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From The New Republic – The Frauds Of War

The latest exegesis on the Scott Beauchamp lie-fest from New Republic:


Fog of War

The story of our Baghdad Diarist.

Franklin Foer, The New Republic 

Published: Monday, December 10, 2007

For months, our magazine has been subject to accusations that stories we published by an American soldier then serving in Iraq were fabricated. When these accusations first arose, we promised our readers a full account of our investigation. We spent the last four-and-a-half months re-reporting his stories. These are our findings.

When Michael Goldfarb, a blogger for The Weekly Standard, left me a message on a Tuesday afternoon in mid-July, I didn’t know him or his byline. And I certainly didn’t anticipate that his message would become the starting point for a controversy.

A day earlier, The New Republic had published a piece titled “Shock Troops.” It appeared on the magazine’s back page, the “Diarist” slot, which is reserved for short first-person meditations. “Shock Troops” bore the byline Scott Thomas, which we identified as a pseudonym for a soldier then serving in Iraq. Thomas described how war distorts moral judgments. To illustrate his point, he narrated three disturbing anecdotes. In one, he and his comrades cracked vulgar jokes about a woman with a scarred face while she sat in close proximity. In another, a soldier paraded around with the fragment of an exhumed skull on his head. A final vignette described a driver of a Bradley Fighting Vehicle who took pride in running over dogs.

Goldfarb said he had been contacted by tipsters who thought these scenarios sounded concocted by a writer with an overactive imagination–or perhaps by a total fabulist. He asked for evidence that might answer these complaints, “any details that would reassure that this isn’t fiction.” Among other things, he wanted the name of the base where the author had mocked the disfigured woman…

By the weekend, the Standard’s editor, William Kristol, published an editorial that, without evidence, pronounced the Diarist an open-and-shut case. Kristol wrote, “But what is revealing about this mistake is that the editors must have wanted to suspend their disbelief in tales of gross misconduct by American troops. How else could they have published such a farrago of dubious tales? Having turned against a war that some of them supported, the left is now turning against the troops they claim still to support.” …

All over the blogosphere, people who presented themselves as experts claimed that the events described in the piece could never have happened. Some of these assertions were vague and meaningless

We published an online statement pledging an investigation. That weekend, members of the editorial staff assembled at my house to divide up the task of re-reporting his stories. It was the beginning of a project that, for long stretches, superseded our day jobs–and led us to some uncomfortable conclusions.

By now, the identity of Scott Thomas is publicly known. He is Scott Thomas Beauchamp, age 24. He first came to our attention nearly a year ago by way of Elspeth Reeve, one of three reporter-researchers who work at tnr as essentially yearlong interns and whose responsibilities include factchecking. When she sent along a piece from her friend Scott in Iraq, we were intrigued. The introspective writings of a low-ranking soldier seemed valuable. When, before publication, Beauchamp asked for a pseudonym, we granted it. We felt that a soldier in a war zone could write most honestly about his feelings and experiences under a penumbra of anonymity.

His first piece, a Diarist titled “War Bonds” published in our February 5 issue, described the woes of an Iraqi boy named Ali who adopted the moniker “James Bond.” Soon after James Bond chit-chats with American soldiers, Beauchamp learns that thugs–most likely insurgents–cut out his tongue…

Several weeks passed before Beauchamp sent us another story–one recounting dialogue between soldiers in a guard tower, which we rejected. During that time, he took leave in Germany with Reeve. The two had been casual friends at the University of Missouri and resumed a relationship online, which quickly turned into something serious. During Beauchamp’s leave, he and Reeve left Germany and, without telling anyone at the magazine, married at a lawyer’s office in Virginia. A day after the ceremony, Reeve returned to tnr’s office to share the news

Beauchamp visited our office during his brief stay in Washington. We shook hands, and I encouraged him to send more pieces…

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

With first-person narratives, of course, especially in war zones, there are limits to what can be independently verified…

Because of his corroboration, and because he wrote two other pieces with no apparent problems, we gave him the benefit of the doubt.

I hadn’t worked with Stephen Glass, who made up stories out of whole cloth, but I knew the lessons derived from that scandal

A pattern began. Beauchamp’s behavior was sometimes suspicious–promising evidence that never arrived–but so was the Army’s

But we also found some reason to doubt Beauchamp’s reliability: In 2006, he had written a personal blog, Sir Real Scott Thomas, which we only discovered after the controversy erupted. He appeared an angst-ridden young man prone to paroxysms: “I shoot, move, communicate, and kill … the deaths that I inflict secure the riches of the empire.” With his excited prose and tendency toward overstatement, his blog did not inspire journalistic confidence. We had good reasons never to assign Beauchamp another piece. Overall, however, when we considered the totality of what we had amassed, we didn’t have enough information to retract the ones we had published

Many reporters who wrote stories about the Beauchamp affair noted the thinness of the Army’s report. Spokesmen from the military curtly confirmed the findings to reporters. When pressed, they declined to elaborate. Goldfarb’s allegation that Scott had recanted his stories, however, was more difficult to blunt. Both the Times and The Washington Post repeated the Standard’s anonymously sourced accusation. Either the Army source had lied to the Standard or Beauchamp had lied to us…

My colleagues and I placed calls throughout the military’s public affairs apparatus in Baghdad and Washington, hoping to set up back channels. We asked officials to provide us any conclusive evidence, even off the record, that would give us faith in the Army’s findings.

We never received this cooperation. But conservative bloggers who were fixated on this controversy–one arrived unannounced at tnr’s offices with a video camera, another later attempted to organize an advertiser boycott of the magazine–were treated differently

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

For the past four-and-a-half months, we’ve been reluctant to retract Beauchamp’s stories. Substantial evidence supports his account. It is difficult to imagine that he could enlist a conspiracy of soldiers to lie on his behalf. And they didn’t just vouch for him–they added new details and admitted gaps in their own knowledge. If they were simply lying to protect him, they likely wouldn’t have alerted us to Beauchamp’s Kuwait mistake. Furthermore, our conversation with Cross confirmed important underlying premises–the existence of bones, Bradleys running over dogs.

Finally, we had obligations to the writer, whatever anxieties we might have had about these pieces. For long stretches, the military prevented Beauchamp from defending himself against his accusers…

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.

So this seemingly endless (the original occupies 14 online pages) and surely gutless apologia finally peters out with these two pathetic sentences:

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.

“Occurred in exactly the manner described”? How about admitting that Mr. Beauchamp lied his head off?

Beauchamp’s writings had originally appealed to us because we wanted to publish a soldier’s introspections

Right. The ever-patriotic and pro-military New Republic was just trying to “support the troops” — in their fashion. 

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.

Oh, my sides. It would seem that Mr. Beauchamp lied just like an old pro. In days before the internet he would have won a Pulitzer. (Hell, he still might.)

I hadn’t worked with Stephen Glass, who made up stories out of whole cloth, but I knew the lessons derived from that scandal.

Sure you did, Mr. Foer.

Sure you did.

This article was posted by Steve on Saturday, December 1st, 2007. Comments are currently closed.

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