It was nice to see the Scott Thomas Beauchamp/New Republic scandal back up on the radar screen yesterday. There was never a satisfactory conclusion to the story; it just faded out over the summer. Now it is back in a big way, with the Drudge Report releasing internal Army documents related to the case, and a very revealing transcript of a conversation between Beauchamp, various luminaries from The New Republic, and Beauchamp’s TNR-supplied lawyer.
TNR’s first response to the release was typical of the tone-deafness with which they have approached the entire affair — denouncing the selective leak of official documents. It is always suspect when journalists take a principled stand against leaks. It might be more convincing if TNR pledged never to use leaked information in its reporting ever again, maybe then they’d have some credibility. As it happened, the Army report recommended releasing the findings to the media, while TNR was frantically trying to get Beauchamp to cancel all his press interviews. TNR Editor Franklin Foer said that Scott owed it to the magazine to talk only to them to let them “control the way the story proceeds.” I suppose because they were doing such a great job of controlling it thus far.
The Beauchamp affair should be taught in journalism schools as a case study of how not to conduct damage control. When it quickly became obvious that there were serious problems both with Beauchamp’s “diaries” and with the author himself, TNR should have cut bait. The magazine could quite reasonably have made a statement that they were taken advantage of by someone they trusted, who was married to someone on their staff who presumably vouched for him, and retracted the stories. It would have been embarrassing, but the matter would have concluded. Instead TNR stood by Beauchamp, tying the magazine’s credibility to his, and suffering accordingly. Rather than admitting error and moving on, they invested time, money, and apparently a degree of political capital in fighting a clearly losing cause with no discernable upside even if they had prevailed. It is mystifying — like Dan Rather defending those bogus National Guard documents, or Peter Arnett sticking to the story of the U.S. conducting Sarin gas attacks against captured American troops in Vietnam. How can people who are so successful make such astonishing errors in professional judgment?
Maybe TNR didn’t think there was much there. Unlike the above-mentioned stories the “atrocities” Beauchamp claimed to have documented were unremarkable. Killing dogs? There are justifiable reasons for doing so in combat conditions — if a dog with a backpack is approaching your AFV you had better take it out quickly. As well, packs of vicious or rabid dogs roaming civilian areas need to be controlled. Playing around with a skull from a mass grave? I can see bored privates doing that briefly until their platoon sergeant barked at them to knock it off and keep digging. But the thing that should have given the TNR editors pause if they had any understanding at all of military culture was the tale of mocking a disfigured woman in a mess hall in Iraq (later changed to Kuwait, but whatever, just details, right?) No solider would publicly mock a woman wounded in an attack unless he was looking for a serious ass kicking. This is not how our troops behave. The fact that this alleged incident did not raise a red flag to the TNR editors demonstrated how out of touch they are with the military — or how willing they were to believe the worst about our fighting forces.