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Why I Hate Year-End List Stories -- a Rant with a List

4 years ago
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The Big News this week is that there isn't any Big News.
Lots of snow falling on New York and the rest of the Northeast (save perpetually hot-air-filled Washington) does not qualify as a stunning revelation. That is -- and some of you may want to take notes -- what happens during winter. Even more predictable were the breathless accounts of grumpy travelers trapped at airports because America's much-envied and always-dependable air travel system somehow failed. Here's another shocker: The streets of Manhattan's Upper East Side (cue the snow-free pictures of Mike Bloomberg's apartment building) were plowed before most of Queens and Brooklyn (insert obvious image here).
As a result, everyone still committed to the traditional values of journalism is caught in a classic inflationary spiral. Since the demand for news far outstrips the supply, reporters and editors have to inflate the currency. A prime example of this kind of dog-bites-man journalism: The brouhaha over Barack Obama's throwaway comments about Michael Vick. Or the latest news nugget involving (am I doomed to have to keep typing this name for eternity?) Christine O'Donnell.
When it comes to journalistic inflation, the true Weimar Republic of worthless currency comes in the form of end-of-the-year list stories. And, yes, despite all of its other estimable virtues (like hiring me), Politics Daily is among the prime offenders. Do I really need the Year in Review in Quotes to remember that light years ago Christine O'Donnell (that name again) made a TV ad that began with the plot summary of "Bell Book and Candle"? Or am I surprised to learn that – egad! – Scott Brown's election (repeat after me: "to the Senate seat held for 47 years by Ted Kennedy") topped this year's roster of political surprises?
A small aside: Would all those conservatives who believe in the liberal media conspiracy please explain why the entire press pack is so determined to reprise a political year that Democrats prefer to pretend never existed?
Beyond the sheer obviousness of these lists (Worldwide Exclusive: Bristol Palin re-enacted "The Red Shoes" on "Dancing with the Stars") and their promise of an orderly holiday season for writers and editors, they are also neither news nor history. (Maybe we need a new category called "newstory" for these facile year-end wrap-ups.)
There are, of course, other reasons why I so vehemently object to these nostalgia-filled tributes to the high points (were there any?) and low moments (well, there was a Senate candidate in Delaware who . . .) of 2010.
In fact, there absolutely have to be other reasons. Because if there were not compelling other reasons, I would have to do real pick-up-the-phone-and-interview-people reporting over New Year's weekend. Instead, I get to resort to the cheesiest journalistic stunt since Gerald Rivera broke into Al Capone's vault. Here is my list story listing all the count-the-ways reasons I loathe year-end list stories:
1). It's Always the Wrong Year: Certain years would be fascinating to re-enact like 1913, when the Armory Art Show brought modernism to America and the ratification of two amendments (a federal income tax and direct election of senators) brought modernism to the Constitution. With all its obvious political parallels, the titanic Clinton-vs.-Gingrich struggles of 1995 are also worthy of an encore performance. In contrast, do we need a 2010 cheat sheet to remember that Jack Abramoff (late of a Kosher pizzeria in Baltimore) remains the journalistic gift that keeps on giving?
2). They're Redundant: Memorable events, by definition, tend to be remembered. Even 16 years later, we can conjure up the never-to-be-matched adrenaline thrills of the O.J. Simpson low-speed Bronco chase on our own without the benefit of a prime-time TV retrospective.
3). News Events Are Not Best Picture Lists: There would be an artistic rationale for comparing movies even if the Academy Awards did not exist. Also, these cinematic rankings allow readers to catch up on what they missed either at the theaters or through Netflix. Somehow I doubt that families will gather around to read the full text of the health care bill aloud just because the legislation pops up on all political Top 10 Lists.
4). Year-End Retrospectives Hit the Wrong Demographic: I would dazzle at cocktail parties if I bothered to read "The 13 Biggest Surprises of 2010 in Quantum Physics" or studied "Joe's Top Five Memorable Irish Rugby Moments of 2010." In similar fashion, members of the News Resistors Union (anyone who has not read a newspaper or a serious online article since the Clinton administration) would obviously benefit from a catch-up on all that they have missed during their Rip Van Winkle period. The problem is that the only people who endure politics-in-review pieces are news junkies so desperate that they are re-reading White House pool reports ("Uneventful motorcade ride back from base") from the president's Hawaiian vacation.
5). Perspective Wasn't Built in a Day: While it is laudable to highlight the important-but-neglected stories of the year, few are wise enough to detect the sweep of history from hillocks that are only three or six months high. An end-of-the-year 1998 highlight reel would not have included the failed cruise missile attack against the then-little-known Osama bin Laden, but, in historical hindsight, that near miss may have been nearly as important as the impeachment of Bill Clinton. Seen through the prism of the 2008 financial meltdown, the 1999 legislation deregulating banking seems far more epic (in a bad way) than it did when the ball came down to usher in a new millennium.
6). List Stories Have More Padding Than a Hockey Goalie: Substituting numbered bullet points for reasoned argument stretches out an article like a taffy pull and inflates it like a rubber ducky. Scanning such puffed-up prose, you often get the sense that its only journalistic goal is to gull you into thinking that you've read something substantial. In fact, when they reach their designated length, such end-of-the-year List-icles often skid to a stop -- far too abruptly.
Filed Under: 2010 Elections

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With all due respect Walter, I disagree with # 1 that the ratification of the 16th amendment "brought modernism" to the constitution. I believe it was the beginning of the best bloated bureaucratic overloaded government that could be bought with other folks money.

January 01 2011 at 4:33 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Tell the truth, Walter: List-icles are popular because they can be done in advance, allowing writers to enjoy their holidays like anyone else... (btw, this is two (2) mildly amusing efforts in a row!)

January 01 2011 at 12:42 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

As long as we're ranting, a "light year" is a measure of distance, not time. To get light years removed from Christine O'Donnell requires some kind of spacecraft, although I see that is how you might prefer things to be.

January 01 2011 at 3:12 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

"the demand for news far outstrips the supply" This certainly is because of all the 24-hour news-and-comment channels on cable. If only they'd use some of their time to actually fact-check and investigate the news they report, instead of telling us their opinions of it.

December 31 2010 at 3:45 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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