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The 20 Greatest Magazine Stories

They exposed State failure, they touched hearts, they highlighted humankind’s failure and arrogance. One was a profile and one proved a hoax!

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The 20 Greatest Magazine Stories

‘Frank Sinatra Has a Cold’
By Gay Talese
April 1966, Esquire

This 15,000-word masterpiece ushered in ‘New Journalism’, and is considered one of the best profiles ever written. The fact that Sinatra refused to talk to Talese—every time he called, Sinatra’s minders said he had a cold—was probably the best thing that could have happened. To write it, Talese spoke to “at least a 100 people”, and used tips from them and stories he’d heard.

‘Come What May’
By Arun Shourie & Shekhar Gupta
March 1983,
India Today

THE first full-length story on the Nellie massacre, in which over 2,000 Muslims were killed during the Assam elections, Come What May came after a dribble of reports, and chronicled the entire tragedy in gory detail. It unravelled the attempts of the powers-that-be to bury the story and showed the negligence of the government. Arun Shourie and Shekhar Gupta reported on the carnage and made the news mainstream.

‘Consider the Lobster’
By David Foster Wallace
August 2004, Gourmet

It was to be a fun assignment, to cover the annual Maine Lobster Festival for Gourmet. But David Foster Wallace did it the way only he knows. He detailed the cruelty with which lobsters are caught and killed so graphically that many lost their appetite for them. What was to be a PR story turned the world’s attention towards the poor lobsters. It was written with Wallace’s sharp wit and flourishes. Later, his genius was immortalised in Infinite Jest.

By John Hersey
August 1946,
New Yorker

Set in the aftermath of the nuclear bomb being dropped over Hiroshima, the article is a cataclysmic narrative of six survivors of the incident. Hersey spent three weeks in Japan interviewing survivors. The article occupied almost the complete issue of the New Yorker when it came out, a first for what is essentially a cultural and literary magazine. 

Hitler Diaries Discovered
April 22, 1983, Stern

In the April of 1983, German magazine Stern caught its biggest break. Their star reporter had discovered a trove of Hitler’s personal diaries. The magazine claimed that the diaries, which had no previous records, would change the way one perceived Hitler’s life. Two weeks after the diaries were published, they were exposed as fakes. They’d been written by a small-time crook called Konrad Kujan. The hoax remains one of the biggest scandals in magazine history.

‘The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved’
By Hunter S. Thompson
June 1970, Scanlan’s Monthly

This landmark story was one of the first of its kind, giving a subjective, first-person account of the Kentucky Derby races. The article focuses on the depravity and celebrations that surround the event, showing the author as one of the protagonists. This was the piece that ushered in Gonzo journalism, later celebrated in Thom­pson’s Love and Loathing in Las Vegas.

Radia Tapes
November 2010, Outlook

The release of the 140 tapes of lobbyist Niira Radia led to the uncovering of one of the biggest political scandals, exposing the behind-the-scenes deals between politicians, top journalists and industrialists. It exposed the deep nexus bet­ween the government and ind­ustry lobbyists, showing for the first time how negotiations with the government take place in the country.

‘AIDS: The Agony of Africa’
By Mark Schoofs
The Village Voice

The seven-part article, an analysis of AIDS and its effects in Africa, won the rep­orter a Pulitzer prize. The piece chronicles in harrowing detail the lives of hiv-positive persons in Africa, explaining why the disease has so sev­erely affected the lives of people in Africa and nowhere else.

Bhopal Gas Tragedy
Raghu Rai, 1984

Much has been written about the Bhopal gas tragedy, but what helped connect the public to shattering loss of hundreds of lives and families was this photo feature by Raghu Rai. The black-and-white pictures gave a face to the tragedy and became its defining portrayal.

‘Armoire of Shame’
By Franco Giustolisi and Alessandro De Feo
1994, L’Espresso

Several documents exposing war crimes committed in Italy by Nazi fascists were locked for almost 50 years by Italian diplomats fearing that disclosure would damage relations with Germany. When the armoire was finally opened, Giustolisi was the first one to unveil the crimes, calling for a special parliamentary investigation. There was a public outrage but in the end the government squashed the findings. 

‘The History of the Standard Oil Company’
By Ida Tarbell
1908, McClure’s Magazine

Often called one of the most extensive pieces of investigative journalism ever written, this report resulted in  the break-up of the oil giant. Tarbell spent several months collecting evidence about the wrongdoings and fraudulent practices the oil giant had indulged in over the years. This report also inspired many journalists to unhesitatingly write on big industries.

‘The Runaway General’
By Michael Hastings
June 2010, Rolling Stone

In 2010, Hastings interviewed Gen Stanley McChrystal, a celebrated tough-guy military leader, in Afghanistan. The interview led to the general being eased out for having made derogatory comments about the Obama administration. The general later said he was quoted out of context.

‘Mother Earth, Mother Board: Wiring the planet’
By Neal Stephenson
1996, Wired

This piece reveals the physical underpinning of the virtual world. It chronicles how the trans-cables, for what we now know as the Internet, were laid. The article reads like a sci-fi thriller and was written at a time when Google and Yahoo were just taking baby steps.

‘Operation Blue Star: Night of Blood’
By Shekhar Gupta
August 1984,
India Today

The Golden Temple only saw a handful of journalists on the fateful night of Operation Blue Star.  Shekhar Gupta happened to be there. His account of the events that night are regarded as some of the best pieces of journalism in the country. The story took the reader through all aspects of the military operation, including what happened on the ground as well as what plan and tactics the soldiers followed to clear the Sikh temple of terrorists.

‘Have You Ever Tried to Sell a Diamond?’
By Edward J. Epstein
1982, The Atlantic

In this expose, Epstein explains why the diamond is one of the most valuable commodities in the world today. It talks about a market controlled by cartels which artificially control the prices of diamonds sold in most Western countries. It also expl­ains how the Russia has now come to dominate the diamond market and taken over completely.

‘Democracy on the Take’
By Julie Strawn and Charles G. Hogan
December 1984, Der Spiegel

The seizure of the files of one of Germany’s biggest companies, Flick Industrial Holdings, in 1981, was not expected to reveal much. Instead, what the police found led to one of the biggest corporate scandals in Germany. The files uncovered the real scope of corporate influence on post-war Germany and told how German corporations secretly bankrolled every major political party in the country to receive benefits such as tax breaks, and favourable appointments and policies.

As the World Burns
June 2005, Mother Jones

The world has just recently realised the gigantic problem that is global warming. The Kyoto protocol was one of the first attempts by countries to do something about it, an attempt which can only be des­cribed as a failure. This report speaks of the disastrous effects climate change has, and will have, on the world if something is not done about it.

Coverage of the Veerappan Kidnappings
August 2000, Nakkeeran

The series of interviews which journalist R. Gopal did for the Tamil magazine gave the world its first few glimpses into the world that the famous bandit inhabited. After the interview was published, Gopal was jailed by the Jayalalitha government for withholding information about Veer­­­appan, who was still a fugitive in the jungle.

‘I Saw Ben Barka Get Killed’
By Jacques Derogy and Jean-François Kahn
January 1966, L’Express

Ben Barka, a major Moroccan figure of the Third World and anti-colonial movement who was collaborating with figures like Che Guevara and Malcom X “disappeared” while on exile in Paris. The two investigative journalists wrote a powerful piece in which they highlighted the contradictions about his disappearance and the possible political motives behind his killing. A scandal erupted and debated investigations followed.

So Why is Narendra Modi Protecting Amit Shah?
By Rana Ayyub
July 17, 2010, Tehelka

This report by Rana Ayyub, who has done exemplary journalism in exposing the Gujarat genocide of 2002 and its aftermath, detailed the involvement of Amit Shah, then home minister of the state, in the Ishrat Jahan fake encoun­ter. Her reports led to the Supreme Court agreeing with the CBI to shift Shah’s case out of Gujarat.

Compiled by Arushi Bedi and Pietro Reviglio 

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