New Republic Blogger Questioned
A magazine gets a hot story straight from a soldier in Iraq and publishes his writing, complete with gory details, under a pseudonym. The stories are chilling: An Iraqi boy befriends American troops and later has his tongue cut out by insurgents. Soldiers mock a disfigured woman sitting near them in a dining hall. As a diversion, soldiers run over dogs with armored personnel carriers. Compelling stuff, and, according to the Army, not true.
Three articles by the soldier have run since January in The New Republic, a liberal magazine with a small circulation owned by Canadian company CanWest Corp. The stories, which ran under the name "Scott Thomas," were called into question by The Weekly Standard, a conservative magazine with a small circulation owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. The Standard last month challenged bloggers to check the dispatches.
Since then, Pvt. Scott Thomas Beauchamp, of the 1st Battalion, 18th Infantry, has come forward as the author. The New Republic said that Beauchamp "came to its attention" through Elspeth Reeve, a reporter-researcher at the magazine he later married.
The Army said this week it had concluded an investigation of Beauchamp's claims and found them false.
"During that investigation, all the soldiers from his unit refuted all claims that Pvt. Beauchamp made in his blog," Sgt. 1st Class Robert Timmons, a spokesman in Baghdad for the 4th Brigade, 1st Infantry Division, based at Fort Riley, Kan., said in an e-mail interview.
The Weekly Standard said Beauchamp signed a sworn statement admitting all three articles were exaggerations and falsehoods.
Calls to Editor Franklin Foer at The New Republic in Washington were not returned, but the magazine said on its Web site that it has conducted its own investigation and stands by Beauchamp's work.
In its note posted Aug. 2, it said, "We checked the plausibility of details with experts, contacted a corroborating witness, and pressed the author for further details. But publishing a first-person essay from a war zone requires a measure of faith in the writer. Given what we knew of Beauchamp, personally and professionally, we credited his report."
After the pieces were questioned, the magazine said it extensively re-reported his account, contacting dozens of people, including former soldiers, forensic experts, war reporters and Army public affairs officers.
The New Republic said it also spoke to five members of Beauchamp's company, all of whom corroborated Beauchamp's anecdotes but requested anonymity.
In the note, the magazine said the incident with the disfigured woman took place in Kuwait, not Iraq. The magazine also said the Army took away Beauchamp's mobile phone and his computer and he "is currently unable to speak to even his family."
The Associated Press has been unable to reach Beauchamp, and the Army said details of the investigation were not expected to be released. "Personnel matters are handled internally; they are not discussed publicly," said Lt. Col. Joseph M. Yoswa, an Army spokesman.
Bob Steele, the Nelson Poynter Scholar for Journalism Values at The Poynter Institute school for journalists in St. Petersburg, Fla., said granting a writer anonymity "raises questions about authenticity and legitimacy."
"Anonymity allows an individual to make accusations against others with impunity," Steele said. "In this case, the anonymous diarist was accusing other soldiers of various levels of wrongdoing that were, at the least, moral failures, if not violations of military conduct. The anonymity further allows the writer to sidestep essential accountability that would exist, were he identified."
Steele said he was troubled by the fact that the magazine did not catch the scene-shifting from Kuwait to Iraq of the incident Beauchamp described involving the disfigured woman.
"If they were doing any kind of fact-checking, with multiple sources, that error -- or potential deception -- would have emerged," Steele said.
He added that he was also troubled by the relationship between Beauchamp and Reeve, his wife, who works at The New Republic. "It raises the possible specter of competing loyalties, which could undermine the credibility of the journalism," he said.
Paul McLeary, a staff writer for Columbia Journalism Review who has written about the matter, said The New Republic failed to do some basic journalistic legwork, such as calling the public affairs officer for Beauchamp's unit.
"There is a degree of trust and faith editors have to put in their writers," McLeary said. "If you're on a tight deadline, you have to go as far as you can. The New Republic definitely didn't go as far as it could in terms of checking out its stories."
This isn't the first time New Republic's credibility has been called into question.
In 1998, the magazine fired Stephen Glass after reports surfaced that he had enhanced a story about computer hackers. Editors at the magazine researched his work and said they found fabrications in 27 of the 41 articles he had written for the publication over three years.