Weekend Reading: 9/11's Anniversary, the Complexity of Climate Change, Truth About the Atomic Bomb, and More
The best reporting and writing from the past week, and context to understand it.
There’s a lot of great journalism out there. Every week, in a format short enough that it won’t be clipped by your inbox, we aim to share some of the best, with additional context for understanding the biggest news of the day. This is a weekly digest of stories you can savor and reporting you can rely on.
What Bobby McIlvaine Left Behind
Jennifer Senior, The Atlantic
It’s hard to know just how big a story is outside of my media-obsessed bubble, but if ever a story that the media-obsessed bubble fawned over deserved widespread attention, it’s this one. Everything about this story is pitch-perfect. It’s an anniversary piece for September 11th, 2001; it’s been 20 years, so it’s a big one. There will surely be enough pieces on the occasion to make your head spin. But this one will stand the test of time.
🗄️ From 2020: How Kobe Bryant’s Death Brought Bobby McIlvaine — an Athlete, a Scholar, the Friend I Should’ve Known Better — Back to Life — Mike Sielski, Philadelphia Inquirer: The focus of Senior’s piece is a man named Bobby McIlvaine, and before she wrote what could be the magazine story of the year, he was the subject of another stunning piece of writing. Despite appearing in one of this country’s great magazines, it probably wasn’t as fawned over as Senior’s, but make no mistake: Mike Sielski can write, and what’s more, he had a story worth telling.
🗄️ From 2020: 9/11 and the Rise of the New Conspiracy Theorists — Garrett M. Graff, The Wall Street Journal: Without giving too much away about Senior’s story, it’s safe to say that Bobby McIlvaine’s father could not accept the reality of this tragedy of 9/11. He became convinced of more and more conspiracy theories to help himself try to make sense out of senselessness. In this age of QAnon, it’s a valuable reminder just how deeply a belief system can take hold and how long it can last.
🗄️ From 2020: A Comprehensive History of ‘Loose Change’ — and the Seeds It Planted in Our Politics — John McDermott, Esquire: To fully comprehend 9/11’s so-called Truth Movement, it’s important to reckon with the documentary Loose Change. I remember this film, streamed from the early days of YouTube when I was a freshman in college. It seemed imminently reasonable. It made us question, which felt subversive and good even as we said, “I know this probably isn’t true.” Spoiler: It wasn’t. But it remains a movie I think about, and this piece explores how today’s conspiracy theory movements are indebted to the film.
🎥 Worth — Netflix: Though not about Bobby McIlvaine or 9/11 conspiracy theories, there was another bit of 9/11-anticipatory content released in the form of the trailer for Netflix’s upcoming film, Worth. It premiered at Sundance in early 2020 and tells the story of Kenneth Feinberg, the lawyer who was tasked with calculating the worth of the lives of the thousands of victims from the attacks. Elizabeth Kolbert wrote a masterful profile of him for The New Yorker a little more than a year after the attacks.
I Don’t Like IPCC Report Day
Emily Atkin, HEATED
A reminder that complex issues like climate change don’t often benefit from big news announcements that cause every single outlet in the known universe to write about it for a day or two. It doesn’t serve to instill faith in what scientists know through scientific means.
🖥️ The Devastating New U.N. Report on Climate Change, Explained — Umair Irfan & Rebecca Leber, Vox: Are you at that point where you’re ready to admit that you’re not entirely sure what the IPCC is or why it’s released a report? Not sure of the significance of the Sixth Assessment Report and kind of wondering what was in the other five? Aware that the news was grim, but not entirely sure why? This Vox article is an excellent primer on the state of the climate crisis, as relayed by the IPCC’s thorough report.
📖 How Much Carbon Comes From a Liter of Coke? Companies Grapple with Climate Change Math. — Jean Eaglesham & Shane Shifflett, The Wall Street Journal: “From farm to bottler to supermarket cooler, a liter of Coca-Cola creates 346 grams of carbon dioxide emissions, the company’s data show.” That’s how the piece begins. And immediately I thought, “I did not know that.” And then I thought, “Not sure where I thought a bottle of Coke’s journey began, but it probably wasn’t on a farm.” But then I remember that such questions aren’t really the point, because the next line in the story gets me back on track: “That’s less than half the tree-to-toilet 771-gram carbon footprint of a mega roll of Charmin Ultra Soft toilet paper, as measured by the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group.” It’s a who’s who and a what’s what of the corporate world, where individual companies’ carbon footprints matter greatly to investors and regulators alike.
The Black Reporter Who Exposed a Lie About the Atom Bomb
William J. Broad, The New York Times
August 6th and 9th were the 76th anniversaries of the only atomic weapons ever used in war, and the New York Times highlighted the work of a journalist, Charles Loeb, who worked to tell the truth about radiation poisoning, often in contrast to the work of the paper’s own star science reporter. Loeb’s was impressive reporting, especially when one considers just how much was stacked against him. To question the U.S. government’s account was to question the very means by which World War II had come to an end.
📖 How a Star Times Reporter Got Paid by Government Agencies He Covered — William J. Broad, The New York Times: It was a double feature from the Times; the paper put a notice at the top of each story saying just that. This entry was mostly infuriating from a journalistic ethics point of view, but it’s an interesting look at the prevailing mindset of the time, where anything that was considered service to the country as part of the war effort was universally praised and celebrated.
🎧 ‘Fallout’ Tells the Story of the Journalist Who Exposed the ‘Hiroshima Cover Up’ — Fresh Air, NPR: Originally broadcast a year ago, this episode, which features Dave Davies instead of Terry Gross, talks with Lesley M.M. Blume about her book, Fallout, on reporter John Hersey, who wrote one of the most famous pieces of journalism ever produced about the true devastation that came from nuclear weapons.
🗄️ From 1946: Hiroshima — John Hersey, The New Yorker: Brilliant in conception, near-flawless in execution. Though a recent issue of The New Yorker featured Lawrence Wright’s epic reported piece about COVID-19 (“The Plague Year”), which filled the feature well, no author has since received that special treatment where a single story takes up the entirety of the magazine.
🐦 On Twitter this week, Lesley M.M. Blume shared photos of an original copy of the August 31st, 1946, issue of The New Yorker, complete with a paper band in an attempt to alert readers that the content inside would be hard to stomach. It was just found in a random Illinois high school. See the pictures and read Blume’s thread here.
More of Our Favorites From the Past Week
Like Father, Like Son: When Facism Becomes Family — Eddie Kim, MEL
Ghosts — Vauhini Vara, Believer Magazine
Looks That Quill: The Dark Side of Hedgehog Instagram — Noelle Mateer, WIRED
The Mysterious Street Snack That Has Baffled Botanists for Decades — Barkha Kumari, Atlas Obscura
The Love Bomb — Daniel Kolitz, The Atatvist
The news doesn’t stop. If you checked out last week’s edition and found the topics interesting, here’s a collection of stories published since.
📖 Cuomo’s War Against a Federal Prosecutor — Ronan Farrow, The New Yorker
Withdrawing From Afghanistan
📖 Deceptions and Lies: What Really Happened in Afghanistan — Craig Whitlock, The Washington Post
📖 The Struggle to Vaccinate Springfield, Missouri — Peter Slevin, The New Yorker
📖 Biden’s Electric-Car Ambitions Face Real-World Roadblocks — Timothy Puko, The Wall Street Journal
This week, elsewhere on The Postscript.
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