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TNR: Going Down by the Mast

The Drudge Report today drove what should be the final stake in the heart of the seemingly un-killable Scott Thomas Beauchamp affair this week, publishing on its website official documents from the U.S. Army investigation of the formerly pseudonymous “Baghdad Diarist’s” claims of reprehensible behavior on the part of himself and his fellow soldiers while living and working in Iraq. Also published was the transcript of a September 6 conference call between Beauchamp and TNR’s editorial staff.

The investigation, over now for nearly three months, began on Thursday, July 26 – the same day that Beauchamp “outed” himself on The New Republic’s (TNR) website, giving his full name and unit affiliation, and stating that he stood by his stories 100%. “It's been maddening, to say the least,” he wrote, “to see the plausibility of events that I witnessed questioned by people who have never served in Iraq. ...[M]y character, my experiences, and those of my comrades in arms have been called into question, and I believe that it is important to stand by my writing under my real name.”

As the results of the Army investigation now shows, those who led the charge in questioning the “events” that Beauchamp claimed to have “witnessed” – from the Weekly Standard online’s Michael Goldfarb, to embedded journalist J.D. Johannes, to writers at military and conservative websites BlackFive, RedState, the Mudville Gazette, and Ace of Spades – were correct to do so.

At the time that Beauchamp “outed” himself, The New Republic, which had published – and repeatedly stood behind – Beauchamp’s diaries, annotated Beauchamp’s “coming out” post with a statement of its intention “to go back and, to the extent possible, re-report every detail” of the Baghdad Diarist’s stories, adding:
This process takes considerable time, as the primary subjects are on another continent, with intermittent access to phones and email. Thus far we've found nothing to disprove the facts in the article; we will release the full results of our search when it is completed.
As the Army’s investigation began in July, TNR finally began backing off of its staunch support of Beauchamp, running an editorial in which it was admitted that there were some inaccuracies in the original stories – but in which the editors also claimed to have corroborated two of the three incidents Beauchamp wrote about in their entirety.

Unfortunately, the magazine’s editors apparently expected to have their word taken that, this time, what they were saying was accurate. The tactic is, unfortunately, very typical, and demonstrates the arrogance possessed by a Fourth Estate which sees it as their duty to serve as a watchdog over all others, while being unwatchable themselves. As has been seen before, when called on a story that, like the so-called “Haditha massacre,” was simply "too good to be [thoroughly] checked," TNR backed off a bit, made a few minor concessions, and then pulled the classic Dan Rather-esque "those who have criticized aspects of our story have never criticized the major thrust of our report" – which, of course, is far from accurate. As my colleague at RedState.com, Dan McLaughlin, mentioned upon reading TNR's editorial, they “have made concessions on the very things that people flagged as factually unlikely.”

TNR’s defenses were propped up by many on the left who, rather than recognizing a ship sinking under the weight of its own disregard for the truth, sought to serve as Dutch Boys and to plug up holes with further obfuscation, and by casting aspersions on those who simply sought the truth of the matter. Pundits and bloggers like Andrew Sullivan, John Cole, and Matthew Yglesias took their turns defending TNR, attacking those who questioned the veracity of Beauchamps stories, screaming “Abu Ghraib!” as a diversion, and claiming victory on the whole when the most minute of details – like the fact that Beauchamp was an actual American soldier – was shown to be true.

Unfortunately – as the bombshell results of the Army’s internal investigation show – every one of them was played for a fool, both by Beauchamp and by an editorial staff at The New Republic who knew very early on that what they had published was patently false.

It turns out that, on the first day of the investigation – the same day that Scott Thomas Beauchamp was telling TNR’s readers that he was “willing to stand by the entirety of my articles for the New Republic using my real name” – he was also signing an official affidavit admitting that all three of his articles in The New Republic were exaggerations and contained falsehoods.

In other words, as TNR was “re-reporting” their stories the next week, and defending Beauchamp’s accuracy and integrity, his stories had already been officially disavowed – by Beauchamp himself – for a week.

To add insult to insult, the Army’s official report on the stories so vigorously defended by TNR did not simply cast doubt on details of Beauchamp’s diaries – it blew holes in them. Major John Cross, the investigating officer, found “that Private Beauchamp desired to use his experiences to enhance his writing and provide legitimacy to his work possibly becoming the next Hemingway,” as well as:
That Private Beauchamp is not a credible source for making the allegations that he wrote about in “Shock Troops”… He admitted that he was not an eyewitness to the targeting of dogs and only saw animal bones [not a human skull, which he morbidly claimed that a comrade wore under his helmet for the rest of the day] during the construction of Combat Outpost Ellis… . Combined with the piece of fiction that he wrote on 8 May 2006 on his blog…, I find that Private Beauchamp takes small bits of truth and twists and exaggerates them into fictional accounts that he puts forth as the whole truth for public consumption.


(Emphasis added.) Cross also recommended “that the unit send Private Beauchamp for a mental health consultation.”

So TNR and its staunchest allies went to the mat for a source and for stories that turned out to be false – and for what? Simply, it would appear, for a chance to finally show the American military (thanks to the words of one of its own) as being what they already thought them to be – uncouth, brigandish, and inhumane people who have been irrevocably damaged, both in soul and psyche, by Bush’s awful war.

If one approaches this from that angle, and sees that TNR and its allies had been waiting for just this opportunity – an opportunity not only to validate their deeply-held views of the American military, but also to break the story of a scandal in which US soldiers were the culprits – then it becomes very easy to understand why it was so important to run these articles without attempting further fact-checking (an exercise which ran the risk of showing these too-good-to-be-true tales to be exactly that).

The decision on the part of the magazine’s editors to keep covering for Beauchamp even after he had recanted his stories was an unfortunate one. That decision became inexcusable, though, after a September 6 conference call between Beauchamp and representatives from TNR, in which he not only refused to comment on their repeated pressings about whether or not the stories were, in fact, accurate, but also was no longer willing to work with them in any way to help clear TNR’s name. Said Beauchamp:
...this is the last statement I’m giving any media outlet…my final statement is thus is spun out of control in a way that has distracted me from my job and more importantly distracted me from helping protect the people around me. The fellow soldiers around me who I do love and respect and that’s way more important to me and it requires an amount of dedication that I can’t give to it if I’m caught up in all this. So, I’m going to have to…and I know it’s going to hurt my wife [a TNR employee] and I regret that, but it’s something that I have to do because it’s my job, and I swore to do it. And it’s more important to protect the people around me than to…be involved in all of this.


Already damaged by the Stephen Glass scandal, The New Republic has been left in an exorbitantly embarrassing position by another trusted writer (and the husband of one of its own researchers), who played them for fools, admitting under oath that his articles were fabrications at the same time that he was reasserting to their faces the veracity of his every word. They exacerbated that by refusing to back down one single bit, or to commission any investigation into the veracity of Beauchamp’s works, even after very obvious holes began being poked into it. Said Peter Scoblic, TNR’s executive editor, in the September 6 conference call with Beauchamp: “I’ve reviewed the reporting…and I’ve got to tell you – I can understand why there are questions being raised about the piece.”

However, Scoblic did nothing to act on that realization – and, as a result, TNR’s credibility has taken yet another massive body blow. How much longer can good-conscienced writers bear to remain with a publication whose ship of credibility has gone down by the mast? How much longer will TNR’s readership remain in place, now that they have been shown again that what is presented in the magazine’s pages cannot necessarily be trusted? How much longer with TNR’s defenders allow it to escape the savagery of their own quills, which had so recently been reserved for savaging those who dared question the magazine’s claims – lest they be savaged themselves for so willingly following Scoblic, Foer, and Beauchamp off of the cliff of truth like so many insignificant lemmings?

Wishful thinking, perhaps. It is, unfortunately, altogether more likely that those who published and defended such fallacious accounts will simply shrink back into the shadows, choosing rather to lie in wait for the next opportunity to snare the American military, and the administration which they so despise, with another story which presents itself as being “too good to be checked.”

This one, though, is over – as is The New Republic’s reputation with all who are not blind followers of the misinformation that they have proven themselves not only capable of publishing, but willing to defend.

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3 Comments:

At 7:27 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow, you seem to think that TNRs writers and readers care whether what's in the magazine is true.

They don't.

As long as it's bashing the right, that's what they want to read.

Nobody cares if it's true. If it RESONATES ... that's the deciding factor.

You can make a lot of money telling people what they want to believe - whether it's actually true or not is kind of beside the point.

TNR is a business. It's in business to make money. If printing fabulous tales sell, they'll do it. Because they know there's no price to pay for doing it.

 
At 9:26 PM, Anonymous redherkey said...

we've found nothing to disprove the facts in the article

These are words the Fourth Estate seems to have run aground on. Rathergate and countless other recent disasters have been predicated on a complete misinterpretation of standard of proof.

As a professional risk manager working for a major financial firm, I work with analysis and investigations that require standards for proof, involve measures for assessing the materiality of false information communicated, etc. I'm repeatedly shocked at how far the media has fallen from even basic principles in investigative reporting.

Recently, Megan McArdle (the Atlantic blogger) contemplated Slate writer Ron Rosenbaum's suggestions that the best investigative journalists use a sociopathic approach, breaking the foundation of trust with their subject and not hesitating to screw their target over.

I won't recap all the reasons why this approach is terribly wrong and ensures your analysis is likely to be stuck measuring the noise and not the data. Instead, TNR's meltdown places this on a level similar to the intentional, material misrepresentations we all experienced with Worldcom, Global Crossing and Enron.

Let me ask, what is different in Foer's behavior from Jeff Skilling? Why is Skilling condemned to a 24-year sentence while Foer is sipping cocktails? Both intentionally published knowlingly false information, with the intent to manipulate the general public in order to effect a financial outcome. In fact, Foer's conduct is worse, using his publication to disparage a public institution with false information, while Skilling only sought to prop up his firm's stock price, allegedly hoping to buy time for a financial miracle.

For Skilling, the target of the false information was Worldcom's shareholders and debt-holders. For Foer, it was advertisers and subscribers, as well as CanWest's shareholders and debt-holders. Worse yet, CanWest has refused to provide oversight. Their executives are the Ebbers to Foer's skilling, whistling past the graveyard.

It's apparent the media is incapable of self-regulation. I've long advocated professional accreditation for journalists in a manner similar to the CFA or CPA Charter, but their industry is too lost to correct their failings independently. Criminal penalties that mirror those prescribed by Sarbanes-Oxley are necessary for the intentional publication of information known to be false, or the publication of information not vetted and verified to be true, or the refusal to immediately correct "at the next publication event following discovery" with due care information later discovered to be false.

Foer and his superiors need to do hard time for this crime against the U.S. Army. Let's make him the poster boy for Media Reform.

 
At 9:54 PM, Anonymous redherkey said...

And a quick update... Skilling was at Enron while Ebbers was at Worldcom. Shame on me for mixing my financial criminals!

 

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