Scott Thomas Beauchamp and Source Biases

Except for linking to Greyhawk's post, I've put off commenting on the business of Scott Thomas Beauchamp's article "Shock Troops" at The New Republic, because I wanted to wait until I had a good clear picture of the incident. Now that TNR has issued its response to the various questions raised about the article, I think it's time to offer a few thoughts of my own.

1. How do you determine a source's biases? That's the topic of a popular post that appeared here at DiL last year. I think the Scott Thomas Beauchamp affair is a good opportunity to review some of the ideas I presented there.

First, there's the business of anonymous (or in the case of "Scott Thomas", pseudonymous) sources. Neo cited a 2003 Poynter report - written by 18 prominent journalists in the wake of the Jayson Blair scandal - offering some suggestions for improving credibility when citing anonymous sources. Here are the Poynter report's recommendations on "attribution and sourcing", in the report's own words:
Our responsibility to the reader is to make clear where we got our information.

We focused on two areas: anonymous sources and attribution in narrative reconstructions.

The use of anonymous sources should be a last resort when the story is of compelling public interest and the information is not available any other way. A supervising editor must know the source’s identity.

We also agreed that:

• Anonymous sources should be encouraged to go on the record.

• We should weigh the source’s reliability and disclose to readers the source’s potential biases.

• The more specific we can be in describing the source in the story, the better.

• Anonymous sources should not be used for personal attacks, accusations of illegal activity, or merely to add color.

• The source must have first-hand knowledge.

• Journalists should not lie in a story to protect a source.

Journalists may not be able to avoid the use of anonymous sources in such places as Washington, D.C., but they should constantly challenge their use. The use of anonymous sources should never be routine.

News wire services should share their standards for the use of anonymous sources and aspire to the ones articulated above.

Narratives are a form of vicarious experience and put readers at the scene. We admire the power of this technique but remain concerned about making clear to the reader where the information comes from. Use deft textual attribution, detailed editor’s notes, or the newspaper equivalent of "footnotes."

The attribution in the narrative should ensure the reader knows the information is verifiable.

Well, I don't think there's really anything for me to add here, do you? In my post on source biases, I went on to suggest some factors to consider; these included:
- the source's ideological orientation
- the source's financial interests
- debts and favors
- role of the publisher or broadcaster
- the source's experiences and perceptions
- psychological factors

I also listed some factors that I think are important in determining the reliability of a piece of information:
- internal consistency
- external consistency
- insider details
- dialog and dissent
- nuance
- the human voice

For full explanations of what I mean by these terms, please go to How can you determine a source's biases? And keep them in mind as you read the rest of this post, and as you continue following the Scott Thomas Beauchamp / TNR affair.

2. Beauchamp wasn't twisted by war - he was twisted to begin with. We've already established that Scott Thomas Beauchamp is an asshole. In fact, he should probably be listed in the Wikipedia article on "asshole" ("this article may require cleanup"), but that's outside the scope of this discussion.

What is important, though, is TNR's admission that the famous (or infamous) story of Beauchamp mocking the burned and disfigured woman - with which Beauchamp begins his article - did not take place in Iraq, but in Kuwait:
The recollections of these three soldiers differ from Beauchamp's on one significant detail (the only fact in the piece that we have determined to be inaccurate): They say the conversation occurred at Camp Buehring, in Kuwait, prior to the unit's arrival in Iraq. When presented with this important discrepancy, Beauchamp acknowledged his error. We sincerely regret this mistake.

So "Beauchamp acknowledged his error," did he? Well that was mighty damn brave of him. "When presented with this important discrepancy, Beauchamp acknowledged his error." Those ten little words just tell such a story, don't they? Oh, but I'm ranting. Let's move on.

The point is, this isn't a minor detail, it's the focal point of the article. Here, I'll let TNR tell it:
Beauchamp's latest, a Diarist headlined "Shock Troops," was about the morally and emotionally distorting effects of war.

And again, that's right out of the magazine's own statement on the controversy. But the incident with the burned woman in the mess hall didn't have anything to do with "the morally and emotionally distorting effects of war", did it? Because no such "effects" could be present in someone who had not, as yet, been exposed to war.

Here's Michael Goldfarb at the Weekly Standard:
So just to be clear, the first line of the original piece stated that Beauchamp "saw her nearly every time I went to dinner in the chow hall at my base in Iraq." That turns out now to be a blatant lie--and one that Beauchamp stuck with after THE WEEKLY STANDARD first asked Foer to reveal the base at which this incident occurred. Further, TNR says in this new statement that "Shock Troops" "was about the morally and emotionally distorting effects of war." But now we find out that Beauchamp hadn't even gotten to Iraq when this incident allegedly took place. He was, in fact, a morally stunted sadist before he ever set foot in Iraq.

None of this would have come to light, of course, without the pressure and scrutiny of the military blogging community. This post at the Standard has a roundup of some of the important ones. Better yet, just go to Michael Goldfarb's main page (or his July 2007 archives) for links to the milbloggers. Kudos to Goldfarb for the hard work he's been putting into this - and of course, kudos to the milblogging community for knowing what questions to ask.

And it was the milbloggers who pinned down STB and TNR on the disfigured woman in the messhall incident. When presented with this important discrepancy, TNR acknowledged its error.

UPDATE: Right now there are a couple of new threads emerging which - if they pan out - look very bad for STB and TNR. But I haven't got anything I consider solid enough to post about yet. I'll write a new post when I've got something.