My goal to read 366 feature stories in 366 days is proceeding on schedule, but given the percentage of those stories that have just kicked me in the stomach, it’s been a more arduous journey than I’d imagined when we began in January. But part of the reason for this adventure was to see what impact consuming so much in-depth journalism would have on my outlook, and I must say, it’s been exhausting and, at the same time, inspiring. Hope it’s been the same for those of you reading along with me.
On to this month’s picks. Best reads get a ⭐.
154.) How Pandemics End by Gina Kolata in The New York Times
155.) How the fake Beatles conned South America by Ed Prideaux for the BBC
156.) History Will Judge the Complicit by Anne Applebaum in The Atlantic
This piece is not for the faint of heart. It’s long, and it’s deep, but it offers some genuine historical perspective on why so few Republicans are willing to step out from behind Trump’s coat tails to speak truth to power — and why a few of them do. It’s fascinating.
157.) Cops Are Always the Main Characters by Kathryn VanArendonk in Vulture
⭐158.) A stubborn stain, a selfless act, a wrenching discovery: cleaning up after Chris Beaty’s death in Indianapolis by Mary Claire Molloy in The Indianapolis Star
The woman who wrote this is a freshman in college. A freshman. My god. I might as well quit the profession because if an 18-year-old is already this much better than me… well, what hope do I have? But seriously, this is an absolute tour-de-force of journalism. If I were teaching a course in feature writing, I’d pass out this story and just tell the students, “do this.” (Note: I wouldn’t be a very good teacher.)
159.) What’s a journalist supposed to be now — an activist? A stenographer? You’re asking the wrong question.by Margaret Sullivan in The Washington Post
160.) Inside the Revolts Erupting in America’s Big Newsrooms by Ben Smith in The New York Times
The inherent question in the two stories above are the same: How do journalists balance their personal beliefs with their role as objective observers. I think a big part has to start with this: Objectivity is not about giving equal footing to all arguments, many of which are made in bad faith or not supported by evidence. It is our job to discern reality from narrative and present the most accurate version to our audience. Too much of our industry, on shaky ground as it is, has been bullied into “both sides-ing” everything, when in fact, one side is just eager to muddy the waters. On the flip side, it’s essential that un-muddying those waters is done with facts and reporting, not our own personal ethos. In fact, good reporting answers a lot of the problems we’re facing.
161.) The decade-old quest for a hidden treasure chest is over. The millionaire who hid it says it was just found. by Sydney Page in The Washington Post
There’s not much to unpack here but I saved it to read because I’d previously read this piece from 2018 that’s a terrific narrative tail of a man who disappeared while hunting for Forrest Fenn’s treasure.
162.) Inside Nextdoor’s ‘Karen’ problem by Makena Kelly for The Verge
163.) How apples go bad by Helen Rosner in The New Yorker
Taking the comparison to bad police literally, you can find how effective the analogy really is.
The closer an apple is to rot, the more rot it spreads—one spoiling apple, in a crisper drawer or a fruit bowl, or a storage barrel or a cross-country shipping container, or even still hanging on the bough, speeds the rot of every apple it touches, and even of ones it doesn’t touch. The whole bunch quickly begins to exemplify what the artist Claes Oldenburg called “the brown sad art of rotting apples”: a swamp of ferment, infecting the air with the hideous sweetness of decay.
164.) Lost and Found: The Dog Who Was Not There, And Also Was Not A Dogby Holly Anderson for Banner Society
Part of me wishes Holly Anderson wrote everything. She’s so great.
⭐165.) The Confederate flag is finally gone at NASCAR races, and I won’t miss it for a second by Ryan McGee for ESPN
We talk a lot about this with comedians, the idea of brutal self-assessment and honestly leading to something profound. That’s what my pal Ryan gives us here. Good lord it is a powerful column, an absolute home run.
166.) It’s time to rename Kinnick Stadium by Cole Grooms for The Gazette
167.) Murder in Old Barns by Lindsay Jones for The Walrus
168.) Change the world? Two students start with their neighborhood and find it’s not so neighborly. by Petula Dvorak in The Washington Post
169.) How Exactly Do You Catch Covid-19? There Is a Growing Consensus by Daniela Hernandez, Sarah Toy and Betsy McKay in The Wall Street Journal
170.) How ‘Superspreading’ Events Drive Most COVID-19 Spread by Christie Aschwanden in Scientific American
171.) Facebook Groups Are Destroying America by Nina Jankowicz in Wired
172.) The Facebook ad boycotts have entered the big leagues. Now what? by Megan Graham for CNBC
173.) Why America’s Institutions Are Failing by Derek Thompson in The Atlantic
This hits on some important things, I suppose, but it feels like there’s a lot more going on here. I think part of our problem as a society right now is that, as a whole, we have zero belief in our most significant institutions. Government, police, the press, schools, even sports… who feels good about any of those things at the moment? And Trump has made a living by tearing down any semblance of belief in any institutions, instead creating an image of himself as the only true answer, which in turn, politicizes any statement of support for something beyond Trumpism. It’s why there’s zero point in having a “no politics” approach to communication these days. Everything is political.
174.) The battle over masks in a pandemic: An all-American story by Lori Rozsa, Chelsea Janes, Rachel Weiner and Joel Achenbach for The Washington Post
175.) The American Press Is Destroying Itself by Matt Taibbi for Taibbi Substack
I genuinely dislike Matt Taibi and his antagonistic writing style, and while I think he probably has some salient points in here, he also manages to view the situation through a very narrow prism. He’s right that the goal of journalists shouldn’t be virtue signaling but rather strong reporting, but this seems like a very shallow exploration of the problem.
More specifically, however, I do agree with him on the Tom Cotton editorial in the New York Times. Cotton is wrongheaded and his editorial misrepresented a situation badly. Those are problems that should’ve been addressed by the editorial board, which clearly did not do its job. But when a significant political figure believes something that stirs such passion amongst the paper’s readership, isn’t there value in allowing those beliefs o be seen, read and argued against? Yes, I think the Times could’ve provided better contest, perhaps a counter-argument to run with the Cotton piece. But prior restraint is a bad thing for the industry, and we shouldn’t be cheering on the folks who want to keep bad ideas hidden in the dark spaces of the internet. Those ideas festered for too long there, and that’s a big reason why we’re in this position now.
And as a side note, this thread from Tom Rosenstiel on what constitutes objective journalism is pretty great.
176.) Why Did the Washington Post Get This Woman Fired? by Josh Barro and Olivia Nuzzi for New York Magazine
Another good look into how journalism just has no clue how to respond during the current moment in society.
⭐177.) The pandemic hit and this car became home for a family of four. by Greg Jaffe in The Washington Post
One of the best stories I’ve read this year. Terrific reporting and detail. Would love to pick the writer’s brain on how he did the reporting, but it’s gut-wrenching. It’s impossible to read this without wanting to help, without feeling horrible that humans have to live this way.
FOLLOW UP: I wasn’t the only one moved by this story.This is a reminder of what great journalism can accomplish.
178.) Above the Law: The Data Are In on Police, Killing, and Race by Lyman Stone for The Public Discourse
These are some damning numbers coming from a conservative outlet, and while I’m well aware the “All Lives Matter” mantra is distinctly antagonistic and racist, this piece really underscores that police reform should be a priority for more than just black citizens.
179.) This California city defunded its police force. Killings by officers soared. by Peter Jamison for The Washington Post
On the other hand, the debate on defunding the police is far more complicated than most people want to admit. This piece does an excellent job of showcasing why. I have several friends who are cops and the resounding take from them has been that, yes, there are some really bad cops, but the problem might be UNDER funding the system, with cops spread too thin, pay too low to attract good candidates, and support from both the community and the government minimal. I don’t know if this is true or not, I just know that the subject deserves some deep, thoughtful, nuanced discussion.
180.) Now, About The Bad Name I Gave My Band by Patterson Hood for NPR
Good essay from the lead singer of the Drive-By Truckers (or, perhaps, Lady DBT).
181.) The Black Officer Who Detained George Floyd Had Pledged to Fix the Police by Kim Barker for The New York Times
This is a really good story that sheds some light on how complicated police reform really is. Here’s a guy who’s entire goal was to FIX the problem, and he’s now charged with assisting in the murder of a black citizen. This also reminded me a bit of Malcolm Gladwell’s theory in “Outliers” on the role of cultural deference in airline crashes (which, like much of Gladwell’s stuff, is a mixed bag with plenty of folks who think he’s a reductionist and strongly denounce his theories).
182.) Scientists Present a Theory Explaining Why We’re the Only Humans on Earth by Sarah Sloat in Yahoo!
⭐183.) Hitchhiker, hero, celebrity, killer: The strange journey of the man called Kai by Jana Pruden in The Globe and Mail
Terrific narrative piece on a one-time viral sensation whose story was far deeper, darker and more complicated than any YouTube clip could possibly explain.
(NOTE: We’re officially to the halfway point of our goal of 366 features!)
184.) On Death and Dying, and One Extremely Long Text Exchange by Sloane Crosley for Vanity Fair
This was a really interesting and different approach to grappling with the toll of coronavirus.
185.) College football players have power, but they must decide how to use it by David Ubben in The Athletic
Great piece from Ubben on the delicate balance between using power to create social change and using it to simply punish people who are wrong. The situation at K-State is complicated, and Ubben does a terrific example of explaining why it’s not a battle worth fighting for football players there.
186.) Attack and Dethrone Time by Jeffrey Moro at JeffreyMoro.com
⭐187.) Boss of the Beach by David Gauvey Herbert in New York Magazine
Without question, this is one of my favorite pieces I’ve read this year. First, let’s get this out of the way: The story sags a little in the latter half, and I understand why. The reporting is just stupendous, an utterly mind-boggling level of information and detail accumulated on a subject that spans more than 40 years. The early stuff is so good, with such vivid expressions of time and place*, that the latter stuff almost has to pale in comparison. I do think there’s parts that would warrant cutting — the stuff on Miguel Castro, for example — because it didn’t necessarily relate directly back to the main subject, but if the larger story is simply about the culture of NYC life guards, well… I wouldn’t have wanted to be the one making the cuts. Anyway, this piece is just gorgeous, and I’m in awe of the amount of work that must have gone into it.
*Note: Capturing setting is something I struggle with, but it really helps bring a story to life, to put the reader in that place. This piece is amazing in the way it drops the reader into the culture of 1980s New York, a much different place than today.
188.) A Cheap, Race-Neutral Way to Close the Racial Wealth Gap by Annie Lowrey in The Atlantic
This is a really fascinating idea. I’ve long been an advocate for drastically increasing the inheritance tax (though politicians seem to want to go the other direction, shocker!), which feeds into dynastic wealth and clearly benefits rich whites over all others. I don’t think the idea of raising taxes on the super wealthy is the most politically friendly idea because, as a society, we’re too libertarian for the to fly. Maybe some day, but not soon. But raising the tax rates on inherited wealth isn’t about hurting “job creators.” It’s actually a quite Republican idea in that it forces everyone to account for their own success, not benefit from our ancestors. It’s also something Ben Franklin and other founding fathers strongly believed in, largely in response to dynastic wealth in England. And as the idea of reparations gains a footing, taxing generational wealth seems like a really good way to fun that. But… the idea explained in this piece is even better (politically at least) because it’s not about race, it’s about leveling the playing field for everyone.
189.) NASCAR and Hollywood were never the same after ‘Days of Thunder’by Ryan McGee for ESPN.com
An oral history of “Days of Thunder” by my buddy Ryan? Yes, please.
- We’re at the halfway point of 2020 (seriously, only halfway? Feels like it’s been 2020 for 17 years) so I put together a list of my 10 favorite features of the year to date, which you can find HERE.
- One of the best things I read this month was a Twitter thread on June 30 about the great Carl Reiner. It’s worth a read.
- I wrote a thread on how I’ve (unintentionally) managed to dehumanize some of the subjects I’ve written human interest stories about.
- I also wrote this month about college football players being empowered by the current social justice movement.
- Also a reminder that some of the best stories you’ll read can be found at the Sunday Long Read.
- On to July’s reading list HERE.