Why would a reputable and venerable magazine like TNR, staffed by bright sober young pundits, continue to stick by a story, that was plagued by at least one or two factual errors from the very beginning (e.g., Beauchamp’s apparent confusion over Kuwait/Iraq as the landscape of some of the described incidents)? Something doesn’t quite make sense with the entire drama, but if not explained, risks hurting a number of people who probably were misled themselves and had nothing to do with the original transgressions.
Like the Dan Rather case, at some key point journalists perhaps lose sight of a key distinction under mounting criticism, much of it from ideological opponents: it doesn’t matter that some critics welcome the embarrassment or that some of the attacks are generated out of glee of seeing an ideological rival humbled.
The issue is only whether a story in its entirety is truthful and can be vouched as such in a reasonable amount of time-time being critical in journalism both in the writing and publication of a story and just as much in verifying or rejecting its truthfulness.
Unfortunately, journalism does not have the luxury to operate in a courtroom, where evidence is weighed and a jury decides the preponderance of proof over months. Instead, if a story is of doubtful veracity, and can’t be or won’t be supported in its entirety by the author, then the editors, for the sake of the magazine and its other dutiful employees, must distance themselves and apologize to the readers, and do so within a reasonable amount of time.
They can point out that there are few or many errors, or that the errors are or are not of a magnitude to impugn the entire story, but these sorts of judgements must be made rather quickly once an author does not supply the editors with supporting documentation or a reasonable willingness to defend his own work.
Mr. Beauchamp may think most of his story was factual, and that only a few tiny details were exaggerated to sex up the narrative’s appeal, but that is still not quite good enough. He either stands by its entirety or confesses he can’t; and if he can’t (for whatever reason) do the latter, then the editors must explain why they too won’t–even if that decision is embarrassing to themselves, delights their adversaries, and causes enormous pain to Mr. Beauchamp’s wife and friends.
The Rather memos, the flushed-Koran story, the photo-shopped Beirut photos, and a host of other recent embarrassments only erode credibility until some sort of retraction is offered. When that happens, usually a CBS, Newsweek, or Reuters regains over time credibility. Note the magnanimous letter to Beauchamp by his military superior that emphasized solidarity within his unit and a willingness to work out whatever problems Beauchamp is experiencing, many of them no doubt arising from the real danger that this particular brigade has so successfully faced.
The final irony is that Mr. Beauchamp is serving in one of the most critical sectors in Iraq, no doubt often at great risk to his person, where American forces have faced the nearly the impossible task of separating both Shiite and Sunni factions, while going after al Qaeda and Shiite terrorists–and are succeeding brilliantly. The brigade commander Col. Rick Gibbs is doing an amazing job (and is sober and judicious, and NOT prone to overstatement or exaggeration), so there were some real human stories, especially when tribes began to turn, this past spring and summer, that Mr. Beauchamp might have written about, (and TNR published) as a rare front-line witness to this quite stunning phenomenon.