Jealousy List 2016
Here are 40-odd stories we wish we’d done this year—and don’t want you to miss.
Continuing a painful, happy tradition, we give you Bloomberg Businessweek’s fourth annual Jealousy List.
In 2013 we brought you our first queasy green rundown of other people’s great journalism, observing that “in this season of relentless kindness, envy is often sadly neglected.” In 2014 we pretended it was about fair play, having published 7.5 million words that year ourselves and feeling a little piggy. Last year we yearned so deeply to have done what we did not do that you can see it on our faces just by hovering over them.
It was all rank jealousy.
And this year? Racist algorithms that measure a defendant’s risk of committing a crime in the future (damn you, ProPublica). The corporate defense lawyer who turned his life upside down to take on DuPont when an Appalachian cattle farmer whose cows were dying reached out for help (ptui, New York Times). A portrait of the richest touring musician in the world ... guess who ... nope (Deadspin!). A cottage industry of Balkan teenagers faking out Trump supporters with fake news (oh you BuzzFeed, you).
Ouch. Read on. #jealousylist
That story on BuzzFeed
about the Macedonian teenagers making money by creating fake news for the U.S. It’s not a “longread” and there’s nothing fancy about it, really. It’s just one of those stories you can’t stop thinking about. Wish we'd gotten to it first. I don’t know Craig Silverman or Lawrence Alexander, the authors of the piece, but I salute them, with great jealousy. Also read: David Farenthold Pieces
from Grub Street.
Jeanne Marie Laskas’s peek inside the ATF’s gun-trace paper chase is both a paean to civil service and a darkly funny story about a contradiction: Every year tens of thousands of Americans are injured or killed in gun crimes, and, orderly people that we are, law enforcement wants to know who bought the gun and where. But to prevent the inevitable tyranny that would follow a national gun sale database, federal law forces the ATF to sift those facts from enormous stacks of paper. And that's where agent Charlie Houser and his small team of microfilm slingers get started.
Swim. Bike. Cheat?
from the New York Times
It’s not often the sports world provides a tantalizing mystery, with intrigue and athletes who feel personally violated by a suspect competitor. Yet that’s what Sarah Lyall uncovered in British Columbia with a tale about a 2015 Ironman Canada triathlon that’s not a whodunit but a gripping story about how a Canadian mental health counselor apparently cheated in multiple races. The mystery is all about how Julie Miller overcame an array of sophisticated anti-cheating technology to “win” multiple races. And more to the point: Why?
I’m jealous of everything Eli Saslow writes, but at a time when we’re constantly hearing that facts don’t matter and that the two Americas no longer talk to each other, this profile of white nationalism’s former heir apparent and how he came to leave the movement makes an especially moving read. It’s a testament to the power of people having honest, good-faith, face-to-face arguments with each other, about even the most difficult subjects, and it enacts that idea with its own writing. The piece is a case study in how to write about people with abhorrent views with genuine, albeit clear-eyed, humaneness.
This story has everything: decades-long corporate wrongdoing; sympathetic, articulate, and determined victims; a lawyer who switches sides to take on one of the world’s biggest chemical companies and sleuths through tens of thousands of documents to find incriminating material; and a great first sentence (“Just months before Rob Bilott made partner at Taft Stettinius & Hollister, he received a call on his direct line from a cattle farmer”).
No one has burrowed into the cultural phenomenon known as Kim Kardashian West quite like Caity Weaver in her GQ
story about the reality star. Within the hilarious anecdotes about the Calabasas princess, Weaver drills down to her core: Kim has “monetized the very act of living.” This summer I, too, sat down with my name-buddy Kim at a house in the Hamptons to interview her about California style, but we didn’t get a chance to discuss her impact on the fundamental nature of celebrity. I regret it. Because Kim, as a business model, is truly groundbreaking.
It’s preposterous that this story exists. Deadspin
’s longtime slogan is "Sports news without access, favor, or discretion." The Gawker (RIP) website is, I would have guessed, the least-friendly forum possible for James Dolan, the much-reviled owner of the New York Knicks. Yet here’s Dolan spilling his guts about the thing that matters most to him: his side gig as a blues musician. Dave McKenna doesn't snark. He plays it straight, dutifully reporting the details of the strange musical career of a billionaire whose latest album had sold 113 units.
Godmother of Soul
from the New Yorker
Maybe it was just me, but journalism consumption in 2016 was a compulsive, joyless activity. It’s hard even to pull memories of specific articles out of the general election-year haze. But I did read this profile of the singer Erykah Badu and came away convinced that there’s still magic in the world.
from National Review
I don’t agree with large portions of what Kevin D. Williamson wrote in this essay, but that doesn’t stop me from being jealous of it. His piece, a response to mushy arguments about the despair of the white working class and the rise of Donald Trump, was unsentimental and provocative. In a year when it seemed like every editor in the world decided to commission a Worthy-with-a-capital-W #longform piece that attempted to empathize with the anger of the American heartland, Williamson went the other way and asked, with a mostly clear head, does America really need a heartland? “Forget all your cheap theatrical Bruce Springsteen crap,” he wrote. What the “white American underclass” needs, he continued, is “real opportunity, which means that they need real change, which means that they need U-Haul.” Williamson was pilloried, on both the left and the right, for being uncaring. I hesitated before publicly praising this piece, because it is uncaring and, I think, in the end, wrong. But, at a time when social networks are pushing people deeper into their own filter bubbles, I think it’s worth celebrating work that challenges our most closely held beliefs and is smart about it.
It feels as though the 2016 U.S. presidential election has dominated my news consumption for the past decade, and there were plenty of good stories about white working class voters and middle-American malaise that could have fit on my beat. Less than a month after the election, I had a hard time picking a single one of those stories for this list. When I closed my eyes and thought about the stories I read this year, I hit upon something very different: Finn Cohen’s short oral history of Prince’s guitar solo at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. You’ve seen the video. Prince blows the rest of the players off the stage and throws his guitar in the air. It never seems to land. It’s not something I would have ever written, but I doubt anything I wrote this year gave anyone as much joy as this piece gave me, and I’m jealous of it for that.
This taxonomy on Breitbart.com by Allum Bokhari and Milo Yiannopoulos broke down the alt-right into “intellectuals,” “natural conservatives,” the young “meme team” that made Pepe the Frog into a symbol, and lastly the “1488ers”—“real racists and bigots” who the authors said make the rest of the alt-right look bad. I learned something, although I have a feeling that the alt-right is a darker place now than even last March, when their article came out.
Lydia DePillis delves into the thankless work of contracted document review attorneys, and the debate over whether it’s really too “professional” to qualify for overtime protection. “The debate may seem small,” she writes, “but it goes to the heart of how a new class of workers in white-collar fields whose work has been increasingly commoditized—think adjunct professors, for example, or even journalists—ought to view themselves.”
There has been a centuries-spanning debate over the place of capitalism and entrepreneurship in society and how those should interact with the lofty goal of making the world a better place. In the last decades, with the rise of the self-described (and at times mocked) “Silicon Valley ethos,” this discussion has become a flash point for topics ranging from public transportation to housing to fake news to the inequity baked into the very system itself. In this story, we see the synthesis of all that, and with a happy ending to boot. Here’s an entrepreneur not only disrupting a market, but using that disruption to benefit the users of the product he’s created, but also to enrich them in its manufacture. If capitalism has a fairy-tale ending, my guess is it would probably read like this, and I’m jealous we didn’t get it.
The Obama Doctrine
from the Atlantic
This is an incredibly rich and nuanced portrait of how President Obama, after nearly two terms in office, has come to view America’s place in the world, the limits of U.S. interventionism, the efficacy of Spockian dialect, and the shortcomings of the foreign policy establishment’s traditional playbook, particularly its obsession with deterrent credibility. Confident that anyone trying to better understand the actions of this planet’s premier—and increasingly wobbly—superpower at the start of the 21st century will be reading and rereading this one for months, years, and decades to come. Masterful work.
Jasmine Lee and Kevin Quealy’s comprehensive tally of the entities Donald Trump insulted on Twitter during his campaign is a beautiful example of data mining that had to be done meticulously by real live people. The sheer number of results speaks volumes about the amount of time and energy the president-elect spent putting others down. (The text-heavy design online and in print helps drive that home.) The content—including the repetition of simple phrases, the liberal use of superlatives, the frequent leaning on caps lock and exclamation points, and a general lack of evidence-based criticism—is also informative. Bravo.
Reading Rebecca Traister is like reading a diary I wish I had written. This excerpt from her new book, All the Single Ladies
, is just one of her many insanely smart and insightful pieces on the state of women and feminism in America. In a year where the president-elect used the phrase “grab them by the pussy” and was accused of sexual assault and harassment by multiple women, Traister has become essential reading.
I’m sneaking in a threefer. On WNYC’s show, as bracing as the pitch must have been deadly (Thirty issues? Come on
), the deeply informed Brian Lehrer rose above the campaign’s din to talk about issues
, a Presidential Medal of Freedom winner in my book. Like Lehrer, Tom Ashbrook, whose On Point
sprinted into the maelstrom daily, treats every caller with respect but abides no bull. Over at the New Yorker Radio Hour
is the appallingly versatile David Remnick, whose bright young show this year featured Tony Schwartz, Donald Trump’s co-author on The Art of the Deal
, off Jane Mayer’s important and disturbing piece
. You know what? Make it a fourfer
. Brooke Gladstone and Bob Garfield were indispensable in 2016.
Anna Wiener’s fluid first-person essay on life in Silicon Valley is an enviable reminder that business is also culture, and a worthy literary subject, to boot. The author's job at a firm whose clients are other tech firms is the perfect keyhole through which to observe the Valley’s trappings and self-delusions, and her observational skill, wit, and precise, present-tense sentences do the rest of the work, immersing the reader in every scene she describes.
What an amazing catalog of a restaurant that makes you care passionately about an iconic place that was well past its expiration date. From the opening sentence (“Nearly every story about the Four Seasons is told the same way, even if some tellings are better than others”), you're hooked. And then the pictures are even better: Whether or not you want to see a half-naked Jean-Georges Vongerichten splashing in the pool of the Pool Room, you will. Also read: Have You Eaten Your Last Avocado?
from Grub Street.
You know from the get-go what’s going to happen, because this is public service journalism, and the injustice that you’re going to discover is telegraphed. And yet it’s a riveting read that I couldn’t put down, like watching The Wire
. Also read: Losing Face: How a Facial Recognition Mismatch Can Ruin Your Life
from The Intercept
Pieces from Bloomberg Businessweek
’s Josh Green wrote three fantastic cover stories about the upheaval in the Republican Party that led to the election of Donald Trump. Josh doesn't see it this way, but I look at them as a trilogy because they’re interconnected. The first, “This Man Is the Most Dangerous Political Operative in America
,” introduced many of us to Steve Bannon, the merry provocateur behind Breibart News
. OK, this piece came out last year, but bear with me. The second, “How to Get Trump Elected Without Wrecking Everything You Built
,” chronicled the sorrows of Reince Priebus, the seemingly hapless GOP chairman who was struggling with Trump’s rise. It also featured an unforgettable cameo appearance by the candidate himself at Trump Tower. Then there was “Inside the Trump Bunker, With 12 Days to Go
,” in which Josh and Bloomberg’s Sasha Issenberg visited the Trump campaign’s data collection headquarters in San Antonio and talked to the foot soldiers who helped pulled off the Election Day upset. The gang’s all here in the piece. Bannon is now Trump’s campaign manager. Priebus seems to have figured out his man has a good shot at the White House. Then there’s that techie who looks like an Amish guy prospecting for votes on the internet, who got the job because he designed a cheap website for Ivanka. They all talked at length to Josh because he doesn’t have an agenda; he just wants to find out what’s going on, and when he does, he knows how to turn it into an irresistible read, which is the only way to describe this trilogy. I told him he should turn it into a book next. I still think so. Josh, are you reading this?
Lauren Markham’s profile of Nayib Bukele, the mayor of El Salvador’s capital, reintroduced me to a country that slid below the radar after its civil war ended in 1992. Bukele, a 35-year-old former PR man, is trying to stop gang warfare that’s pushed San Salvador’s murder rate to more than 20 times the U.S. average. Heavy-duty policing hasn’t worked, so Bukele is trying things like sprucing up the downtown and reaching out to kids via social media. His idea is to persuade people they live in a great city and shouldn’t kill each other. Markham knows Central America well enough not to be starry-eyed about his chances. But the rich anecdotes and color make for a great read—and if Bukele succeeds, other mayors will want to learn from him.
’s story exposed racism in the algorithms police use to predict repeat offenders. Assigning a prisoner’s credit score, these algorithms are factored into determining how long a person will stay in jail and at times even used by judges when sentencing. Not only did they FOIA a data set and do a statistical analysis, but this work also made it into a White House report on AI. The article has even influenced a subdiscipline of computer science; at the time of this writing, there were 13 papers on arxiv.org
’s article. It turns out that auditing a black-box algorithm is nontrivial.
This piece shows how a person’s life can completely change by noticing a series of tiny details. It’s a unique way to look at the criminal justice system and, particularly, how complex life is after exiting the system and reintegrating into society at large. It doesn’t hurt that it’s beautifully written.
An obscure New York law created in the 1970s to push the sex industry out of Times Square is now regularly used to lock people out of their apartments until they agree to the police department’s terms—like barring one of their kids from the home. Sarah Ryley uses all the tools in this one: compelling data, moving stories, a rare gift for explaining arcane procedure, and a money quote from the law’s author.
As a kid, I used to get a spoonful of butter for being a good boy. As a dad-bod adult, I’m slightly more discerning about what fats I shovel into my mouth, which is why I’m grateful that Walter Green took the 23-butter hit to his own arteries—and jealous that Bloomberg Pursuits didn’t get there first with the same self-aware hilarity. Also read: Framed
from the Los Angeles Times
The exposed, vaguely industrial look found in nearly every hip new restaurant—recently termed “Airspace” by Kyle Chayka in another fantastic longread—is about to claim another victim. T.G.I. Friday's, the restaurant chain long known for its tchotchke-driven decor, is abandoning that style in favor of a more modern look. Its competitors are also trashing the vintage tin signs, Tiffany lamps, and old truck fenders that were once scattered around the dining room. Which begs the question: What’s going to happen to the multiple warehouses’ worth of antiques that once graced the restaurant’s walls?
What’s not to like about a story that opens with a young, powerful Saudi prince vacationing in the south of France, spotting a 400-foot yacht on the horizon, and, within a few hours, striking a deal to buy the ship from its Russian vodka-tycoon owner. The rise to power of Saudi Arabia’s deputy crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, has been one of the most important stories of the past year, with ramifications for oil markets and U.S. foreign relations. Mark Mazzetti and Ben Hubbard bring it home with great detail on the royal intrigue behind his rise to power, and the precarious position he’ll be in if his reforms don’t pan out. Also read: Magnate’s Twin Goals: Fighting Climate Change and Electing Donald Trump from
from the New York Times
This look at a girl kidnapped by FARC and taught to fight for the Marxist cause presents two different possibilities for a woman’s working life based on ideology. I was haunted by the end, when the girl, now a mother, expresses boredom at being stuck in domestic servitude and seems to miss being armed and with a mission beyond child care and cleaning.
Six months before fake news became a post-election controversy, the Economist
schooled the rest of the internet in how to write it. A May 10 piece makes a real-world argument based entirely on fantasy. It embraces the events of Marvel's Iron Man
, Captain America
, and X-Men
movies as if they’re mundane, frequently rehashed current events. The piece works for the total commitment to nonsense that marks much great (if dry) comedy and delivers a rational argument with real-world implications.
When I finished Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter With Kansas
, I felt the satisfaction that comes with knowing others found themselves equally perplexed by the conundrum of self-disinterest that had insinuated itself deep in the heart of America. Frank looked upon the birthplace of progressivism and deftly deconstructed how it had metamorphosed into its polar opposite. His more recent disassembly of the media’s less-than-salutary role in the 2016 election, and the Democratic Party primaries in particular, echoed the power of his 2004 book. Using one major media outlet as an example, he rains down an empirical analysis of words, columns, and editorials that reveals in depressing fashion how some precincts of American journalism have completed a transformation not unlike that which occurred in Kansas. Frank’s essay reminds of how journalistic self-interest resides in both the open mind and the mandate of no fear, no favor. His grimly undeniable conclusion, one he notably presented prior to Nov. 8, is that the campaign fully illustrated how an integral facet of democracy has gone from being part of the solution to being part of an increasingly ominous problem.
The Felon Is Hot
from New York
After Jeremy Meeks’s startlingly handsome mug shot went viral, turning the California felon (he was busted for drug and gun possession) into a nationwide sensation, journalists were dying to get an interview. But the thing about chasing a felon who looks like a male model is that, oftentimes, he’s in jail. New York
’s Jessica Pressler worked around this roadblock by sitting with Jim Jordan, Meeks’s agent, as Jordan FaceTimed with his client while he was still in federal custody. The resulting profile is a demented, laugh-out-loud account of the insanity of Los Angeles, the fashion industry, and American pop culture itself.
Theranos was a $9 billion success story that was too good to check. For legions of reporters suckered by another Silicon Valley disruption fable. For gold-plated investors and bold-name luminaries who crowded onto its board. For everyone, it seems, except the Journal
’s John Carreyrou, who singlehandedly stopped a fraudulent business that was enriching insiders while hurting real people. That’s some badass, flawless journalism—and some very rare courage by a key source, too. Also read: More Than 1 Million OxyContin Pills Ended Up in the Hands of Criminals and Addicts. What the Drugmaker Knew
from the Los Angeles Times
Farm to Fable
from Tampa Bay Times
Few stories this year made me so excited about food journalism—or local news, for that matter! Tampa Bay Times
food critic Laura Reiley’s investigative series debunks “farm-to-table” claims, exposes fake farmers at farmers’ markets, and offers consumers tips for spotting a fraud. Certainly, her reporting vindicates my weariness of restaurant menus stuffed with obscure farm names and self-congratulatory jargon. (The veggies in a “F**k Monsanto salad”? They may contain GMOs. The local farmer whose pork so many chefs claim to cook? He’s sick of them name-dropping him while serving other, cheaper meat.) It also illustrates the fragile business of small farming, the struggles of restaurants true to their farm-to-table word, the regulatory vacuum, and the tricky question of what it takes to earn those claims—and challenges our ideas of what we, as consumers, really value. Also read: How Black People Are Being Shut Out of America’s Weed Boom
Plenty of people on social media seemed to hate Ben Widdicombe’s article showing the very youthful employees of the website Mic lying to their bosses, hoverboarding to free snacks, and making fun of older people. Like the story’s online critics, I’m skeptical that millennials are any more entitled than the twentysomethings of the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s. But I’m also amazed at the access Widdicombe got to the kind of conflict and drama that’s only whispered about at other workplaces. The result transcends stereotypes, while also being very funny.
from This American Life
Most people in America want essentially the same things: safe neighborhoods, good schools, clean air, to be treated fairly, to be able to see a doctor when they’re sick, and to feel that if they work hard, they can get ahead. There’s a healthy debate to be had about how best to achieve all of that—what tax amount is the right amount, how do we want to approach the issue of rising health-care costs, and so on. But too often it feels as if we aren't having these kinds of conversations because we can’t even agree on what’s true. Right before the presidential election, This American Life
ran an episode about this very issue: how two sets of people could view the world through two completely different sets of facts. There’s the immigration expert at the Cato Institute who explains that what many people believe about immigration isn’t actually happening. And there’s an examination of the effects of free trade and why so many people are currently against it—from Donald Trump to Bernie Sanders—when really, it’s done this country a lot of good. Listening to this episode, I was reminded that we should, no matter what our political affiliations, open ourselves up to the possibility that some of our beliefs may, in fact, be wrong.
My favorite longform article of 2016 is ClickHole
’s send-up of the genre. It’s note-perfect. The overwrought scene-setting (“It was a beautiful day. The sun was huge and stupid in the sky”), the self-serious narration, even the parallax scrolling—it’s clear that ClickHole
studied the form with care before mocking its every convention. Whoever wrote this, please e-mail me. I would love to get you going on a (factual) feature.
I’m not clear about who exactly decided that political analysis requires a patina of gravitas, but I do know how boring most of it is. This piece, which manages to be both earnest and extremely profane, was written the day after the 2016 election and is still, to my mind, the best thing that anyone’s written about it yet. Also read: Sunk
shut down in 2016, and one of the people most blamed for this was former reporter A.J. Daulerio. His stories and courtroom performance were at the heart of the legal battle between the website and Hulk Hogan (and Peter Thiel). In this interview, Daulerio opens up for the first and only time about what it's like to have your career and finances crushed.
Rule No. 1: Never say no to writing about animals. Rule No. 2: Sometimes great stories are right under your nose (or in your own backyard). Not only is this a great piece, but being able to write so eloquently about a Brooklyn cat and make him come to life on paper is an exercise that should be mandatory in journalism school. Bravo, Andy Newman.
This story has it all: brilliant writing and reporting, a complex and compelling main character, and an eye-opening story that affects all of us.
Intro: Peter Jeffrey
Design: Steph Davidson
Project managers: Emily Engelman and Thomas Houston