Readers Speak: Real Story Of 1996 Is ... Space Probes

The votes are in. Our distinguished panel of judges (consisting of this reporter and his two beagles) has made its decision. And the winner is....

First, a little background.

Last week, The Christian Science Monitor ran an article about important 1996 news stories that may have been under-covered by major media outlets. The historic importance of events, after all, isn't always apparent at the time they occur. What editors judge "news" can sometimes prove ephemeral.

Historians may well judge the continuing spread of democracy around the world to be the most important trend of this era, for instance. Yet this movement seldom makes the front pages, day to day.

Anyway, we solicited reader suggestions of under-covered major news stories for the year. The response, which flooded in via e-mail, was plentiful and gratifying.

The continuing ethnic violence in the Great Lakes region of Africa was a common suggestion in many of the responses. While Rwanda and Burundi have been top stories on occasion, journalistic interest in events there has faded, while problems continue.

Profound transformation in the US economy was another major reader theme. The spread of small businesses and entrepreneurship was one suggestion for a little-noticed, earth-shaking trend.

But the panel's choice for the best reader under-covered news suggestion goes to a subscriber in Vermont, who nominated NASA's series of continuing planetary probes.

You're yawning already, you say. Who cares about the concentration of nitrogen on Jupiter? But consider this argument - one purpose of NASA's unmanned explorers is to find evidence of life, or past life, on other planets.

Think of the news frenzy if the probes turn up something supporting this year's revelations about possible signs of life in fossils from Mars.

"I think the story will match or exceed the long-term importance of the big story of 1492," concluded the Vermont reader's submission.

Kind of puts all those stories about the success of NFL expansion teams in perspective, doesn't it?

(In the spirit of full disclosure, it must be noted that the panel's two beagles felt that the most important, yet least-noticed, story of 1996 was the time they found a chicken breast lying in the alley on their evening walk. The chief judge overruled their votes on grounds of species bias.)

The first runner-up suggestion concerned the precipitous decline of traditional European language education in the United States. The pursuit of some languages, such as Chinese, is on the increase in the US. But fewer and fewer students are opting to learn French, Russian, and German.

"America needs to think in terms of requiring at least two foreign languages as it heads into the next century," argues the linguistics professor who submitted this suggestion.

Other reader suggestions included:

*The advent of the line-item veto. Will this power, which allows the president to strike individual items from spending bills, survive challenge in the courts? If it does, 1960s-era worries about the rise of an imperial presidency may resurface.

*The possible expansion of NATO eastward. There's lots of talk among politicians about the need to include Poland and other former Soviet-bloc nations in the Western alliance. But will US citizens really want to extend their nuclear umbrella over Warsaw?

*The decline of worldwide fisheries. Are farm-raised shrimp to be our only affordable seafood option?

*The rise of the Taliban guerrillas in Afghanistan. This fundamentalist Muslim group now controls two-thirds of the country and is imposing almost medieval restrictions on civil rights.

*A possible rise in individualism and consumerism, with a corresponding decline in community feeling. Is the spread of wealth and technology such as personal computers contributing to individual isolation? Will the world emulate the US and adopt the Internet, etc., with open arms?

E-mail suggestions to

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