With so much news slamming us at every moment, it’s hard to see any of it as having enduring value. Who can even remember what happened last week?
But not everything is ephemeral. Some journalism really does last.
Years ago, when New York University faculty ranked the best journalism of the 20th century, they came up with some selections whose classic nature is unarguable. The list was led by John Hersey’s “Hiroshima,” a feat of reportage that used novelistic techniques to tell the stories of six survivors of the atomic bomb; it took up an entire issue of the New Yorker magazine in 1946. Second place went to Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring,” the prescient warning about man-made damage to the planet. The Washington Post’s Watergate reporting made the list, too.
Now there’s a new ranking from the university’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute that looks at this past decade, 2010 to 2019, and is intended to “honor really great work that has already stood the test of time,” according to the project’s organizer, journalism professor Mitchell Stephens.
It’s “the most precious kind of journalism,” he said, “because it changes how we think and how we look at the world.” The group considered nonfiction books, daily reporting, documentaries, podcasts and more.
Here, then, is the ranked list, recently announced at an online celebration for the authors:
1. Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Case for Reparations,” The Atlantic.
The judges, 14 outside judges and 24 NYU faculty members, called it “the most powerful essay of its time.” Published in 2014, “it influenced the public conversation so much that it became a necessary topic in the presidential debate.” (Coates is a writer in residence at NYU; he did not participate in the judging.)
2. Isabel Wilkerson, “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration.”
The judges called this 2010 book “a masterwork by one of our greatest writers and most diligent reporters … essential reading to understand America.”
3. Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, “She Said: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story That Helped Ignite a Movement.”
Based on the duo’s groundbreaking #MeToo reporting for The New York Times in 2017, it’s 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.”
4. Katherine Boo, “Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity.”
The New Yorker writer’s moving portrait of a place and its people, published in 2012, is “unbelievably well written and well reported,” said a judge.
5. Michelle Alexander, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.”
The 2010 book by the civil rights litigator, now a New York Times columnist, “demonstrates the ways in which the War on Drugs, and its resulting incarceration policies and processes, operate against people of color.” One judge called it “crucial as an engine toward transforming the criminality of our ‘justice’ system.”
6. Julie K. Brown, “How a Future Trump Cabinet Member Gave a Serial Sex Abuser the Deal of a Lifetime,” Miami Herald.
The veteran reporter “essentially picked up a cold case,” note the judges, and without her dogged reporting, Jeffrey Epstein’s crimes and prosecutors’ dereliction might have slipped away. One judge astutely observed that Brown managed this “amid the economic collapse of a great regional paper.”
7. Sheri Fink, “Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital.”
This narrative medical journalism, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, written by a New York Times correspondent who is also a physician, is “compelling, compassionate, and unsettling.” The 2013 book expands on her Times reporting based on the 2005 disaster in New Orleans.
8. “The 1619 Project,” New York Times Magazine.
These essays, published in 2019, together have ignited a culture war in America, as they explore the beginning of American slavery. The project, said the judges, “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.”
9. David A. Fahrenthold, a series investigating candidate Donald Trump’s claims of generous charitable giving, The Washington Post.
The judges: “By contacting hundreds of charities — interactions recorded on what became a well-known legal pad — Fahrenthold [in 2016] 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.”
10. Staff of The Washington Post, Police shootings database 2015 to present.
The judges called this the “definitive journalistic exploration and documentation of fatal police shootings in America.” In the wake of the infamous police shooting of an unarmed Black man in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, the ambitious effort “set a new standard for real-time, data journalism and was a vital resource during a still-raging national debate.”
For those who might want to argue with these rankings — in the grand tradition of music fans getting outraged over Rolling Stone magazine’s list of, say, the 500 greatest albums of all time — they may find fodder in the larger list of more than 120 nominees. (“What?! Where’s Jane Mayer’s Fox News exposé in the New Yorker? What about “In the Dark,” the investigative podcast that helped free a Mississippi man once held on death row?”) Or they may have some other ideas altogether.
Whether you agree with the list, it might make you stop to think about some of the essential reporting that’s whizzing by you right now as you doomscroll the news endlessly into the nights. Will some of it endure and earn status as classic journalism? Ed Yong’s work this year on the coronavirus pandemic in the Atlantic comes to mind as a possibility. So does The New York Times’s reporting on Trump’s tax returns.
But it’s ever so early in this crazily tumultuous decade. It’s sure to look quite different from the vantage of 2030.
Margaret Sullivan is The Washington Post’s media columnist.