The Best of Journalism: 2008

(Originally published in Culture11, I am republishing this feature at The American Scene in advance of the 2009 awards. Is an enterprising editor perhaps interested in paying to publish those? If not you’ll see ‘em here.)

Best Storytelling

Trouble in Paradise by William Prochnau and Laura Parker

Perhaps you’ve seen Mutiny on the Bounty. Did you know it was a true story? Or that the rogue sailors kidnapped Polynesian women, sailed away to escape the British Navy, and wound up on a remote island where they proceeded to develop a society whose social mores were a bi-cultural mix of Polynesian and rogue sailor? That’s just the beginning of the most fascinating story I read all year.

Best Personal Essay

What Kind of Father Am I? By James McConkey

The writer, an octogenarian, looks back “at a lifetime of parenting sons and being parented by them.” His essay brims with all the wisdom of a life well lived, rendered with dramatic tension and ringing as true as Leo Tolstoy at his best. The personal essay form is so often the province of the young these days. We cannot compete with the best our elders can muster.

A Woman’s Place by Caitlin Flanagan

The writer, musing on “Katie Couric’s long day’s journey into the evening,“manages to capture a ubiquitous but little remarked upon fact of modern life — the way in which television and its characters insert themselves into our lives, age as we do, provide us with succor, and come to feel as though we know them. It’s the rare magazine piece on a celebrity that’s worth reading.

Best Court Reporting

Dispatches from the R. Kelly Trial by Josh Levin

The writer captures the absurdity of the rapper’s… well, the absurdity of everything about him.

Best Profile

A Boy’s Life by Hanna Rosin

“Since he could speak, Brandon, now 8, has insisted that he was meant to be a girl,” says the subhead. “This summer, his parents decided to let him grow up as one.” The story,exhaustively reported and scrupulously balanced, delves into the scientific debate about the nature of gender, and asks “whether the limits of child indulgence have stretched too far.”

Best Review

Big Kills by Anthony Lane

The writer cinches this award with the first paragraph alone:

What is it like being Timur Bekmambetov? No artist should be confused too closely with his creations, but anybody who sits through “Wanted,” Bekmambetov’s new movie, will be tempted to wonder if the life style of the characters might not reflect or rub off on that of the director. How, for example, does he make a cup of coffee? My best guess, based on the evidence of the film, is that he tosses a handful of beans toward the ceiling, shoots them individually into a fine powder, leaves it hanging in the air, runs downstairs, breaks open a fire hydrant with his head, carefully directs the jet of water through the window of his apartment, sets fire to the building, then stands patiently with his mug amid the blazing ruins to collect the precious percolated drops. Don’t even think about a cappuccino.

Read the rest here.

Covering the Economic Disaster

The Giant Pool of Money by Alex Blumberg and Adam Davidson

The single best piece of financial journalism ever produced. You’ll even understand it!

The End by Michael Lewis

“The era that defined Wall Street is finally, officially over. The writer, who chronicled its excess in Liar’s Poker, returns to his old haunt to figure out what went wrong.”

Foreign Affairs

Policing Afghanistan by Graeme Wood

In Afghanistan an ethnic minority group that traces its lineage to Genghis Khan is proving to be an excellent source of recruits as Allied forces try to professionalize the police force. Why are they so professional in comparison to other Afghan policemen? Is using a minority group to police the majority setting the stage for horrific reprisals once Western forces leave the country? The writer answers these questions in an elegantly written, exceptionally contextualized piece reported while running through grape fields, avoiding Taliban ambushes and IEDs.

Into the Valley of Death by Sebastian Junger

This dispatch from “the deadliest pieces of terrain in the world for U.S. forces” chronicles Army outposts where “men spend their days in a surreal combination of backbreaking labor—building outposts on rocky ridges—and deadly firefights, while they try to avoid the mistakes the Russians made.” This piece made me appreciate, more than anything else I’ve read, the dangerous conditions braved by Americans on the front lines.

Best Campaign Coverage

The Magazine Industry!

Whether measured by scoops, quality of analysis or enjoyability of the read, newspapers were handily outshone by magazine writers covering election 2008 — notable mentions go to John Heilemann at New York, John Dickerson and Chris Beam at Slate, Marc Ambinder and Josh Green at The Atlantic, and Camille Paglia at Salon.

The Hardest Vote by George Packer

The writer tours Ohio, capturing the disaffection of working class voters.

Story I’d Most Want Every Mayor in America to Read

The NYPD Diaspora by Heather MacDonald

Want to reduce the murder rate in your city? The writer argues that crime-fighting techniques pioneered by the NYPD are doing just that all over America as former New York cops become police chiefs elsewhere.

Excellent Articles to Read Together

Food for Thought by John Schwenkler

The writer argues that renewing the culinary culture should be a conservative cause.

Farmer in Chief by Michael Pollan

The writer pens a letter to our next president about our blinkered agricultural policies.

Best Article on a Topic You Don’t Actually Need to Know Anything About

Up and Down by Nick Paumgarten

Every interesting fact related to elevators, and the story of one man trapped inside one. Will he live? Will he die?

The What You Are Afraid Of by Adam Sternbergh

The writer demonstrates his genius by penning a whole story about the comments section of a Brooklyn Web site — and it’s somehow gripping from start to finish!

Best Piece of Meta Criticism

How Wood Works: The Riches and Limits of James Wood by William Deresiewicz

If you like great literature, critics, and getting deep into the weeds about the ways in which they intersect, this piece is for you.

Best Legal Story

Too Weird for the Wire by Kevin Carey

“How black Baltimore drug dealers are using white supremacist legal theories to confound the Feds.”

Best Non-Fiction Book

The Dark Side by Jane Mayer

This exhaustively reported look at the Bush Administration’s use of torture and other illegal methods in the War on Terror has an ideological edge to it. No matter, for the facts presented are too powerful to be ignored, though that is just what segments of the right-leaning press is doing.

Best Story About an Absurd Topic

Hot for Creature by Eric Wills

“Thirteen years ago, William Dranginis saw Bigfoot. Fifty grand, a van, and a camera in a log later, the quest continues.”