Fact-Checking Blues at The New Republic

August 27, 2007

The New Republic magazine (TNR) is suffering something of a meltdown, and is reacting in a rather desperate fashion. Following a month of battering by the blogosphere and several publications over its latest scandal, this publication, with a storied history, is striking back at one of its leading critics, The Weekly Standard, and is in full damage-control mode.

TNR is a nearly hundred-year-old institution, co-founded by Walter Lippman, and later edited by journalistic luminaries such as Michael Kelly, Hendrik Hertzberg, Henry Wallace, Michael Kinsley and Martin Peretz. While it has usually leaned to the left, it has also had a definite independent streak, even supporting the war in Iraq. When its reporter Michael Kelly died in an accident in Iraq, journalism had lost one of its brightest stars.

This latest story began in January, when the magazine began carrying dispatches from an originally pseudonymous military blogger from Iraq, identified as Scott Thomas, freelance writer and soldier. Thomas made several rather serious accusations in a July 13 dispatch carried in TNR about the actions of himself and some of his fellow soldiers. The charges included wearing the top of a human skull they had dug up. "He squealed as he placed it on his head like a crown," wrote Thomas. "It was a perfect fit."

He wrote of another Private who had been driving a tank, a Bradley Fighting Vehicle, which "gave him the opportunity to run things over. He took out curbs, concrete barriers, corners of buildings, stands in the market, and his favorite target: dogs."

And he wrote about a woman he "saw nearly every time I went to dinner in the chow hall at my base in Iraq. She wore an unrecognizable tan uniform, so I couldn't really tell whether she was a soldier or a civilian contractor. The thing that stood out about her, though, wasn't her strange uniform but the fact that nearly half her face was severely scarred." She had apparently, he concluded, been hit by an IED (Improvised Explosive Device), but he loudly called her a freak, so that she and most people in the area heard it.

No one had really questioned Thomas's veracity, until an article appeared in The Weekly Standard, which had begun asking questions about his third dispatch. Certain details of his story seemed highly unlikely and could not be confirmed.

Anticipating that he was about to be outed, Thomas identified himself on TNR's blog, "The Plank," as Scott Thomas Beauchamp. It turns out that he was married to a staff writer and fact checker at the magazine, Elspeth Reeve. TNR editor Franklin Foer told the Washington Post that this was "part of the reason why we found him to be a credible writer."

Beauchamp wrote that his use of a pseudonym was to avoid reprisal and to offer his "discrete view of the war." He spoke of being reluctant to "play some role in an ideological battle that I never wanted to join," and hoped that his statement would end much of the debate. Clearly it hasn't. Besides, his writings and his actions indicate that he did want to participate in that ideological battle.

For one thing, it turned out that the woman whom he had supposedly seen so often at his base in Iraq had actually been in Kuwait when he saw her. It was before he went to war in Iraq. But the whole point of his story was how this war in fact warped the judgment of many otherwise good men. Were these matters funny? Well, his friends, he said, were laughing, but, "That is how war works: it degrades every part of you, and your sense of humor is no exception."

TNR and the military investigated the charges. TNR claimed to have found only one errorĂ‚Â¯that he had seen the woman in Kuwait, not Iraq; and on everything else they either claimed to have already verified it, or said that the government officials were still in the process of investigating.

As Charles Krauthammer pointed out in the Washington Post, the rest of the details almost don't matter. This one instance permanently destroyed Beauchamp's credibility, and should have ended TNR's support for him. The reason is that the whole point of his dispatch was to show how dehumanizing the war was, for the soldiers as well as the victims. But this example happened before Beauchamp ever went to war in Iraq.

Franklin Foer has had a hard time figuring out a strategy to deal with this matter. He replied as follows: "A lot of the questions raised by the conservative blogosphere boil down to, would American soldiers be capable of doing things like the things described in the Diarist. The practical jokes are exceptionally mild compared to things that have been documented by the U.S. military. Conservative bloggers make a bit of a living denying any bad news that emanates from Iraq."

Richard Miniter, the journalist and author, was asked to investigate this story for Pajamas Media, and he found out some fascinating new information. For one thing, Robert McGee, the former assistant to the publisher of TNR, described a conversation he had with Foer at a party. He wanted to know what Foer thought of the situation, to which Foer replied, that "conservatives have an ideological grudge to settle because they perceive the magazine to be anti-war, anti-military and so on." McGee became a whistleblower by posting his concerns, and what Foer told him, anonymously on other websites. Not surprisingly, McGee became the first person fired in this controversy.

What the debate comes down to is this: most conservative columnists and websites believe this story was driven by TNR's willingness to believe such stories, because they fit with their preconceived narrative of the war, and can help them win back over the anti-war left which has been quite critical of some of TNR's choices in recent years.

The New Republic still carries some fairly recent high-profile scandal wounds: namely Stephen Glass, about whom a movie was made, called "Shattered Glass," and Ruth Shalit. Both were let go after seriously damaging the credibility of TNR by plagiarizing and making up material for their articles. In Glass's case, it amounted to dozens of articles. It seems they still haven't gotten their fact-checking apparatus under control. Don't be surprised if this scandal ends up in some more high-profile departures.

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Copyright ©2007 Roger Aronoff

Roger Aronoff is the Editor of Accuracy in Media, and a member of the Citizens’ Commission on Benghazi. He can be contacted at roger.aronoff@aim.org.