by John Hawkins | December 3, 2007 4:23 am
After four and a half months of dragging it out, the New Republic has finally, reluctantly, admitted that they were duped by fabulist Scott Thomas Beauchamp.
But, even now, at this late date, the New Republic couldn’t just come right out and plainly admit that their critics were right and they were wrong. Instead, Editor Franklin Foer wrote a 14 page response, all of which except for the last paragraph (which follows), was nothing more than a lame attempt to CYA,
“When I last spoke with Beauchamp in early November, he continued to stand by his stories. Unfortunately, the standards of this magazine require more than that. And, in light of the evidence available to us, after months of intensive re-reporting, we cannot be confident that the events in his pieces occurred in exactly the manner that he described them. Without that essential confidence, we cannot stand by these stories.”
Although the final paragraph says it all, there were a few items worth noting from Foer’s long, rambling screed that I think may help explain how the New Republic got duped in the first place.
First of all, this sentence stuck out because it reminded me of Rathergate,
“Our writer’s identity required protection, he was far away, and the events themselves occurred in a war zone.”
In the case of the Rathergate, the source of the story was a mentally unstable liberal with an ax to grind against the Bush family who wouldn’t have been considered a reputable source had his identity been known from the beginning. In this case, the writer was married to someone at the New Republic who was actually assigned to fact check his work.
In both cases, you can’t help but notice that the anonymity of the story’s source was used to shield the source from obvious questions that would have been raised had their identities been known from the beginning.
Next up is the “fact checking” (and oh boy, does that belong in quotes) that the New Republic did before Beauchamp’s articles were published,
“Fact-checking is a process used by most magazines (but not most newspapers) to independently verify what’s in their articles. Beauchamp’s anonymity complicated this process. Because we promised to protect his identity, we were reluctant to call Army public affairs to review his claims. What’s more, the fact-checking of first-person articles about personal experiences necessarily relies heavily on the author’s word and description of events.
But there was one avoidable problem with our Beauchamp fact-check. His wife, Reeve, was assigned a large role in checking his third piece. While we believe she acted with good faith and integrity–not just in this instance, but throughout this whole ordeal–there was a clear conflict of interest. At the time, our logic–in hindsight, obviously flawed–was that corresponding with a soldier in Iraq is logistically difficult and Reeve was already routinely speaking with him. It was a mistake–and we’ve imposed new rules to prevent future fact-checking conflicts of interest.
Facing the difficulties of verifying the piece, but wanting to ensure its plausibility before publication, we sent the piece to a correspondent for a major newspaper who had spent many tours embedded in Iraq. He had heard accounts of soldiers killing dogs with Bradleys. These accounts stuck with him because they represented a symbolic shift in the war. Iraqis regard dogs as annoying pests. At the beginning of the conflict, Americans made great efforts to befriend these mistreated mutts. It seemed telling that Americans now treated dogs with as little regard as Iraqis did. He considered Beauchamp’s dog- hunting anecdote plausible.
But the reporter doubted the tale of the disfigured woman. What would a woman with the disfigurements described by Beauchamp be doing in a war zone? This became the focal point of our fact-checking. We asked Reeve to push Beauchamp for corroboration of this woman’s existence. In an e-mail, she relayed his answer…”
In other words, to the New Republic, “fact checking” basically consists of calling up a war correspondent and saying something like, “Does this sound plausible to you?” Then, even after his reply is something like, “Well, part of it does,” you ask the source’s wife to talk with her husband and confirm the story is true. Then you run it. Remember that whenever someone tells you about the “multiple layers of fact checking” that makes the mainstream media so superior to the blogosphere.
After reading that nonsense, this line really jumped out at me,
“I hadn’t worked with Stephen Glass, who made up stories out of whole cloth, but I knew the lessons derived from that scandal.”
He, “knew the lessons derived from that scandal?” Really? Apparently one of those lessons wasn’t to do any real fact checking before you run a piece.
Additionally, this line suggests that Foer had deep doubts about Beauchamp’s stories practically from the moment that they were questioned,
During the first week of the investigation, I reached Beauchamp with regularity on his cell phone. My calls with him often began the same way. “You’re not a professional journalist,” I would tell him. “If you got anything wrong or exaggerated things, people will understand; it’s better to admit error than get caught in a lie.” Every time, he stood by his stories.
If he thought Beauchamp was telling the truth, he wouldn’t have tried to prompt him to admit that he, “got anything wrong or exaggerated things” or suggested that he might get “caught in a lie.” In other words, Foer suspected Beauchamp was full of it almost from the beginning. So what does that say about the decision to publish his stories in the first place? Why did it take the New Republic so long to admit that they were duped again? It’s nothing more than a CYA mentality.
Also, the New Republic notes that they bought into the story in large part because Beauchamp was putting his buddies on the phone with them,
The nature of these contacts wasn’t ideal: Beauchamp was soliciting his own witnesses. But, once Beauchamp established the initial contact, we tried to communicate with these soldiers independently. We always considered the possibility that they were lying to cover for their friend, but there was no way for us to know that for certain, and we couldn’t dismiss what they told us. They were not only Beauchamp’s buddies, but, in some instances, the only witnesses to the events described.
These guys are friends with Beauchamp and the New Republic promised them anonymity. It’s extremely easy to imagine a conversation like this happening,
“Hey look, I need you to do me a favor. Tell this guy that you saw a burned woman at the base. I know, I know, I shouldn’t have lied to them in the first place, but my wife works there and if I admit I made it up, she’ll get in a lot of trouble. Don’t worry, there’s no way this will ever come back to you.”
Foer then goes on to carp bitterly about the military being more cooperative with friendly media sources rather than the New Republic: but is that really a surprise? The New Republic published untrue stories designed to smear the military and try to make them look bad. Why would they then bend over backwards to cooperate with NR?
From there, the New Republic implies the military made Beauchamp lie to them under duress and says that Major John Cross, who hung Beauchamp out to dry in a public interview with Bob Owens at Pajamas Media, “bolstered Beauchamp’s credibility” when he talked to them privately. Maybe this is why the military wasn’t cooperating with NR: they suspected that NR was looking to blindside them yet again.
Anyway, the point of all this seemed to be to imply that this is some sort of military cover-up and that Beauchamp is really telling the truth, but that NR can’t prove it, and so they’re going to have to refuse to back his stories. In other words, it’s the weasel’s way out — particularly since they go on to note that Beauchamp isn’t acting like an innocent man,
But, after our re-reporting, some of our questions are still unanswered. Did the driver intentionally run over dogs? Did he record his kills in a little green notebook? We’ve never been able to reach the driver. And Beauchamp told us that he’d procure a page from the notebook, but that has not materialized. This is a plausible anecdote, and several soldiers in Beauchamp’s unit had heard stories about dog-hunting, but only one had actually seen the driver Beauchamp wrote about intentionally hit dogs. He is one of Beauchamp’s friends, and, over the course of a number of e-mail exchanges with him, our faith in him has diminished.
Several weeks after the monitored call in September, we finally had the opportunity to ask Beauchamp, without any of his supervisors on the line, about how he could mistake a dining hall in Kuwait for one in Iraq. He told us he considered the detail to be “mundane” given the far more horrific events he had witnessed. That’s not a convincing explanation. If the event was so mundane, why did he write about it–and with such vivid detail? In accounting for the inaccuracy of a central fact, he sounded defensive and evasive.
Beauchamp has lived through this ordeal under the most trying of conditions. He is facing pressures that we can only begin to imagine. And, over the course of our dealings with him, we’ve tried to give him the benefit of the doubt. Ever since August, we’ve asked him, first though his wife and lawyer and later via direct e-mail and phone calls, to personally obtain the sworn statements that the military had him draft and sign on July 26. And, ever since then, he has promised repeatedly to do just that. We are, unfortunately, still waiting.
Translation: they think Beauchamp’s friend is lying to them, mistaking a dining hall in Iraq for ione in Kuwait makes no sense, given that Beauchamp is claiming he mocked the disfigured woman after being desensitized to violence in Iraq, and he doesn’t want to give them his sworn statements because it would show, right there in black and white, that he told the military that he lied to them.
Long story short: this is just another example of how the “cover-up” is worse than the crime. Yes, it would have been horribly embarrassing for the New Republic to admit that they’ve been duped by another Stephen Glass, but essentially, they’ve had to admit that anyway after being slowly bled white during a futile effort to stonewall the whole scandal since July. Had they been more honest from the beginning or, more importantly, done some real fact checking before they published stories slamming the troops, they could have saved themselves — and the reputation of the New Republic — a lot of unneeded trouble.
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