Redeeming the Honor of Print
The Best American Magazine Writing 2008
Compiled by the American Society of Magazine Editors
Columbia University Press
568 pages; $16.95
Book review by Carl Sessions Stepp
Carl Sessions Stepp (firstname.lastname@example.org), AJR's senior editor, teaches at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.
Few satisfactions quite match reading good stories, and you will find a lot of them here.
This anthology collects 20 winners and finalists from the National Magazine Awards, in categories from reporting to feature writing to criticism. Top-tier publications and stars predominate, but some newcomers and regional outlets also break through.
Naturally you will quibble with some selections and rail at others. But mostly you'll enjoy one exceptional read after another, and maybe learn something about fine reporting and writing. Good writers have a way — in fact, many ways — of making you read all about things you didn't know interested you. When that happens, it is instructive to examine how they did it.
One tested technique is old-fashioned, shoe-leather watchdogging that catches an institution — say, your government — in something nefarious.
Jane Mayer of The New Yorker takes on the seemingly familiar topic of CIA interrogation tactics, but she assembles bone-chilling detail that moves your understanding to a new level. Imagine suspects who are "hog-tied, stripped naked, photographed, hooded, sedated with anal suppositories, placed in diapers" and hauled to secret locations. There they face operatives trained in how to tear clothes off prisoners and taught the "Stomach Slap," "Manhandling" and "Stress Positions" like (and you just have to guess what this involves) "Worship the Gods." There are nearly 30 pages of this stuff, and it is nightmarish.
Another New Yorker entry, "Betrayed" by George Packer, describes in shameful detail the "Iraqi interpreters who risk their lives to help the United States — and how the United States very often abandons them." In one scary scene, an Iraqi family man working with the United States walks out of his home one morning to find his cover blown and a message warning, "We will cut off heads and throw them in the garbage." Nearby "lay the severed upper half of a small dog."
In 5280: Denver's Mile-High Magazine, Mike Kessler documents how the government stonewalled and neglected workers who developed cancer after years assembling nuclear bombs. One woman spent 14 years around radiation, including six years handling plutonium, but, despite a federal law mandating compensation, couldn't get coverage for her breast cancer.
Other writers burnish simple ideas with unusual reporting and irresistible writing.
Jeanne Marie Laskas, in GQ, goes underground with coal miners for a harrowing, painfully insightful look at how and why they work. "So," she describes, "500 feet down, a couple of miles in... The ceiling is five feet high, and so you can't, actually, stand up. You look around and everyone is walking around like the freaks in Being John Malkovich." The earth "isn't some stupid rock..isn't just a solid mass for people to stand on." It's always moving, crackling, popping and hissing, and workers endure 10-hour shifts day after day.
Still another powerful technique is to surprise you with enchanting or striking detail about an obscure topic.
Peter Hessler in National Geographic digs deep into everyday life to explain economic growth in China, profiling a company that makes bra parts ("the average bra is composed of 12 separate components") and the workers desperate for the jobs ("The 15-year-old..had dropped out of school after the seventh grade because her family needed money").
Other pieces are uplifting (Paige Williams, in Atlanta, on how local "angels" helped a teenage immigrant from Burundi); poignant (Thomas E. Kennedy, in New Letters, on a two-year ordeal of 20 blood tests, 34 biopsies and various surgical procedures and indignities for a prostate cancer false alarm); or droll (Hendrik Hertzberg's New Yorker essay on Hillary Clinton's laugh, also featuring a great headline: "Brouhahaha").
At least one entry raises a serious problem. Longtime Republican speechwriter Matthew Scully, in The Atlantic, presents a readable, detailed and, you could easily say, nasty profile of his colleague Michael Gerson, branding him a glory hog whose "credit hounding" made him a celebrity at others' expense. This may be as true as the sunshine, but the one-sided piece batters a defenseless target and seems a dubious model.
Overall, though, this collection redeems the honor of print and its conscientious attention to accountability, depth and excellence. Traditional journalism, it reaffirms, still has much to be proud of.
Carl Sessions Stepp (email@example.com), AJR's senior contributing editor, teaches at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.