Mercifully, there's been very little this season in the way of millennial retrospectives ("Top sports moments of the past thousand years," and the like). Too much has changed over that time; comparisons are meaningless. It's not entirely clear we're even the same species we were in AD 1000.
But interestingly enough, we've also been getting very few decade summaries, and for perhaps the same reason. So much has changed, so quickly. The Clinton years have seen so much wealth created, so rapidly, and placed into so few hands, that it's hard to remember what came before unless you're a Bush. (Hint: Dad was President.) It's hard to remember what life was like in Seattle when there were no dot-coms and hydroplanes mattered.
For that matter, newswise, even the years seem to be stretched thin. Maybe we need to be doing retrospectives each month; our memory gets shorter and shorter as the pace of everything quickens. Can it possibly have only been a few months since Littleton? Did we really bomb the hell out of Kosovo this year? And so, it's with some trepidation that I take my annual look at . . . the most overrated and underrated stories of the year! Y2K-compliant drum roll, please.
The most overrated stories
It's a few days too early to judge just how misplaced the early-year hype over the Y2K bug was, but it sure has been interesting to see it disappear as a news story as the Big Day approaches. At least those folks who bought three years' worth of dry food are well prepared for when the big earthquake hits.
Easily, however, the most overrated story of the year was . . . Littleton. It's a measure of the hype that just the name of a previously undistinguished suburb is enough to evoke the story. Not that shootings of schoolchildren aren't tragic . . . but it's not a trend. There's no epidemic of young people killing us or each other, and it's not being caused by violent videos or music that came from (gasp!) black youth culture. We didn't get these trend stories a few weeks later when a day trader in suburban Atlanta opened fire, no hysterics about how high-pressure capitalism was lethal. (A shame—it probably would have been more accurate.) We learned very little from Littleton, except, of course, about how much we love (and fear) those kids.
Speaking of hype, let's rein in those dot-coms. Not everybody even has home computers, let alone uses them to shop, let alone uses them exclusively, let alone uses services to tell them which other services to use, a favorite dot-com ploy. But you'd never know it from the ads, which have almost replaced SUV pitches in their ubiquitousness. Not quite, but almost. And the accompanying "trend" stories are equally overwrought. Online shopping has its place—but it's not going to replace face-to-face interactions with live human beings.
What would the hyped Net be without Microsoft and its antitrust trial? About the same, actually. Microsoft and its products long ago achieved market dominance, and no trial ruling will undo it. Nor will any "breakup" of Microsoft appreciably change the way it does business. This is a nonstory.
No year's list would be complete without overhyped weather events, sports scores, celebrities, fashion, horoscopes, or tragedy-stricken children and their pets. Infotainment is not news. There's nothing wrong with being entertained, but it's no replacement for the information that's necessary for citizens to make intelligent choices in a democracy.
As hard as it might be to imagine, the most underrated stories in these parts got plenty of play—but without nearly enough attention to the long-term implications.
Those would be I-695, which even without two more Tim Eyman initiatives on the horizon in 2000 would clearly be shaking up local government for years to come; and the WTO, which will force Seattle to find a new police chief and virtually guarantees a one-term mayor. The WTO's internal sea change at its Seattle meetings, wherein Third World delegations stood up to the bullying of the US and European Union, was quite possibly the most significant international political development to ever take place on Seattle soil; amidst all the tear gas, that story was lost.
Nationally, also missing in action—despite the great attention paid to the bombing of Yugoslavia—were the similar atrocities, this time perpetrated by "our side," in Russia's war on Chechnya and the Colombian government's Drug War-fueled attacks on FARC rebels. The US is virtually at war in Colombia. You'd never know it.
The local spin on a national story: the increasing difficulty of getting health insurance, particularly insurance that will actually pay for anything if you get sick. As a subset of this story, an aspect that received even less attention was the reluctance of state legislators to do anything about it. In the year 2000, look for the crisis to get much worse while Olympia plays its fiddle.
Also lost in the daily news grind was the inexorable expansion of our nation's, and state's, prison system. The US, which imprisons more people per capita than any other nation on earth, will top two million in prison next year. It's a statistic that's all the more terrifying for its ordinariness.
The story you'll never see or hear in our capitalist news regime is the increasing commercialization of everything. Compared to 20 years ago, it's almost impossible now to evade commercial messages attached to virtually everything. But nobody mentions it, for fear of offending their sponsors. Hmmm.
Finally, our planet is continuing to die. But stories like ozone holes, global warning, mass species extinctions, toxic waste, disappearing rainforests, cancer epidemics, declining sperm counts, genetic engineering, contaminated food supplies, polluted oceans, and the Al Gore for President Campaign aren't being covered as the imminent disasters they are. Meanwhile, next year's forgotten story: the massive numbers who have given up on presidential races and our nationally corrupt political system.