Top 10 News Stories of 2011 (According to Me)

An utterly personal, totally arbitrary list from my Monkeysphere

This is the time of year for lists—Top 10 of 2011 lists of songs, movies, outfits, couples, even news stories. The Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism has a nifty list for this last category. It analyzed some 46,000 news stories produced by 52 different traditional news outlets over the past year, plus its “New Media Index,” which includes blog and Twitter posts, to see which topics were most on the media’s mind in the past 12 months. Here’s the PEJ list, with the percentage of total media attention each story occupied:

The economy: 20%
Middle East unrest: 12%
The 2012 presidential election: 9%
The earthquake and tsunami in Japan: 3
The killing of Osama Bin Laden: 2%
The Gabrielle Giffords shooting: 2%
Afghanistan: 2%
The European economy: 2%
The Obama administration: 2%
Health care: 2%

Not long after I saw the PEJ list, my son sent me a link to a semi-famous post by David Wong on, “Welcome to the Monkeysphere.” In it, Wong asks you, the reader, to imagine that you own a monkey—a monkey named Slappy, whom you dress in pirate clothes and accompany on pirate monkey adventures. He then asks you to imagine you’ve got four more monkeys, Tito, Bubbles, Marcel and ShitTosser, each with a different personality, all of them your personal monkey friends.

So far, so good.

Wong then asks you to imagine that you own a hundred monkeys:

“At what point, in your mind, do your beloved pets become just a faceless sea of monkeys? Even though each one is every bit the monkey Slappy was, there’s a certain point where you will no longer really care if one of them dies.”

The point that Wong eventually winds around to is that the human mind really isn’t capable of caring about an infinite number of other humans—like, say, the 400-some million people who inhabit the Middle East, or the 15,000 killed in the earthquake in Japan last March. We care about the group of people in our personal Monkeysphere instead. This doesn’t make us bad human beings. Sure, I feel sad and bad when thousands of people on the other side of the world are suffering. But it’s not the same sad and bad I feel when someone I know intimately—my Slappy—is hurting. The media try to humanize those unseen, unknown millions who exist outside our Monkeyspheres. They try really, really hard, as you can see from how much they write about vague stuff like “Afghanistan” and “Middle East unrest.” But chances are that unless people you know and care about are out of work, “The Economy” wouldn’t top your personal 2011 Top News Stories List. (Of course, the chances are also really, really high that someone you know and care about is out of work these days.)

So I thought it would be interesting to write up my very own Top 10 News Stories of 2011 list, written from inside my Monkeysphere. Here they are, in ascending order, with the approximate percentage of my thinking they occupied over the past year:

10. Arlene Ackerman. Wow. Arlene Ackerman: 2%
9. The Occupy protests—hey, the kids are alright! 2%
8. All of the Republican presidential candidates are idiots: 4%
7. Jerry Sandusky and Bill Conlin—whoa: 6%
6. Health care (as in, damned arthritis): 7%
5. The economy (as in, can I pay the bills this month?): 8%
4. The Phillies suck: 9%
3. The Eagles suck worse: 10%
2. What’s with that guy who stands on the corner at 18th and Market selling “The Eagles Are Playing Like Shit” t-shirts?: 12%
1. The Haverford School: 20%

And why, you may wonder, did I spend so much time thinking about the Haverford School? Because a while back, I wrote a little blog post about its latest foreign exchange student, a six-foot-11 basketball player from China, in which I expressed skepticism about the headmaster’s claim that said student had been brought on as part of a drive to increase the school’s “global programming,” rather than so he could kick butt on the basketball court. Dozens of students promptly responded in the comments section and in emails to me, stoutly defending their school and earnestly demanding that I apologize for having slandered it and them. They were so sincere and so outraged, and there were so many of them, and they sounded so much like I had at their age, with their liberal use of the thesaurus to make themselves sound more grown-up and serious, that after a few days, I simply couldn’t stand to read any more. It was just too visceral a reminder. So I made a snarky comment in response to the comments on the website—so snarky that the comments almost instantly stopped. That was the result I’d wanted, and I should have been glad. Instead, I’ve been simmering with shame ever since for using a howitzer to go after a bunch of well-meaning (albeit smug) schoolboys. I still stand behind the original post, but I wish to hell I’d left it at that. I’ll try to do better in the New Year.