Stories That Shake The Globe, Quietly

TIME FOR HINDSIGHT

When you sit down to peruse your daily paper in 1997, it might be wise to keep this truism in mind: The most important stories aren't always on Page 1.

No, that doesn't mean you should stop reading this piece and flip back to the editorial cartoon. It does mean that editors' and reporters' judgments about the most arresting events of the day won't necessarily reflect history's ranking of the era's crucial turning points and trends.

"News" is what is newly said or occurs, however ephemeral. History is the sum of many events - including some that editors exiled to Page D-28, and some that weren't covered at all.

Thus the rise of the macarena, or even Bill Clinton's reelection, may not be the real top story of 1996. Perhaps it's GM's new electric car. Or maybe it's the continued rise of democracy - a vast and important global movement that's hard to see, day to day.

"The steady expansion of democratic values around the world is one of the most hopeful trends of our time," says Adrian Karatnycky, head of Freedom House.

For the record, let's look at what news editors themselves judged the most important stories of the past year. As selected by Associated Press editors, the list is fairly predictable, running to catastrophes, sports, weather, and O.J. Simpson-related events.

No. 1 is the crash of TWA Flight 800. No. 2 is the US election. Third is the Olympic bombing, and fourth is the Unabomber arrest.

The list then runs down through the ValuJet crash in the Everglades, the end of welfare, the Olympics themselves. The Top 10 ends with last January's big blizzard. (Actually, the O.J. Simpson civil trial has slid down from Top 10, into the second tier of the Top 20.)

Interestingly, a corresponding AP poll of editors from 40 nations outside the United States rated the US election higher than their American counterparts did, putting it as the No. 1 news story of the year. No. 2, from the overseas perspective, was Boris Yeltsin's reelection. Israeli and Palestinian elections ranked third.

There's little arguing with the fact that these events were the top news of their time, in the sense that people were eager to read about them. But were they truly important?

It does not minimize the tragedy of this year's air crashes to say that it isn't clear whether they reflect any long-term safety trend. In fact, some top news stories have already been reversed. Remember AT&T's announcement that it would shed thousands of jobs, and all the editorial handwringing that ensued? Sorry. The company hired about as many people as it fired this year, making the whole thing a wash, at least so far.

What follows is one reporter's list of the less-noticed, but potentially earth-shaking, events of the year. (Hold on. You'll get a chance to argue with it later.) Among them:

Can Political Consultants Be Far Behind? The continued spread of democracy means that 79 of the world's 191 countries now rate as fully free, according to a Freedom House year-end survey. That's the highest number ever.

Among the most important votes of the year was Taiwan's presidential election, which showed Beijing that the words "democracy" and "Asia" aren't incompatible. Similarly, Nicaragua's election represented perhaps the final repudiation of Daniel Ortega and the Sandinistas and a step toward stability in a key Latin American nation.

They're Off and Running for 2006. The generational mismatch between President Clinton and Bob Dole may have masked the rise of an even younger generation of national political contenders. In Texas, GOP Gov. George W. Bush, son of the ex-president, has risen in popularity and emerged as a party leader of the top rank. In Washington, Andrew Cuomo has broken through to Cabinet rank and reminds some observers of a younger, and perhaps more decisive, version of his father.

There Still Won't Be Anything On. Washington regulators' agreement on standards for high-definition TV means there's likely to be a new set in your family's future. Furthermore, a forthcoming tussle in the nation's capital over allocation of airwaves could affect the nature of free over-the-air broadcasting. "It's the most important thing going on in Washington that nobody's heard about," says one Capitol Hill source.

Honey, Can I Plug in the Car, or Are You Still Running Your Hair Dryer? GM announced its EV1 electric car, the first true mass-produced volt-powered vehicle. Implications for the nation's fuse boxes remain unclear.

Now the Red Sox Can Lose to Everybody. Interleague plays becomes a reality for major league baseball this year, per the sport's recent labor agreement.

Have your own list of less-covered, important events? E-mail them to: grierp@csps.com.

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