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.
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.
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? . . .