What are this year's "Top Stories" lists measuring?


For Beltway journalists, holiday traditions include much more than eggnog hangovers. With Congress in recess, the administration in hibernation, and almost all of their sources on extended leave, writers resort to the last can in cupboard: the Top 10 year-in-review list. They are easy to compile (get one done on December 23, and you might not have to work again until January 2), easy to read (which is why readers like them), and they give members of the opinionated class an opportunity to shine one last light on their pet cause. Those sensitive to the issue of objectivity will forego making up their own lists, and instead conduct a "reader's poll." Of course, these tactics are a lot less interesting this year for one simple reason: There's really only one story, and the only remaining issue is how you slice it up.

Without that story, Al Gore's still-angry supporters might have put Bush's inauguration at the top of the list to highlight their distress over the 2000 election. Self-styled morality police could have given the honors to the Condit/Levy affair to prove just how sleazy we have all become. GOP stalwarts might have lavished attention on this summer's stunning tax-cut victory—or blamed all of the year's defeats on GOP turncoat Sen. Jim Jeffords. Such controversial choices would have been rewarded with enough letters from happy supporters and angry detractors to last until the real newsmakers get back into the swing of things.

Not this year. Take CNN's annual "year in review" reader's poll. With 4,580 votes tallied as of Wednesday night, the top choice was of course the September 11 attacks. Number two was the war in Afghanistan, followed by the Anthrax scare. Number four was the failing economy, which was clearly exacerbated by bin Laden and associates. Not until number five does a markedly pre-September 11 headline—the U.S. tax cuts—make an appearance.

The national consensus is so overpowering that The Atlanta Journal-Constitution attempted to shift gears altogether on its annual Top 10 list. Published December 23, it came with this caveat: "For most of us, the events of September 11 constituted the biggest 'story' of our lives. So this year, we didn't even seek to rank national and international stories." Instead, readers voted in more limited categories such as Metro Atlanta, entertainment moments, and sports. Despite that effort, terrorism still made it into the mix. Number one in entertainment moments was "the "entertainment industry's response to Sept. 11." Number three in sports was "Sept. 11 postponements and security changes." The fact that a few of the terrorists stayed and trained in the area made an appearance at number eight on the Metro Atlanta list.

A Web site called yourDictionary.com ("the premier global language portal") got heavy airplay on CNN Headline News in the post-Christmas news rut with its annual Top 10 words of the year list. After surveying world linguists, the site says the "top words" of 2001 include: 1) ground zero; 2) W (or Dubya); 3) jihad; 4) God (including variations such as Allah and Yahweh); and 5) anthrax. Number eight is the suffix -stan (as in Paki- and Afghani-). Compare these with last year's now-innocent sounding list, topped by chad and followed by millennium, Y2K, Sidney Olympics, and dot-com.

For one politician, this temporary political consensus has paid dividends. The Gallup News Service, which has been issuing its annual "most admired man and woman" list for over 50 years, gives top honors for 2001 to President George W. and First Lady Laura Bush. The First Couple usually wins, but the numbers this year are staggering. The president's 39 percent score was the highest-ever for a man. JFK came closest in 1961 with 32 percent. Last year, Bill Clinton and Pope John Paul II shared top honors with just 6 percent. Commander-in-Chief-elect Bush got just 5 percent. Issued December 27, the Gallup report mentions that Bush's approval rating has not fallen below 86 percent since September 11.

How long can it last? At least until the politicians and pundits get back from their holiday naps. When they do, they won't be rehashing the year that passed—they'll be predicting the future. This future will include political bombshells such as the 2002 elections, the stalled stimulus package, health care, and of course what we should do next in the war on terrorism. Here's my prediction: When the future arrives in January, today's apparent consensus will revert to the controversy the chattering class has come to know and love.