The Inquiring Reader
Reviews, critiques, and thoughts

The New Yorker's Best Reporting of 2020

reviewed by Jon Duelfer

The New Yorker website

2020 completed my first full-year subscription to The New Yorker. Below, I have compiled what I thought to be the best reporting published in its magazine throughout the year.

The New Yorker has different categories of writing: Reporting, Profiles, the Critics, the Talk of the Town, Fiction, and Poems. It is also famous for its cartoons.

The magazine is published 47 times annually, circulating just over one million copies per issue. That means there are approximately 47 million print issues per year according to Wikipedia. I have not considered any of the online-only pieces published exclusively on their website.

There are a couple issues that I didn’t get to during the pandemic. Two headlines that stood out from these are The Fall of Evo Morales and The Underground Movement Trying to Topple the North Korean Regime.

I hope this ranking is helpful in finding a topic that’s intriguing. Or it could simply be a way to remember the events that have defined 2020. I have tried to rank them on some mixture of compelling, informative, mind-changing, and simply outright enjoyable.

Honorable Mentions

  1. The Students Left Behind by Remote Learning
    by Alec MacGillis
  2. How the Simulmatics Corporation Invented the Future
    by Jill Lepore
  3. The Elusive Peril of Space Junk
    by Raffi Khatchadourian
  4. The Blue Wall
    by William Finnegan
  5. The Man Who Refused to Spy
    by Laura Secor
  6. The Wrong Way to Fight the Opioid Crisis
    by Paige Williams
  7. Why the Mueller Investigation Failed
    by Jeffrey Toobin
  8. The Heavy Toll of the Black Belt’s Wastewater Crisis
    by Alexis Okeowo
  9. The Fight to Save an Innocent Refugee From Almost Certain Death
    by Ben Taub
  10. The Twilight of the Iranian Revolution
    by Dexter Filkins

…and the winners…


  • 20

    How Venture Capitalists Are Deforming Capitalism
    by Charles Duhigg

    Probably the most outlandish event in the business world of 2019 was the WeWork scandal. The company was hemorrhaging millions of dollars, but being kept afloat by a bizarre organization of venture capitalists looking to strike it rich. It wasn't until the company released its IPO that everything turned sour. The greater issue, however, is not what happened to WeWork, but what is becoming the norm in business and finance across America.

  • 19

    The History of the “Riot” Report
    by Jill Lepore

    A strong message is delivered when millions of people across the nation flood into the streets in the midst of a global pandemic. The murder of George Floyd turned all eyes, domestically and internationally, to protests demanding a solution to the systemic racism that has plagued our nation since its founding. Lepore argues that government should not hide behind the inaction of reports and commissions like the past, but commit to real action now.

  • 18

    How Prosperity Transformed the Falklands
    by Larissa MacFarquhar

    The Falkland Islands is an archipelago just off the eastern coast of Argentina. Although there has been an ongoing dispute between Argentina and the United Kingdown over the sovereignty of the islands, Falklanders are British citizens. The history the islands have almost no relevance to us as Americans, but this piece is simply beautifully written. Between the stunning photography and MacFarquhar’s elegant writing, it’s a great story to kick back with and let it take you away.

  • 17

    How Suffering Farmers May Determine Trump’s Fate
    by Dan Kaufman

    Wisconsin has become a crucial swing state in Presidential and Congressional elections. It had not voted Republican since 1984, until the 2008 Global Financial Crash ultimately turned its voters against the neoliberalism of the Democratic Party. Donald Trump convinced the state to vote for him in 2016 with promises of better trade deals and prosperity for the state’s farmers. As we now know in 2021, he didn’t deliver on those promises and lost the voters who put their faith in him.

  • 16

    Can We Have Prosperity Without Growth?
    by John Cassidy

    We define the wealth and power of nations on the international stage based on the growth of their economies. If an economy is expanding, the country is increasing in prosperity. If an economy is contracting, warning bells go off for recessions or depressions. But should our ultimate goal be to always consume more? Is there a way we can maintain prosperity and reduce consumption?

  • 15

    The Equality Conundrum
    by Joshua Rothman

    How do we determine equality? In a world that is anything but equal, why do we strive for equality and how do we determine how close we really are to achieving it? As we proclaim ourselves to be a meritocracy, how do we identify the difference between structural inequality and distinct outcomes based upon free-will? Rothman brings philosophy and ethics into the sphere of politics to contemplate how we can build a more virtuous society.

  • 14

    The Future of America’s Contest with China
    by Evan Osnos

    Before the pandemic, US and Chinese relations were anything but positive. Washington and Beijing hold contrasting political ideologies and worldviews. They both compete for influence internationally, using their enormous economies to entice and force countries to join their systems. Our relationship could define the coming decade, as our relationship with the USSR defined the Cold War era.

  • 13

    How Trump is Helping Tycoons Exploit the Pandemic
    by Jane Mayer

    Do you remember the headlines, towards the beginning of the pandemic, stating that the meat supply-chain was failing and Americans would soon go without meat if nothing was done? Mayer investigates how tycoons of large meat producers used this animus to rake in huge profits and remove worker protections in the midst of the global pandemic.

  • 12

    Chile At the Barricades
    by Daniel Alarcón

    For many years, Chile had the connotation of being one of the most stable and prosperous South American countries. But the protests that erupted based on increased on the price of metro tickets revealed a deep economic equality that was hidden behind a facade of material wealth. Alarcón reviews how the protests started and where they could go from here.

  • 11

    The Republican Identity Crisis After Trump
    by Nicholas Lemann

    Days before Biden’s victory in the November elections, Lemann wrote about the future of the Republican Party. He coined three competing predictions: the Remnant, Restoration, and Reversal scenarios. Being that Republicans also lost the Senate majority in January, 2021, this piece is even more relevant. Will Republicans double down on the populist Trump spirit, return to decades of country-club Republicanism, or change course to a more progressive type of candidate more representative of a diverse America?

  • 10

    The True Cost of Dollar Stores
    by Alec MacGillis

    After years of suburban flight from cities, many neighborhoods are left with crumbling infrastructures. Dollar stores fill the void of supermarkets, retail stores, etc. But their profits ultimately leave the communities they are built in, and their negligence often leads to violence. On the other hand, they are often the only business providing necessary food and provisions in the area.

  • 9

    The Cold War Bunker that Became Home to a Dark-Web Empire
    by Ed Caesar

    This was probably the most fun-to-read story published this year. A group of wild technologists buy an old, underground military bunker in Germany and setup a secure hosting service. They claim a libertarian ideology with radical views of free speech and data privacy, but it turns out they are hosting some of the internet's most illicit and dangerous content.

  • 8

    Murder in Malta
    by Ben Taub

    The Panama Papers Leak seems like it was part of a distant past, long gone and covered up by the global elite. But it had lasting effects in places like Malta, which was used to house dirty money from all over the world. Ben Taub reports on the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia, a lone reporter that uncovered the deep rooted corruption of the Maltese government, and how she brought it to the attention of the international community.

  • 7

    Life on Lockdown in China
    by Peter Hessler

    The COVID-19 pandemic is the defining event of 2020, and possibly even of this decade (let's cross our fingers). Before we knew much about the virus at all, Hessler recounts his experience in quarantine in Chengdu, China. This is a fascinating piece on how China’s response contrasted greatly with our own, and will probably be an essential autobiography for years to come.

  • 6

    A President Looks Back on His Toughest Fight
    by Barack Obama

    The Affordable Care Act is certainly one of the most controversial pieces of legislation in decades. It’s attacked by both the Left and the Right for either not going far enough in reform and succumbing to pressure from the healthcare industry, or for granting the federal government too much power. The fact of the matter is that millions of Americans were insured and preexisting conditions were covered across the board. Obama’s reflection on his experience passing this legislation is very insightful.

  • 5

    Qassem Suleimani and How Nations Decide to Kill
    by Adam Entous and Evan Osnos

    The assassination of Qassem Suleimani brought America to the brink of war. Some even feared that it would lead to an all-out world war. Although the COVID-19 pandemic has made this seem like ages ago, understanding why, how, and the consequences of the assassination are crucial to understanding our relationship with the Middle East and foreign policy more broadly.

  • 4

    Thirty-Six Thousand Feet Under the Sea
    by Ben Taub

    Manning a submarine deeper than any human has ever been may not be as awe-inspiring as landing a rocket on the moon, but it’s certainly a spectacular feat of engineering and a salute to centuries of scientific progress. This story follows a group of eccentric and wild people with their struggle to set one of the “last meaningful records on earth.” It's one of the more entertaining pieces of 2020.

  • 3

    America’s Abandonment of Syria
    by Luke Mogelson

    This article is just as much reporting as it is a history lesson. Mogelson dives into the history of Syria and America’s relationship throughout the years. Trump’s command to back the military out of the country, against advice from staff, resulted in the resignation of Jim Mattis. This contraversy, and the Syrian War more broadly, was brough into the forefront of public consciousness.

  • 2

    The Last Time Democracy Almost Died
    by Jill Lepore

    Over the past four years, maybe even more, we have been hearing that American Democracy is in danger. Headlines posit that it's failing and there is nothing we can do about it. Jill Lepore takes us back to the 1930s when democracies around the world were truly in peril, and argues that with civic-mindedness we can write our own future.

  • 1

    Baking Bread in Lyon
    by Bill Buford

    Bill Buford writes about taking his family to Lyon, France to pursue his passion in the culinary arts. But when he can’t manage to land a job in one of the city’s top restaurants, he turns towards his neighborhood bakery. It’s run by a jovial Frenchman named Bob, who takes Bill under his wing and teaches him the beautiful, ancient work of baking bread. Buford’s writing is unparalleled, and the story is as beautiful as it is endearing and meaningful.