The lessons of the New Republic's shamed Baghdad diarist.

The lessons of the New Republic's shamed Baghdad diarist.

The lessons of the New Republic's shamed Baghdad diarist.

Media criticism.
Dec. 4 2007 6:23 PM

The Lessons of TNR's Baghdad Diarist

The good news about the bad news the magazine is finally accepting.

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As an editor whose backside once sizzled on the your-writer-is-a-big-fat-liar griddle, I'm as qualified as anybody to join the discussion about New Republic's now-repudiated Baghdad diarist, soldier Scott Thomas Beauchamp. TNR Editor Franklin Foer's 7,000-word response this week essentially pleads guilty to the five-month-old charges that Beauchamp fabricated Iraq war scenes in his pseudonymous dispatches for the magazine ("War Bonds," Jan. 29, 2007; "Dead of Night," June 4, 2007; and "Shock Troops," July 13, 2007).

Foer, whom I know well from his time as a Slate intern-writer from 1996 through 1998, declares at the end of his inquiry that the magazine's re-reporting and the 24-year-old Beauchamp's lack of cooperation make it impossible for the magazine to "stand by" Beauchamp's stories any longer.

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The Weekly Standardand the blogs that unmasked Beauchamp, exposed his lies, and brought the magazine to heel deserve our thanks. But the lesson l'affaire Beauchamp teaches is not that liberal magazines can't be relied on to tell the truth about unpopular wars, or that only a magazine that employs military veterans can report fairly on war, or that young people can't be trusted to cover difficult stories, or that first-person stories are inherently unreliable, or that pseudonymous stories should be banned, or that greater institutional safeguards—such as better fact-checking—are needed to prevent future Beauchamps. The lesson it teaches is that journalism can't exist without risking an occasional Beauchamp.

That's no defense of the New Republic or Franklin Foer, mind you. He and the magazine embraced maximum hazard by giving an inexperienced writer and nonjournalist the cloak of anonymity to report from the battlefront. When the Weekly Standard and others attacked Beauchamp's work in July, Foer snottily shot back via the Washington Post's Howard Kurtz. "As the criticism mounts, Foer says he sees an ideological agenda," Kurtz wrote, and went on to quote Foer discounting the prejudices of his attackers: "Conservative bloggers make a bit of a living denying any bad news that emanates from Iraq." In his piece, he muses about the Standard's "ideological motives."

Please! It only stands to reason that TNR's ideological opponents should be the magazine's most intense critics. Foer doubly embarrasses himself by dismissing the arguments because of their origins and by hinting at a conspiracy. 

Nor did Foer distinguish himself when he protested to the New York Observer in late October that it was "maddening to see the Army selectively leak" documents to the Drudge Report that he had tried to obtain through official channels. "This fits a pattern in this case where the army has leaked a lot of stuff to right wing blogs," he said.

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Politicians disparage selective leaks, not journalists. If only Foer had repressed his sense of victimhood and applauded the release of information rather than whined.

Foer's TNR piece, titled "Fog of War," builds oddly, as if it's mounting a defense of Beauchamp's work and TNR's editing practices. For instance, Foer insists on continuing to call Beauchamp's placement of the now-famous disfigured woman in Iraq rather than Kuwait, where she allegedly suffered abuse, a "mistake." If Beauchamp had a sterling record, you might want to give him that benefit of the doubt. But given what we know about him from Foer's piece alone, he's owed no such deference. As the article turns the corner in the final paragraphs and withdraws its support from the controversial diarist, who has failed to give the magazine the complete cooperation it needs to defend him, it sounds as if Foer is hedging his position. The effect is as if a piece breathing life back into Beauchamp was at the last minute welded to his death portrait. Very odd.

The take-home lesson of Beauchamp isn't that young ornovice writers should never be given a chance. What a diminished world this would be if we had been denied the works of these writers when they were youngsters: David Remnick, Katherine Boo, Lester Bangs, Barton Gellman, Jane Kramer, Michael Kinsley, Jacob Weisberg (hey, boss!), Michael Herr, H.L. Mencken, Walter Lippmann, Mark Jacobson, Ryan Lizza, Tina Rosenberg, James Wolcott, Michael Lewis, Nora Ephron, Robert Novak (he was pretty good, I'm telling you!), Ron Rosenbaum, Susan Sontag, Andrew Sullivan, Hendrik Hertzberg, and so on. 

Experienced writers whose lengthy résumés include awards and credentials can swindle their editors every bit as fast as a kid. Remember what Patricia Smith did to the Boston Globe, what Jack Kelley did to USA Today, and what Christopher Newton did to the Associated Press? Three members of the journalistic pantheon—H.L. Mencken, A.J. Liebling, and Joseph Mitchell—all made up things in the course of their careers.

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Nor can every young fabulist be thwarted by experienced editors. The New York Times got took by Jayson Blair and Michael Finkel, and the Washington Post got took by Janet Cooke. The New Republicgot took by Stephen Glass. Not to put myself on the same level with Times and Post editors, but I got took by Jay Forman.

It's very hard to beat a good liar who has gained your trust, and journalism isn't the only profession in which this applies. Several times a year, scandal breaks out in science when researchers get caught making up data. Accountants run off with their clients' money all the time. Captains of industry loot their companies. Lawyers, engineers, teachers, and even geologists swindle people after gaining their confidence. And while it would be pretty to think that institutional "reforms" could prevent Beauchampery in journalism and other professions, it's just not true.

Readers were the victims of the Baghdad diarist, but they'd be bigger victims still if publications stopped running pseudonymous pieces in reaction to the New Republic fiasco. I can count on one hand the number of pseudonymous pieces I've authorized in my career, but the ones I've run turned out to be worth the risk, a risk that I did my best to minimize by doing due diligence before the pieces were published. Ours would be a lesser world if George F. Kennan had not written as "Mr. X," or the Federalist Papers had not appeared, or The New Yorker had not allowed Edward Conlon a pen name for his cop's diary, or if Dan Swanson hadn't been able to pose as James North to write Freedom Rising. In Zimbabwe and other repressive places, journalists who want to tell the truth and live sometimes have no option but to disguise their identity. (Note: I get off this bus long before we reach Jeff Gannon.)

Some blame the Beauchamp scandal on a breakdown in the fact-checking process, noting that his wife, a New Republicemployee, helped fact-check his third piece for the magazine. This wasn't wise, of course, but the fact-checking process wasn't designed to root out liars. It was designed to catch honest mistakes by cooperative reporters. And it's next to worthless in verifying first-person accounts from war zones halfway around the world. Fact-checking creates a false sense of security for editors who rely on it to catch fabulists. When grilled about their sources, fabulists have constructed notes out of whole cloth, counterfeit documents (and in Stephen Glass' case, a Web site), staged photos, and persuaded friends to pose as sources on the phone to confirm elements of a story.

We can lament Beauchamp's sins and the long, wobbly path the New Republic walked in withdrawing its support of his work, but I hope that efforts to stop Beauchampery don't induce paralysis in editors, preventing them from taking chances on young voices, inexperienced voices, first-person voices, and (gulp!) maybe even sometimes pseudonymous voices. Journalism depends on kids who don't know any better than to tell the truth.

Addendum, Dec. 5: To the list of journalists who did brilliant work in their youth, a reader nominates David Halberstam, Neil Sheehan, and Seymour Hersh. To the list of writers whose pseudonymous journalism deserves our praise, a reader adds Rev. Francis X. Murphy, who wrote as Xavier Rynne.

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What great young journalist did I leave out of my list? What brilliant pseudonymous journalist deserves addition to the roster? Send nominations to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum, in a future article, or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)