Top Ten

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Overall, the New York Times was the clear leader on October 14. Rising to the occasion of the previous month's events, the paper seems ready to go on one of the more remarkable runs in journalism history. In addition to national and international coverage of uncommon thoughtfulness and depth, the paper presented its now-regular special section, poetically dubbed "A Nation Challenged." On that day, it featured a piece by Rick Bragg, "Shaping Young Islamic Hearts and Hatreds," that artfully captured the contradictions of the conflict in Afghanistan and beyond in ways that have escaped the vast majority of his peers. In other sections, the Times's writers used current events to add extra layers of depth to their presentations -- even in the travel section, which in most second-tier papers, including the Denver Post, reads as if the articles had been in the can for months. Also of note were the New York Times Magazine, the best Sunday mag by a substantial margin (the Denver Post doesn't even publish a magazine anymore), and a book section that left other competitors in the dust. Only the sports section, which was sizable but a bit staid and colorless, seemed less than outstanding.

Next up, in a virtual three-way tie, were the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times. Each paper did good work in the news arena. The Post shone in the areas of basic information gathering and sported thoughtful local tie-ins about the readiness of D.C. physicians to deal with bio-terrorism and the challenges presented to regional airports; the Tribune came up with several unusual takes on terrorism-related matters, most of which were penned by its own international reporters; and the Times presented "So Many Warnings, So Little Action," an exhaustive study of clues overlooked and signals missed in advance of the terrorist strikes. Other impressive specialties included the Post's editorial and analysis pages, the Tribune's sports coverage and the Times's entertainment insert, "Calendar," which is quite simply the finest section of its type put out by a U.S. daily newspaper. Nothing else comes close, which should prompt entertainment editors at dailies elsewhere to hang their heads in shame.

The highlights were harder to find in the lower-rung papers, but there were a few. The October 14 Philadelphia Inquirer wound up toward the front of the trailing pack by virtue of a lively news mix, an above-average business section and entertainment pages that had their moments -- although the latter lost points for being built around "Bin There, Mocked That," a tepid piece about comedians trying to find humor in wartime. For its part, the New York Daily News, a tabloid that aims for the broad middle ground that separates the tony New York Times and the willfully unrefined New York Post, presented by far the finest sports section of the ten papers studied; it was passionate, argumentative and exhaustive, encompassing a staggering 45 of the 95 pages in the October 14 edition. The news coverage was significantly more uneven. The tearjerking portrait of a firefighter at ground zero, "God Willing, I Will Find & Bury My Son," was honest and moving. But this piece was juxtaposed with the blood-in-the-water prose of "Bin Laden More Likely to Be DOA Than POW," an article accompanied by a screaming sidebar, "The Fates of Mass Killers," decorated with photos of everyone from Adolf Eichmann and Slobodan Milosevic to Pablo Escobar and Carlos the Jackal. Awfully subtle stuff.

As for the Houston Chronicle, the paper celebrated its hundredth anniversary with sixty pages of often wonderful graphics and puffy, nostalgia-driven copy; the other sections seemed like a complete afterthought. The Dallas Morning News, lacking the excuse of a keepsake issue, was nearly as middling. And the Detroit News & Free Press, another paper that owes its hefty circulation to a joint-operating agreement, was utterly schizophrenic. Unlike the Sunday Denver Post, whose JOA fine print requires it to include just one page from the Rocky Mountain News, the Detroit offering is cut down the middle. On October 14, the Detroit News handled news and business, and the Free Press oversaw entertainment and a style section called "The Way We Live." With few exceptions, neither organization rose above mere competence.

And the Denver Post? Its front page on October 14 was dominated by "An Epidemic of Fear," a piece picked up from the Associated Press, and included "Al-Qaeda Broadcasts New Threats," an article by the New York Times's R.W. Apple Jr. that the Times itself placed inside its second section, where it probably belonged; Al-Qaeda and its supporters had been rattling sabers regularly by that point. There was also "One Sailor's Story," a collection of e-mails sent by Longmont's Jessica Garrison, a mechanic stationed aboard the USS Enterprise, to her mother in Colorado -- a typical tie-in to far-flung events whose contents ("Hey, Momma, not much is going on here. We are still just sitting around. Unfortunately!!!") didn't justify their space.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts

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