Beauchamp Reportedly Recants Controversial TNR Articles (UPDATED)
A controversy has been raging this summer entailing Pvt. Scott Thomas Beauchamp and series of anonymous diary “shock troops” articles he wrote under a pen name for the newly reconstituted The New Republic. And it may have ended now with Beauchamp recanting his controversy-sparking charges.
None of TMV’s writers with their many viewpoints covered this controversy which was largely limited to Internet news media and some talk radio. If you do a Google News check, you’ll see very few links to mainstream news sources under Pvt. Scott Thomas Beauchamp or Beauchamp.
The controversy has raged mostly on weblogs, blasting TNR or defending it and usually (but not always) in highly predictable fashion since the defense or angry denunciations of the originally anonymously written pieces fit in with a writer’s own given political stance. That is both the strength and the growing weakness of weblogs: in many cases, you know where someone is coming from before you read a word. You can read some blog reactions to the latest development on memeorandum HERE.
But there has been another level, too, and that’s the battle between magazines.
It’s Rupert Murdoch’s Republican The Weekly Standard at war with the Democratic The New Republic, a longtime liberal and recently more DLC Democrat magazine that has been around for years (my grandfather Nathan Gandelman subscribed to it and loved it).
Today, The Weekly Standard feels vindicated with this “scoop” (which has NOT been confirmed yet by TNR):
THE WEEKLY STANDARD has learned from a military source close to the investigation that Pvt. Scott Thomas Beauchamp–author of the much-disputed “Shock Troops” article in the New Republic’s July 23 issue as well as two previous “Baghdad Diarist” columns–signed a sworn statement admitting that all three articles he published in the New Republic were exaggerations and falsehoods–fabrications containing only “a smidgen of truth,” in the words of our source.
(UPDATE: TNR says it cannot confirm The Weekly Standard story and is sticking by its own earlier statement.)
Separately, we received this statement from Major Steven F. Lamb, the deputy Public Affairs Officer for Multi National Division-Baghdad:
An investigation has been completed and the allegations made by PVT Beauchamp were found to be false. His platoon and company were interviewed and no one could substantiate the claims.
According to the military source, Beauchamp’s recantation was volunteered on the first day of the military’s investigation. So as Beauchamp was in Iraq signing an affidavit denying the truth of his stories, the New Republic was publishing a statement from him on its website on July 26, in which Beauchamp said, “I’m willing to stand by the entirety of my articles for the New Republic using my real name.”
The latter statement captures the nature of this whole controversy. Do we detect a bit of an attempt to imply anything in the above statement about TNR? If you do, and are new to this web controversy, it’s because much more lurks beneath the surface than just the articles — as false as they may turn out to be.
In the nature of American politics, what we now see are in effect lots of people giving high-fives. But the underlying issue to some seems less stories that have now reportedly been admitted to be false than suggesting TNR can’t be trusted again or (implication behind all this) that its overall analysis of events that don’t agree with those who criticize it are by association perhaps equally flawed.
John Cole reaches the same conclusion HERE.
Two published pieces earlier put this battle that raged mostly on weblogs and between two magazines in perspective.
The liberal The Nation’s piece began this way:
The war in Iraq has sparked a parallel war between two of Washington’s most prominent partisan political publications, The New Republic and the Weekly Standard. The war has been akin to the ongoing siege of Baghdad’s Green Zone, with the Standard playing the role of Iraqi insurgents, lobbing mortars over the Green Zone gates while TNR rushes to shore up its defenses.
The war began on July 13, when The New Republic published a “Baghdad Diary” by “Scott Thomas,” an Army private writing under a pseudonym about U.S. atrocities in Iraq. Thomas described his participation in the mockery of a female soldier disfigured by an IED, claimed he witnessed troops intentionally running over dogs in a Bradley Fighting Vehicle, and alleged that another soldier played with the skulls of dead Iraqi children.
In attempt to challenge the wild notion that atrocities could occur amidst a violent occupation, the neoconservative Weekly Standard’s Matthew Goldfarb published an article declaring that TNR’s Baghdad Diary was “looking more like fiction.” Goldfarb’s piece relied on a series of letters supposedly sent to him by active-duty soldiers that raised questions about the veracity of TNR’s story.
As a result of intensifying attacks from the Standard and right-wing blogs — attacks amplified by the Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz — Thomas was forced to reveal his identity: Pvt. Scott Thomas Beauchamp. According to Foer, the Army punished Beauchamp by revoking his cellphone and email privileges. Right-wing bloggers subsequently seized on TNR editor-in-chief Franklin Foer’s disclosure that Beauchamp is engaged to TNR reporter and researcher Elspeth Reeve.
Beauchamp has placed his career in extreme jeopardy and subjected his private life to the scrutiny of right-wing trolls, all to confirm his published account of U.S. atrocities in Iraq. TNR for its part has just completed a review of Beauchamp’s diary and found only one minor error.
Now it is up to Goldfarb and his allies to back up their incendiary charges. Who are the Standard’s sources? Are they reliable? And if they are, why did the Standard omit key details about their backgrounds?
So this is how The Nation framed it before the new Standard piece announced that the controversial stories are going to be recanted.
And here’s TimesOnline, which takes a more stand-back approach:
It was chow time for the troops at Forward Operating Base Falcon in Baghdad, but Private Scott Beauchamp had seen something that put him off his lunch.
When the American infantryman decided to write about the incident later, he had little idea that he would be starting a literary row in Washington over a series of graphic reports that purportedly described the harsh realities of a US soldierâ€™s life in Iraq.
Last week it was suggested that he had fabricated parts of stories he filed to The New Republic, one of Washingtonâ€™s foremost political weeklies.
At least three separate investigations have been launched into allegations that a number of grotesque incidents that he recounted did not ring true and may have been invented or heavily embroidered.
In the story that sparked the row, Beauchamp described a bizarre encounter with a heavily scarred woman who sat down to lunch next to members of his platoon. â€œAfter a minute or two of eating in silence, one of my friends stabbed his spoon violently into his pile of mashed potatoes,â€ Beauchamp wrote. â€œ â€˜Man, I canâ€™t eat like thisâ€™, he said [referring to the woman].â€
Beauchamp suddenly found himself making obscene remarks about the disfigured woman, until she â€œslammed her cup down and ran outâ€. He immediately felt â€œhorrified and ashamedâ€ at what he had said. He went on to describe other incidents when soldiers behaved with a cruelty they never displayed at home â€“ notably a driver who liked to crush stray dogs under the wheels of his Bradley fighting vehicle.
Yet for Michael Goldfarb, online editor of The Weekly Standard, and for a number of conservative bloggers writing about the war, some of the stories did not make sense. â€œIt was too convenient for their theme of US soldier as perpetrator,â€ Goldfarb said last week. â€œIt was just all a little too neat.â€
The Standard challenged The New Republic to provide independent evidence that other incidents recounted in the stories had really occurred.
The New Republic declared it was standing by its soldier diarist but Franklin Foer, its editor, said the weekly would attempt to â€œrereport every detailâ€ of the stories to confirm their veracity. Journalistic fraud has been a sensitive subject at The New Republic ever since it discovered in 1998 that one of its star writers, Stephen Glass, had fabricated dozens of articles.
Beauchamp has since fallen silent: his commanders have punished him for unauthorised activities by taking away his mobile phone and e-mail privileges.
A few thoughts:
(1) Over the years various publications had problems with embellished or fabricated reporting. Even though good editors will ask tough questions and in 21st century journalism ask to see some evidence of confirmation, editors have been conned in the past and even with protections they’ll likely be conned again.
(2) The red flag has been the fact that there has not been lots of reporting or people coming forward to state assertively the same kinds of allegations that Beauchamp has stated. that’s what made the pieces so hard-hitting. Yet, even when they came out, there was no scramble by mainstream media (which are dismissed as The Liberal Media or The Conservative Media depending on where someone is coming from) to try and match the stories. As anyone who ever worked in journalism knows, career advancement often is the result of clips or videos of “good stuff.”
(3) The ante was upped in this case, because he is in the military. But even if he signed a statement, that fact will likely be viewed through the ever present (and increasingly tiresome) ideological prism through which almost everything is viewed these days.
Those who didn’t believe Beauchamp at the outset partly because they are strong supporters of the war in Iraq will say it proved he lied. Those who believed him, will likely say he was pressured by superiors to retract what he wrote or face consequences and that the allegations could be true.
Then the anti-TNR people will accuse the other side of being paranoid. And the other side will accuse the other side of going along with a cover up.
(4) Editors of print and web publications still haven’t woken up to the fact that in the new news context in which we live vetting now goes beyond editors of publications. They need to be ready to defend their reporting.
(5) This was a furor that raged mostly on the Internet between bloggers and two magazines but was picked up by a few mainstream news organizations..
(6) There are issues of both journalistic accuracy and politics here. One issue is whether the piece was accurate, embellished or made up. The other issue is those who jumped on it because it came from a Democratic magazine, was critical of the troops and either totally or partially saw it as a way to go after a publication with which they disagreed. Discrediting is a key part of the 21st century political game. And some will also ask whether TNR let its journalistic guard down due to political preferences.
(7) Howard Kurtz is blasted by some progressives for coming down harder on the left than the right, but in this case the fact that Kurtz looked at the report and raised his eyebrows was not insignificant. Kurtz looked at it as a reporter. The key question yet to be answered — and perhaps it will be internally at TNR — is what kinds of internal questioning and upper level editor probing went on?
Editors DO take the words of their writers and stand by them if they are convinced. So this isn’t the first time in journalism history where an editor was deceived by a reporter or writer. Nor will it be the last.
But it isn’t always about political motives. It often involves human nature. And the issue isn’t just political but a larger issue of how editors of publications who are supposed to be the gatekeepers keep their gates — whether they need some specific info to open the gates or just hold the gates open for those who look and sound like they’re sincere. And whether they know they can quickly defend their actions if questioned.
TMV co-blogger Pete Abel’s take on it is HERE.
UPDATE: MUST READ POST of the day is Rick Moran on this controversy. Here are three meaty paragraphs…but it should be read IN FULL:
This medium, we have to keep reminding ourselves, is still fairly new. And as more and more people enter the blog universe â€“ many looking for the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow â€“ it is inevitable that they too, wish to get in on the fun of scalp hunting. One way to climb up the winding stairs to the top of the ziggurat is to outshout your competitors while attaching more importance to a story than it deserves. This will get you traffic, links, and the admiration of your fellow bloggers.
I understand the game. Iâ€™ve played it for three years, shamelessly piling on and then shooting off emails to big bloggers hoping they would find my insightful, pithy comments about the swarm du jour good enough to link. Thereâ€™s nothing inherently dishonest in this method of self-promotion â€“ unless what you write isnâ€™t what you truly feel in which case you wonâ€™t last long anyway. But I truly believe now that blogs have to move beyond this phase. To what end, I have no idea. I couldnâ€™t have foreseen where blogs are now 3 years ago when I started so my powers of prognostication when it comes to blogging and internet media are practically nil.
I only know a growing sense of unease elicited by the notion that by overhyping stories like the Beauchamp caper, the credibility of the medium suffers. For that reason alone, it may be time to put down the blood stained hatchets and begin to seriously examine just what we should be doing that will increase our influence rather than make us look like a bunch of one dimensional attack dogs.
This is the danger. That to everyone (except bloggers) bloggers will look like ideologically-driven attack dogs more than likely stuck in rage-mode (going after those with whom they agree and defending or rationalizing those with whom they don’t agree). Blogs have such potential. Will they wind up as cyberspace versions of (predictable) conservative or (predictable) talk shows?