The horror tales from Niger – as reported by some of the world’s most reputable media – were gruesome: Sgt. La David Johnson, one of four Americans who died on a mysterious U.S. Army Special Forces mission in early October, had been captured alive, tortured, killed execution-style at close range and his remains had been mutilated.
The details were all erroneous, it turned out.
It took the AP’s Pentagon reporter Lita Baldor to set the record straight with a stunning scoop on an otherwise quiet Washington Sunday in December, revealing the findings of a still confidential Pentagon report. It is the Beat of the Week.
Baldor's story, rich in detail and authoritative in its sourcing, showed that the 25-year-old soldier hadn't been captured alive, hadn't been tortured and his body hadn't been mutilated. Instead, he died in a hail of gunfire as he took cover in a thick brush during an ambush by Islamic State-linked extremists.
He was killed at a distance, not execution style. Only his shoes were taken off his body. The military needed two days longer to find him than the other fallen Americans because, in a bid to escape, Johnson had outrun other soldiers and managed to fight on in difficult circumstances.
Baldor played the long game, spending weeks pressing the Pentagon and chasing her worldwide sources.
In the weeks after the attack, several stories emerged that were disputed by officials as wrong or unsubstantiated. And all seemed to raise more questions than answers.
Where some reporters accepted the uncertainty, and others simply moved on, Baldor spent weeks chasing everyone on her worldwide Rolodex of sources.
She was receiving clear indications that, contrary to the initial reports, he hadn’t been tortured or executed at close range. Baldor pressed officials to tell her what, then, happened to Johnson.
It was a slow, hard grind, as the military itself was still trying to determine the facts. Baldor played the long game, knowing that as its investigation advanced, it was only natural that more people would get a sense of the true story. And she would be there when that happened, pressing upon the military folk how important it was for Johnson’s family and his legacy that the inaccurate reporting of his death be corrected.
Piece by piece, Baldor put together the story, triangulating and confirming at each step along the way. When she heard that Johnson fought to the end, she knew she had learned something important. For military officials, that was a poignant fact missed by everyone. And when Baldor asked people about Johnson’s courage, it was hard for them not to acknowledge this was something the world needed to know.
When Baldor’s story dropped, DC national security reporters scrambled to match it.
The Today Show ran Baldor’s reporting on air, crediting the AP. Fox News and The Guardian picked up Baldor's story. USA Today wrote its own story entirely off AP's reporting. Voice of America named AP in its headline. At the Pentagon, reporters were getting the same off-the-record response from military officials: The AP story was accurate, but they’d have to do the hard work themselves to piece it together.
The Washington Post acknowledged Baldor's scoop in a tweet and ended up running the AP story in its print and online editons.
For an unmatched story that revealed the heroism of an American soldier who died in the line of duty, Baldor wins this week’s $500 prize.