When liberal media elites offer a journalistic prize, does that really mean they’ve honored the most reliable, professional journalism? That’s not so if you read the latest Weekly Standard. The latest “Pulitzer for magazines,” the National Magazine Award, was handed out to Scott Horton of Harper’s – but the story wasn’t true, and had been rejected by a bevy of other reporters.
Horton’s story was a blockbuster: He detailed how, in 2006, three Guantánamo Bay detainees were tortured to death by the United States, which then covered up the crime by making it look as though the inmates had committed suicide by hanging themselves. This being Scott Horton, however, there’s the usual catch: The story is almost certainly untrue. Its veracity is so suspect, in fact, that even mainstream journalists were caught sputtering at the ludicrousness of the ASME judges in handing the prize to Horton.
From the moment he published it, there were questions about Horton’s story. (Joe Carter at First Things dissected it particularly well, and Slate’s Jack Shafer piled on to good effect.) But last week AdWeek’s Alex Koppelman took it apart in its entirety.
The gist of Koppelman’s indictment: In 2009, the government released a thousands-of-pages-long report on the deaths of the three detainees in which the government described how the men plotted and carried out their suicides. Horton constructed an alternative version of events, in which the three men were being interrogated in another part of the facility when they died, and in which the subsequent story of their suicide-by-hanging was a military cover-up.
Horton relies principally on Sgt. Joe Hickman. Hickman was then posted as a guard on the camp’s perimeter the night of the deaths, nowhere near the place of the alleged killing. But that didn’t stop Hickman from shopping his story around. He hooked up with a law professor from Seton Hall and tried to interest all sorts of reports in this dastardly murder and cover-up. Lots of reporters were interested – at first.
The activist law professor is Mark Denbeaux. Koppelman at Adweek reported the major sticking point for most reporters was the guards on the camp exterior (like Hickman) are Army, while the people on the inside of the camp, the ones who actually guard the detainees up close, are Navy. “Hickman and Horton’s three additional main sources were Army. The dozens of witnesses who informed the government’s official report on that night were predominantly Navy. In other words: Horton’s main sources were perimeter guards, distant from the prisoners.”
Koppelman said the Horton award was a surprise, since "most people working in the ever-shrinking category of serious magazine journalism were sure the award would go to Rolling Stone for the article by Michael Hastings that led to the downfall of Gen. Stanley McChrystal or The New Yorker for Jane Mayer’s profile of the billionaire Koch brothers." Those were both great liberal crowd-pleasers. It didn't phase the magazine-award judges that other journalists had passed on Horton's "scoop" as unproven:
These included The New Yorker’s Seymour Hersh as well as teams from CBS News’ 60 Minutes and ABC News’ Brian Ross Investigative Unit that had looked into the alleged killings and the accounts provided by the men who became Horton’s key sources, and found more flight of fancy than fact. (Horton acknowledges in his story that his source had been in contact with ABC News.)
Jim Miklaszewski, NBC News’ chief Pentagon correspondent, was another of those journalists. He worked on the story off and on for four months, during which time he reviewed “thousands of pages” of documents, interviewed Horton’s main source, and “talked to at least a dozen people.”
“Ultimately I just didn’t find the story credible, quite frankly,” Miklaszewski says. “I devoted a lot of time to it, and my conclusion was that it just didn’t seem possible that that many people could have been involved in a conspiracy and to have [the killings] remain secret. It stretched all credulity, I thought.”
Hersh confirmed to Adweek that he had dug into the story and dropped it too. A New York Times reporter was also approached by the parties who’d been pushing the allegations of homicide and cover-up at Guantánamo, a person close to the situation says.
Only after the big guys passed was the story shopped to Horton. He won for reporting, but in fact the story fell right into his lap, factual flaws and all.
“We couldn’t really believe it when the piece came out,” one of the reporters who looked into the story says. “I can’t believe Harper’s, I really can’t.”
Koppelman's conclusion was clinical, yet brutal:
Horton’s piece had all the elements of a great story: a gripping narrative, a whistle-blower, an explosive expose, and a murder mystery — not to mention an admirable aim: to speak truth to power. But its approach was less methodical reporting and more conspiracy building, favoring the evidence that supports the conspiracy view and minimizing the evidence that does not.
That approach then received the National Magazine Award seal of approval. Indeed, the award citation calls the story “scrupulously fair.”
ASME refused to identify the editors who acted as the judges in the category.