Favorite new writer discovery of 2012
I’m always scared of making lists like this, because a year is a long time, and I read a lot, and invariably I’ll forget writers and pieces that I liked very much. But this category is easy for me: Michael J. Mooney. He wrote back-to-back stories for D Magazine this summer that are so different but the same in that they both knocked me on my ass. First he wrote about a brutal rape in “When Lois Pearson Started Fighting Back.” (It is a difficult read, but the ending is more than worth it.) And then he wrote the most amazing bowling story ever in “The Most Amazing Bowling Story Ever.” Plus, he’s a straight-up good dude. Love this guy so much.
Best election story
I’m going to seem like a homer here, but I don’t care: Charlie Pierce did journalism on Esquire.com during this entire election cycle that bordered on heroic—and I don’t use that word lightly. In its ideas, in its language, in its sheer volume, his account of this election, taken as a whole, is humbling and inspiring at the same time. Start with the end, “The Greatness of Barack Obama is Our Great Project” and go back from there.
Best personal blog post/essay
I’m going to pick two stories here, both sports stories. Writers hate hearing athletes say, “You never played the game,” but it’s hard to deny that former athletes understand the games they played better than most of us do. Just the other day, The Classical posted a meditation by former basketball player Flinder Boyd about Ricky Rubio, “The Ricky Rubio Experience.” I’m not sure I can say why, exactly, but I was really moved by this story. Some of The Classical guys can be snide little shits, far too Internet cool, but Boyd wrote with real heart here. I love this story.
The second is by one of my most favorite friends, Kevin Van Valkenburg of ESPN. He wrote about the death of a semi-pro football player in a story called “Games of chance.” Kevin played college football at the University of Montana, and he writes beautifully about the pull of the game as well as the charge that comes from hitting and with being hit. Sometimes the first person interrupts; here it informs.
Best crime story
I see the great David Grann has already picked this one, but I’ll echo his pick, because it was that good: Pamela Colloff’s “The Innocent Man” for Texas Monthly is an epic, immersive, amazing story. And full credit to the gang down in Austin for committing so completely to longform journalism. That this story even exists makes me hopeful about so many things.
The story that made me feel the most awesome about just about everything
I’ve always been an optimist about writing, or at least I’ve always tried to be an optimist about writing, and 2012, for me, has been filled with reasons for optimism (like Pamela Colloff’s story above, which is really a multi-layered testament to the power of belief). Yes, this business remains in flux, and yes, many good writers continue to put more love into their writing than their writing returns to them. But I still feel like we live in a golden age, filled with possibility. One of the stories that most made me feel that way—both because of the story itself, and because of its subject—was “How One Response to a Reddit Query Became a Big-Budget Flick” by Jason Fagone in Wired. The title describes the tale exactly, and it’s just as improbable and fun and crazy as it sounds. I feel like this story sums up the modern writing business as well as any: There’s still plenty of lightning out there, and there are still lots of bottles, and every now and then, someone still catches one with the other.
“I wanted to do right by Joey,” Chris Jones now says of “The Things That Carried Him” which Esquire published in May 2008. In 17,000 words, he told the story of one soldier’s return home, structured backward from his funeral to the moment an IED broke his body. He sprinkled details—a girl in a flowered dress and the two yellow ribbons tied to a tree on Elm Street—that act as emotional cues and lend lyricism to the writing. The piece won the 2009 National Magazine Award for feature writing.
David Grann: The Mark of a Masterpiece, The New Yorker, July 12, 2010
Just a perfectly constructed, painful reveal of the sinister side of the art world, starting at its origins, with the artist’s fingerprints.
Michael Kruse: Stories of LeBron and sportswriter intertwined, tangled, The St. Petersburg Times, Nov. 21, 2010
Maybe the best way to approach an over-covered subject: write about him by writing about someone else. (See Breslin, Jimmy. Digging JFK Grave was His Honor.)
Eli Saslow: For a look outside the presidential bubble, Obama reads 10 personal letters a day, The Washington Post, March 31, 2010
For a look inside the presidential bubble, report the hell out of the story of a single letter.
CJ Chivers: A Firsthand Look at Firefights in Marja, The New York Times, April 19, 2010
Every time CJ Chivers heads off to war and sends back a story, I feel like less of a man and less of a writer.
Tom Junod: Eating the Whole Animal, from the Inside-Out, Esquire, April 2010
Pure entertainment by one of the all-time great magazine writers. Also contains the sentence: “The veins are what freaked me out.” Impossible to resist. Reading, not eating, that is.
A lot of people were very upset about Megyn Kelly’s much-teased interview of conspiracy theorist and bad father Alex Jones, the man behind the website InfoWars, which I accidentally looked at once and refuse to do again, sorry. (My coverage of a multicultural rally inspired people to tweet at me about a “shootout” between ISIS and drug cartels at the Mexican border, and my reporter’s curiosity got the better of my reporter’s skepticism, prompting me to Google an event that only happened on this weird fringe website.)
Some people were upset because Jones said the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting that resulted in the deaths of 20 small children and six teachers was a “hoax.” By allowing Kelly to interview Jones, they argued, NBC was giving him a platform to promote his conspiracy theories. As the Washington Post‘s Margaret Sullivan noted before the interview aired, the fact that it was “scheduled to air on Father’s Day gives it an extra element of tone-deafness.”
Others were upset because they are tired of hearing from people like Jones who clearly, as Jezebel’s Anna Merlan eloquently noted on Twitter, desperately require attention, but have literally never contributed an interesting piece of information or thought to the public discourse in the entirety of their lives.
Merlan was tweeting during the broadcast of Kelly’s Jones interview Sunday night which, the Page Six story she tweeted revealed, was “completely overhauled” after all the backlash Kelly received:
NBC News execs were scrambling following the furor over Kelly’s decision to give a platform to the controversial Infowars host, who claimed the Sandy Hook massacre was a hoax.
A contrite Kelly personally called the Sandy Hook families, we’re told, to invite them on the show to counter Jones’ rhetoric.
A source told us, “NBC was scrambling to find a way out of this mess without having to back down and cancel Sunday’s episode of Megyn’s show. Megyn and her producers made numerous calls to the Sandy Hook families this week to ask them to appear on the show. Some refused because they didn’t think appearing on her show would do enough to counter Alex Jones’ venom.”
Nelba L. Márquez-Greene, whose daughter Ana Grace was killed in the Sandy Hook shooting, wrote in the Washington Post:
And deniers of tragedy are a danger to all Americans. Victims of tragedy require and deserve our support. Deniers create a distraction that shifts focus from compassion to craziness, that throws sand in the wheels of the action we should be taking to create a safer society. In a country experiencing almost weekly tragedies, we should not normalize this reaction.
Sullivan was one of the critics who argued that there is value in covering Jones, given his popularity and influence on the president, but that all of the signs before the segment aired indicated Kelly’s interview was going to just be “another way for Jones to promote what he does on Infowars radio and online, another way for him to legitimize his destructive and obscene lies.” Sullivan wrote:
Rather than abandoning this important — indeed crucial — subject, the network should use Kelly’s interview as a start, not an ending.
A serious investigation of Jones by America’s top news network would do the real work of journalism: spreading the truth and holding an influential figure accountable for his dangerous lies.
But many critics felt Kelly was not the right person to do that. This is a person who once devoted time to arguing that Santa Claus and Jesus Christ were (are?) both white. Veteran media critic Jack Shafer catalogued that and other missteps by in a piece for Politico:
When University of California-Davis cops pepper-sprayed protesters, she underplayed the episode, saying, “It’s a food product, essentially.” She exaggerated the dangers posed by the New Black Panther Party. She made ridiculous claims about the ease of voter fraud in Colorado. And so on.
But in the piece, published after the segment aired and titled “Megyn Kelly pantses Alex Jones,” Shafer argues that “short of waterboarding him, I don’t know what more Kelly could have done to expose Jones’ dark methods.” Like Sullivan, he sees value in engaging with Jones:
She was needlessly defensive in her presentation, acknowledging that some people thought the segment shouldn’t have been broadcast because it would increase Jones’ profile. But as she pointed out, Jones isn’t going away, and his audience is growing. What’s more, Jones “has the ear of our president,” and spurious things Infowars says have a way of getting repeated by his phone-pal President Donald Trump, who has saluted the Infowars host in the past. She didn’t take Jones down, but really, who could have in a newsmagazine segment? But she did do a credible job of exposing his lies. Give her a B+.
Poynter‘s chief media critic, James Warren, deemed the segment “a bit of an InfoSnooze, if damning and ultimately worthwhile.” Alex Griswold at the Free Beacon noted a lot of the praise was back-handed, assuming the piece was as weak as Kelly’s interview with Vladimir Putin before the outrage compelled her producers and editors to make it tougher. Forbes noted the editing “was clearly very heavy, as Jones only spoke in frustratingly brief soundbites.” Jones’ fans, however, are calling Kelly “a snake,” apparently angry she went back on her promise to let Jones watch the segment before it aired. John Koblin, TV reporter for the New York Times, tweeted that the show had fewer viewers than “60 Minutes.”
Mark Armstrong | Longreads | November 18, 2014 | 5 minutes (1,301 words)
Thirty-six years ago, on Nov. 18, 1978, a charismatic preacher from San Francisco named Jim Jones led his followers into one of the most horrific massacres in American history. More than 900 people—including 303 children—were slaughtered, in a place called Jonestown. It was a community first built as a socialist utopia for parishioners from the Peoples Temple. But Jones had other plans, planting the seeds of “revolutionary suicide” that ended with mass cyanide poisoning.
I spoke with Julia Scheeres, author of the book A Thousand Lives and our latest Longreads Exclusive, “Escape from Jonestown,” about the newly public home movies from inside and how the phrase “drink the Kool-Aid” became a terrible reminder for its survivors. Read more…
For our latest Longreads Exclusive, we’re proud to share Julia Scheeres’ adaptation of her book, A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Jonestown, which tells the story of five people who lived in Jonestown at the time of the infamous massacre, which occurred 36 years ago, on Nov. 18, 1978.
This story also includes home movies—never before released publicly—from inside Jonestown. The footage, discovered after the massacre, includes tours of the compound by Jim Jones and interviews with many of those who lived and died there. You can view the entire series of clips at YouTube.com/Longreads. Read more…