Monday, August 20, 2007

The New Republic And The "In-Crowd"

Pajamas Media has a blow-by-blow account written by Richard Miniter of how The New Republic found themselves in yet another scandal involving creative fiction presented as factual reportage. PM has done an excellent job and no one should really have a question about how the Scott Thomas Beauchamp incident has played out to this point. Since TNR has begun to "lawyer-up" on the subject we probably haven't heard the last word on it yet.

However, I'm beginning to feel the question as to why this has happened to TNR has been a bit overlooked. Miniter seems to see it as a simple question of a failed fact checking system and the (misguided) privilege that goes with being a New Republic "insider."

Let’s go into the fact-checking department. Elspeth Reeve was one of three fact-checkers at the magazine.

Did she fact-check her husband’s articles? While it is hard to believe that an established magazine would make such an elementary error, so far no one at the magazine has bothered to address the question. That’s an interesting omission.

Even if Reeve did not double-check her husband’s reporting, she worked alongside the other two fact-checkers and often shared a take-out lunch with them in the magazine’s conference room. They liked her. Would they really treat Beauchamp’s pieces like an article that floated in from a stranger?

At any publication, staff writing is less closely scrutinized than freelance material. Not coincidentally, virtually all of the journalistic fabrication scandals of the past 30 years—from The Washington Post’s Janet Cooke to The New York Times’ Jayson Blair—involved staff writers. Insiders. Trusted people.

More pointedly, the last two sets of New Republic journalistic scandals—Ruth Shalit and Stephen Glass—were perpetrated by staffers.

Scott Thomas Beauchamp was not a staffer; he may not have ever stepped foot in The New Republic’s two-floor rabbit warren of offices. But he was an insider, through his wife.

Perhaps the fact-checkers believed that they didn’t have to check his work thoroughly because they knew and trusted his wife, who they affectionately called “Ellie.”

The New Republic’s fact-checking department may be structurally flawed. At the magazines with the best reputation for fact-checking, The New Yorker and Reader’s Digest, fact-checking is a career. At The New Republic, it is an entry level job known as “reporter-researcher.” It is a stepping stone, a dues-paying drudgery endured so that one can become a full-time writer. Even the job title is revealing. The “reporter” part comes first. Often the fact-checkers are busy writing items of their own for The Plank, the magazine’s weblog, or the magazine itself. (Elspeth Reeve has written a number of pieces; one was about Bob Tyrell’s book party at Morton’s.) So it would not have taken much for one of the fact-checkers to skim, not scrutinize, Beauchamp’s “Baghdad Diarist” pieces.

Maybe they feel sorry for Reeve because they are partly to blame. Beauchamp published three pieces over a six-month period. Odds are each of the fact-checkers had a hand in one of them.

Then there is the role of the magazine’s editor. Foer had met Beauchamp, shook his hand and talked to him, according to McGee.

That’s the real reason why Foer insisted on correcting his quote in The New York Times about knowing that Beauchamp was a soldier with “near certainty” to “absolute certainty.” Some of the blogosphere’s speculations look overheated once we know that Foer actually met Beauchamp.

Did the fact-checkers also give Beauchamp a pass because they knew their boss, Foer, met and liked the charming young soldier? Is Foer fighting back so hard because he just can’t believe he too was suckered?

Once again, this tackles how it went down quite well, but not why. What was so attractive about Beauchamp? Why would basic journalistic procedure be ignored, and why would Foer put his reputation on the line before he could possibly have been sure of the facts of the matter? It couldn't have been the quality of Beauchamp's writing, which on the scale of literary greatness lands somewhere short of "puerile". (Tom Wolfe he isn't.)

So, what was it?

If I had to guess, and to offer any sort of answer to the question I will have to, I would say the editorial staff at The New Republic viewed Beauchamp as a way to re-establish their liberal bona fides. TNR has taken a beating for years from the netroot community over their relative support for the Iraq war. The Daily Kos' broadsides are fairly typical, such as TNR and why it's not on our side or So who says the New Republic is liberal? The DK post TNR's defection to the Right is now complete offers the netroot assessment on The New Republic in a nutshell:

TNR and its enablers are feeling the heat of their own irrelevance and this is how they fight it -- by undermining the progressive movement. Zengerle has made common cause with the wingnutosphere, using the laughable "kosola" frame they created and emailing his "scoops" to them for links. This is what the once-proud New Republic has evolved into -- just another cog of the Vast RIGHT Wing Conspiracy.

If you still hold a subscription to that magazine, it really is time to call it quits. If you see it in a magazine rack, you might as well move it behind the National Review or even NewsMax, since that's who they want to be associated with these days.

It was this background which helps explain the actions of TNR. As what constitutes the liberal "establishment" has shifted (and shifted it has), TNR was being viewed as something of a journalistic dinosaur and a traitorous one at that ("Benedict Arnosaurus"). But (I'm guessing an editorial meeting argued), if they could provide plentiful anti-war fodder with lurid details, TNR could push back against attempts to marginalize them. If the netroots really defined the only acceptable way to be a liberal, a position TNR seems more and more likely to go along with these days, then they will do what is necessary to ingratiate themselves to the new powers that be.

At root the Beauchamp affair looks less like the result of duplicitous reportage ala Stephen Glass, and more like the result of a massive loss of confidence. The fault here lies less with Beauchamp than with the TNR editorial staff as a whole. Outlandish claims were accepted without fact checking because they were seen to aid the magazine in their attempts to gain/maintain prestige and to curry favor with specific ideological elements. It seems TNR felt they needed Beauchamp so badly that they were willing to take the risk that he wasn't spinning tall tales even after serious questions were raised.

It wouldn't all seem quite so pathetic if it wasn't exactly the sort of thing played out in high school cafeterias all over the country year after year. How many kids do something in an attempt to gain access to the popular crowd that only results in making themselves look foolish? Well, you can add the editors of The New Republic to that sorry list.


Tully said...

Best bet is that Reeve vouched for him, and his stories fit their preconceived notions, so they didn't dig. And if they did dig, Reeve was likely the digger.

The Iconic Midwesterner said...

That is certainly what it sounds like. But given the notorious track record of TNR wouldn't you think a little more caution would be called for?

Tully said...

You'd think, wouldn't you? It certainly speaks to how seriously they treasure their reputation....

Lack. Of. Standards. No matter how you slice it, that's the top culprit.

The Iconic Midwesterner said...

It smacks of desperation. "The most influential magazine in Washington" has become "The most likely to be used as TP during a major snow storm" and they don't like it.