Small Wars Journal

Oh, what a tangled web we weave...

Tue, 12/04/2007 - 8:22pm
LTC Bob Bateman here again. It has been a busy few days for those who keep track of things like journalism and war, and the intersection thereof. This post first appeared on Media Matters and I thought I's share it with SWJ.

There are three things on the plate: The New Republic, National Review Online, and Bilal Hussein.

I will start with the first, and simplest, observation. Several months ago I wrote about my doubts about the veracity of a young man named Scott Thomas, who was then writing for Franklin Foer's The New Republic. The short version of what I wrote was that his stories seemed really fishy to me, and I cautioned about wholly believing these purportedly true stories, and I left it at that. About a week later it was revealed that his real name was Scott Thomas Beauchamp, and bloggers on the right side of the aisle took off in a howling pack, hunting for more information. They found some. Foer and TNR, meanwhile, went into what can only be described as a journalistic full defensive crouch.

Beauchamp's unit returned from Iraq at the end of last month. I do not know, nor does it appear that anyone knows, where he is now. (Presumably on leave with his bride, whom he married while on his mid-tour R&R.) But what I do know is that as of this past Friday, TNR pulled the plug on their support of him. Unfortunately, even as they did so, they buried the lede. The last two paragraphs should have been the first. Here they are:

In retrospect, we never should have put Beauchamp in this situation. He was a young soldier in a war zone, an untried writer without journalistic training. We published his accounts of sensitive events while granting him the shield of anonymity -- which, in the wrong hands, can become license to exaggerate, if not fabricate.

When I last spoke with Beauchamp in early November, he continued to stand by his stories. Unfortunately, the standards of this magazine require more than that. And, in light of the evidence available to us, after months of intensive re-reporting, we cannot be confident that the events in his pieces occurred in exactly the manner that he described them. Without that essential confidence, we cannot stand by these stories.

That is the bottom line, and TNR would have been better served to put it up front. Here is the whole 14-page-long version.

But there is a broader issue at play here, and it's a theme common to a couple of the stories I will link to in a minute. What really grinded on me about the Beauchamp issue (and TNR's 14-page non-confessional confession) was something that rests between the lines in Foer's admission. Foer makes the point about how nobody at TNR knew anything about the military in general or the Army in specific over and over, though he does not apparently know that he is doing so. He goes on talking about how hard it is to fact-check in Iraq, how they felt they had to give the writer anonymity so he could write "the truth" (maybe if they had not assigned Beauchamp's wife to be his fact-checker...?), how their own investigation was so difficult ... oh, bull.

Essentially, what unnerved me is that a magazine like TNR was so completely divorced from the military that they did not even have one person on staff -- one single person -- who was personally connected to a career professional in the military (and Elspeth Reeve, an intern at TNR who is now married to Beauchamp -- himself not a career professional in the military -- doesn't count), who could have A. helped them screen what was being sent in the first place, and B. helped them figure out how to fact-check the guy, let alone, after the fact, help them figure out what was really going on. I mean, seriously, how is it that at this point the best de facto depictions of life in-country come ... in Doonesbury?! (The very liberal cartoonist Gary Trudeau is, in a strange twist of journalism, apparently far better wired in to real soldiers on the ground than is the editor of a major magazine? How did this happen?)

Folks, we are six freaking years into a war now. Regardless of how you or I or anybody feels about the causality of these wars, the fact of these wars remain important for all of us to understand. We are six years into a period in which the military and issues of war have been, like, you know, sort of central. How could TNR remain so divorced from anyone in the military for so long that they eventually fell for this?

But they are not alone. Now the folks on the right -- indeed one of the central actors on the stage in the uncovering of Beauchamp -- have major problems because one of their own turns out to have been fabulist as well.

The short version of that story is that there is a blogger on the National Review Online website named Thomas Smith. I do not know the guy from Adam, but apparently he was an enlisted Marine a decade or two ago. He writes for the NRO blog "The Tank." In that capacity, he seems to get around.

Several months ago Mr. Smith was in Lebanon; while there, he wrote that he had seen 200 heavily armed members of Hezbollah camped outside the parliament buildings of the Lebanese government. He also wrote that 4,000 to 5,000 Hezbollah gunmen had been tramping through the Christian areas of Beirut. These, apparently, were things that he either made up or did not check in the slightest way. At best he printed rumors as facts, then claimed a scoop. The postings were also (and this may just be to my eye) apparently tied to the idea that the "mainstream media" had missed these stories. Well, they missed them because they did not happen. In the latter case, at least, you would have seen war in Lebanon on the front pages the next day, everywhere, if it was true. Reporters -- real old-fashioned actually-there-on-the-ground reporters -- called BS on that one. NRO, it seems, is now "looking into things."

From where I sit, this whole thing is just amazing. I mean, you know things are really messed up over at the National Review Online when both Glenn Greenwald at and Michelle Malkin freaking agree on something. That, I am moderately sure, is one of the signs of the Apocalypse, is it not? To complete the trifecta, Andrew Sullivan notes that NRO was informed of their "fabulist" more than six weeks ago. Oh, this is going to get really ugly.

But again, what seems to have happened at the core of this issue was an editor's —suspension of disbelief because fact-checking was either "too hard" or because the storyline fit within their own vision of reality. Either way, both NRO and TNR are now covered with muck, and in my opinion that is not good for the nation. We can only hope that both incidents lead to a renaissance of skepticism among editors at these and other publications. That, not personal partisan storylines, is how the nation is best served in the reporting one reads about wars and international relations.

On a final note, I had a column come out over on another site where I write, the Committee for Concerned Journalists. I was writing about the fact that the AP hired for their Iraqi employee who is being investigated by an Iraqi court about events which took place in Iraq ... a New York city lawyer who specializes in white-collar crime and libel law. Now, as anyone who has written to me here knows, I enjoy responding to mail. But this 5,600-plus-word letter, from a woman named Gayle, was just too good not to share at least in part.

Because Gayle closed her letter with the threat "PS: Don't misquote this invited email response to your column either, anywhere, or I will use the Judicial Branch of our Government to sue your ass off, :o)" I will try ever so hard to be precise. I won't "misquote" her at all. I will only reproduce her exact words. So, without ado, a few of my favorite lines. (This sort of stuff, by the way, is fairly typical from both the right and the left, depending upon what I have written that week. But the only way to deal with it, really, is to let this stuff see the light of day.):

It is a no wonder that you are the sweetheart of the extremist right wing-nut bloggers and media. If you lie down with dogs, you may get fleas. And respectfully, dear sir, your column is infested with them. I can only guess that you not only need to be debriefed but now you also need to be deloused now. Thank GOD your opinions are your own and do not reflect those of the U.S. Government or the Armed Forces because if they were, we certainly would even more knee-high in crap disinformation.

You know, after my various criticisms of Oliver North, and Rush Limbaugh, I guess I should be reassured. In speaking of the Constitution (and my lack of knowledge thereof) Gayle writes:

Don't be afraid of it like your friends in the extremist media. It will make you a better American and a better member of the military.... and the bonus is, you wouldn't need those bully extremists bloggers as friends anymore. Fascism hates intelligence and also what Thomas Jefferson, the 3rd President of the United States, Commander and Chief of the U.S. Military, and author of of Declaration of Independence said about the free press and its necessity to America's citizen's and their government which includes the military.

Ah, yes, my "bully extremist blogger" friends. Uh, but in this context, I cannot really tell if she is talking about those friends of mine who are on the Right, or the Left. Oh well. The last several lines (lashed together here so you get only the fun parts, but each part exactly quoted) are worth their weight in gold.

Incidentally the background and meaning of the U.S. Constitution is also taught in every public school in this land. I am very surprised you missed it there as well, guess you grew up in an Arabic State, because (God love 'em!) they don't usually teach U.S History and Constitutional Government there...Either that or try any journalism class taught at any State sponsored public school in the good old U.S.A,. and not somewhere in Iran or China....If you don't respect the Constitution then get out of our military, because we citizens don't want you in it according to OUR Declaration of Independence...Good Luck now, sonny, with your school studies and don't neglect them anymore, because it sounds like you have been subject to some sort of programmed Anti-American type baloney.. probably from your extensive time spent outside of the United States speaking Arabic, and inside of it speaking conspiracy theories with right wing-nut extremists.

After I responded (and those who have written to me know that I always respond), Gayle came back with these lines:

Just because you have a grudge against the AP only colors your argument for the worse just as it has with the Military in this particular case. The Military needs to learn that they cannot control a free press for their own agenda. I'm stopping here now and not going to waste my time reading nor answering the rest of the crap after a quick skim because is just more blathering Anti-American extremist right-wing propaganda.

Last month people were telling me about how Victor Davis Hanson was calling me a liberal extremist performing a "hit job" for the "left wing site" Media Matters while in the pay of George Soros. This month I am a "blathering Anti-American extremist right-wing" type.

Ahhhh, the truthiness of America. Dontcha love it?

You can write to LTC Bateman at If you're interested, he would be happy to pass you on to Gayle.