Time is a critical factor that can often work against journalists reporting on current events. But last year, Mattathias Schwartz '01, writing for The New Yorker, spent over three months living in Kingston and re-reported the 2010 extradition of Jamaican drug lord Christopher Coke. His examination of the assault on a neighborhood which was believed to be Coke's hiding place showed that most of the 74 people killed in the Tivoli Garden area were civilians and were murdered by Jamaican security forces after the shooting stopped.
"One would think that the federal government would be interested in releasing as much information as possible about the death of a young U.S. citizen, along with dozens of Jamaicans, in an operation assisted by the U.S. government and carried out, to a large degree, at its behest," Schwartz says. "This was not the case."
At the time, media coverage portrayed Jamaican forces engaged in gunfight with Coke's gunmen. Jamaican security forces defended their actions, claiming the dead were Coke's accomplices. But Schwartz's investigation revealed that most of Coke's forces had left shortly after the raid began and exposed details such as the recovery of only six guns. Schwartz was also the first to report that the assualt was filmed by a P-3 Orion spy plane belonging to U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The contents of the film have not been released but could give credibility to allegations that the civilian deaths were extrajudicial.
This month, his article, "A Massacre in Jamaica," received the Livingston Award for international reporting. "Think of this as a customer-service report on American foreign policy," Schwartz said in accepting his award, which recognizes the work of journalists aged under 35. Soon after, he posted an update to his report.
"I like to work slowly and get a feel for the place and circumstances that I am writing about," Schwartz later commented. "The biggest challenges were figuring out who was credible, putting together a picture of a complex incident that I was not present at, and getting details from the governments of U.S. and Jamaica. The award is a significant and much appreciated gesture of encouragement to continue doing what I've been trying to do for the past 10 years."
In those years, Schwartz has been busy. After graduating with a B.A. in philosophy, Schwartz went on to establish The Philadelphia Independent, a bi-monthly newspaper that served the city from January 2002 to March 2005 [among its mottos were "the Periodic Journal of Urban Particulars" and "Too big to read on the subway"].
More recently, Schwartz made the media rounds to discuss his report, also for The New Yorker, on the origins of Occupy Wall Street. Schwartz identified Kalle Lasn and Micah White'04, editors of the Vancouver-based anti-consumerist magazine Adbusters, as the movement's co-creators.
Schwartz attributes his professors at Swarthmore to fostering critical thinking that remain relevant for his journalism career. "Studying under professors like Richard Eldridge, Hans Oberdiek, Philip Weinstein, and Grace Ledbetter taught me innumerable tools for thinking," he says, "particularly the ability to break an argument up into components, consider each piece, and come to a better understanding of what a person or a document is trying to say."
He also credits a summer internship with the late award-winning journalist Jay Gallagher, father of Janice Gallagher '00, at Gannett News Service in Albany, with furthering his interest in the field. "[It] demonstrated to me how journalism can be an effective tool for holding powerful people accountable," Schwartz says.
Seeking honesty, accountability, and clarity, Schwartz is drawn to situations teeming with unanswered questions that command further investigation. "The most serious and interesting ambiguities tend to be impossible to resolve," says the now award-winning journalist, "but one can try to chip away at them and expose new layers of questions."