the South. Reader Dan Burch nominated the piece, “Crechale’s Cafe’s Highway Legacy,” after reading the piece in the Halftime Report and visiting the restaurant himself! Though we don’t think of ourselves as a travel guide, we’re happy to know Crechale’s Cafe is as wonderful as we imagined it would be.

What would we do without Kyle Smith? Certainly see a lot more bad movies. Smith has proven one of the most even-handed, perspicacious and insightful film critics out there. When he thrashes he does so not with glee but rather a sense of high-minded regret, even though the effect is fatal. We could cite any of his reviews this year but offer you his take on the soon-to-be-released “1917.”

We love words. We love old words, strange words, beautiful words, funny words… We think our language is nothing less than a glorious adventure. When we read WSJ automotive critic Dan Neil, it’s obvious that he is one of us. There’s no plaudit that would probably impress someone who won a Pulitzer Prize for criticism in his rookie year as a car critic in 2004, but man, the dude can jam. After reading his review of the 2019 Maserati Quattroporte GTS GranSport one imagines the car simply falling to pieces under the weight of Neil’s judgement. THUNK

- Carolyn Stewart writes about the importance of keeping historical relevance when talking about Harriet Tubman in her review of the recently released biopic, “Harriet.” Without giving too much away about the film, we took away an important message from Stewart: Our understanding of everyday heroism is being distorted. Stewart says, “…the new biopic gives Tubman the franchise superhero treatment, divorcing her from the real-world circumstances that make her the perfect guide through America’s darker legacies and to its brightest potential.” We’ll let you be the judge.

PODCASTS
Tell you what, it seems like they’ll give almost anyone a podcast… Media celebrities have accumulated podcasts quicker than a bro can drain a White Claw at a Lil Nas X concert. Envisioned as star vehicles, most of them end up as lemons once they’re off the lot. That makes Michael Lewis’ success with his “Against the Rules” podcast all the more remarkable. The same gifts for thorough reporting, evocative storytelling and bringing grand narratives to a human scale that make Lewis’ books so great turned his podcast series into something remarkable. The central challenge of our time may be finding ways to restore Americans’ confidence in institutions, and Lewis opens the door on that challenge in an arresting fashion. Truly the best of 2019.

Look, we love “The Remnant.” We even listened to some of the episode when Jack Butler filled in for Jonah Goldberg. We even liked the episode where Goldberg and Rep. Mike Gallagher talked like giggly eighth graders about their zaniest ideas and probably something about “The Planet of the Apes.” But we still think you should review a certain other podcast first.

“Freakonomics” has been one of the most successful long-running podcasts out there. So much so that its helmsman Stephen Dubner was toying with hanging up his microphone. Instead, Dubner decided to double down and look for new ways to innovate and expand in the medium. Listening to episodes like this one on predicting the next financial panic makes us glad he did.

To stay with our theme of loving this language of ours, let us offer a hearty recommendation for “A Way with Words” and its host Martha Barnette. Did you ever wonder why we talk the way we do? What’s a son of a gun anyway? Why is it a turnip truck that people are always falling off of? And are jaybirds really naked? Aren’t all birds naked? And why does Donald Duck wear a shirt and no pants? Wait. Where were we? Anyway… you should listen to this great podcast.

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.