Looking back at the top news stories of 2005, it’s clear that the world is more interconnected than ever as it was buffeted by natural and man-made disasters, as well as severe political and economic problems. Hurricanes in Louisiana, tsunamis in Indonesia and war in Iraq all had direct or indirect reverberations in the comfortable confines of Oak Park and River Forest. If nothing else, they pulled at our consciences.
Most end of-the-year Top 10 lists get at least a few celebrities in them, but not this one. There was plenty of fluff and scandal to chose from?#34;Angelina Jolie, Michael Jackson and the shenanigans of assorted reality TV stars. They can be fun to watch, culturally important in an abstract sort of way, but the individual cases don’t amount to much.
So, here goes the Top 10:
1) Katrina – One word says it all. The storm exposed in the starkest light America’s nastiest problems, the kind that comfortable people prefer not to see on the airwaves and in the headlines. For starters there was blatant racism, extreme poverty and environmental destruction. Throw in government indifference and bureaucratic incompetence for good measure. Journalists shined initially by confronting reality-challenged officialdom and conveying the magnitude of the problem, but slipped when they were willing to pass on baseless horror stories about murder and mayhem in the Superdome and Convention Center. People around the country watched in disbelief then opened their hearts, homes, and pockets for relief. You could almost lose count of the fundraisers, benefits and other charity and relief events. Those fleeing the storm and the flooding and chaos that followed wound up scattered around the country, with a few winding up in Oak Park and River Forest.
2) Energy prices – Katrina sent gas prices on their initial surge past $3 a gallon and the recovery helped drag them back, but longer-term problems with supply and heavy demand in India and China mean that our two decades of reliably cheap gas are probably over. Hybrid cars suddenly became much more popular and equally hard to find; bicycle and bus riding made a bit of a resurgence. And if you had just bought a Hummer, well, sorry. Prices have already started to sneak upward again. Winter heating costs also jumped in the wake of Katrina and will be high into 2006.
3) Iraq – One big and bad news story with daily, sometimes hourly updates accompanied by the occasional rays of hope. President Bush’s supporters argue that the news media is focusing too much on the negative. Maybe that’s true, but there’s just so much of it. Even the impossibly optimistic happynews.com is hard-pressed to do regular Iraq stories. Maybe with good luck American troops can withdraw at some point and Iraq will settle down to become another fractured, oil-rich, quasi-democratic kleptocracy. Or careen toward civil war, with Iran as the chief beneficiary. Or something else. Who knows? American intelligence isn’t what it used to be. Although the casualty lists have not caused the kind of immediate anguish in Oak Park and River Forest that they do in the small towns that provide many of the American soldiers fighting in Iraq, the deaths of more than 2,000 Americans and 30,000 Iraqis still stings here.
4) President Bush’s steady slide in popularity – Not one, but a series of linked stories with the dominant themes of over-reaching ambition and isolation, combined with a dollop of bad luck, to lower Bush’s stock with the American people. Some sort of slippage is almost inevitable in a second-term president, but Bush’s decline is still remarkable. According to the New York Times/CBS News poll, his approval ratings went from 49 percent in January at inauguration time to 35 percent by November, only to climb up to 40 percent by early December. The stories battering Bush came at a steady clip: resistance to his Social Security plan, the fiasco of the Harriet Miers Supreme Court nomination, the bungled response to Hurricane Katrina, sharply rising gas prices, the continuing problems in Iraq and the series of scandals and distasteful revelations, big and small, focusing on the president and his allies. The 78 percent of Oak Park voters and the 54 percent of River Forest voters who chose John Kerry for president must take some satisfaction in watching the rest of the country come closer to their assessment of Bush’s presidency.
5) Pakistan Earthquake – The earthquake that leveled much of Pakistani Kashmir once again showed the power of nature, and the self-imposed limits of the news media’s attention span, and human charity and kindness. It came after several heavily covered natural calamities?#34;Katrina in the United States, and the Dec. 26, 2004 tsunami, centered in Indonesia, that killed 216,000 people in 11 countries. While coverage was nearly non-stop and donations had poured out for the victims of the tsunami and hurricane, the news media did not give nearly the attention to the earthquake. And many in the developed world seemed to have come down with a severe case of compassion fatigue by the time the October earthquake killed 86,000 and left 3.5 million homeless. Many are still homeless?#34;or in flimsy tents?#34;as winter rips through the area with heavy snow and temperatures already in the low teens and likely to dip below zero by the end of the month. Their disaster just came too late on the calendar.
6) New Pope in Rome – Pope John Paul II’s steady decline was agonizing to watch, but he transformed his suffering into a religious statement on the value of human life. After his death, the world waited for the white smoke from the Vatican chimney, then saw Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger?#34;soon to be Pope Benedict XVI?#34;waving from the balcony. Catholics here and throughout the world were not altogether unanimous on the College of Cardinals’ choice of the long-time head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. His vigor in enforcing an orthodox discipline in that job led some of his critics to label him the Grand Inquisitor. Conservative Catholics loved his election; liberals waited with trepidation. Most other Catholics accepted him.
7) The Supreme Court – Sandra Day O’Connor’s resignation and William Rehnquist’s death gave the White House an unparalleled opportunity to reshape the court and steer the direction of judicial activism for decades to come. Bush’s choice of John Roberts drew widespread praise despite Democratic worries about Roberts’ views on abortion, affirmative action and other hot-button issues. His second choice, to fill O’Connor’s seat, was badly flubbed. Harriet Miers’ main qualification seemed to be that she had dutifully served Bush in Texas and in Washington, D.C. Many conservatives disapproved and leading senators doubted whether she was a good enough lawyer, or even knew enough law, to sit on the U.S. Supreme Court. Miers fell on her sword to help her boss, who then nominated U.S. District Judge Samuel Alito. Alito’s confirmation hearing will get under way next month. Oak Park, River Forest and the rest of the country will be watching closely.
8) Religion and Science – Nearly 150 years after Charles Darwin wrote Origin of the Species and 80 years after religion and science clashed at the famous Scopes “Monkey Trial” in Tennessee, science education was once again in the dock. School boards in Kansas and Pennsylvania voted to include in the science curriculum the concept of “intelligent design”?#34;the idea that complex and unexplained aspects of the natural world are best explained as the action of an unnamed intelligent designer, presumably God. In the Pennsylvania case, Judge John Jones III recently ruled that intelligent design was essentially creationism, and thus tied more to religion than science. Two dozen other school boards around the country have considered adding intelligent design, but the idea has not made any headway in Illinois public schools?#34;yet.
9) Terror and Liberty – After 9/11, Americans were willing to trust their government with a vast extension of less-than-accountable power. Now some are having some second thoughts if the actions of congress, the press and the judiciary system are any indication. U.S. citizen, Chicagoan and terror suspect Jose Padilla finally got to find out what he was charged with after more than three years in solitary confinement as an “enemy combatant.” The Washington Post exposed the existence of secret CIA prisons run on old Soviet-era military bases in Eastern Europe. The U.S. Senate demanded a ban on torture and balked at renewing the Patriot Act. More recently, the New York Times reported on a program of warrant-less wire-tapping after sitting on the story for a year. But terrorism, of course, didn’t go away. The coordinated bombing of the London tube system in July and other bombings around the world reminded us of that.
10) White Sox triumph – OK, it’s not a matter of war and peace, leadership of the nation, or the wrath of nature, but for (most) Chicago baseball fans, this was the highlight of the year. ‘Nuff said.
? John Jenks heads the Journalism Department at Dominican University.