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Feb. 17 2010 - 3:04 am | 41,240 views | 3 recommendations | 34 comments

The Best of Journalism (2009)

Throughout 2009, I kept a running list of the best journalism I encountered. Although I endeavored to remain as impartial as possible, note that I’ve been an employee of The Atlantic, that I’d eagerly write for numerous publications that received awards, that I have too many friends/acquaintances/professional contacts in journalism to disclose them all, and that the number of pieces I miss every year far exceeds the number I’m able to read.

In other words, this isn’t an infallible account of journalism’s best, but I aim to make it the best roundup that any one person can offer, one of these years I intend to do better than the committees who pick the Pulitzer Prizes and National Magazine Awards (the pressure’s on, especially since you guys charge entry fees), and if nothing else my effort encompasses writing that is well worth your time.

If you find this a valuable resource or if you want to help support future incarnations, do so through the donate button on the right margin here (it’s another project I recently worked on).

The 2008 awards are here, and you can get exceptional journalism throughout the year by following JournoCurator on Twitter.

As is proper, the categories below were chosen after the winning pieces were selected, and serve only as an organizational tool. And now, without further delay…


The Washington Post

Fatal Distraction By Gene Weingarten

“Forgetting a child in the back seat of a hot, parked car is a horrifying, inexcusable mistake. But is it a crime?”

Rolling Stone

The Boy Who Heard Too Much by David Kushner

“He was a 14-year-old blind kid, angry and alone. Then he discovered that he possessed a strange and fearsome superpower — one that put him in the cross hairs of the FBI.”

The Washington Monthly

Pie in the Sky by Mariah Blake

“What happened when a billionaire pizza mogul tried to build an elite Catholic law school.”

Chicago Magazine

A Mugging on Lake Street By John Conroy

“A veteran investigative reporter looks into his own beating and finds himself confronting harsh and lingering questions of race.”


How I Convinced a Death Row Murderer Not to Die by Michael Finkel

“He was the one person on earth I wanted to die, and instead I’ve helped to save his goddamn life.”

LA Weekly

Box of Broken Dreams
by Mark Groubert

“A young photographer’s belongings are abandoned on a Hollywood street, leaving our writer to piece together the fragments of his life.”

This American Life

Mistakes Were Made — Act One: You’re As Cold As Ice

“It’s the late 1960s, and in the new technology of cryonics, a California TV repairman named Bob sees an opportunity to help people cheat death. But freezing dead people so scientists can reanimate them in the future is a lot harder than it sounds. Harder still was admitting to the family members of people Bob had frozen that he’d screwed up. Badly.”


Re-United, Act II: If By Chance We Meet Again

“Ralph and Sandra Fisher, who run a show-animal business in Texas, had a beloved Brahman bull named Chance. Chance was the gentlest bull they’d ever seen—more like a pet dog than a bull. When he finally died, Ralph and Sandra were devastated. Around that same time, scientists at Texas A & M University were looking for animal subjects for a cloning project. They already had some tissue from Chance because they’d treated him for an illness. So Ralph and Sandra offered up Chance’s DNA for the experiment. Second Chance was born. And he was, eerily, just like Chance. Except he wasn’t. Which they found out the hard way.”


The Weekly Standard

A Rake’s Progress: Marion Barry bares (almost) all. by Matt Labash

The definitive profile.

The Virginia Quarterly Review

Double Vision: The Art of Trevor and Ryan Oakes by Lawrence Weschler

There isn’t a person alive who can best Mr. Weschler at writing about art accessibly without sacrificing substance.

The American Prospect

Constant Comment by Kerry Howley

“How Kathleen Parker became America’s most read woman columnist.”


The New York Times

Held by the Taliban by David Rohde

The most riveting piece of the year.


The Letter of Last Resort — The Decision About Nuclear Apocalypse Lying in a Safe at the Bottom of the Sea by Ron Rosenbaum

The writer uses a fascinating, little known fact to explore the terrible paradox of nuclear deterrence.

The Virginia Quarterly Review

Empires of the Mind: SERE, Guantánamo, and the Legacies of Torture by David J. Morris

This first person account ends with the kicker of the year.

The New Atlantis

AIDS Relief and Moral Myopia by Travis Kavulla

The writer does his best to tackle the thorny subject of attitudes toward AIDS in parts of Africa that are particularly hard hit, explaining to a Western audience why our assumptions about fighting the disease may not track reality.

The New Yorker

Gangland by Jon Lee Anderson (subscription required)

Inside the favellas of Rio.

World Hum

You’re American? I Should Kill You!’ by Cory Eldridge

“To most of his roommates at his United Arab Emirates apartment, Cory Eldridge was an exotic American. To one of them, the Iraqi who’d been held at Abu Ghraib prison, he was ‘President Bush.’”


The New Yorker

Trial By Fire by David Grann

Nearly proves that an innocent man was executed in Texas.

The Independent

The Dark Side of Dubai
by Johann Hari

“Dubai was meant to be a Middle-Eastern Shangri-La, a glittering monument to Arab enterprise and western capitalism. But as hard times arrive in the city state that rose from the desert sands, an uglier story is emerging.”

The New York Times Magazine

Strained by Katrina, a Hospital Faced Deadly Choices by Sheri Fink

Arguably the most impressive reporting job this year.

The New Yorker

Brain Gain by Margaret Talbot

The underground world of “neuroenhancing” drugs.

This American Life


All three acts.


How Often Do Women Falsely Cry Rape? By Emily Bazelon and Rachael Larimore

A well-executed effort to treat this charged question as empirically as possible.



An Epidemic of Fear by Amy Wallace

“How Panicked Parents Skipping Shots Endangers Us All.”

The New Yorker

The Cost Conundrum by Atul Gawande

“What a Texas town can teach us about health care.”

The Atlantic

How American Health Care Killed My Father by David Goldhill

“After the needless death of his father, the author, a business executive, began a personal exploration of a health-care industry that for years has delivered poor service and irregular quality at astonishingly high cost. It is a system, he argues, that is not worth preserving in anything like its current form. And the health-care reform now being contemplated will not fix it. Here’s a radical solution to an agonizing problem.”

This American Life

Fine Print: Act Three — Restrictions May Apply

On the least-defensible insurance industry practice.


The radio show’s exceptional two-part broadcast explaining the American health care system here and here.



Game Drain by Jeanne Marie Laskas

What the NFL doesn’t want you to know.

The Weekly Standard

The Cocktail Renaissance by Robert Messenger

The piece I most enjoyed reading this year.

The New York Times Magazine

The No Stat All Star by Michael Lewis

The writer’s sports prose is as fun to read as anything by Malcolm Gladwell, its arguments are as counter-intuitive, and its conclusions on basketball are more persuasive (in other words, NBA coaches would be better served trading for Shane Battier than instituting a full court press).


The New York Press

Flat N All That by Matt Taibbi

The writer’s polemical rants are hit and miss. This one puts Tom Friedman so far up a creek he’ll need three shovels and a steering wheel to spelunk himself out.


Obsidian Wings

Why Do They Stay
? by Hilzoy

Shortly before retiring from the blogosphere, the dearly missed blogger explained why battered women don’t leave their abusers.

The American Scene

A New Way to Think About Life by Reihan Salam

“The Cosmic Timekeeper is on your side.”

The New Yorker

William Safire (1929 – 2009) Mother Hen by Hendrik Hertzberg

A lesson in how to write an obit for someone with whom you profoundly disagreed.

The Washington Examiner

The lonely passing of Senator Kennedy by J.P. Freire

Empathy as a rarely used but useful tool in editorial writing.

The Washington Post

Murphy’s Law by Gene Weingarten

The writer excels on every topic he tackles. Dogs are no exception.

This American Life

Pro Se: Act I, Psycho Dabble

“Contributor Jon Ronson tells the story of a man who has spent more than a decade trying to convince doctors that he’s not mentally ill. But the more he argues his case, the less they believe him.”


The New Republic

An unknown story from the magazine whose URL I saved, but that I cannot now access due to their long-running, maddening archival clusterfuck. Can you help me out, criminally underpaid TNR interns? http://www.tnr.com/story_print.html?id=12ef5554-1023-4be9-ad93-681003b280ef

Update: A contact at The New Republic informs me that the piece in question can be found here.


The Washington Monthly

College for $99 a Month by Kevin Carey

“The next generation of online education could be great for students—and catastrophic for universities.”

This American Life

Going Big — Prologue and Act One: Harlem Renaissance

“Paul Tough reports on the Harlem Children’s Zone, and its CEO and president, Geoffrey Canada. Among the project’s many facets is Baby College, an 8-week program where young parents and parents-to-be learn how to help their children get the education they need to be successful.”

Human Resources — Act One: Rubber Room.

“The true story of little-known rooms in the New York City Board of Education building. Teachers are told to report there instead of their classrooms. No reason is usually given. When they arrive, they find they’ve been put on some kind of probationary status, and they must report every day until the matter is cleared up.”

The New Yorker

The Rubber Room by Steven Brill

The battle over New York City’s worst teachers.


World Hum

Where No Travel Writer Has Gone Before by Rolf Potts

The writer “joins Trekkies aboard a ‘Star Trek’ theme cruise to Bermuda.”


Christopher Hitchens and the Battle of Beirut by Michael Totten

A famous writer, a swastika, and a street brawl that could’ve turned deadly.

The Atlantic Online

Keep scrolling down through Graeme Wood’s astonishing blog “Prepared for the Worst,” penned by the man who may be 2009’s most well-traveled writer.


The Wall Street Journal

No Grapes, No Nuts, No Market Share by Barry Newman

“All the world’s Grape Nuts come from a dirty-white, six-story concrete building with steam rising out of the roof here in the San Joaquin Valley. The valley grows lots of grapes and lots of nuts, so the factory’s location would make sense, if Grape Nuts contained any local ingredients. Which it doesn’t.”

Vanity Fair

Wall Street on the Tundra by Michael Lewis

“Iceland’s de facto bankruptcy—its currency (the krona) is kaput, its debt is 850 percent of G.D.P., its people are hoarding food and cash and blowing up their new Range Rovers for the insurance—resulted from a stunning collective madness.”


Why Craigslist is Such a Mess by Gary Wolf

The worst site that we all use by choice.

Vanity Fair

The Man Who Crashed the World by Michael Lewis

Is there anyone on earth who can write a story as enjoyable about AIG? (This story is complemented by an episode of This American Life that is also excellent.)

This American Life

Scenes From A Recession.

All three acts — and no, this isn’t the same episode linked above.


The American Spectator

The New Humanism by Roger Scruton

Why it’s worse than the old humanism.


My Newborn is Like a Narcotic by Katie Roiphe

Ignore the subtitle and enjoy a blissful piece.


Anatomy of a Child Pornographer by Nancy Rommelmann

“What happens when adults catch teenagers “sexting” photos of each other? The death of common sense.”

Vanity Fair

A Crime of Shadows by Mark Bowden

“After months of prowling Internet chat rooms, posing as the mother of two young daughters, Detective Michele Deery thought she had a live one: ‘parafling,’ a married, middle-aged man who claimed he wanted to have sex with her kids. But was he just playing a twisted game of seduction? Both the policewoman and her target give the author their versions of the truth, in a case that challenges the conventional wisdom about online sexual predators, and blurs the lines among crime, ‘intent,’ and enticement.”

The New York Times Magazine

Married (Happily) With Issues by Elizabeth Weil

The writer grapples with America’s marriage counseling trend by revealing the intimate details of what happened when she and her husband set out to improve their union, and wound up testing it.

New York Magazine

The Sex Diaries: A Critical (But Highly Sympathetic) Reading of New Yorkers’ Sexual Habits and Anxieties by Wesley Yang

The New York Times Magazine

Google’s Earth by Nicholas Baker

The American Scholar

The Decline of the English Department by William M. Chase

The New York Times Magazine

Love in 2-D by Lisa Katayama

The weirdest trend story of the year.


The Atlantic

What Makes Us Happy
? by Joshua Wolf Shenk

“Is there a formula—some mix of love, work, and psychological adaptation—for a good life?” says the subhead. “For 72 years, researchers at Harvard have been examining this question, following 268 men who entered college in the late 1930s through war, career, marriage and divorce, parenthood and grandparenthood, and old age. Here, for the first time, a journalist gains access to the archive of one of the most comprehensive longitudinal studies in history. Its contents, as much literature as science, offer profound insight into the human condition—and into the brilliant, complex mind of the study’s longtime director.”


Writer Evan Ratliff Tried to Vanish. Here’s What Happened
. by Even Ratfliff


The Big Picture

The Sartorialist


Box Turtle Bulletin

Coverage of the Ugandan anti-homosexuality legislation


This American Life

The Friendly Man — Act II, The Friendly Man

Scott Carrier “takes a job inside his profession, as a producer for a national commercial radio program,” and catalogs the pressure he faces to turn in the kinds of stories Americans want to hear.

The Daily Show

Despite going after the right with more acuity and zeal than the left, Jon Stewart and his team of writers have no peers when it comes to exposing the absurdity of cable “news” networks.


Jack Shafer wins the year’s most consistently good media critic award.

One Forty Plus

The Anatomy of a Smear: How The Reigning King of Special Effects Got Caught in One
by John Mayer

Yes, that John Mayer. Weird, I know.


The Ballad of Abu Ghraib by Philip Gourevitch

UPDATE: In posting this, I mistakenly neglected to add one piece, a three part profile of Glenn Beck written by Alexander Zaitchick. It appeared in Salon. Congrats to the author, and my apologies for the oversight.


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  1. collapse expand

    A small correction: the This American Life piece originally aired in 2008.

  2. collapse expand

    Conor’s choices for the best journalism show the importance of reading widely, rather than depending on just one or two publications for an understanding of how the world works.

    So many commentators (including journalists who should know better) decry the death of in-depth reporting. Well, Conor’s choices show that in-depth reporting is plenty healthy, although of course we would always like to see even more magazines (hard copy and Web only), newspapers participate.

    Every year, I watch the awards entries flow into Investigative Reporters and Editors, an international organization that I used to direct day to day and where I continue to help edit its magazine by journalists for journalists. Even during a recession, the entries flow–many of them from news organizations unrecognized outside their circulation areas.

  3. collapse expand

    I know it is more than a little self-serving to be so thrilled about a list simply because it includes pretty much everything I would have included.

    So be it.

    And thanks for including Sheri Fink’s NY Times Magazine piece “Strained by Katrina, a Hospital Faced Deadly Choices”

    I absolutely agree with your statement that it was “arguably the most impressive reporting job this year.” This remarkable work opened a door on the most agonizing decisions that care-givers face amidst catastrophe.

    I do, though, think it important to note that the piece was a cooperative effort of the New York Times and the non-profit organization Pro Publica.

    Steve Gorelick
    Hunter College, CUNY

  4. collapse expand

    Thank you. Honored to be included in such company.

  5. collapse expand

    Nothing from City Journal? One would think their writing would be right up Conor’s alley.

  6. collapse expand

    Looking for examples of great writing to share with students in a journalism class. This post was a godsend. Wonderful selections. Many thanks.

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    About Me

    Conor Friedersdorf is a writer, a Californian by upbringing, and a nomad at present. Refresh his page often.

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    Contributor Since: June 2009
    Location:Various cities, and sundry spots between them.