The Pulitzer Problem: The journalistic elites celebrate the journalistic elites

Rafia Zakaria in The Baffler:

THE FIRST PERSON YOU MEET in New Yorker journalist Ben Taub’s Pulitzer-winning story “Guantánamo’s Darkest Secret” is the kindly guard. Steve Wood, a member of the Oregon National Guard, was deployed to the Guantánamo Bay detention facility. Despite being told to “never turn your back” on prisoners, Wood befriended one. Prisoner 760, as he was called, is Mohamedou Ould Salahi, a man kept in a trailer called “Echo Special” whose identity was so secret that his name did not even appear in the log of America’s cruelest prison.

…If Wood is a kindly white guard who just wants to learn about Islam—he spends a lot of time at the base library reading up—then the new hero of the story is Taub himself. Great cruelties may have been inflicted at Guantánamo, New Yorker readers can tell themselves, but brave young journalists are out to expose them so that those educated well-off readers can sadly shake their heads. Except that those cruelties had already been exposed. Taub’s article was published in 2019, slightly more than four years after Salahi himself published his best-selling Guantánamo Diary, which notably did not win a Pulitzer Prize. Large parts of “Guantánamo’s Darkest Secret”—awarded a Pulitzer this week in the Feature Writing category—particularly those that deal with Salahi, rehash with the customary “he wrote” what had already been written. Yet while the content may be mostly the same, the purpose is different. Taub, unlike Salahi, is out to deliver absolution to his American reader: casting Steve Wood as an integral player is one part of this; leaving the still-constrained reality of Salahi’s present (he cannot leave tiny Mauritania) to the very end of the piece is another.

Indeed, while Salahi (whose name has also been styled as Slahi) may have told many truths in his own book, it is Taub who gets to tell them in the pages of The New Yorker. Credibility and journalistic heroism, as each year’s prizes show, reside in the pages of prestige publications; the New York Times and the Washington Post are mainstays, and since the prizes were first opened up to include magazines in 2015, The New Yorker is as well. No truth is really a truth, particularly a courageous truth, until it appears in their pages. The brown man, the accused terrorist, the actual torture survivor Mohamedou Ould Salahi may have written a great book. But the definitive story about “Guantánamo’s Darkest Secret” is the one penned by Taub.

More here.