War, climate change, epidemics and a certain mediocre comedy defined the past year, often in ways that made no sense at all. In combing through 2014's most overrated and underrated news, our writers found that the scale of coverage didn't always match the size of the story.
Sony Pulls The Interview, Then Changes Its Mind
To be fair, The Interview was set up to fail. The controversy surrounding its release turned out to be more dramatic, more politically insightful, and even funnier than the film itself—except of course, when we were reminded that North Korea is nothing to joke about. The movie wasn’t the only flop—even our assumptions about how this episode reflected and affected politics were likely all hype. It seems the only effect The Interview had on anything was, unfortunately, the cancellation of the highly anticipated Pyongyang, starring Steve Carell. — Naomi Shavin
Four People in America Are Diagnosed with Ebola
When Thomas Eric Duncan was checked into a Dallas hospital and became the first patient diagnosed with Ebola in the United States, the disease escalated from a humanitarian concern to a domestic crisis. Politicians argued over whether to institute travel bans on Ebola-ravaged countries. Some Republicans rolled Ebola fears into calls for tighter border security, with Mike Huckabee saying, “We’ve seen our borders routinely ignored. So if someone with Ebola really wants to come to the U.S., just get to Mexico and walk right in.” Meanwhile, as two nurses in Texas who treated Duncan and a New York doctor just back from Guinea were diagnosed with Ebola, panic metastasized. The New York Post’s cover, “EBOLA HERE!” embodied the collective fear, but skewed reality: only four people in America were diagnosed with Ebola. One died. — Claire Groden
Will Obama Approve the Keystone Pipeline?
For Republicans and red-state Democrats, Keystone XL is still a favorite jobs plan proposal. For environmentalists, it’s a symbol for the movement to rally against. The arguments have remained the same on both sides in this six-year-long debate, even when they’ve become mostly irrelevant. Oil prices are so low today it’s unclear whether TransCanada can pursue the project; and its impact on jobs and energy prices are routinely debunked (even by President Barack Obama). At the same time, the central argument against it—that the pipeline will determine the fate of the Canadian tar sands—was undercut by the fact that TransCanada has already filed an application for another pipeline that would carry almost double the crude oil as Keystone. Though this talking point will certainly return in the New Year, it’s time to put it to rest and move on to climate issues that need urgent attention. — Rebecca Leber
French Economist Thomas Piketty Is an International Celebrity
Thomas Piketty, the French economist, became an international rock star overnight with the publication of Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Piketty argued that forces inherent in capitalism lead to greater wealth inequality absent government intervention—and has amassed a vast dataset on income and wealth to back up that assertion. His solution was a global wealth tax. The data have been rightfully heralded as a major contribution to our understanding of inequality, but economists on the left and right have questioned the underlying theory, and everyone, Piketty included, has deemed a global wealth tax unrealistic. Given the widespread, often doting attention Piketty received, it’s clear that Piketty-mania got a little out of control. — Danny Vinik
Facebook Is Experimenting on Users
When news got out this summer that Facebook had carried out a secret experiment on unwitting users, people freaked out. For one week in 2012, data scientists manipulated the number of positive or negative status updates Facebook users viewed, and then looked at how the emotional content of their friends’ statuses affected the tone of their own posts. But while the experiment was undeniably a little creepy, the panic that Facebook had actually endangered users’ mental health was way out of proportion. — Alice Robb
A Terrorist Attack on the U.S. Is Imminent
When he unveiled his strategy against the Islamic State (IS), President Barack Obama explicitly stated that although IS leaders have threatened the United States, the intelligence community had not detected specific terror plots against the homeland. Nonetheless, a slew of headlines followed, predicting the next 9/11: “Four Reasons ISIS is a Threat to the Homeland,” read one in The National Interest. “ISIS Terror Threat to US Targets ‘High,’ Say Officials,” NBC warned, quoting unnamed intelligence officials.
Then came the Khorasan Group—a team of al-Qaeda elites that had allegedly mastered the technology to slip explosive devices past airport security and posed “a more direct and imminent threat to the United States” than even the Islamic State. Shortly after the initial burst of worry, a levelheaded Associated Press story tried to dial back the urgency. "I don't know exactly what that word (imminent) means," said FBI Director James Comey. ''In this business, given the nature of the people involved, and what we could see, we assumed and acted as if (the attack would come) tomorrow." — Jessica Schulberg
#CancelColbert Goes Viral
We all knew Colbert wouldn’t get canceled. (Unless leaving to take a promotion counts.) Even the 23-year-old activist who started the #CancelColbert movement didn’t expect Comedy Central to cancel a popular show because of an ill-considered tweet that divorced a joke from its context (Colbert tweeted, “I am willing to show #Asian community I care by introducing the Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever”). But the #CancelColbert firestorm remains 2014’s worst example of pointless hashtag activism—and of the scolding, sometimes racist backlash it provokes. The media coverage of the tweets led to more tweets; more tweets led to more media coverage (and coverage of too much coverage, yes, we know). It inspired some thoughtful discussion on the limits of satire and our perhaps hypocritical tolerance of anti-Asian slurs. But that’s hard to fit that into a catchy hashtag. — Esther Breger
CVS Stops Selling Cigarettes
As Jon Cohn pointed out in February following CVS Caremark’s announcement that the pharmacy behemoth would stop selling cigarettes, the decision was about more than inconveniencing smokers. It marked CVS's assuming an even greater role in our country’s healthcare system, and reinventing itself accordingly. Three weeks ahead of its nationwide deadline of October 1, CVS changed its name to CVS Health and declared all 7,600-plus stores tobacco-free. — NS
In West Africa the Ebola Epidemic Kills 7,800 People—and Counting
While the American media whipped themselves into a frenzy about Ebola at home, the disease has continued to rage in much higher numbers abroad. Since March, more than 20,000 people across West Africa have contracted Ebola; more than 7,800 people have died. But the repercussions of the epidemic are far broader: UNICEF estimates the disease left as many as 10,000 orphans, many now shunned by their communities. And countless others have been forced to alter their lifestyles, adhering to curfews, avoiding physical contact and forgoing Christmas celebrations. According to the World Bank, Ebola’s impact topped half a billion dollars in 2014 alone. The scale of Ebola's destruction is still unfolding, even after American attention has wandered. — CG
Janet Yellen's Federal Reserve Keeps the Recovery on Track
With Congress gridlocked, the Federal Reserve is left as the only institution looking out for ordinary Americans. As the recovery strengthened in 2014, inflation hawks began to call for the Fed to raise interest rates in the near future. But led by Janet Yellen, the Fed has correctly ignored those calls and focused on still-stagnant wage growth. Those calls will only grow louder next year, and the Fed will likely raise interest rates at some point, but the recovery depends on that happening at a slow pace. Given its importance to everyday Americans, the Fed warranted more coverage this year, as it does every year. — DV
Journalists Can Get PTSD—While Sitting at Their Desks
A study in the August issue of the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine—covered in Pacific Standard—showed that journalists don’t have to travel to war zones to jeopardize their mental health: They can do it from the presumed comfort of their own desk. Researchers found that the more often a journalist has to look at violent images and videos, the higher her chances of having anxiety, depression, alcoholism or PTSD. It was a relevant study in a year when many journalists felt obligated to watch videos of beheadings. — AR
Methane Is a Serious Environmental Threat
A greenhouse gas even more potent than carbon dioxide received too little scrutiny in 2014. Natural gas isn’t the miracle fuel politicians make it out to be, because it consists largely of methane—a downside that isn’t getting enough attention. Methane emissions make up 9 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, a minor amount compared against carbon dioxide but potentially more dangerous, being 86 times as potent a warming agent over a short time period. NASA scientists showed the scale of methane escaping from the gas glut in the Midwest by finding a gas cloud the size of Delaware—up to 600,000 metric tons—over New Mexico. The industry is either letting methane vent into the atmosphere or is intentionally burning off the gas—in a process called flaring—to the tune of $1 billion in wasted fuel in North Dakota alone. Look for methane to capture more attention 2015, as the Environmental Protection Agency is expected to issue a strategy on cutting methane emissions for the oil and gas sector. — RL
The War Against the Islamic State Is Illegal
In August, President Barack Obama invoked his Article II War Powers Resolution to launch limited airstrikes in Iraq. The mission he described was limited to protecting American personnel in Erbil and preventing a genocide on Mount Sinjar. It was implicitly understood that an expansion of military operations would require Congressional authorization.
On September 10, Obama essentially declared war against IS—since then, the U.S. military has bombed Iraq and Syria almost daily, trained fighters in both countries, and deployed roughly 3,000 troops to Iraq. Yet there is still no authorization from Congress. White House officials have pointed to both the 2001 and 2002 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) as legal justification for the new war. The 2001 AUMF was valid, they said, because IS is an Al Qaeda offshoot (albeit one that now fights Al Qaeda groups). The 2002 AUMF allows the president to use the military to fight “the continuing threat posed by Iraq”—but the threat it refers to is clearly the late Saddam Hussein. While insisting the 2002 AUMF provides legal cover, the White House simultaneously maintains that it should be repealed.