New Republic Scandal Further Damages 'Mainstream' Media Credibility

By Nathan Burchfiel | July 7, 2008 | 8:06 PM EDT

( - As yet another news outlet finds itself embroiled in a fabrication controversy, media ethics analysts are encouraging the industry to reevaluate its approach toward ethical standards. But they are also encouraging news consumers to not consider the scandals as representative of widespread credibility problems.

The New Republic (TNR) magazine has come under fire from conservative media in recent weeks over its "Baghdad Diarist," an Army private hired by the magazine to write a column about his experiences in Iraq.

Analysts have accused Pvt. Scott Beauchamp of lying about his experiences and exaggerating three specific stories in an attempt to shed a negative light on other soldiers and the war effort.

In one case, Beauchamp wrote of soldiers mocking a woman who had been disfigured. In another, he wrote about his unit finding children's bones and one soldier wearing a skull fragment on his head like a yarmulke. In the third, he wrote about soldiers using Bradley Fighting Vehicles to run over stray dogs.

Conservative analysts and bloggers have questioned the accuracy of his accounts, and a military investigation found no evidence to support many of his claims. TNR editors, however, have stood behind almost all of Beauchamp's writing.

The only factual error acknowledged by TNR editors has been the location of the story about the disfigured woman.

In a statement posted on its website, TNR editors said their investigation of his reports found that the incident took place in Kuwait, not Iraq. "When presented with this important discrepancy, Beauchamp acknowledged his error," the statement said. "We sincerely regret this mistake."

But even that mistake is enough to raise serious questions about the accuracy of the rest of Beauchamp's writing and about TNR's handling of the case, according to Bob Steele, a scholar for journalism values at the Poynter Institute.

"[I]f the writer, the Baghdad Diarist, can not get that information straight, it raises reasonable questions about whether any of his other facts are also either illegitimate, downright wrong, or maybe even deceptive," Steele told Cybercast News Service.

Steele also criticized other factors in the case, saying he was "troubled" by the fact that Beauchamp was in a relationship with TNR reporter Elspeth Reeves. The two are married. "It raises the specter of competing loyalties and potential conflicts of interest," he said.

Steele said the decision to grant Beauchamp anonymity - TNR printed his columns under the pen name Scott Thomas - "can and should be questioned. There are times when news organizations give the protection of anonymity or confidentiality to sources or to, in rare cases, authors of pieces. But those situations should be in the exceptional case and it's very questionable in my mind whether it was legitimate in this circumstance to give that protection of anonymity."

A widespread credibility problem?

The case is the second major fabrication controversy for The New Republic. In 1998, the magazine fired writer Stephen Glass after it determined that he fabricated quotes, sources and events in several of his pieces.

Also in 1998, two Boston Globe columnists - Patricia Smith and Mike Barnicle - resigned from the paper amidst allegations of plagiarism.Former Boston Globe Columnist Mike Barnicle

In 2003, the New York Times fired reporter Jayson Blair after it determined that he had fabricated some facts in his articles and plagiarized portions of others.

In 2004, CBS News and its long-time newsman Dan Rather came under fire over a segment focusing on documents which purportedly showed that President Bush avoided duty in the National Guard during the Vietnam War. The documents were proven to be forgeries.

Several recent controversies have also centered on coverage of the war in Iraq and other military conflicts. In 2003, the Los Angeles Times fired a staff photographer after he manipulated photos to make it appear as though an American soldier was pointing a gun at an Iraqi man holding a baby.

Shortly after the revelation of abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison in 2004, the Boston Globe printed photographs allegedly showing U.S. troops raping Iraqi women. It was later revealed the photos were from a pornographic website and didn't depict soldiers or Iraqis.

In 2006, conservative commentator Michelle Malkin criticized the Associated Press over its coverage of the Iraq war when one of its photographers was detained by the U.S. military as a security threat.

Also in 2006, the Reuters news service came under fire when bloggers observed that one of its photographers had edited pictures of a conflict between Israel and Hizballah to make damage inflicted by Israeli forces look worse than it was.

But in spite of a long list of offenses, Steele cautioned against using the Beauchamp controversy, or other recent incidents of journalistic fraud, as a way to "paint a broad-brush indictment of the professionalism and ethics of journalism and news organizations."

"Add the factors of competition, multiple deadlines, technological challenges and economic pressures and you have an equation that is likely to produce stumbles and shortcomings and at times ethical failures," Steele said.

Cases like those of Beauchamp, Glass, Blair and others, "are individual cases and they're separate cases and there are very different circumstances," Steele said. The common factor, he said, is the failure of editors and newsroom managers to verify reports.

"In all the cases, the similarity is in the failure of oversight by newsroom managers and leaders," he said. "The editors or executive producers and other top organization leaders have the profound responsibility for quality control. When staff members ethically fail, the responsibility for the failure must be shared by the managers and leaders."

Other analysts, however, said the errors could be tied to a desire by reporters and editors to tell a story that is detrimental to the war or the Bush administration.

Robert Zelnick, a media ethics professor at Boston University, said the violators are "people with some talent who are frustrated by the fact that the truth is never quite as romantic and exciting as it could have been."

He described them as "people with weakness of character who make those kinds of changes knowing they are committing Sin #1 in journalism."

While he pointed out that people with liberal political beliefs dominate the news media, Zelnick said there is not "an organized army of liberals out to discredit conservatives."

Liberal bias?

Others aren't so forgiving. Mark Hyman, a conservative commentator for the Sinclair Broadcasting Network who follows media exaggeration and fabrication issues, said he believes liberal editors are willing to ignore questionable reporting if the end product damages conservative ideas.

"It's my sense that it's related to a liberal media that is so willing to accept derogatory information about the U.S., the military, and the Bush administration that they accept with little or no challenge moderately or even wildly negative stories," Hyman told Cybercast News Service.

"I think it underscores the inherent bias that journalists and their editors inject into the news reporting process," he added.

"Certainly in a newsroom there should be fact-checking, challenges of remarkable reporting that would appear to be outside the norm," Hyman said.

"When the Baghdad Diarist makes allegations that there are people who are violating standards of conduct one would expect there to be rigorous editorial oversight and fact-checking to determine if what he wrote was correct," he added.

"I think it really underscores a willingness by many leaders in liberal newsrooms to accept reporting that is damaging towards this country and towards the current administration," Hyman said.

He pointed to a May 2005 interview ABC reporters Terry Moran gave to radio talk show host Hugh Hewitt. Moran told Hewitt that there is "a deep anti-military bias in the media, one that begins from the premise that the military must be lying and that American projection of power around the world must be wrong."

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