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Obligatory Chopper Collision Post | Main | Lindsey Lohan: "I can't get in trouble. I'm a celebrity. I can do whatever the fuck I want."
July 28, 2007

Foer Claims He Has One Soldier's Confirmation On All (?) of Beauchamp's Tales

Dan Riehl thinks this is a retreat from a previous statement, but I sharply disagree. It seems a much stronger statement. Whereas in the past he's said that nothing thusfar undermines Beauchamp's account, now he says:

At least one soldier in the unit had already confirmed the events described, Mr. Foer said, but the magazine plans, to the extent possible, to re-report every detail, a task made more difficult now that Private Beauchamp cannot easily communicate with anyone overseas.

I don't get that "at least one" bit; one doesn't usually have to guesstimate on numbers when the number is one or two. Usually one can tell the difference between them.

Although Foer isn't providing specifics or the name of this witness, he can't now, actually, because all the troops are now operating under a gag order (to protect the innocent, to preserve the integrity of the investigation) until the investigation is complete. Actually, Foer's new witness shouldn't be talking, but I suppose there's no point in making a big deal over that. This guy, who says he's a sergeant in the company, shouldn't be making statements either, but says Beauchamp is making it all up. It should be noted that obviously it counts more that someone says he saw the events than someone who says he didn't -- unless other witnesses known to be present specifically say that they were there and nothing of the sort occurred.

What Foer means by "confirmed" is less than clear; previously he claimed he "confirmed the woman," meaning the woman with the "melted" face in the chowhall without bothering to explain what this odd phrase actually meant.

I'll also note that Dan Rather claimed full confirmation for the Rathergate memos. And, in fact, still does.

It could turn out (as it always could have turned out) that Foer will get lucky, and that his faith in Beauchamp (owing, as he says, partly to his marriage to a TNR staffer) wasn't far misplaced, and most if not all of this gets confirmed. Eventually.

And while that will mean we owe Beauchamp an apology, no apology will be owed to Foer or TNR, which should have fact-checked this all beforehand, not afterwards. TNR's sin -- running stories without making the most basic effort to confirm them beforehand, which they vowed could never happen again with the new safeguards installed after the Glass debacle -- has already been committed.

A guy who works in the media and who was sympathetic to, and apologetic on behalf of, TNR basically told me to grow up as regards this fact-checking business: A small magazine such as TNR, he said, has neither the resources or even the inclination to actually "fact-check" as most would understand that term to mean. It just doesn't happen, he says: Apart from checking easily-confirmed facts (like misplacing Diyala to the far south of Baghdad or that sort of thing), very little is checked in the media at all. If a reporter says it, it's presumed true. No checking. If a reporter's source says it, it's presumed true, at least if the reporter presumes it true. Basically all this crap we think we know from All the Presdent's Men about double-confirmation and meticulous vetting by editors trying to tear down stories is by and large not true.

While he was speaking specifically of small media outfits, it seems to me this appies to large ones as well; how many decapitated heads were found in that field in Baghdad, again? How many imams were burned alive, again? How many mosques were "severely" damaged, again?

Perhaps we do need to grow up and accept that the media is in the reportage business primarily, and in the actual fact business only secondarily and only when they get around to it. Rumors and unverified reports put out as supposedly-confirmed fact is the rule, not the exception; most claims by the media should carry the disclaimer "probably, we think."

But if that's the case, the media also has to grow the hell up and stop lying to the public about how goddamned rigorously fact-checked and heavily vetted by multiple layers of painstaking editorial scrutiny its stories on. Every time the media makes a claim which is challenged by bloggers or more professional media critics, they scream in high umbrage that it's well-nigh impossible their report could be in error; why, they fact-check everything! Have they not mentioned those multiple layers of editorial oversight for each and every fact asserted as true in a story?

It's a lie. They don't check most of this stuff. If it's easy to check, they do; if it's hard, they do not. If it cannot be confirmed, but "smells good" (as per Franklin Foer's standard on Beauchamp's reports), it's published. And that's the way it works, and that's probably pretty much the way it's always worked.

It may be the most efficient and timely way of doing it -- the correction page is always available (in theory) for retracting claims that prove to be unsubstantiated or even contradicted, though they seem loathe to acknowledge genuine errors -- but certainly it's not the most accurate. Accuracy is of course exchanged for speed, which cannot be undervalued. News is not news if it's reported two weeks later due to genuine, serious vetting and confirmation.

But while this system of rather less than careful scrutiny of reported "facts" may be defensible and even necessary, it is, obviously, not truly a system which can even pretend to deliver rigorously vetted facts. But the media always claims it does just that when challenged; that their editorial processes nearly guarantee accuracy in all their accounts. It is a consumer fraud to claim this, and it's about time they stopped.

Why It Matters: Bryan Preston explains why ex- and current military guys in particular are so invested in this story.

By the way, I think a previous statement of mine got misinterpreted by some. I said that "this is a minor story," and I think some took that to mean the entire Beuachamp saga was a minor story. In fact -- I suppose I wasn't clear -- I was specifically referring to my scoop about Beauchamp being married to a TNR staffer, and in fact being hired for (and trusted for) this assignment mostly for that reason. That, I meant to say, was not itself a "huge" story.

I don't think the Beauchamp story is itself huge, but nor do I consider it minor. I'm less shocked by the behavior Beauchamp reports (note that one of the most heartless and egregious examples of bad behavior by the troops was actually Beauchamp's own-- cruelly mocking a woman who'd lost half her face to an IED) than by TNR's slapdash regard for confirming facts, especially given the Stephen Glass debacle.

I hope Bryan doesn't think this means I don't support the troop or I think they're less than honorable. Of course not-- I'm just saying I don't disbelieve that in a million-man military you're going to have your fair share of psychopaths, criminals, and general assholes. The JAG office is busy each year prosecuting soldiers for murders committed at their bases, after all. Any population of any size is going to have criminals and bastards in it, and of course Bryan knows that. I just mean to say I'm not shocked by a claim of monstrous behavior on the part of a soldier, but not because I think soldiers are capable of such deeds, just because I believe humans are.

That said, Bryan's point about the left's unceasing campaign against the military is well-taken, and it's little wonder that servicemen especially are determined that the Vietnam smears of "baby-killers" and "war-criminals" will not be allowed to stand this time around.

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posted by Ace at 05:06 PM

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