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.

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. 

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