It would be an understatement to say that many members of the press were surprised when the National Magazine Award for Reporting this year went to a piece Scott Horton did about deaths at the Guantanamo prison for Harper’s Magazine. That award is arguably the magazine industry’s equivalent of the Pulitzer (traditionally a newspaper award).
Horton wrote a piece about the deaths of three detainees at the prison in 2006. The military reported the deaths as suicides. Horton’s piece essentially alleges that U.S. guards or interrogators murdered all three on one night and that the Pentagon, members of Congress, and the Justice Department engaged in a sprawling conspiracy to cover it up.
For his sources, Horton relied heavily on a small cadre of guards who worked outside the prison and who did not witness much, except odd comings and goings of vehicles and prisoners. He then used alleged inconsistencies and weaknesses in the government’s investigation to buttress his narrative that something fishy was going on, and it was probably a triple homicide followed by a massive cover up. (Believe me, if deficiencies in government investigations made news, I could work a one-hour day).
Alex Koppelman at AdWeek does a thorough job of airing the problems in Horton’s piece. It’s worth a read.