Journalists love to wrap up the end of the year with "Top 10" lists of the biggest news stories of the past 12 months -- partly because most of the research is already done, partly because the stories can be written ahead of time which allows the writers to take time off for the holidays, and partly because there usually isn't much breaking news to write about between Christmas and New Year's Day.
As a columnist and commentator on the news, I cannot resist a look back at the big stories of the past year, either. However, the subjects that make good fodder for columnists and editorial writers often are not the same as what straight news reporters see as the top stories.
Take, for example, the event picked by the Associated Press as the biggest news of the past year in Alabama -- the hostage standoff in Midland City in which a 5-year-old boy was held in an underground bunker for six days.
The standoff was a huge news event, not just for the state, but for the entire nation and to a lesser extent the world. All of the factors for high drama were in place: There was a real hero, school bus driver Charles Poland, who gave his life trying to prevent the abduction. There was a sympathetic victim, young Ethan Gilman, whose plight made parents and grandparents cringe with the thought that "but for the grace of God that could have been...." There was an easily identifiable villain, a 65-year-old man with a history of erratic behavior.
But when it ended with the shooting death of the abductor, there was only so much that editorial writers and columnists could say. They could praise the bravery of the bus driver, they could laud the professionalism of the FBI and law enforcement, and perhaps -- depending on their view of things -- they might lament the abductor's access to weaponry. But while this was easily the biggest news story of the year for Alabama, it was not a particularly great subject for opinion writers.
Those journalists who write commentary usually are looking for subjects in which they can attempt to establish responsibility for wrongdoing, or to suggest policies or changes that could improve the situation for the public or for certain groups, or simply to inform readers of details and background causes that might not be obvious at first glance.
Using those criteria, the following stories stand out for me as the best subject matters for commentary writers in 2013:
-- Locally, the grade-changing scandal in Montgomery Public Schools jumps out as a natural target for editorial writers and news columnists.
This was an important story that raises questions about how some professional educators will respond when placed under pressure to deal with such issues as embarrassingly low graduation rates and poor academic performance by students.
After news media reports focused attention on the problems, the State Department of Education conducted a months-long probe that led state Superintendent Tommy Bice to call the grade-changing issues "systemic" and "widespread." He suggested that an "institutional mindset" existed that placed more importance on advancing some students than in actually teaching them.
The state eventually interceded in the Montgomery Public Schools system, appointing a monitor to oversee academic issues and conducting an academic audit to identify other problem areas. Against this background, the Montgomery County Board of Education pushed out MPS Superintendent Barbara Thompson.
-- Another local story -- but one with major statewide implications -- that proved to be fodder for commentary writers was the ongoing controversies at Alabama State University.
The controversy started with the ouster of then-ASU president Joseph Silver, who said he was pushed out after raising questions about contracts and insider dealings by top officials at ASU. That led to Gov. Robert Bentley asking for a forensic audit of ASU, with those auditors eventually also raising questions -- but providing few answers -- similar to those raised by Silver.
The issues remain unresolved, and probably will stay that way unless either the state attorney general's office or federal prosecutors open an official probe of matters at ASU.
-- A major statewide issue that provided lots of grist for the mills of news commentators was the passage and implementation of the Alabama Accountability Act, which diverted public money from the state's underfunded public schools to provide tax credits for parents of children attending failing public schools to transfer them to private schools.
The act was a bust in its initial year, with only a handful of students taking advantage of the opportunity to transfer. But that could change in the coming year, when millions of dollars of scholarship money will become available -- some of which could go to allow students in public schools that are not "failing" to transfer to private schools.
-- Another issue that editorial writers and news columnists could not resist was the impact that the federal Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as Obamacare, will have in Alabama.
One aspect of this involves debate over whether Alabama should take hundreds of millions of dollars a year in federal money to expand health care access for 300,000 Alabamians of modest means. Gov. Robert Bentley says no; hospital officials and many industrial development leaders around the state say yes. The debate goes on.
In fact, the debate goes on with each of these issues.
But the players have changed with two of them. Montgomery Public Schools now has a well-liked and widely respected leader in new interim Superintendent Margaret Allen, who is likely to get the post on a more permanent basis soon. And the recent selection of Gwendolyn Boyd as the new president of Alabama State University brings new leadership there as well.
Allen and Boyd provide their respective institutions with an opportunity for new beginnings. That doesn't mean that the controversies that have faced MPS and ASU will magically go away; they won't, and they shouldn't. Officials need to be held accountable regardless of whether there are new people at the top.
As we enter a new year, one thing is certain -- editorial writers and commentators in Alabama never have to worry that they won't have controversies to write about. We can rest assured that our elected and appointed officials will see to that.
Ken Hare was a longtime Alabama newspaper editorial writer and editorial page editor who now writes a regular column for WSFA's web site. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright 2013 WSFA 12 News. All rights reserved.
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