Another Ethics Train Wreck at The New Republic
The “Baghdad Diarist” controversy is replete with lessons about bias, conflicts of interest, and the consequences of destroying public trust.
The New Republic had been publishing the commentary of the “Baghdad Diarist,” supposedly an active-duty soldier who used the pseudonym “Scott Thomas.” In a recent article, called “Shock Troops,” he wrote about soldiers in an Iraq mess hall mocking a woman who had been hideously disfigured by a explosive device, told of a fellow soldier who wore a part of a child’s skull on his head as a joke, and of another who enjoyed running over stray dogs with a Bradley fighting vehicle. Shocking stuff, and inherently political, as such stories naturally undermine public support of and pride in the troops, falling into line with the kind of indictment of Americans fighting an unpopular war that John Kerry used so successfully before Congress to call for withdrawal from Viet Nam. Thus it was not surprising that a conservative publication, The Weekly Standard, took the lead on questioning the credibility of “The Baghdad Diarist,” and used the expertise of military personnel to argue that the liberal The New Republic was the gullible abettor of a fraud.
New Republic editor Franklin Foer announced that the magazine believed that their source was completely reliable, and then, rather foolishly, suggested that the Weekly Standard‘s suspicion was motivated by ideology. Well, so what? The important question was: why was a supposedly responsible magazine publishing unsubstantiated and anonymous allegations of American military misconduct during wartime as if they were fact? Besides ideology, of course the anti-Iraq War New Republic’s embrace of the “Baghdad Diarist” had nothing to do with ideology or so it would have us believe.
The magazine’s answer to the anonymity question was predictable: “Scott Thomas” needed to hide his identity to avoid getting in trouble with his superiors. This, the standard mantra of magazines and newspapers when they print things they shouldn’t, is no answer at all. An anonymous writer can be anyone a U.S. soldier, an Iraqi soldier, Michael Moore, Lindsay Lohan. Readers of the National Review would believe a anonymous source under two conditions: 1) If his accounts were consistent with their opinion of the U.S. military and the reader’s political views or 2) They trusted the New Republic to check out its anonymous author and his account. The first is simply bias. The second wasn’t warranted.
It wasn’t warranted because the New Republic had quite recently shown itself to be careless with questionable journalists in the infamous Steven Glass episode. More significantly, the New Republic hadn’t independently checked out “Scott Thomas'” allegations. Why? Go back to reason 1) above: his accounts were consistent with the New Republic’s editorial staff’s political views and their opinion of the U.S. military.
In a word: bias.
While the New Republic and Foer were making ethically absurd arguments like saying they couldn’t check out the tales of the “Baghdad Diarist” because they didn’t know what unit he was with (then don’t print his unsubstantiated articles, you fools!), “Scott Thomas” revealed himself as Pvt. Scott Thomas Beauchamp, saying “I’m willing to stand by the entirety of my articles for the New Republic using my real name.” Surprise, surprise, he was the husband of a New Republic staffer. But now the New Republic could investigate the facts behind his stories, and after it did, the magazine announced that they had confirmed the truth of what he wrote. Well, almost: the incident involving the harassment of the disfigured woman took place in Kuwait, not Baghdad. Such an instance of willful misreporting of facts would end the career of most cub reporters, but it was no big deal to the New Republic. Odd. If Beauchamp were a witness in court, once cross-examination revealed that he used an alias, broke the communications policies of his superiors, set out to embarrass his country during wartime and changed a major detail of a story in order to accomplish this, his credibility would be shredded.
Now the Army has announced that it performed its own investigation, and found no evidence that Beauchamp’s articles were based on anything but fantasy and exaggeration. “An investigation has been completed and the allegations made by PVT Beauchamp were found to be false,” stated Major Steven F. Lamb, the deputy Public Affairs Officer for Multi National Division-Baghdad. “His platoon and company were interviewed and no one could substantiate the claims.” Not only that, Beauchamp signed a sworn statement admitting that all three articles he published in the New Republic were fabrications. He did this, in fact, right around the time The New Republic was announcing that it had determined that Beauchamp told the truth in their pages.
So where does that leave us? It leaves us where we always end up when the irresponsible join forces with the unethical in conflict with the untrustworthy. It leaves us confused, ill-served, and acting on the basis of emotions and bias rather than reasons and fact. Who, after all this, do you trust?
We can’t trust the military, so thoroughly has it destroyed its own credibility through the Rusty Tillman affair, Abu Ghraib and assorted distortions and cover-ups. Is it possible that it would pressure a misbehaving private who brought more bad publicity on the armed forces in Iraq to recant, and then cover up the embarrassing incidents? It has the power, the motive and the track record: of course it’s possible! If you dislike and distrust the military, you’ll assume that’s what the military did. If you admire the military, you’ll assume it didn’t. In fact, we don’t know. We have doubts because the military has squandered the public’s trust in its integrity.
We certainly can’t trust the New Republic. In the Nineties the magazine endured a scandal when it was discovered that one of its star reporters regularly made up quotes, characters, and stories that the New Republic trustingly published as truth. After Stephen Glass was exposed, a contrite New Republic staff swore that it would tighten up its fact-checking—and now it publishes as fact the anonymous sensational claims of a mysterious soldier, without having any proof of his credentials, identity, or anything else, including corroboration of his slanders on American servicemen.
We absolutely can’t trust Pvt. Beauchamp. The military trusted him and he double-crossed it: he is by definition untrustworthy. He told the New Republic and the public that he told the truth, and swore an affidavit in Iraq claiming that he lied. Again, he is a liar per se. And his stories, which were designed to show how the war in Iraq coarsened the young Americans fighting it, have already lost all credibility, and had little enough to begin with. If the disfigured woman story occurred at all, it happened in Kuwait—so it wasn’t a bi-product of the war, now was it, Private? (Columnist Charles Krauthammer has correctly focused on this point.) The story wasn’t just inaccurate; it was irrelevant to the supposed point of Beauchamp’s series. He is, therefore, in addition to being untrustworthy, a terrible, incompetent journalist.
All we are left with is smears, bias, and polarization: more fodder for the anti-war Left to claim that the Iraq war is being fought by agents of evil; more ammunition for the Right to argue that the liberal media is undermining our troops and aiding the enemy; more reason for all to wonder if there is any institution, anywhere, that can be trusted to simply tell the truth, be fair, and act professionally.
Thanks a lot, New Republic! Good work, U.S. Military! Attaboy, Pvt. Beauchamp! You’ve given your nation yet another excellent lesson on why integrity, fairness, and honesty are essential. If only we could be sure that any of you learned anything from it.