Longreads Best of 2020: Investigative Reporting

Our top picks for investigative journalism this year.

All through December, we’re featuring Longreads’ Best of 2020. This year, our team picked and featured hundreds of in-depth investigations published across the web. Here are our top picks.

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The Last Patrol (Nathaniel Penn, The California Sunday Magazine)

In July 2012, U.S. Army First Lieutenant Clint Lorance gave an order that killed two Afghan civilians on a motorcycle near an operating base outside of Kandahar, in a volatile region in Afghanistan. Lorance was convicted of murder. The narrative weaved by Sean Hannity and others at Fox News framed Lorance as a war hero; he was pardoned by Donald Trump in November 2019 and served six years of a 20-year sentence. The former Army officer, who had been advised to take interviews only from conservative media outlets, agreed to talk with Nathaniel Penn, and the result is an incredibly riveting and comprehensive piece on his case.

Arriving on the dirt road that led into the village, the patrol discovered two of the three Afghan men lying beside a ditch. They were dead. Their companion had run away. Near them, the motorcycle leaned on its kickstand.

It wasn’t at all the scene Lorance had imagined. “If I would have been up there,” he told me, “and would have known that they were stopped and off their motorcycle, I would never in a million years have said, ‘Fire at them.’ I would want to go talk to them and get intel out of them. I’d be like, ‘Who are you? Where are you from?’ I would want to know everything about them.”

A woman and two children stood near the bodies, weeping.

Holy shit, Lorance thought. Did we just kill good people?

The way to find out was to do a Battle Damage Assessment. Skelton was the intelligence specialist who carried the SEEK. But Lorance wanted Skelton to follow him into the village to carry out the mission and get the biometric enrollments. The engagement with the motorcycle had been necessary and unfortunate, but it wasn’t important. He ordered two of his men to conduct the Battle Damage Assessment while he proceeded into the village. They had the necessary training, even if they didn’t have the SEEK. They knelt by the bodies.

Captain Swanson, who had been alerted to the situation, was radioing Lorance from headquarters. What was happening? he asked. Were the dead men combatants or civilians? Had Lorance done the Battle Damage Assessment?

No, Lieutenant Lorance replied, they hadn’t been able to do the Battle Damage Assessment. The villagers had taken away the bodies.

As he spoke, he knew he had just made a critical mistake. He should have said that his men would get to the Battle Damage Assessment eventually, that they didn’t have time to do that shit right now. Because when you speak over the radio, “you might as well be putting your hand on the Bible,” as one member of the platoon told me.

In the years to come, Lorance’s decision not to use the SEEK device for the Battle Damage Assessment would prove to be crucial and polarizing. It would contribute both to his imprisonment and his pardon.

The weeping woman was screaming now. Lorance told himself that her tears didn’t necessarily mean he’d done anything wrong. The men whose bodies she was crying over could be insurgents. That shocked him — the idea that the Taliban had families, too. It had never occurred to him before.

Built to Last (

“Built to Last” is part one of an impressive three-part investigation that looks into the high-security, high-tech detention camps built in Xinjiang, a vast and rural region in northwest China, to detain Muslim minorities. China had publicly claimed all detainees had been released, but interviews with dozens of former detainees on their horrific experiences, along with an analysis of thousands of satellite images, have exposed how China has secretly and rapidly been building a permanent internment infrastructure. One complex, shown in architectural modeling in part three, is the size of 13 football fields and can hold tens of thousands of people. It’s a “sprawling system” meant to incarcerate hundreds of thousands of Uighurs, Kazakhs, and others and “is already the largest-scale detention of ethnic and religious minorities since World War II.” The excerpt that follows is from part one; all three pieces, linked above, are worth reading.

People detained in the camps told BuzzFeed News they were subjected to torture, hunger, overcrowding, solitary confinement, forced birth control, and a range of other abuses. They said they were put through brainwashing programs focusing on Communist Party propaganda and made to speak only in the Chinese language. Some former detainees said they were forced to labor without pay in factories.

The government heavily restricts the movements of independent journalists and researchers in the region, and heavily censors the internet and its own domestic media. Muslim minorities can be punished for posts on social media. But satellite images that are collected from independent providers remain outside the scope of Chinese government censorship.

Other kinds of evidence have also occasionally leaked out. In September, a drone video emerged showing hundreds of blindfolded men with their heads shaven and their arms tied behind their backs, wearing vests that say “Kashgar Detention Center.” Nathan Ruser, a researcher at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute who has done extensive satellite imagery analysis of the detention and prison systems in Xinjiang, said the video shows a prisoner transfer that took place in April 2019 — months after the government first said the system was for vocational training. Previous analyses, including by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in November 2018, identified several dozen early camps.

At Hundreds of Rehabs, Recovery Means Work Without Pay (Shoshana Walter, Reveal)

Part of Reveal‘s American Rehab series, this deep-dive looks at drug and alcohol recovery programs across the U.S. in which people are required to work substantial hours and perform “often-backbreaking labor” for little or no pay, and in exchange for room and board at the rehabilitation center. These centers, which also typically do not provide workers with safety training or equipment, frame this work as “work therapy.” The Department of Labor has failed to hold such programs accountable. Shoshana Walter’s investigation exposes this widespread practice and identifies at least 300 rehab facilities in 44 states that have engaged in this form of “treatment.” Some rehab directors said the work is an effective way of creating structure and instilling new habits in participants’ lives, while participants felt exploited. “Take people no one will miss, and nowhere to go, and use them as basically free labor,” said one former participant. Walter’s work brings to light labor abuses in places that the government has forgotten or chosen not to look.

“I was worn down and exhausted by the whole thing,” said Timothy Klick, who attended a Cenikor Foundation program in Fort Worth, Texas, in 2018. There, he was sent to work full time at a factory, making dinnerware for ThermoServ. (ThermoServ did not respond to requests for comment.) “I feel like a slave, honestly. I’m being forced to work and not getting anything out of it.”

In a statement to Reveal, Cenikor described its program as voluntary and said it helped participants “overcome substance use disorder and build successful work and life habits.”

“The program provides room, board, treatment, and medication if necessary, as well as an opportunity for full employment upon completion,” the statement said.

Cenikor is among several programs that tout extraordinary success rates. The rehab claims 67% of graduates remain drug-free three years after entering the program. But those numbers disguise a bleak reality: Less than 8% of Cenikor participants graduate. The few other programs that provided graduation rates to Reveal cited rates so low that it was clear most participants do not make it to the end. When participants leave early, they can face lengthy prison sentences or relapse. Many have overdosed and died.

Tethered to the Machine (Lizzie Presser, ProPublica)

Lizzie Presser’s story about a Black man in Alabama on dialysis, who tried to get a new kidney for years, is tragic, powerful, and exceptionally reported. JaMarcus Crews, diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes in the ninth grade, worked hard to manage his health, was a proactive patient, and sacrificed a lot, including his career, to receive dialysis care. But corporate healthcare — and a racist system that works against Black Americans — stood in his way. Presser’s account of Crews’ life is so beautifully told, tugging on your heart until the very last line.

No matter how much he tried to go a different way, JaMarcus was being pulled along the same course, one laid out for him at birth. Black Americans are more likely to be born to mothers with diabetes, which predisposes them to the condition. They have lower rates of insurance coverage and can’t see doctors or afford medication as regularly, so diabetes and hypertension are more likely to cause complications like kidney disease. Even clinical care can work against them; doctors estimate kidney function using a controversial formula that inflates the scores of Black patients to make them look healthier, which can delay referrals to specialists or transplant centers.

JaMarcus was an inquisitive patient; when Gail was pregnant, he grilled doctors on their years of experience and read aloud at night about the fetus developing skin and fingernails. For years, he had been asking doctors about his kidneys, concerned that he’d follow in his mother’s footsteps. It wasn’t until he went to the University of Alabama hospital in 2013 that he learned he even had kidney disease. But as he reviewed his old medical records, he looked into his creatinine — a waste product that indicates kidney function — and realized his doctors had seen that it was high. His primary care doctor hadn’t mentioned it. Nor had physicians at the local hospital. “Doctors knew my kidneys were in trouble,” JaMarcus said, “and they didn’t say anything.”

JaMarcus no longer needed a doctor’s endorsement to get a referral for a transplant; a year earlier, DaVita had changed its rules to allow patients to ask for a referral when they wanted one, regardless of whether their physician thought they were a good candidate. The company made the decision in order to remove the influence of implicit bias. JaMarcus had been waiting until he could bring his BMI of 36 down to 35, which is what he’d been told he needed to hit in order to qualify. But the University of Alabama transplant program had raised its body mass index limit to 40 back in 2015. The hospital didn’t publicize its new standards on its website, and no one at DaVita had told him. For years, he’d been eligible.

They Agreed to Meet Their Mother’s Killer. Then Tragedy Struck Again. (Eli Hager, The Marshall Project)

“Jacksonville, the murder capital of Florida, seems an unlikely place to find a more merciful response to homicide.” If Florida was a country, its incarceration rate would be one of the highest on earth. Can restorative justice be a different path forward and an alternate option, even for the most violent crimes? Hager tells the gut-wrenching story of an extraordinary family who chose restorative justice over the death penalty for the man who brutally murdered their mother. But even after weighing all options and scenarios, they did not anticipate what ultimately came next. Exploring the complexities and limits of restorative justice, Hager’s piece is required reading for all who are part of the criminal justice system, those interested in redesigning it, and anyone who asks: What is the true meaning of justice?

Even after months, the family still had many questions for Debbie’s murderer that prosecutors did not need him to answer to prove their case: What did you do with the things you stole? How were you able to move such a heavy TV by yourself? Did our mom know she was dying? Only Lawson could tell them these things, and they started to believe that only they, as Gerald said, “could wring him out like a sponge.”

By the summer of 2018, Lawson had informed his lawyer that he was willing to plead guilty if the death penalty was taken off the table. At a meeting with prosecutors, Mike said he’d consider that deal, but wanted to face Lawson first. Nelson told the Liles family that she was tentatively open to trying a process called restorative justice, which involved a dialogue centered on victims’ needs. She’d used it successfully in two murder cases, she said.

At first, Rachel was relieved. She was also skeptical. If Lawson convincingly apologized to them, would that be justice? Or just some kind of performance art to save his own life? “What even is justice in a homicide?” Rachel told me. “There can only be restoration when there is something to be restored.”

Stranger Than Fiction (Oscar Schwartz, The Atavist Magazine)

Oscar Schwartz explores the inner workings of the right-wing news industry and the spiritual cult Falun Gong through the eyes of Steven Klett, a poet who gets a job as a “political reporter” at the Epoch Times, a newspaper he eventually learns is a pro-Trump propaganda machine. Being part of its newsroom, Klett “had a front-row seat to the epistemic crisis triggered by Trump’s ascendancy, one that has made distinguishing truth from political fiction increasingly difficult.” Klett didn’t share the views of the newspaper and mostly detached himself from the “breaking news” he published, focused instead on hitting “his weekly target of 100,000 clicks” and viewing himself as a sort of “postmodern information worker” that simply generated content. Schwartz weaves a fascinating narrative, one you can’t stop reading, about how disinformation is made and spread.

When Trump promoted the outrageous lie that Obama and Hillary Clinton were “founders” of ISIS, Klett wrote a story without critical evaluation; the fact of Trump’s comments, rather than their veracity, was what mattered. This seemed more or less in keeping with theEpoch Times’ professed commitment to unbiased coverage and its desire to ramp up page views—inflammatory comments by public figures drive clicks, after all. Other developments, however, made it hard to ignore that an unspoken enthusiasm for the Republican candidate had taken hold in the newsroom. There had been a palpable shift in the paper’s editorial direction, and it seemed to come straight from the top.

While other media outlets reported on Trump’s outlandish and incendiary Twitter behavior, Klett said that his editors discouraged him from covering it. After submitting a story comparing Trump’s and Clinton’s immigration policies, he received an email with feedback from Stephen Gregory; it was important, the publisher explained, to note that Trump was the only candidate addressing the fact that an “open border” allowed gangs, criminals, and terrorists to enter the country. Overall, Gregory said, Clinton’s policies would amplify the power of the executive branch and diminish that of Congress, continuing the legacy of Obama’s presidency.

In another instance, Klett was asked to read over a colleague’s story comparing Trump’s and Clinton’s economic policies. There was one line that caught his attention: “Trump seeks to revive American greatness with policies aimed at kick-starting economic growth.” Klett told his colleague that the word “greatness” was biased and a regurgitation of Trump’s campaign slogan. The colleague, according to Klett, said that Gregory had inserted the line.

Thousands Of D.C. Renters Are Evicted Every Year. Do They All Know To Show Up To Court? (Josh Kaplan, DCist)

Josh Kaplan’s incredible investigation into a fraudulent and rigged evictions process in Washington D.C. is local journalism at its best. In D.C.’s eviction system, tenants are supposed to be notified of eviction proceedings via private process servers — people who are typically hired by landlords to deliver notices and can charge between $60 to $100 a case. However, “there is no mechanism in place in D.C. to check whether these process servers were truthful in their affidavits and actually delivered the summonses.” Kaplan’s reporting uncovers that many residents have had no idea they were going to be evicted: They never received a summons. Two process servers, Karl Stephens and Matthew Buck, have “played an outsized role” here, lying about serving tenants with papers about their initial court dates. It’s an astounding read on the eviction process, tenants’ rights and safety, and corruption, one that led to a swift response from the D.C. Council and an amendment to legislation.

Sworn affidavits filed in Superior Court show that Stephens claimed, in the span of seven hours, to have knocked on the doors of 83 renters, including Gelletich’s, all over D.C.—an average of one every five minutes. According to his own affidavits, not a single tenant answered the door.

And in nine different cases that day, Stephens swore he served at least one other tenant in a completely different part of the city at the exact same time.

In one affidavit, for example, Stephens claimed that he attempted to serve a tenant at 11:30 a.m. at 2420 14th St. NW, in Columbia Heights. But in an affidavit filed in a different eviction case, Stephens swore that he was posting a summons on the door of an apartment at 3828 South Capitol St. SE, about eight miles away, at the exact same time. Both cases ended up before the same judge two weeks later, but neither she nor anyone else, apparently, noticed that at least one of Stephens’ affidavits had to be false.

The discrepancies on that date aren’t a one-off occurrence. DCist found more than 600 eviction cases in the first two months of 2019 with sworn affidavits of service prepared by either Stephens or Matthew Buck, where one of their affidavits appears to contradict what they filed in at least one other case, with conflicting dates and times of service.

Tenise Wilson, a single mother with four children, is one of the 51 tenants at Park 7 whom Stephens swore he served the morning of February 27. (He reported serving her at 7:24 a.m. But he also swore in a different affidavit that he served a tenant seven miles away just six minutes later.)

Wilson says she never got any court summons and that she didn’t learn that her landlord was trying to evict until she came home to a piece of paper on her door saying the eviction was already scheduled. “I really thought I was going to be put out,” she says.

But process servers are required to give a brief description of an apartment’s door, and in Wilson’s case, Stephens said it was red. It is actually light brown, giving Wilson proof that the affidavit was wrong. The opposing lawyer agreed to vacate the default judgment, cancelling her family’s eviction and buying her a chance to fight the case.

The Students Left Behind by Remote Learning (Alec MacGillis, ProPublica)

“While we dutifully stayed home to flatten the curve, children like Shemar were invisible.” With historical perspective and interviews with teachers, educators, and public health experts, Alec MacGillis explains how disastrous school shutdowns are, especially for low-income and disadvantaged kids. MacGillis’ reporting focuses on the Baltimore school system — where Black and brown children make up 90% of the district’s 79,000 students — and reveals the devastating effects of online instruction on students like 12-year-old Shemar, whose family network is unable to support him day to day or help him navigate the technological tasks required to attend classes. MacGillis lays bare the extreme inequalities in distance learning, and the overall sense of fear and distrust (combined with the lack of leadership and guidance from the government) that paralyzed officials amid the debate of reopening schools.

It soon became clear that, even with the computer, this form of schooling wasn’t going to work for Shemar. He had a wireless connection at his grandmother’s house, but he spent some of his days at a row house, a mile to the southwest, that his mother had moved into, in one of her repeated efforts to establish a home for them. A few weeks earlier, a 21-year-old man had been killed a block away. There was no internet, and when his mother called Comcast to ask about the free Wi-Fi it was offering to the families of Baltimore schoolchildren, she was told that a previous tenant had applied, so she couldn’t do so herself. It was a familiar situation for her: so often, when she made an effort on her son’s behalf, it foundered quickly in a bureaucratic dead end.

The Remind app was another problem. Shemar downloaded it on his phone, which had no cellular service but could be used with Wi-Fi. But, when his mother lost or broke her phone, she borrowed Shemar’s. He often missed the reminders about his daily classes or the links to access them, which might change from week to week. I had the app on my phone, and every few days I got a message from him asking me to send him the link and the schedule.

I Called Everyone in Jeffrey Epstein’s Little Black Book (Leland Nally, Mother Jones)

Jeffrey Epstein had an elite global network of friends, including celebrities, royalty, politicians, billionaires, and other powerful figures. His 97-page book of contacts contains 1,571 names, about 5,000 phone numbers, and hundreds of emails and home addresses. Leland Nally got a hold of a copy and went on a quest to call everyone — making nearly 2,000 phone calls — and offers this wild, ultimately dark read about rich people, conspiracy theories, and Ghislaine Maxwell. (“In the course of my project,” writes Nally, “I would come to realize the little black book was Maxwell’s as much as it was Epstein’s.”)

On one of our last phone calls, Julie broke down. It was late at night, and Julie, who tried to steer away from news about the Epstein case, had just watched the Netflix documentary Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich. The documentary features several in-depth interviews with some of Epstein’s victims, and they each walk through the details of their assault at his hands. The atrocities that Epstein committed and the scope of suffering he exacted on his victims had become real and undeniable. She wept as she recalled diary entries she’d read earlier in the day. “He was a monster—what he did was so sick, you know, and then I read my diary, and saw how nice he was when I was going through [a major family crisis] or a breakup or something, and it hurts to still miss that part of him,” Julie said. “He was my friend.”

The truth is that the elite world that Epstein ascended into, the one I tapped into by way of the black book, is populated with hordes of loathsome, boring, untalented people living their bumbling, idiotic lives while just so happening to wield some share of the preposterous global bounty that he and the rest were after. For all the mystery surrounding Epstein’s fortune, its existence is hardly more inscrutable than the wealth of any of his other billionaire peers. He earned it the same way they all did, which is to say precisely not at all.

This wasn’t some masterful hack into the global aristocracy. It’s what everyone does. It’s what the whole thing is. There is no scam here. It’s grifters grifting grifters all the way down.

30 Years Ago, Romania Deprived Thousands of Babies of Human Contact (Melissa Fay Greene, The Atlantic)

In 1990, “child gulags” were discovered in Romania: orphanages built under the rule of its last Communist dictator, Nicolae Ceaușescu, in which 170,000 abandoned babies and kids were being raised  — lying alone and unwanted, day after day, week after week, year after year. Melissa Fay Greene writes about this forgotten generation of Romanian children, and asks a crucial question: “Can a person unloved in childhood learn to love?” Izidor Ruckel is one of these children, adopted by the Ruckel family in San Diego when he was a boy and now — at 39 — living an independent, mostly solitary life in the exurbs of Denver. While it hasn’t been an easy road for Izidor, he is “a success story among the survivors of Ceauşescu’s institutions,” writes Greene, and his journey offers a glimpse into the post-institutionalized life of one of these children.

Like all the boys and girls who lived in the hospital for “irrecoverables,” Izidor was served nearly inedible, watered-down food at long tables where naked children on benches banged their tin bowls. He grew up in overcrowded rooms where his fellow orphans endlessly rocked, or punched themselves in the face, or shrieked. Out-of-control children were dosed with adult tranquilizers, administered through unsterilized needles, while many who fell ill received transfusions of unscreened blood. Hepatitis B and HIV/AIDS ravaged the Romanian orphanages.

Izidor was destined to spend the rest of his childhood in this building, to exit the gates only at 18, at which time, if he were thoroughly incapacitated, he’d be transferred to a home for old men; if he turned out to be minimally functional, he’d be evicted to make his way on the streets. Odds were high that he wouldn’t survive that long, that the boy with the shriveled leg would die in childhood, malnourished, shivering, unloved.

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Read all the categories in our Best of 2020 year-end collection.