Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Facts and Implications

As both the Washington Post and the New York Times noted yesterday, The New Republic (TNR) repudiated its own publication of the sketchy recollections of one Scott Thomas Beauchamp, the so-called "Baghdad Diarist." As you doubtless know, Beauchamp (shown here with his wife, former TNR researcher Elspeth Reeve) implicated himself and other soldiers in ghastly behavior while serving in Iraq, to include making "vulgar jokes about a woman with a scarred face," "parad[ing] around with the fragment of an exhumed skull on his head," and running over dogs with a Bradley Fighting Vehicle.

In doing so, the Times and the Post were (generally) factually correct. As if to further burnish their liberal street cred, both newspapers also attempted to create a nexus between Beauchamp's dissembling and the admittedly flawed reporting of National Review Online's (NRO) W. Thomas Smith, Jr. (For his part, Smith was accused of writing what NRO's editor, Kathryn Jean Lopez, described as a "misleading" description of a deployment of 4,000-5,000 Hezbollah gunmen to a Christian area of Beruit in posts to NRO's military blog, The Tank.)

In so doing, both newspapers neglected differences in reaction and implication between the situations. For starters, it took TNR nearly five months to admit what was obvious within five minutes: namely, that Beauchamp's account of events was not and could not possibly be true. But rather than acknowledge the error - as Lopez did fairly rapidly once a misstatement was identified - TNR editor Franklin Foer provided a series of rambling incoherencies (see
, here and here) before his acknowledgment that "we cannot be confident that the events in [Beauchamp's] pieces occurred in exactly the manner that he described them," although in almost the same breath TNR says "[s]ubstantial evidence supports his account."

Moreover, as TNR now confesses "
there was one avoidable problem with our Beauchamp fact-check." The fact that Foer, et al. thought it would be a good idea to allow Elspeth Reeve to be involved in checking on the work of her husband was more than problematic.
The obvious conflict of interest is reinforced by Reeve's commenting to the Post "there's a lot more reporting that could be done on the story."

But beyond variances in response
to dubious reporting between NRO and TNR, the implications of the stories - assuming that they were entirely verifiable - are even more at variance. Outside the realm of journalism, it matters little whether Smith's tale was true or not, as it implies little of import or significance. On the other hand, if Beauchamp's story were all true, one would first question TNR's intent in publishing it. TNR's official explanation is troublesome in its own right.

Beauchamp's writings had originally appealed to us because we wanted to publish a soldier's introspections. We still believe in this journalistic mission, especially as the number of reporters embedded in Iraq dwindles. But, as these months of controversy have shown, telling the story of what is happening in Iraq through a soldier's eyes is a fraught project. The more we dug into Beauchamp's writings, the more clear it became that we might have been in the realm of war stories, a genre notoriously rife with embellishment.
Of course, the truly fraught project is telling the story of what is going on in Iraq through the eyes of the MSM. A series of tales that would not have passed muster with a first-year "J-school" student years ago got past a passel of journalism's finest entirely because it fit the model of what writers and editors think goes on in war. As Peggy Noonan pointed out in a recent column, the men and women who staff today's newsrooms "learned too much from media and not enough from life's difficulties." Beauchamp's story resonated with the ingenuous TNR staff (Look at the above picture and tell me how old Ms. Reeve could possibly be?) because it rhymes with what they think they know about men at war.

All of this is of a piece with recent ABC reporting on drug use by veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, and the implication of these and other journalistic torts is that American soldiers and Marines continue to be victims of the "horrors of war" and that war itself is to be eschewed because it turns men (notice that no servicewomen were involved) into savages. But as discussed in this space previously, there are things far worse than war. There is little however that is worse than agenda-driven "journalism."

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