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Wednesday, 5 December 2007

US blogosphere row comes to a head

Over the last few months there's been a pretty monumental battle in the US blogosphere over the authenticity of some first-hand reports from Iraq.

Franklin Foer, editor of The New Republic (centre-left), has just published a massive article saying that the TNR can't stand by the stories they published written by an American soldier serving in Iraq.

In the meantime, a blog written by a former marine W. Thomas Smith Jr for the National Review Online (Conservative and critical of the TNR over the 'Scott Thomas' pieces) was exposed for some factual guesswork when reporting on Hezbollah in Lebanon. His apologia is here, and has sparked off the debate all over again.

The story begins nearly five months ago. In a piece entitled "Shock Troops" published in the TNR in July, a soldier serving in Baghdad, writing under the pseudonym 'Scott Thomas', alleged some pretty unsavoury behaviour by US troops including:
  • verbally abusing a woman with facial burns at an American base.
  • one private wearing the skull of an Iraqi child dug up from a mass grave on mission.
  • another private careering around Baghdad in a Bradley Fighting Vehicle for no other purpose than to run over things, particularly dogs.
This raised several eyebrows, particularly those of Michael Goldfarb of the Weekly Standard (centre-right). He wasn't convinced the accounts rang true. So he emailed Foer and mobilised the blogosphere to do some fact-checking:
"...we believe that the best chance for getting at the truth is likely to come from the combined efforts of the blogosphere, which has, in the past, proven adept at determining the reliability of such claims. To that end we'd encourage the milblogging community to do some digging of their own, and individual soldiers and veterans to come forward with relevant information--either about the specific events or their plausibility in general."
Various bloggers weighed in, including (to name but a few):
And so did the mainstream media. Here's a piece by Howard Kutz in the Washington Post for example.

The row's bubbled away ever since. TNR decided to get Private Scott Thomas Beauchamp, a member of First Infantry Division to reveal his identity proving he was a serving soldier. But for his trouble the Army cut off all contact between TNR and Beauchamp as they carried out an internal investigation.

The fact that 'Scott Thomas' was a real soldier didn't halt the criticisms. The TNR tried to sort out some of the key facts promising to re-report every detail, but, after months of work, concluded that some of the facts in the stories could not be verified and that some of them were simply incorrect.

Now the accounts of W. Thomas Smith Jr writing on a blog called The Tank are under scrutiny.

The arguments over authenticity and accuracy have been hijacked on both sides for political purposes with right and left exchanging blows over whether the NRO or the TNR is more at fault, less patriotic, or less journalistically and ethically sound.

For more, see the New York Times's and the Washington Post's take on events.

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