Columnists > Voices

Shock reporters

Controversy surrounds recent series of articles in The New Republic

Issue: "All's fair at the fair," Aug. 25, 2007

About 40 years ago, Tom Wolfe defined the limits of "gonzo journalism": exaggerated, subjective, and highly stylized, though mostly factual. Many have felt called to its style but only a handful have succeeded.

Earlier this summer, The New Republic ran a series of columns by a "Baghdad Diarist," an anonymous soldier known as Scott Thomas. The last piece, titled "Shock Troops," described various instances of bad behavior by Thomas and his buddies, followed by soul-searching. "Am I a monster?" he asked himself rhetorically after an incident in which he mocked a female contractor whose face had been cruelly disfigured by an IED. The self-stated purpose of the articles was to show how the war in Iraq had turned well-meaning American boys into unfeeling brutes.

It was meant to be controversial, but Thomas and TNR reaped more controversy than they bargained for.

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As soon as "Shock Troops" appeared, details of the account raised questions. To take one example, the author described a soldier using a Bradley Fighting Vehicle to purposely run down dogs in the street. When challenged, TNR editor Franklin Foer claimed that they had verified details with an unnamed spokesman for BAE Systems, the Bradley manufacturer. Blogger Bob Owens tracked down the spokesman, Doug Coffey, who told Owens the fact-checker from TNR had asked only general questions. When presented with a copy of the "Diarist" account, Coffey judged it highly unlikely any Bradley could have been used in the way described.

By then, the author had outed himself as Scott Thomas Beauchamp, a real soldier. TNR stuck to his story but did not reveal that Beauchamp was a journalism graduate from the University of Missouri, that he is married to a TNR staffer, and that he joined the army not to serve his country but to authenticate himself as a writer. His own blogs, posted before deployment to Iraq, admit as much.

According to the military: "An investigation has been completed and the allegations made by PVT Beauchamp were found to be false. His platoon and company were interviewed and no one could substantiate the claims." Thus far, Foer refuses to acknowledge the statement and claims his trust in Beauchamp will be vindicated. If it isn't, this new style of wishful-think reporting, pioneered by Dan Rather and CBS News, should be identified as Bozo journalism.

Janie B. Cheaney
Janie B. Cheaney

Janie lives in Missouri, is a columnist for WORLD, writes novels for young adults, and is the author of the Wordsmith creative writing series. She also reviews books at Follow Janie on Twitter @jbcheaney.


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