December 1, 2007

TNR's Iraq And A Hard Place

The New Republic has published its findings in its internal investigation -- and it goes into great detail before finally retracting the stories of its Baghdad Diarist, Scott Beauchamp. The journey fascinates far more than the destination, a point we all knew they would eventually reach. In the long and meandering path Franklin Foer recounts, some interesting assumptions take place that will not go unchallenged.

Meanwhile, here's the money quote:

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.

In retrospect, we never should have put Beauchamp in this situation. He was a young soldier in a war zone, an untried writer without journalistic training. We published his accounts of sensitive events while granting him the shield of anonymity--which, in the wrong hands, can become license to exaggerate, if not fabricate.

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.

This account actually generated some sympathy on my part for TNR. They wanted a front-line view of war, and accepted at face value the statements of a soldier serving in Iraq. Most of us who support the military would have that same impulse; after all, we consider the men and women serving this nation as heroes as a default assumption.

Unfortunately, Beauchamp proved somewhat unreliable as a correspondent, and TNR made an unforced error by assigning his wife as his editor, a mistake which Foer acknowledges. They also didn't trust their instincts when they questioned the veracity of his stories. Foer says that TNR learned the lessons of Stephen Glass in that the small, compelling details are the easiest to check for fabrication. However, they apparently didn't learn how to fact check those details, because all they did was have Beauchamp pass the phone around to his buddies to get confirmation.

Foer also glides past TNR's response when one major, glaring fact got refuted. When Foer and TNR discovered that the incident with woman with the "melted" face didn't occur in Iraq but in Kuwait, it should have settled the issue of reliability altogether. The entire point of that anecdote was to show the degradation of humanity that occurs in a war zone -- but Beauchamp's stay in Kuwait preceded his deployment to a war zone. That's a big enough fabrication to question the entirety of Beauchamp's contributions, and forms the largest part of Foer's impulse to retract now. Foer rationalized then -- and to some extent now -- that this retraction wasn't the "end of the world" for the Baghdad Diarist series, when it clearly should have been.

Foer also skips over the creepy moment in his transcribed conversation where he appears to threaten Elspeth Reeve's job. Foer complains about the pressure that the Army placed on Beauchamp, but he never discusses his own attempt to keep Beauchamp from recanting. He tells Beauchamp in that conversation that Reeve told Foer to tell Beauchamp that refraining from a retraction is "the most important thing in the world" to her -- not her husband, apparently, but her job at the magazine. In this conversation, in which Beauchamp's NCO supports Foer's request to turn down interviews to other media organizations, Foer acts to silence Beauchamp just as much as he accuses the Army of doing.

Instead, Foer blames the bloggers who relentlessly questioned TNR's veracity on this article. Given that Foer himself now retracts the story, that's hard to justify. Had Confederate Yankee, Michael Goldfarb, and many others not pressed Foer so hard, the magazine would never have pursued the issue to this extent. Foer makes clear his distaste for having to respond to this challenge throughout the piece. It's hard to gripe when the bloggers got it mostly right, and TNR and Foer got it mostly wrong, but Foer manages it.

More understandably, Foer has some animus for the manner in which the Army handled the investigation and communication with TNR. McQ agrees, noting his 40 years of experiencing the incompetence at the PIO, and I think they're both correct -- especially when it became clear that someone in the Army selectively leaked information that TNR had requested to do what they finally did today, which was to bring closure in some way to the controversy.

In the end, we're left with someone who at least embellished a lot of his stories and operated from a known bias -- as a check of his website would have shown. Foer fails to mention that as well, a fairly easy editorial check to see whether Beauchamp had a particular axe to grind. The stories themselves provided little insight into the war in Iraq or the men and women who fight it. TNR threw its credibility away on a silly set of fables, and then refused to acknowledge it out of stubborn pride and a sense of superiority over its critics.

Other bloggers commenting on this story:

Michelle Malkin
Power Line
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Gaius at Blue Crab Boulevard
Hot Air
Protein Wisdom
Michael van der Galien


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