Even before its 2006 acquisition of Knight Ridder, California-based McClatchy had a reputation for putting out some of America’s best mid-level dailies. The Knight Ridder purchase, when it occurred, didn’t just add powerhouses like the Miami Herald and Charlotte Observer to McClatchy’s stable; it also gave McClatchy access to Knight Ridder’s Washington, DC, bureau, which had distinguished itself with commendably skeptical coverage prior to the Iraq War.
Now with this past week’s publication of a series on the Kafka-esque detention of thousands of foreign nationals following 9/11, the hybrid McClatchy–Knight Ridder DC operation is enjoying its biggest achievement to date. The subject matter of “Guantánamo: Beyond the Law” wasn’t new, exactly — the abuse of prisoners, the questionable criteria used to put them behind bars, and the dubious legal framework crafted to justify their ongoing legal limbo have all been covered elsewhere. But the depth of McClatchy’s treatment was unprecedented, and its conclusions were startling. For one thing, most prisoners at Guantánamo had “no intelligence value in the war on terror.” For another, by radicalizing formerly apolitical detainees, Guantánamo may actually have made Americans less safe, not more.
In the course of their research, reporters Tom Lasseter and Matthew Schofield talked to 66 former detainees who’d been held at Guantánamo and elsewhere; the fruits of their eight-plus-month investigation were published, by design, on the heels of the Supreme Court’s ruling that Guantánamo’s inmates can challenge their detentions in civilian court. (The series also appeared the same week that McClatchy announced its latest round of cutbacks; more on that in a bit.) The vast scope of Lasseter and Schofield’s reporting makes it more likely that their findings will hold up in the future. And, as an added bonus, it gives the public a vast trove of anecdotal evidence, which has been skillfully packaged online at mcclatchydc.com/detainees. There’s a photo gallery, video interviews with 10 former prisoners, and miniature profiles of every single detainee interviewed for the series. Sometimes the old saw about “journalism being the first draft of history” makes you feel sorry for the historians. Not here.
But is “Guantánamo: Beyond the Law” getting the attention that it should? That’s hard to say. As Editor & Publisher noted this past week, pickup and play inside the McClatchy chain itself has been outstanding. (McClatchy’s papers aren’t obligated to use material generated by the chain’s Washington bureau.) Several non-McClatchy papers, including the Oregonian and the Denver Post, have run part or all of the series, too. And according to Roy Gutman, McClatchy’s foreign editor, it’s been discussed on CNN (by Christiane Amanpour) and NPR (on Talk of the Nation, All Things Considered, and The Diane Rehm Show).
Still, the series’ reach has its limits. As of this writing, for example — and despite both the aforementioned Supreme Court decision and a new Physicians for Human Rights report that accuses the Bush administration of torture and war crimes — the New York Times hasn’t mentioned “Guantánamo: Beyond the Law,” even on its op-ed page. The Washington Post has, but only online. The various network news programs, including the Sunday-morning political talk shows, seem uninterested. And despite the fact that US detention policy has emerged as a major point of contention between Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama, neither the candidates themselves nor their campaigns have publicly discussed McClatchy’s findings.