Patrick Sloyan was angry about what he called U.S. government censorship during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, blocking reporters’ access to the battlefield and giving the media a sanitized version of the war.
So when he returned to Newsday’s offices in Washington, D.C., he decided to investigate what really happened.
The result won him a Pulitzer Prize in 1992. Sloyan uncovered how U.S. troops buried thousands of Iraqi soldiers alive with tanks outfitted with plows. He also revealed that many of the 46 U.S. combat deaths were caused by friendly fire.
Sloyan, who also was part of a Newsday team that won a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the 1996 crash of TWA Flight 800 off Long Island, died of cancer Monday at his home in Paeonian Springs, Virginia. He was 82.
“No matter where he was, or what stage of his career he was in, Pat remained the same journalist — great, aggressive, digging, not accepting the first answer, not settling for the conventional wisdom, but always challenging it and trying to look beyond it,” said Martin Schram, a former Washington bureau chief for Newsday who hired Sloyan for the paper in 1974. “That’s why he wound up being successful.”
Sloyan’s other journalistic accolades included the Deadline Writing award from the American Society of Newspaper Editors for his coverage of the October 1981 assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. He served as the newspaper’s Europe-Mideast bureau chief, and succeeded Schram as head of Newsday’s Washington bureau in 1986.
Colleagues described him as fun and witty, but also a hard-nosed “reporter’s reporter” who could pound out major stories on deadline — a talent he developed early in his career as a wire-service reporter for United Press International.
“Pat was a quintessential reporter, from the old school in many ways,” said James Klurfeld, another former Newsday Washington bureau chief who worked with Sloyan. “He could put together a story in lickety-split time. He could dictate. I saw him any number of times pick up a phone and dictate the story on deadline.”
When Sloyan won his 1992 Pulitzer for his Gulf War coverage, he thanked President George H.W. Bush and then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney for ordering up the “censorship” he said helped him win the prize.
Sloyan was among 1,500 journalists dispatched to cover the Gulf War in 1990-91. But unlike the Vietnam War, when reporters were relatively free to roam and report, Bush’s government kept journalists together and took them to selected sites.
Their reports were subject to military censorship before being cleared for transmission back to the United States. Journalists watched videos of the high-tech conflict and read pool reports filed by other reporters. A five-week U.S.-led aerial and naval bombardment was followed by a 100-hour ground assault starting Feb. 24, 1991.
Sloyan believed the U.S. public got a whitewashed version of the war.
“The war didn’t end for me on February 28th with the cease-fire,” he said on the day he won the Pulitzer. “I knew and a lot of my colleagues knew that they covered up an awful lot.”
“There was no eyewitness report, film or photo of that week of war” by any reporter, he told an audience at Dartmouth College in 2017.
Les Payne, an assistant managing editor at Newsday at the time, said in 1992 that Sloyan “was totally frustrated for the two months he covered the war and when he got back, he was driven to find out what he could not learn over there.”
Sloyan started interviewing soldiers, from Kentucky to Germany, and reviewing previously unavailable military documents. Eventually he uncovered the truth, including that a major tank battle took place two days after Bush declared the cease-fire.
Besides thanking Bush and Cheney, Sloyan said, “I have to thank not all but some of the editors, publishers and network news chiefs who sat back and got conned by this Pentagon pool system.”
He said that although his stories caused grief for the Pentagon, many soldiers were eager to talk. “No one knew what they had done,” he said. “By censoring all this stuff, they covered up a lot of heroism.”
Anthony Marro, then chief editor of Newsday and New York Newsday, told the newsroom on the day of the Pulitzer announcement, “Let’s toast Pat Sloyan for deciding that he wasn’t going to let a president or a secretary of defense or a Pentagon press office tell him how to cover a war.”
Sloyan got his start in journalism in the U.S. Army after enlisting in 1955. While serving in Germany, he wrote for a variety of newspapers that catered to soldiers, including one called “Hell on Wheels.” He got fired from one job for breaking a story about a mess cook who was court-martialed for cooking too many potatoes. The story was picked up by the news wires and reprinted across the United States.
He went on to work for several newspapers and wire services, including UPI in Washington, where he wrote some of the first stories about consumer crusader Ralph Nader.
He reported on the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, the 1963 assassination of John F. Kennedy, the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights movement, Watergate and the Iran-Contra scandal. His coverage of the Gulf War for Newsday also garnered the George Polk Award from Long Island University.
Sloyan also served as chairman of the Fund for Investigative Journalism, which helps underwrite independent reporting.
His 2015 book, “The Politics of Deception: JFK’s Secret Decisions on Vietnam, Civil Rights and Cuba,” was based partly on 269 hours of tape recordings that Kennedy made secretly and that were hidden for 34 years. The book challenged earlier, more positive versions of Kennedy’s presidency.
A native of Stamford, Connecticut, Sloyan graduated from the University of Maryland with a degree in economics.
He is survived by his wife, the former Phyllis Hampton; three children, Patrick Sloyan of Greensboro, North Carolina, John Sloyan of Reno, Nevada, and Nora Kathleen McLaughlin of Paeonian Springs, Virginia; and 12 grandchildren. Another daughter, Amy, died in 1979.
A service will be held Feb. 16 at 1 p.m. in Our Lady of Mercy Catholic Church in Potomac, Maryland.