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The Pulitzer Problem

The journalistic elites celebrate the journalistic elites

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.

Putting a guard, even a friendly one, front and center of an article about torture is an interesting and clever choice: Americans raised on the lore of cowboys and G.I Joes are more discomfited than most when Americans are cast as villains. Giving readers a friendly guard, Taub might have figured, would provide them with a good white American to root for—and a redemption story where, on the whole, there has been no American redemption. The suggestion that Wood was in over his head at the prison helps temper the thorny specter of American complicity; it offers befuddlement and ignorance (both of which Wood exhibits) as easy outs of the Guantánamo moral mess. 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.

The actual torture survivor Mohamedou Ould Salahi may have written a great book. But the definitive and prize-winning story about “Guantánamo’s Darkest Secret” is the one that made it into The New Yorker.

It is not an entirely new criticism. As J. Douglas Bates wrote almost thirty years ago in his book The Pulitzer Prize: The Inside Story of America’s Most Prestigious Award, the prizes are a product of cronyism and mutual benefit; the prizes elevate the publications, and vice versa. Bates noted that the Pulitzer board of directors would change from time to time, but that when there was turnover, it was usually “white, male, senior journalists” being “replaced by more white, male, senior journalists.” The board chooses the jurors for the prizes each year. And though there is more diversity on the board and among jurors (the board is led by the eminent Elizabeth Alexander, head of the Mellon Foundation) than there was when Bates wrote his book, a cursory look at the Pulitzer board reveals precisely the incestuous relationships that make it all possible. The current list includes David Remnick, editor in chief of The New Yorker and the very man who hired Taub to work at The New Yorker in 2017, two years after he finished graduate school.

Such hefty institutional backing has a relationship to truth-telling and to truth creation. It doesn’t matter that Taub, per his own admission, did not speak Arabic, that he seems to have rehashed a large chunk of his Pulitzer-winning article from an already published book, or even that he spent only a week in Mauritania where Salahi now lives. His article legitimizes a process through which the Western liberal frame is conflated with the lack of any frame at all and applied to foreign places or people through the roving foreign correspondent. Ben Taub is not the problem, of course. It’s just that the edifices of elite journalism consistently elevate the voices of those like him. In a story about how a system of silencing allowed the most shameful cruelties to happen, considering the architecture of truth and silence seems important.

Salahi and countless non-Western others have long known and written about torture at Guantánamo or Bagram or any of the many places where it occurred. But it only becomes a literary, notable, and prize-worthy truth when it flows from the pen of a foreign correspondent at a prestige publication like The New Yorker. White and Western men, even when reporting on the absolute depravity of other white and Western men, can continue to be heroes, untouched by the taint of others like them. The Guantánamo guard can still be a good guy; the journalist who writes about Guantánamo can be a greater hero than the man who survives it.

“Guantánamo’s Darkest Secret” is set around the trite fantasy that guards and prisoners can be “friends,” or that New Yorker journalists can discover truths about torture victims in short interactions. At the end of “Guantánamo’s Darkest Secret,” Steve Wood, now no longer a guard and searching for an absolution only someone who has suffered at his hands can provide, travels to Mauritania. Taub, in pursuit of some direct contact with the subject of his story, goes with him.

Neither quite gets what he wants. Wood tells Taub that he feels that Salahi is treating him like a prop, the American guard who saw his innocence, all so Salahi can recover his confiscated passport from Mauritanian authorities. Taub hangs around, but little in his published copy suggests he was ever able to have the deep heart-to-hearts that would have added some original material to his presentation of Salahi.

In the end then, all we have by way of original statements from “Guantánamo’s Darkest Secret” are a few sentences enumerating what he has lost. “If you say that you are angry,” Salahi tells the two white men, “it is understood as an emotion. If I say that I am angry, it is seen as a threat to national security.”

Encapsulating the murderous and torturous misadventure that the entire War on Terror has been to those who have endured its rapacious brutality, Salahi’s words underscore the truth Taub has not told: that writing an article about torture that does nothing to disrupt a worldview that has left brown men forever suspect is not getting anywhere at all. The truth still belongs to the white, the Western, and the powerful, who can inflict great cruelty with total impunity, while others are then rewarded for writing about it.