We asked writers and editors to choose some of their favorite stories of the year in various categories. Here is the best in profiles.
Journalist Sarah Smarsh has covered socioeconomic class, politics, and public policy for The Guardian, The New York Times, The Texas Observer, and many other publications.
Smarsh’s first book, Heartland, was long-listed for the National Book Award in nonfiction.
William Barber Takes on Poverty and Race in the Age of Trump (Jelani Cobb, The New Yorker)
The intersection of class, race, and religion — what could be more fraught in these times? Cobb’s rare combination of quiet wisdom and a steady journalistic hand is the perfect guide. He profiles Protestant minister William Barber, the progressive activist and co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, with thorough reporting and sensitivity, letting facts speak for themselves but humanizing the subject as no fact alone can do. I’ve been part of the Poor People’s Campaign at the ground level and was heartened to learn here that more than one respected source calls Barber “the real thing.” But, whether or not Barber is your political comrade, you will learn that he believes himself to be your spiritual brother — a refreshing fusion of political and moral force on the sometimes god-averse left.
Feature writer for The New York Times.
The mystery of Tucker Carlson (Lyz Lenz, Columbia Journalism Review)
This was a really good year for profiles, despite their death (reported annually). So good that it was very hard to narrow it down, and so I was very grateful that I couldn’t pick any from the New York Times, where I work, which really helped narrow it down. (Though you’ve just got to read this one.)
And how do you choose from the others: Dan Riley on Timothée Chalamet (though exactly which profile/article/photo/table of contents, even, under Jim Nelson wasn’t great?). Allison P. Davis’ Lena Dunham lede-ender of fallopian tubes like outstretched arms? Amanda Fortini opening Michelle Williams’ historically very locked vault. Emily Nussbaum on Ryan Murphy. Paige Williams on Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Wright Thompson on Geno Auriemma. Jessica Pressler on Anna Delvey. (Jessica Pressler on anything.) What a year.
But I finally picked one, and when I did, I realized it was a no-brainer. Lyz Lenz, who has terrifying amounts of talent, pulled off the neatest trick: A profile of screamy Tucker Carlson that walks the line of being way too self-referential, and yet somehow makes that work. It’s perhaps because it’s so funny. It’s perhaps because instead of looking for some fatuous lede scene it goes straight to the most prominent aspect of Carlson (why is he always screaming?). It’s perhaps because she knows that there is no end to the delight of knowing his full name: Tucker McNear Swanson Carlson. Or maybe it’s this section ender: “His publicist calls after our interview to make sure I know that Carlson is not a racist.” Whatever it is, I was very grateful for it.
James Ross Gardner
Editor-in-chief, Seattle Met.
Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Trump’s Battering Ram (Paige Williams, The New Yorker)
I lost count of how many times Paige Williams was obliged to deploy terms like “inaccurately,” “falsely,” “erroneous,” and “lie” in this extraordinary portrait of Sarah Huckabee Sanders. What’s remarkable about Trump’s press secretary though is that, at least here, those words are rarely used to describe statements by Sanders herself — but rather of those whose lies she must justify. It’s also what makes Sanders a cipher of our time. How does someone who vehemently claims to possess high moral character rationalize defending the indefensible? Put another way: How does one become that person? Williams’s search for an answer takes her to her subject’s native Arkansas, where in the ’90s the daughter of then governor Mike Huckabee “was given Chelsea Clinton’s former bedroom” in the governor’s mansion, and Little Rock “residents and journalists mocked the Huckabees as rubes.” Later, during a visit with a lifelong friend, we catch a rare glimpse of the press secretary uncoiled and away from the podium, “wearing tropical-print shorts and flip-flops, with a blue blouse and her pearls.” Details like these are certainly humanizing. But Williams isn’t here to vindicate Sanders’s transgressions. In 9,293 words she deftly dismantles the notion that the president’s “battering ram” might walk away from any of this with clean hands. “A press secretary who had an abiding respect for First Amendment freedoms likely would have resigned once it became clear that Trump intended to steamroll his way through the Constitution,” Williams offers early in the piece. “But Sanders stayed.”
Editor in Chief, The Atavist.
The mystery of Tucker Carlson (Lyz Lenz, Columbia Journalism Review)
Lyz Lenz’s profile of Tucker Carlson in the Columbia Journalism Review begins and ends with the subject shouting at the writer, but insisting that he’s not. It’s the perfect encapsulation of Carlson’s raison d’être in the Trump era: convincing people to believe lies despite proof of the truth sitting right friggin’ there in the form of scientific studies, sociological data, photographic evidence, and the like. And when gaslighting fails? To Lenz, hardy soul that she is, Carlson again demonstrates his favorite ripostes. He deflects probing questions with glib mockery, by rejecting a query’s value so that he doesn’t have to address it, or — my personal favorite — with pseudo-intellectual incoherence masquerading as the sort of wily argument that wins high-school debaters gleaming trophies. (This is a digression where I beg someone reading this list to pen the definitive essay on how debate is the root of political evil. I will tweet it every day, forever.) Lenz, wholly in control of her craft, injects the profile with her own anxiety and anger about Carlson’s bullshit and with sly reminders that, for too long, respectable media overlooked his bullshit because Carlson was quite good at mimicking Hunter S. Thompson. People keep wondering, wide-eyed, what happened to Tucker Carlson. They don’t want to admit that the answer is, and was always, right friggin’ there.
Senior editor, Longreads.
Jerry and Marge Go Large (Jason Fagone, Huffington Post Highline)
To Gerald “Jerry” Selbee, an “intellectually restless” dyslexic cereal box designer from Battle Creek Michigan, everything in the world was a puzzle to be solved. At age 64, Selbee’s mathematical mind discovered a loophole in the Michigan Lottery’s “Winfall” game. He figured he’d test his lottery strategy as something fun to do to in retirement. Jason Fagone wrote 11,000 words about how Jerry and Marge Selbee won $27 million gaming the Michigan Lottery over nine years and this piece has it all in a winning combination. As you root for the working man who finds a way to win against a big government entity, you too savor the thrill of solving a tough puzzle to make your lottery dream come true. This is longform at its finest.
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