Sunday, August 19, 2007

The New Republic and Scott Beauchamp

This is a moral tale about persisting in a behavior when the perpetrator has no clue about what it is doing. The perp in this case is The New Republic (TNR). In objective journalism, the object is to present accurate news to people so they can have an informed opinion on issues of the day. There are usually procedures in place to make sure that articles are accurate and that editors aren't just point blank believing anything that is passed to them to publish. If they do not critically assess the material they publish, there will come a time when somebody puts out a demonstrably false story, and it will hurt the reputation of the publication. Even so, a publication can investigate how such a story came to be, retract those parts or entirety of an article which are false, and notify their readers of the errors. This indicates to readers that the publication is sincere about its intent to provide accurate information. So how does the Scott Thomas Beauchamp story play out in this regard?

The story starts on July 23, 2007 when a then anonymous soldier writing under the psuedonym of Scott Thomas writes a story entitle "Shock Troops" about his experiences in Iraq for The New Republic (TNR), apparently with the intention of showing what warfare and combat does to participants.

He reports three anecdotes about behavior he and others may have committed. These behaviors include:

1) Mocking a severely disfigured woman within earshot of said woman.
2) Wearing a human skull for a night and a day.
3) Running dogs over and killing them in a Bradley fighting vehicle for sport.

The reaction in the blogosphere to these stories appears to range from trivial practical jokes/silliness to extremely shocked.

Subsequently critics argue that either Scott Thomas does not exist or that in any case, the stories are not true.

On July 26, 2007, TNR states in its blogger colum "The Plank":

"Although the article was rigorously edited and fact-checked before it was published, we have decided to go back and, to the extent possible, re-report every detail."

So three days after the article was published, TNR is claiming they did rigorous editing and fact checking. A second, parallel, thread of reporting has now started in which the accuracy and credibility of TNR's defense becomes a story in itself in addition to that of the original story which begat it.

August 2, 2007 TNR admits that one of the anecdotes occurs in Kuwait, not Iraq. The obvious problem here is that if the "Shock Troops" article was supposed to document what war does to folks, this is an odd story to include in such an article. Some writers have dubbed this humorously as "pre traumatic stress syndrome" wherein people go crazy BEFORE they wind up in theatre. It also begs the question of how rigorous the fact checking really was if TNR missed this point. Their original fact checking would have been done via the unit at FOB Falcon, not in Kuwait. The discrepancy would have been obvious if fact checking had actually been done. My conclusion is that they had not fact checked the story in any real sense. This conclusion is bolstered by later events.

August 7, 2007 The Weekly Standard's Michael Goldfarb claims that a source in the military that the private had volunteered a sworn statement that all three of the stories were false. Given my biases, this is what I want to hear. However, as of the time of this posting, The Weekly Standard has also not provided its source and I have no way to verify their report. Reluctantly, I have to put believing this report on hold pending more information coming to light. At the moment, I cannot consider it proof of anything until it is substantiated. Major Steven F. Lamb, the deputy Public Affairs Officer for Multi National Division-Baghdad reported to Michael Goldfarb:

"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."

TNR also fails to note the fact that the military had announced the result of their investigation and found Beauchamp's stories false.

On August 9, Bob Jones of Confederate Yankee reports that he found one of the sources of "fact checking" for the Bradley Fighting Vehicle, and that source Doug Coffey is the Head of Communications, Land & Armaments, for BAE Systems, the Bradley Fighting Vehicle's manufacturer, described why it would be seriously unlikely that Beauchamp's story about running over dogs would be true.

On August 10, TNR in The Plank claims that they cannot communicate with the private. The military released this statement from Col. Steve Boylan reported by Bill Roggio on August 11, 2007:
"We are not stonewalling anyone. There are official statements that are out there are on the record from several of us and nothing has changed.

We are not preventing him from speaking to TNR or anyone. He has full access to the Morale Welfare and Recreation phones that all the other members of the unit are free to use. It is my understanding that he has been informed of the requests to speak to various members of the media, both traditional and non-traditional and has declined. That is his right.
We will not nor can we force a Soldier to talk to the media or his family or anyone really for that matter in these types of issues."

TNR is 0 for 4 now: they didn't fact check, nor was the military stonewalling them, they did not report the army's investigation results when they first learned of them, and their fact checking on the Bradley Fighting Vehicle was seriously deficient.

Anonymous sources are at best debatable since aside from the publishers no one can check out the story. But TNR does one thing particularly badly: non-attribution of folks who will have no negative fallout from the reporting like Doug Coffey of BAE Systems. There is no need to protect him. Likewise all the other sources that were not directly involved in the activities described by Beauchamp. They didn't do those things, there is nothing to protect them from. Yet TNR does not identify them. This looks like a deliberate attempt to keep people from being able to verify facts related to the story.

This leads me to the conclusion that TNR is willfully trying to defend a story it now knows to be false while attempting a whitewash. In the case of fabricator Stephen Glass, they investigated, found the extent of the fabrications and fired the guy. Why they are holding out for Beauchamp is a mystery to me. A publication shouldn't be in the business of tying its ideological biases to ships named Titanic. What I do understand, is that they cannot be trusted and that articles or stories they print may be factually incorrect, and that they'd be willing to defend that incorrectness. If they want to have people paying attention to their biases, they need to dump obvious frauds.

Unlike a number of other commentators, I don't have a problem with Beauchamp being related to a TNR staffer. Either his stories are true, or they aren't. Relationship to a staffer doesn't change that. That a false story made it through gatekeeping on account of a preexisting relationship with a staffer seems more stupidity than malevolence. Sticking to a story once it is clear there are problems with it is a different story, but not one necessarily related to someone having a relationship, but not precluding that point either.

So what really is going on? There are allegations that the defense is ideologically driven. Since the article was out of context from the other 160,000 soldiers, it would seem to be trying to generate disgust for the war to help sway public opinion to oppose it. So far, no evidence has been produced that shows this isn't the case. TNR did not have a diarist who represented what is good and noble about the military, which is something it could have easily done. My guess is that there are way more of the noble service oriented kind, than of Beauchamp's ilk. I lean towards believing that this affair is ideologically driven, but still wonder about why TNR editors didn't cut their losses early on rather than compounding them.

I'm sure these points are not lost on the other writers at TNR and they have to know that after this, I won't be able to believe any of them. Not even if they start reporting favorably on the war, or any issues I happen to favor. I'd love to be a fly on the wall to hear (if flies can hear) the conversations in TNR offices on this subject. Given what is known now about the Beauchamp stories, and omissions and misrepresentations of TNR in defending those stories, I'm fairly sure that there isn't quite the unanimity there is in the current official position of TNR. If I were a writer, I'd be looking for someone else to write for.

Beauchamp's story isn't particularly important in the grand scheme of things. This isn't the first media scandal and it won't be the last. What is important is that people should know that news and opinion outlets are biased and willing to stand by false stories in service of their ideological agendas. TNR will survive as long as there are enough people still willing to support it. At the moment, those people will do so, so that they can hear what they want to hear regardless of the truth.

UPDATE August 20, 2007: A probing column by Richard Miniter of Pajamas Media