Pre-Mortem Autopsy for The New Republic

From reading Richard Miniter’s lengthy analysis of how The New Republic allowed falsified dispatches from a soldier in Iraq to be published, and why it continues to defend them, you get a picture of an insular organization with varying standards based on insider relationships, and with an alarmingly low threshold for fact-checking.

The scandal does not seem driven by ideology so much as maniacal ambition on the part of the writer, and a cozy credulity on the part of the magazine’s editorial leadership.

The writer/soldier, Scott Thomas Beauchamp, still has his defenders, but as this piece from the Huffington Post demonstrates, they are becoming increasingly desperate.

I’m probably the last blogger to address this story — I tend not to avoid well-trodden paths — but the Miniter piece has great human interest, elevating the story to some kind of tragicomedy.  Here’s a sample:

Just as the world was beginning to wonder if The New Republic had been tricked by a fabricator for the third time in the past decade, the magazine’s staff went to a party.

It was a going-away party for a longtime New Republic senior editor Ryan Lizza, but the staff seemed more interested in discussing the magazine’s immediate future. It was July 20 and the avalanche of questions about a first-person “diarist” piece under the pseudonym “Scott Thomas” –a direct threat to the magazine’s credibility—was starting to tumble down.

The staff gathered at New Republic Editor Franklin Foer’s Northwest Washington home. Foer asked them not to worry; the editors would investigate the charges.

(Bloggers at Confederate Yankee, Little Green Footballs and Ace of Spades, among others, as well as the online edition of the Weekly Standard, called into question the authenticity of a pseudonymous article, headlined “Shock Troops,” in The New Republic. In the coming weeks, Scott Thomas Beauchamp, the man behind the pseudonym would come forward, ultimately signing a written statement recanting his work for The New Republic. The U.S. Army has not released this signed statement, citing Beauchamp’s federal privacy protections.)

Later that night, Robert McGee, a then-assistant to The New Republic’s publisher, went looking for the host. He is curious what Foer thinks about the building scandal. He wants the inside dope.

He finds Foer on the front porch and asks as casually as he can: “So, what’s up with this?”

As McGee recalls the conversation, Foer immediately volunteered the standard answer: conservatives have an ideological grudge to settle because they perceive the magazine to be anti-war, anti-military and so on.

“He sounded almost rehearsed,” McGee said.

What bothered McGee about the conversation was that Foer saw the questions from the bloggers as a completely ideological attack. “Foer wasn’t acknowledging that at least some of the attacks on the [Beauchamp’s] ‘Shock Troops’ piece came from active-duty military members whose skepticism was factually grounded, and not just from stateside political pundits.”

Perhaps because McGee worked on the business side of the magazine on the first floor and not with the editors and writers on the second, Foer didn’t consider him a genuine insider—and therefore gave him the company line. But McGee believes that Foer was speaking his mind.

Then the conversation turned to Beauchamp himself. Foer told McGee that soldier-writer was “an articulate guy on the front lines.”

McGee disagreed, thinking Beauchamp “wasn’t that rare of an asset.”

The web is fat with currently serving soldiers in Iraq posting their views as well as the reporting of embedded journalists and retired officers. He told Foer that “the military bloggers were just as qualified, if not more.”

“At that time, my main reason [for talking to Foer] was that I was sympathetic to the military service members who had already weighed in,” McGee explained. “Sympathetic (a) because I felt their skepticism was reasonable on factual grounds, and (b) because I fully understood their grievance that Scott Thomas Beauchamp’s anecdotes — though written in the breast-beating tone of a first-person confessional — effectively attacked the professionalism of everyone around him, and not just the personal character of Beauchamp himself.”

Foer did not see it that way.

What Foer did not tell McGee was that Beauchamp was married to Elspeth Reeve, one of the magazine’s three fact-checkers (a point that the press missed too). So Beauchamp was effectively an insider—and would get treated as such.

That understandably human decision would have painful consequences for The New Republic’s reputation.

As the story unfolds, you learn about McGee losing his job for leaking some inside details(and being outed as gay by the HuffPost writer linked above), about Beauchamp’s former fiance’s view of his writing ambitions, and about the uncomfortable spotlight the incident has shown on the young Ms. Reeve.

Certainly, Miniter is going to be subjected to heavy scrutiny for the story he tells.  Fair enough; his article does rely heavily on two interested, biased parties as sources — a fired employee and a spurned fiancee.  But what I was left with was a picture of a genteel institution, The New Republic, completely unequipped to deal with a savagely ambitious writer. Maybe that’s not what happened.  But it’s a plausible explanation for a series of rather mysterious lapses at what was once a widely-admired journal.

2 thoughts on “Pre-Mortem Autopsy for The New Republic

  1. To some extent, I understand the concern over this story — no one wants our military intentionally maligned, and the New Republic should have had better fact-checking, especially in light of the Stephen Glass debacle.

    But the scandal, such as it is, is taking an extraordinarily large amount of time from the center-right blogs, in stark contrast to the confirmed and more serious atrocities in attributed to U.S. soldiers in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo Bay.

    No, I am not “defending” the writer. I am questioning the priorities of his detractors, however.

    DU

  2. Two different topics.

    The people who bemoan the decline of the New Republic aren’t denying there are members of the U.S. military who have done terrible things, just like I wouldn’t ever deny there are police officers, priests, left-wing intellectuals, football players and French chefs who have done terrible things.

    That doesn’t excuse this writer making things up and a major opinion-leading publication allowing itself to be bamboozled and then not being able to face up to it.

    It’s okay to be upset about both. But to use the lying fabulism of Scott Beauchamp to prompt a discussion of military atrocities is like using a forged artwork to prompt a discussion about the art of Rembrandt.

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