September 20, 2007

A Journalistic Farce

Today is the two-month anniversary of Franklin Foer claiming that he and The New Republic would run an honest investigation into the claims made in a story written by Scott Thomas Beauchamp:

Several conservative blogs have raised questions about the Diarist "Shock Troops," written by a soldier in Iraq using the pseudonym Scott Thomas. Whenever anybody levels serious accusations against a piece published in our magazine, we take those charges seriously. Indeed, we're in the process of investigating them. I've spoken extensively with the author of the piece and have communicated with other soldiers who witnessed the events described in the diarist. Thus far, these conversations have done nothing to undermine--and much to corroborate--the author's descriptions. I will let you know more after we complete our investigation.

--Franklin Foer

Editor Foer has also argued on July 26 that the article "was rigorously edited and fact-checked before it was published."

Since that time, a few things have happened:

  • It has been conclusively proven that The New Republic did not fact-check a claim made in a previous "Scott Thomas" story, even though that claim was an allegation of murder. A simple Google Search would have proven the basis for the claim categorically false on the first two pages of results. It was 30 seconds they didn't take.
  • The first claim made in "Shock Troops," was that "Thomas" and a fellow soldier verbally abused a burn victim at Forward Operating Base (FOB) Falcon because combat left them desensitized to basic human decency and dignity. After it was noted that no such woman has ever been at FOB Falcon, the story was changed to another base, in another country, at a time before the unit saw combat. This of course, completely undermines the premise of the claim, and Foerís claim that the article had been "rigorously edited and fact-checked." As it turns out, both military personnel and civilian contractors at the Kuwaiti base also dispute the story having occurred there, either. They state on the record that no soldier or civilian contractor matching this description has ever been at this base, and that the story is an urban legend or myth. This was told to TNR editor Jason Zengerle. Zengerle never relayed that to the readers of The New Republic. No such woman has ever been found, and yet TNR has yet to have the decency to retract this claim.
  • A second claim made in "Shock Troops" by Thomas was that while his unit excavated ground for the creation of a new combat outpost, that the remains of children were uncovered, and one soldier in his unit wore part of a rotting child's skull on his head for amusement. Neither Foer nor any other editor at TNR have been able to substantiate this claim. An official U.S Army investigation that was launched primarily because of this specific claim found no credible evidence for this or the other claims made by "Thomas." Two months later, TNR has not issued a retraction for this claim.
  • A third claim made by "Thomas" in "Shock Troops" was that a Bradley armored vehicle driver used the 25-ton tracked vehicle to crush "curbs, concrete barriers, corners of buildings, stands in the market, and his favorite target: dogs." Since this time, every Bradley IFV commander and driver in Alpha Company has refuted this story as part of the military investigation, and Bradley IFV experts, including active duty and retired drivers and commanders, and even the company's spokesman, have stated that the vehicle could not perform the actions described in the story. Once again, Franklin Foer and The New Republic has had two months to substantiate this claim. They have failed, and yet still lack the decency to print a retraction.

The honorable thing to do when a publication cannot substantiate the claims made by one of their writers is to retract the claims made in the disputed article, and all previous articles by the same author where questionable facts cannot be corroborated. There is a simple reason for this: credibility is a publication's only real currency, and if they tarnish their credibility, then the unreliable publication becomes worthless as a news source.

The New York Times realized this when Jayson Blair was caught plagiarizing and fabricating elements of many of his stories. Blair, executive editor Howell Raines, and managing editor Gerald M. Boyd eventually resigned as a result of the fallout of scandal. When Jack Kelly was caught fabricating stories at USA Today, publisher Craig Moon ran an investigation and issued a front-page apology. Editor Karen Jurgensen and News section managing editor Hal Ritter resigned as a result.

But what is occurring at The New Republic seems to far exceed the actions of a single rogue journalist, and instead seem to point to an editorial staff as corrupted as the fabulist they seek to protect.

Unlike the Blair and Kelly scandals, editors from The New Republic seem to be involved in deliberately covering up, shutting down, and stonewalling possible avenues of approach, and are clearly more interested in stifling an investigation that conducting one.

On August 2, The New Republic released "A Statement on Scott Thomas Beauchamp" (Beauchamp had "outed" himself on July 26).

In that statement, the editors of The New Republic had claimed to have interviewed a number of experts that corroborated the claims made in "Shock Troops."

All of Beauchamp's essays were fact-checked before publication. We checked the plausibility of details with experts, contacted a corroborating witness, and pressed the author for further details. But publishing a first-person essay from a war zone requires a measure of faith in the writer. Given what we knew of Beauchamp, personally and professionally, we credited his report. After questions were raised about the veracity of his essay, TNR extensively re-reported Beauchamp's account.

In this process, TNR contacted dozens of people. Editors and staffers spoke numerous times with Beauchamp. We also spoke with current and former soldiers, forensic experts, and other journalists who have covered the war extensively. And we sought assistance from Army Public Affairs officers. Most important, we spoke with five other members of Beauchamp's company, and all corroborated Beauchamp's anecdotes, which they witnessed or, in the case of one solider, heard about contemporaneously. (All of the soldiers we interviewed who had first-hand knowledge of the episodes requested anonymity.)

Tellingly, The New Republic would not divulge the names of the experts they vaguely claimed supported the claims made in "Shock Troops."

One of them was credited by TNR thusly:

TNR contacted the manufacturer of the Bradley Fighting Vehicle System, where a spokesman confirmed that the vehicle is as maneuverable as Beauchamp described.

One week later, that unnamed spokesman was found. After being identified, Doug Coffey of BAE systems revealed that as it related to him, TNR's investigation was a whitewash:

To answer your last question first, yes, I did talk to a young researcher with TNR who only asked general questions about "whether a Bradley could drive through a wall" and "if it was possible for a dog to get caught in the tracks" and general questions about vehicle specifications.

The New Republic had not asked Coffey about the claims made by Beauchamp at all.

Once provided with the claims made in "Shock Troops," Coffey found the claims relating to his companyís vehicle very hard to believe.

By August 11, unable to corroborate any element of a story they claimed to have "rigorously edited and fact-checked before it was published," the editors of The New Republic went on the offensive, claiming:

...we continue to investigate the anecdotes recounted in the Baghdad Diarist. Unfortunately, our efforts have been severely hampered by the U.S. Army. Although the Army says it has investigated Beauchamp's article and has found it to be false, it has refused our--and others'--requests to share any information or evidence from its investigation. What's more, the Army has rejected our requests to speak to Beauchamp himself, on the grounds that it wants "to protect his privacy."

Like the August 2 story using hidden experts, this claim by the editors of The New Republic was also deceptive.

The Army has a legal obligation not to release the investigation's findings, with confidentiality being Beauchamp's right. Further, it was Beauchamp himself that declined to be interviewed by The New Republic. The Army did not reject TNR, Private Beauchamp rejected The New Republic... and obviously still does today.

By being deceptive and argumentative since the beginning (a tragic flaw of hubris that the magazine also had preceding the Stephen Glass scandal almost a decade prior) of their investigation, The New Republic editorial staff have destroyed their credibility.

They attempted to cover up the fact that they did not fact check Beuchampís articles prior to publication, and even attempted to cover up the fact that the author was married to a TNR fact-checker. Faced with legitimate questions about the veracity of claims made by their author, the editors instead attacked those raising these questions, while at the same time running a whitewash of an investigation designed to give them rhetorical cover instead of uncovering the facts.

Ultimately, it seems that even the author won't support the articles, and The New Republic is left twisting in the wind, hoping that noone will notice just how naked, exposed, and yes, corrupt they have been over the course of this sordid story.

The editorial staff of The New Republic, led for the last time by Franklin Foer, should retract all three stories penned by Scott Thomas Beauchamp, apologize profusely to the readership of The New Republic for deceiving them for over two months, and resign.

It remains to be seen if they retain that much integrity.

Posted by Confederate Yankee at September 20, 2007 11:08 AM

Thanks for keeping up to date on this.

As far as TNR goes, it appears they're more interested in printing anti-war propaganda than actual facts.

They must believe that at this point to print a retraction will gain them nothing. They did what they set out to do, which is to cast the military in a bad light.

Seems like a pattern, doesn't it? Same tactics as

Posted by: Deanj at September 20, 2007 09:17 PM

It seems astonishing that TNR has gotten away with this for so long, but perhaps it's an indication that the magazine really doesn't matter much.

Posted by: NewcombCarlton at September 20, 2007 09:29 PM

I canceled my subscription over this, angrily because I love Stanley Kauffmann and Jed Perl, film and art critics, and had subscribed for 25 years.

Needless to say, I am still receiving the magazine in my mailbox and probably am still being counted in their circulation figures.

Posted by: David Clemens at September 20, 2007 09:46 PM

They're in hedgehog mode. If they admit what they know then, as a ritual, heads must roll. Foer's first among them. That means he's out of a job .

It could well be that the present owner are looking for a replacement . Then again perhaps not.

This kind of lag usually means they're hoping it will all blow over and be but a chunk of fading echoes in the blogs. Unless someother large entity such as a cable network, WaPo, or whatever takes it up they're probably safe. After all, there's not really much circulation or money at stake.

Reputation? They don't give a fig.

Posted by: vanderleun at September 20, 2007 09:52 PM

Give 'em hell, CY!

It's been fascinating to watch this play out. It's also been something of a turning point for me.

What with this TNR affair, the MoveOn ad, the Hamsher spanking of Elizabeth Edwards, and the complete elbows-high never-give-a-inch defense of the anti-war folks in the blogs, I realize that these people gave up on intellectual integrity quite some time ago.

Posted by: huxley at September 20, 2007 10:42 PM

But we all know the usual leftist wiener strategy when caught in a deception, inconsistency or self contradiction (which is almost all the time).

Step 1. Pivot and attack. When that fails...

Step 2. Stonewall for a long time.

Step 3. "You're _still_ talking about that? That's SO in the past. It's time for you to move on. If it makes you feel better, you were right all along. Does that make you feel better? Ha ha, I didn't mean it!

Step 4. When all of the above fails, point your nose in the air, yawn and then sneer. That won't convince a hard nosed conservative, but your leftist friends will applaud. And that's all that counts.

Posted by: Carl Hardwick at September 20, 2007 11:31 PM

The plan here is obvious. Beauchamp will remain silent until he is dischaged, then claim everything he wrote was true and he was threatened with great harm by the Army if he spoke the truth. TNR will run an expose of the Army's treatment of Beauchamp, and Beauchamp will write a book about it.

Posted by: Elliot at September 20, 2007 11:51 PM

Hey, c'mon guys, the story was "fake but accurate" just like Dan Rather's memos. BTW, he still says there's no proof the memos were fake! Then there's the Muslim Mourning Mama that cries at every event in the Arab world, the fictional productions of "attacks" in Palestine that are presented as news footage, faked rocket attacks on ambulances, it's amazing to me that the Lieberals in this country are more concerned with what fits their agenda than the truth. Or is that troof? I'm so confused...


Posted by: Robert at September 21, 2007 01:09 AM

I figured you would call on Franklin Foer to resign, but the entire "editorial staff"? Who, then, would run the magazine (or what's left of it)? The circulation manager?

Posted by: Brian at September 21, 2007 04:41 AM

You missed one thing that's happened, Bob:

The magazine fired the individual that leaked the fact that PV-nothin' Beauchump's connection to the magazine was not an arms'-length, due-diligence, professional relationship, but that he was hooked up with one of the mag's fact-checkers.

While they were within their rights to fire this guy, it speaks volumes that they were desperate to conceal this fact. You haven't "reported" or "re-reported" a questionable story very thoroughly if you're determined to keep secret why it was reported in the first place.

As far as Brian's question. "the whole editorial staff?", I'm not sure who's been involved comprehensively, but the Beauchump fabrications have been defended vigorously (and dishonestly) not just by Fabricating Frank Foer, but also by Jason Zengerle and even Marty Peretz. Certainly the stonewall and the fake re-investigation would need approval at all editorial levels to include the publisher.

One more instance of Ben Franklin's prescience, perhaps: this fish rots from the head.

One result in my case: I followed a link from an A-list blogger to an interesting story two days ago, and found myself on TNR. I clicked right back without wasting my time. Until they clean house, they're not trustworthy.

Re: Robert's Dan Rather comparison. The Dan just did it again with a fake but accurate, heh, story on the Boeing 787. I'm sure Peter Arnett is still out their making up war atrocities, too. TNR could hire both and improve its credibility!

Janet Cook's out there somewhere, also. The world is full of replacements for Fabricating Frank.

Posted by: Kevin R.C. 'Hognose' O'Brien at September 21, 2007 07:04 AM

That's an amazingly stupid question, Brian.

If the owners of TNR are still interested in running a credible and reputable magazine, they should replace the current editorial staff of frauds and liars with an entirely new staff composed of ethical and honest journalists.

If the owners of TNR are not still interested in running a credible and reputable magazine, they should admit this fact and shut the damn thing down.

Continuing to run the magazine with the current editorial staff is out of the question, unless the editors announce a change to the tabloid format and start marketing the publication in the checkout lines of grocery stores. I hear that the rack space formerly occupied by the Weekly World News is available.

Posted by: Pat at September 21, 2007 07:11 AM

I emailed to suggest that they hire Dan Rather.
He makes stuff up--he'd be perfect as a TNR diarist!!

Posted by: Jim,MtnViewCA,USA at September 21, 2007 09:43 AM

Trackbacked by The Thunder Run - Web Reconnaissance for 09/21/2007
A short recon of whatís out there that might draw your attention, updated throughout the check back often.

Posted by: David M at September 21, 2007 10:36 AM

Step 3!

Posted by: Jim Treacher at September 22, 2007 03:53 AM

Yeah, and ain't it terrible how Senators Clinton (D-Whitewater), Kerry (D-Cambodia), and Edwards (D-Hairstylist's shop) were fooled by that idiot Dubya? -lol-

Try another blade, Redleg, that one ain't cutting.

Posted by: C-C-G at September 22, 2007 11:50 AM

that's it, redleg? your best defense of tnr is that bush and cheney "lied"? i can see the new banner now "we don't lie any more than bush". that should sell well.

how pathetic. and with friends like you, franky et al don't really need any enemies.

Posted by: iconoclast at September 22, 2007 03:07 PM