Winners and Sinners | Hillman Foundation

Clear It With Sidney

Notes on journalism for the common good, by Lindsay Beyerstein

Winners and Sinners

Winners & Sinners / Martin Luther King Jr. Day edition.

Winner:  Scott Horton.  This morning Harper’s Magazine jumped its publication date for the March issue by thirty days to rush out Scott Horton’s blockbuster cover story  about three possible murders at Guantanamo which the government and the mainstream media have always described as suicides.

    The piece also identified a black site on Guantanamo where those who died may have been tortured on the night of their supposed suicide.

    Horton is a law professor, a contributing editor at Harper’s, and one of the finest torture reporters of our time.

    At the heart of the cover-up Horton alleges is the fact that the Pentagon told the press–and convinced most reporters–that the three prisoners who died had hanged themselves.  However, Horton has interviewed five American servicemen who gave this account of what Army Colonel Michael Bumgarner, the Camp America commander, told a meeting of fifty guards at 7am the morning after the prisoners had died.

    The commander said to the guards, “you all know” that the prisoners committed suicide by swallowing rags, causing them to choke to death.  “But then Bumgarner told those assembled that the media would report something different. It would report that the three prisoners had committed suicide by hanging themselves in their cells.  It was important, he said, that servicemen make no comments or suggestions that in any way undermined the official report. He reminded the soldiers and sailors that their phone and email communications were being monitored. The meeting lasted no more than twenty minutes.”

    Horton says Bumgarner refused all of his requests for interviews, although Bumgarner did attack the story today to the Associated Press  after it was posted on the Harper’s website.

   The guards interviewed by Horton said the night of the prisoners’ deaths, the guards believed that they had witnessed the prisoners’ removal to the black site away from the prison compound.  They also said that their clear site lines from the guard towers made it possible for them to know that none of the prisoners had been taken from their cells to the medical center on the night of their deaths.

    In a  article entitled “The Battle for Guantánamo” in The New York Times Magazine in 2006, Tim Golden wrote about Col. Bumgarner’s efforts to humanize conditions at Guantanamo.  He also reported the “suicides” of these three prisoners as an established fact.

   Golden never interviewed any of the guards quoted in Horton’s story.  Yesterday, he told FCP that he had read Horton’s story “quickly,” but he refused to make any comment about it.

   Some of the guards interviewed by Horton ridiculed Golden’s piece as “stenography” for Col. Bumgarner.

    Horton’s story also accuses the Obama administration of allowing the Justice Department to conduct an investigation of these deaths which was nothing more than a continuation of the cover-up that started under George Bush.

    He writes that the chief investigator in the case, Teresa McHenry, “has firsthand knowledge of the Justice Department’s role in auditing such techniques, having served at the Justice Department under Bush and having participated in the preparation of at least one of those memos” which authorized the torture conducted at Guantanamo and elsewhere.  McHenry refused to discuss her role in the preparation of that memo with Horton.

    Tune in to Keith Olbermann’s Countdown tonight on MSNBC, where Horton is expected to produce new evidence casting doubt on Col. Bumgarner’s credibility.

Sinners: David Carr and Tim Arango, who wrote a worshipful, 1,943 word profile
 of fox News Chief Roger Ailes
for the front page of The New York Times–which included exactly one paragraph of balance:

         “I am by no means alone within the family or the company in being ashamed and sickened by Roger Ailes’s horrendous and sustained disregard of the journalistic standards that News Corporation, its founder and every other global media business aspires to,” said Matthew Freud, who is married to Ms. Murdoch and whom PR Week magazine says is the most influential public relations executive in London.”

    The other 1,878 words were favorable–because Fox is supposedly the most profitable division of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation.  And why would anyone bother to mention that those profits come from constantly stirring up the dumbest 1 percent of the American TV audience with lies, hatred, and the never-ending tears of Glenn Beck?  The sad truth is, readers of The New York Times almost never learn the truth about Fox or Beck or the rest of the serial prevaricators on that network.  For that information, you have to be a regular viewer of The Daily Show or The Colbert Report.

Sinner: Lloyd Grove, for his appalling review of a new biography of Molly Ivins in The New York Times Book Review–one of the worst FCP has ever read.  Who was the genius editor who decided that a failed gossip columnist like Grove would be the best person to evaluate the life of one of the most important progressive journalists of the 20th century?  According to Grove,  “Molly Ivins: A Rebel Life isn’t convincing as the biography of a significant figure in journalism”, mostly because “Ivins never wrote the big, important book about Texas that she’d always wanted to.”

The fact that she was one of the great newspaper columnists of her era, who was right about Iraq, George Bush and oh-so-much else when the geniuses in the Washington press corps were getting it all wrong, well, Grove (an alumnus of that fabulous group) doesn’t mention that.  To understand who Ivins really was, read Paul Krugman’s great column about her or FCP’s own tribute.   Or CJR’s excellent review of the book here.

Winner: The indispensable Hendrik Hertzberg, for his laugh-out-loud review  in this week’s New Yorker of John Heilemann and Mark Halperin’s new book–the first account of the 2008 campaign to be “told in the style of an airport potboiler.”  Says Hertzberg:

      Game Change is a bit like those tabloid photo features in which celebrities are caught with their cellulite showing. What do we learn from it, apart from the news that the thighs of the famous may be lumpier than they look onscreen? One lesson is that the eagerness of political operatives to trash tends to be inversely proportional to the power, present and future, of the trashee.

Winner: Tony Judt, for one of the most important pieces of 2009: What is Living and What Is Dead in Social Democracy, published last month in The New York Review of Books. His 6,600 word article is a devastating account of the sharp decline of the Western World over the last three decades–and essential reading for anyone disturbed by the perilous condition of American democracy.  For this, it was also the winner of the Hillman Foundation’s Sidney Award for December.
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