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.
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.