The Nation‘s investigation into the U.S. occupation’s impact on Iraqi civilians (7/30/07) and a series of columns by a U.S. soldier published in the New Republic (2/5/07, 6/4/07, 7/23/07) have given media access to compelling new documentation of egregious behavior by U.S. troops in Iraq. The New York Times and Washington Post have responded by paying much less attention to the scrupulously documented evidence of these abuses in the Nation and focusing on right-wing bloggers’ unsubstantiated criticisms of the New Republic columns.
The Nation‘s article was based on interviews with 50 combat veterans of the Iraq War, whose accounts were recorded in thousands of pages of transcripts. According to the report’s authors, Chris Hedges and Laila Al-Arian, their “investigation marks the first time so many on-the-record, named eyewitnesses from within the U.S. military have been assembled in one place to openly corroborate these assertions.” Meanwhile, the New Republic series was based on eyewitness accounts by a single soldier, Private Scott Thomas Beauchamp, who wrote under the pseudonym Thomas Scott for fear of reprisals by his superiors. Beauchamp later explained (New Republic, 7/26/07) that his columns were intended merely to offer “one soldier’s view of events in Iraq.”
Despite the New Republic columns’ more modest scope, the series has garnered much more extensive media coverage over the past three weeks than the Nation‘s report. It has been mentioned in six Washington Post articles and has been the topic of two New York Times news articles, while the Nation article has been covered only in one column by Bob Herbert (New York Times, 7/10/07) since it was published online on July 9.
The Weekly Standard (7/19/07) responded to the New Republic series by openly challenging the authenticity of the columnist’s accounts, and was soon joined in this effort by the U.S. military public affairs department. A U.S. military public affairs officer confirmed to blogger Matt Sanchez (American Spectator blog, 7/21/07) the military’s “intent to engage the CENTCOM blog team.” (According to the Department of Defense’s publication DefenseLink–3/2/06–the U.S. Armed Forces’ Central Command “blog team” was formed to “work with more than 250 bloggers to try to disseminate news about the good work being done by U.S. forces in the global war on terror,” and to correct online information about the U.S. military that is, in the view of U.S. military public affairs personnel, “inaccurate” and “incomplete.”)
In the midst of these efforts, hundreds of bloggers weighed in with their evaluations of the New Republic series. Their efforts were given standing in the mainstream media by the Washington Post‘s Howard Kurtz, who wrote an account of the criticism on July 21.
As Kurtz wrote, the columnist “recounts soldiers getting their kicks by running over dogs with Bradley Fighting Vehicles and playing with Iraqi children’s skulls taken from a mass grave.” The Weekly Standard called these stories doubtful, and Kurtz offered one reason for giving the doubts such a prominent hearing: “The issue of veracity is especially sensitive for the New Republic, which fired associate editor Stephen Glass in 1998 for fabrications that editors concluded had appeared in two-thirds of his 41 articles.”
While this is true, Kurtz should have also taken into account the Weekly Standard‘s own track record: The magazine relentlessly advocated for the Iraq invasion, and were among the most prominent outlets that alleged serious links between Iraq and Al-Qaeda (see Extra!, 1-2/04)
After Kurtz’s piece came the Times‘ first story on the topic, published under the headline “Doubts Raised on Magazine’s ‘Baghdad Diarist’” (7/24/07). However, the actual “doubts” hardly warranted the attention granted them through the article’s headline. The only example the Times furnished of the New Republic columnist’s dubiousness was a quote from an editor at the Weekly Standard, who noted that in response to a call by the Standard for knowledgeable people to help discredit the New Republic series, “There’s not a single person that has come forward and said, ‘It sounds plausible.'”
On August 2, the New Republic posted an online response to the criticism, declaring that the magazine had found one minor discrepancy: An incident Beauchamp reported happening at a base in Iraq seems to have happened at a base in neighboring Kuwait. The Washington Post and New York Times (8/3/07) printed short updates based on the New Republic‘s investigation.
On one of the disputed counts—the bloggers claimed that Bradley vehicles could not possibly be used to kill dogs—the Post noted, “A spokesman for the vehicle’s manufacturer confirmed to the New Republic that it can be maneuvered in the way Beauchamp depicted.” Why the Post failed to investigate this matter themselves before airing the unfounded criticism is hard to fathom.
The disparity in media treatment is striking—when right-wing bloggers make unfounded criticisms of reporting that portrays U.S. soldiers in Iraq in a bad light, the “controversy” makes it into papers like the Post and the New York Times, and becomes fodder for cable news. But the Nation‘s thorough and meticulous investigation of the U.S. military’s mistreatment of Iraqi civilians is all but ignored. Apparently critical war reporting is more useful to the mainstream media when specious right-wing doubts can be cast on it.