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Beauchamp mirrors Glass: New Republic, same old story

By Daniel Clark
web posted August 6, 2007

Already infamous for the fictitious reporting of Stephen Glass, The New Republic has done it again. This time, the magazine has run a series of dubious narratives from Iraq, written by an American soldier named Scott Thomas Beauchamp.

To say the least, Beauchamp's portrayals of our soldiers are not flattering. In one story, several of them ridicule a woman who had been severely disfigured by an IED. In another, a soldier removes part of a child's skull from a mass grave, and wears it on his head for an entire day to amuse his buddies. A third features a soldier who roams about in a Bradley fighting vehicle, running over dogs for sport.

Each of these accounts contains details that have been thoroughly debunked by military bloggers. As a result, TNR has promised, belatedly, to conduct an investigation. The shame of it is that the additional damage done to the magazine's reputation is so unnecessary. If only its editors had observed the method by which their peers in the liberal media publish their own falsehoods, the looming scandal would have been averted.

Take, for example, two of the stories that had dominated the news during the past month, both of which were speculative pieces about government reports that had yet to be released. First, an anonymous source cited by the Associated Press claimed that a report would conclude that "the surge" in Iraq had failed. Several days later, another AP story said that a different soon-to-be-released government report had found that al-Qaeda is stronger now than ever before.

Like Beauchamp's accounts, these stories were so blatantly counterintuitive that they should have set off alarm bells in newsrooms across the country. At the very least, any responsible editor would have shelved the stories until the releases of the actual reports (which, predictably, contradicted the media's widely published expectations). Instead, not only did most major newspapers put the false projections on the front page, but they saw no reason to retract and apologize for them when proven wrong.

Where TNR gets itself into trouble is in letting its liars be the authors of its stories, instead of merely being sources. If some other reporter had related Beauchamp's narratives second-hand, then at least it could be said to be true that Beauchamp had made those claims. When his tales were found to have been fabricated, the magazine would have had plausible deniability.

This rationale holds even if neither the source nor his claim has any credibility whatsoever. For example, you could just as soon suck an olive through a straw as flush a Quran down a toilet, but when a prisoner at Guantanamo Bay charged that our guards had done the latter, Newsweek passed along his accusation without cynicism.

That was just one of the more egregious examples in which unreliable or anonymous sources have been used to spread enemy propaganda through the American media. The AP's more subtle method of leaking information that discredits our war effort, but later turns out to be inaccurate, has become nearly as ubiquitous as articles about steroids in baseball.

The role of a source used to be to provide information, the veracity of which the reporter would then determine through corroboration. In today's activist media, however, a source is simply a mechanism through which reporters and editors can project their own biases, without holding themselves accountable. In the same way that network screeners determine which questions "the people" may ask at a town hall debate, liberal publications can always come up with a source who will say things that fit into their template, even if that source needs to be invented.

Thus, a source has come to play the role of an imaginary friend. For journalists to deny responsibility for this most recent spate of phony war reporting is like an only child standing next to a broken lamp and saying, "Waldo did it." If the child's parents -- who in this case are the rest of the self-policing media -- are willing to accept the existence of Waldo, then the child is off the hook.

It is considerably more difficult for them to look the other way when the child botches his own defense, as TNR has just done. The editors have let Beauchamp relate his phony stories as first-hand accounts, without plausible deniability even by current media standards. It's as if the child has assumed his imaginary friend's identity, and told his parents, "My name's Waldo, and I just broke your lamp." ESR

Daniel Clark is a Staff Writer for the New Media Alliance. The New Media Alliance is a non-profit (501c3) national coalition of writers, journalists and grass-roots media outlets.

 

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