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Horton Wins a Prize

From the Scrapbook.

Jun 6, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 36 • By THE SCRAPBOOK
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Scott Horton is the kind of bumbling, inept journalist who seems to exist only in novels. A writer for Harper’s and the Daily Beast, he constantly makes mistakes and fabulates, leaving a trail of corrections and retractions in his wake. But because he has the right politics, Horton keeps getting promoted until, last week, he ascended all the way to receipt of the National Magazine Award for Reporting. 

Scrapbook

Handed out by the American Society of Magazine Editors each year, the NMA is more or less a Pulitzer for magazines, and 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 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 reporters in this dastardly murder and cover-up. Lots of reporters were interested—at first. Koppelman reports that 60 Minutes took a crack at the story. The same outfit that was happy to use fake documents in a 2004 hit piece on George W. Bush spent a month investigating Hickman’s claims before deciding that there wasn’t a story there. Hickman went to ABC News next, with the same result. NBC News was next and correspondent Jim Miklaszewski spent four months researching the story. “Ultimately I just didn’t find the story credible, quite frankly,” Miklaszewski told Koppelman. “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.”

And on and on. The New York Times got pitched, and passed. Just how implausible was Hickman’s story? Seymour Hersh, the New Yorker’s conspiracy theorist extraordinaire, confirmed to Koppelman that he, too, had been pitched the story, but declined. It wasn’t until Hickman and his law professor got in touch with Scott Horton that they found a reporter gullible enough to buy what they were selling.

The resulting story was vintage Horton. For instance, he used the autopsy report of an independent medical examiner to cast doubt on the cause of death of one of the inmates without revealing that the same report concludes that the “most likely” cause of death was hanging. In another instance he reports that, on the night in question, a mysterious van (purportedly carrying the inmates to a secret torture facility) appeared on a road that had “only two destinations.” But the road in question doesn’t dead-end and you can take it to any destination in the camp. There’s more, but dwelling on such details is almost beside the point. Scott Horton operates in a world beyond facts. And now the American Society of Magazine Editors does, too.

Mansfield, Hark!

The Scrapbook highly recommends Harvey Mansfield’s piece on manliness and morality elsewhere in these pages. But on the compelling principle of the more Mansfield the better, we also wanted to call our readers’ attention to his remarks on accepting the Bradley Prize in Washington, D.C., earlier this month, reprinted on City Journal’s website. Some highlights:

I want to tell you what it has been like to spend my life as a professor at Harvard, the most prestigious university in America, perhaps the world. In my time there, Old Harvard, a place of tradition with its prejudices, has become New Harvard, a place of prestige with its prejudices. What’s the difference? .  .  . 

In the Old Harvard, .  .  . reticence was assured arrogance trying not to be condescending; now, it’s truly embarrassed and apologetic, humility fighting with pride. The pride comes from consciousness of merit. It’s a reasonable pride. Respect for merit gives confidence that the inequalities resident in our democracy are the source of progress, rather than reaction and superstition. Call it meritocracy if you will, but it is better than

any lack-of-meritocracy. This was the confidence of the Old Harvard, really not so old; it was the former, liberal Harvard that reigned before the late sixties. It reflected an acute case of the contradiction in our democracy: between the demand for ever more equality and the progress that results from the desire to make oneself better than others by competing with them.

Confidence in progress has now been replaced by postulation of change. Progress is achieved and can be welcomed, but change just happens and must be adjusted to. “Adjusting to change” is now the unofficial motto of Harvard, mutabilitas instead of veritas. To adjust, the new Harvard must avoid adherence to any principle that does not change, even liberal principle. Yet in fact it has three principles: diversity, choice, and equality. To respect change, diversity must serve to overcome stereotypes, though stereotypes are necessary to diversity. How else is a Midwesterner diverse if he is not a hayseed? And diversity of opinion cannot be tolerated when it might hinder change. .  .  .

When there is no basis for what we agree to, it becomes mandatory that we agree. The very fragility of change as a principle makes us hold on to it with insistence and tenacity. Having nothing to conform to, we conform to conformism—hence political correctness. Political correctness makes a moral principle of opposing, and excluding, those of us who believe in principles that don’t change.

This would have gotten us depressed about Harvard, if we hadn’t already had low expectations. But then we came across last week’s commencement issue of the university-produced Harvard Gazette. It cheered us up! The Gazette featured a long article, “Harvard in the military,” proudly detailing the military service and achievements of several of the ROTC Harvard grads of 2009 and 2010 (who had chosen to do ROTC at MIT, with no help and little recognition from their own university), and hailing the agreement earlier this year to reestablish an ROTC formal presence on campus for the first time in nearly 40 years.

Could an appreciation of some of the principles that don’t change be set for a comeback at Harvard?

Sentences We Didn’t Finish: Special Oprah Edition

"I’ve got to say, I bow before cultural icons like Oprah, who take things that can be as minor and goofy as an hour worth of TV and turn it into something that is actually something everybody can be talking about. You know what’s going to be missing now from the vernacular? ‘Did you see Oprah yesterday? Did you see that girl .  .  .’ ” (Tom Hanks).

“When I think about the Oprah legacy it’s humbling. She’s changed the lives of millions of people. She brought important issues to the dinner table that never would have been there otherwise. She leaves behind a body of work .  .  .” (Ellen DeGeneres).

“Oprah has set the bar so high that no one touches her. She redefined the genre. .  .  . The thing I respect most about her is her absolute authenticity. She is genuinely curious about everyone she meets, expresses a genuine gratitude to all who cross her path and has a zest for life that is second to none. She is a seeker of the truth .  .  .” (Hugh Jackman). 

“[Oprah has] made a difference in really fun things and she’s made a difference in really serious things and she’s told us stories that .  .  .” (Stevie Nicks). (Associated Press, May 24)

The Low-Profile Candidate

You’ve likely never heard of Dan Adler, an unsuccessful Democratic candidate for Congress. Neither had many of the voters in California’s 36th district, apparently. Adler, a former Hollywood agent and Disney executive, ran a quixotic campaign in a recent special election to replace Jane Harman in the House of Representatives. Actor Sean Astin (of Rudy and Lord of the Rings fame) was his campaign manager.

Astin’s celebrity got the unknown, first-time candidate some much-needed publicity. Astin appeared on behalf of the fledgling Adler campaign on MSNBC and Los Angeles’s local NBC and Fox affiliates, and the actor’s foray into politics got mentions in USA Today, the Washington Post, Time, and the Boston Globe. But as Roll Call noted, there are downsides to having a campaign manager who’s better-known than the candidate:

Astin’s local NBC appearance demonstrated part of the challenge of the campaign. While he was trying to promote his candidate and longtime friend, B-roll clips of Astin’s father in the 1960s television show The Addams Family were playing in a split screen.

Not even endorsements from Holly-wood middleweights like former Disney CEO Michael Eisner, comedian Paul Reiser, or Grammy-winning recording artist Macy Gray could help Adler, who ended up with a whopping 361 votes, or less than 1 percent of the total votes cast. But given Astin’s prominence in the campaign, The Scrapbook wonders how many votes were written in instead for “Rudy -Ruettiger” and “Samwise Gamgee.”

The Greasy Pole Is Back!

Like all conservatives of a certain age, The Scrapbook has grown accustomed to seeing institutions in decline, authority degraded, and tradition in decay—all too often paraded before us clad in the ill-fitting disguise of “progress” and “reform.” So it’s with unaccustomed cheer that we can report the return of a venerable custom to the U.S. Naval Academy. 

A year ago we recorded the sad news that—in the name of nannyism and safety—plebes were to be denied the challenge of scaling the lard-slathered, 21-foot tall granite obelisk known as the Herndon Monument, a perennial rite-of-passage to mark their completion of the academy’s harrowing first year.

The Washington Post reports that the new superintendent, Vice Admiral Michael H. Miller, brought back the greasy pole. “Two hours, 41 minutes and 32 seconds after the Class of 2014 started,” the Post reports, “Matthew Dalton of Florida was pushed to the top, dislodged the plebe cap and placed the midshipman’s hat in its place.” Last year’s ungreased ascent took mere minutes.

The Scrapbook tips its homburg to the new superintendent—and to the midshipmen of the class of 2014.

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