Bon Appétit, TNR

This week’s installment of Dymphna’s Greatest Hits from July 2007 discusses the manufacture of fake news by a “journalist” at The New Republic. Reading it through made me realize how little has changed — the behavior of the legacy media hasn’t improved in the intervening years, and it may even have gotten worse.

Most of the embedded links in the original are now defunct, and have been removed.

Bon Appétit, TNR

by Dymphna
Originally published July 21, 2007

The New Republic is being either naive or cynical. This one is a tough call if you want to believe the best about a person, or group of people — in this case a magazine that’s been around since the First World War.

By now you’ve probably read about what Sgt. Mom calls “the latest milblog kerfuffle-du-jour.”

The dust-up concerns a series of essays The New Republic has published by a supposed soldier in Iraq who describes anecdotes about his fellow soldiers that are (a) horrific and disgusting, and (b) inaccurate in their details. Of course, (b) simply means another “fake-but-accurate” strand in the MSM tapestry of careless lies and half-truths woven to serve their purposes. With the MSM, f-b-a is a standard sufficient to allow them to print what the rest of us consider slanderous, but which gives them license to put their agenda into the public sphere for consumption by the willing or the unwary.

OPFOR blog and The Weekly Standard magazine both question the veracity of the pseudonymous Scott Thomas’ stories about his service in Iraq, and then ask their readers to pass judgment based on their own experience of military life.

The commenters on both sites take the stories apart; they do so on the basis of small, telling details. For example, it’s not called a “chow hall” in Iraq, and the things on soldiers’ heads are no longer “helmets.” Nor do enlisted men ever operate as free of the oversight of their NCOs as TNR’s “correspondent” would have you believe. In real life, any sergeant or junior officer would take these fellows down based on the ghoulish, sick stories this writer tells. Not to mention what their peers might do to them for such depraved behavior…

Here we are again, right back at Dan Rather’s fonts from a 1970’s IBM Selectric. We’re back in WWII movies where the reality behind the bad guy (usually German) is revealed by his ignorance of, say, American baseball players. In other words, liars get outed by the little things they don’t know but couldn’t possibly be ignorant about if they came from the milieu they are claiming as their own.

Back during Rathergate, James Lileks was quoted by the Standard:

“The whole ‘fake but accurate’ line shows how tone-deaf these people are; it’s like saying a body in a pine box is ‘dead but lifelike.’ It boggles, it really does: the story is true, the evidence is faked, but the evidence reflects the evidence we have not yet presented that proves our conclusion — ergo, we’re telling the truth…

Both OPFOR and the Standard did what The New Republic should have done to begin with: fact check with those who do know the details because they can prove they were there in Iraq when these brutal incidents supposedly took place. For example, TNR’s essayist describes a soldier who deliberately makes a U-turn in his Bradley in order to run over a dog.

Even to this un-military blogger, the story smells like… like a dead dog lying in the sun. I mean, how do you make a swift U-turn in a tracked vehicle like a Bradley, hmm? And we are supposed to believe that the dog is going to stand and wait for you to return and run him over just for fun? Heck, even the lazy hounds given to sleeping on our country road get up well before my speeding bullet of a car reaches their noses.

Here’s how a commenter from the Standard sees it:

From the description of the dog-killing incident, the Bradley driver slowed the vehicle down and tried to do a skid turn. When you turn a tracked vehicle like a Bradley, you do it through differential braking—you slow down the inside track and accelerate the outside track, so the vehicle skids through the turn. Anyone who has ever seen it done will tell you it would be just about impossible (a) to catch a dog like that (dogs have better reflexes than tracked vehicles).

But even assuming that this guy was the world’s greatest track driver, I still think the story as presented is pure BS. According to the story, the dog is on the right side of the vehicle, because the driver turns right to run it down.

I am looking now at a 1/32nd scale model of a Bradley, and I can say with some assurance that the driver’s hatch is on the left side of the vehicle. Immediately to the driver’s right is the engine compartment, the cooling grill of which rises above the level of the driver’s hatch, making it impossible to see anything on the right side of the vehicle. Even if the driver was head-out, he still couldn’t see anything to his right below the level of the top deck (all armored vehicles have significant blind spots close in, which is why they need dismounts to protect them from RPG guys in foxholes).

You can read the other stories, even more disgusting and sad, at the sites mentioned above. I’m not going to give them space here — like the jihad beheadings, TNR has given us incidents that are pornographically sadistic. They are fodder for the “no-war-no-time-no-how” crowd, and it is this group that appears to be in the majority of TNR’s readership.

Since its inception in 1914 TNR has had a decidedly liberal bent. Its first issue included an essay by Rebecca West which complained about British conservatism. Its current editor says that TNR coined the word “liberalism”*. I believe him, for his magazine is solidly in the liberals’ camp.

The concept of an opinion journal is an honorable one. However, any journal must of necessity strive for at least a modicum of accuracy in order to gain a modicum of respect or attract new readers.

In march of this year CanWest, a media conglomerate based in Canada, acquired a majority interest in TNR. Interestingly, when you go to the CanWest site there is no mention of their ownership, though has the details.

NPR has an interview (audio) from March with the editor of the magazine. He explains their new look — due no doubt to the infusion of money from CanWest. TNR is now biweekly; its intent is to create a quality magazine worth keeping. Perhaps they see themselves as the left center liberal alternative to City Journal. However, if that is their intention, then their first duty is to demand meticulous reality from their contributors. Good art and slick paper don’t make up for content based on fabrication.

Thus, these so-called soldier “reports” they’ve been running can only hurt their reputation for integrity. The only reason they can begin to get by with the lies is that their readers are decidedly anti-military. They don’t know anyone who has ever served and they don’t want to. When it comes to the minutiae of the military world, they are totally ignorant and they pride themselves on the gaps in their understanding. This makes TNR’s fakes easy to read, easy to fulminate about.

Here is an irony for you: in their brand new incarnation as a bi-weekly TNR ran an exposé of David Sedaris’ memoirs showing them to be untrue, exaggerated, and sometimes made up out of whole cloth. In this instance, they did indeed perform due diligence in their fact-checking. Sedaris never worked at a mental hospital as a kid; he made those stories up. Still, I consider Sedaris a talented storyteller. It’s a shame he’s been labeled as “nonfiction” or that he allowed his stories to be construed as fact. Discovering the depth of his fiction doesn’t detract from enjoying his tales.

But this supposed soldier, Scott Whatshisname, probably has less factual material in his fabulist creations than does Mr. Sedaris. And the mystery soldier’s “facts” would have been much easier to check, had anyone at TNR been willing to approach another soldier. If you click here, you will find that TNR, or their writer, went through some trouble to ascertain that Mr. Sedaris’ stories did not have a basis in fact. However, their high moral dudgeon is beside the point: Mr. Sedaris tells funny stories that reveal the human condition with compassion. He is beloved for what he creates, not for the accuracy of his stories. One holds him to the same standard of “truth” one demands of Dave Barry or P.J. O’Rourke or James Thurber.

TNR’s soldier storyteller is in another category of tale-telling. He has none of Barry’s or Sedaris’ humor or compassion or skill. His brutal, sadistic “recollections” have been created not to entertain but to titillate, and to discredit the American soldier in Iraq. It is obvious that the author has a very tightly focused agenda. It is also obvious that TNR shares his view of our military. If this were not the case then TNR would have published an opposing point of view. At the very least they would have said up front that they had not checked his story.

TNR joins the ranks of those publications which have given in to the temptation to put out material which supports their philosophy whether or not the essays are true. What counts is what the readership is hungering for. They know what their audience wants: vilification of those with whom it disagrees. No one could walk away from these tales with any admiration for our military. Fewer and fewer of our citizens even know anyone on active duty — or anyone who has served in the past. Thus, they can swallow and digest these lies without a qualm. It all looks “real” to them because it fits their underlying beliefs.

One commenter on the Standard’s post says:

I’m not Pollyanna, and ugly things happen. But my trial lawyer and my colonel BS detectors are both flashing red. To believe this crap, you have to want it to be true.

He has just sussed the motive for these scurrilous essays, and the reason TNR readers will eat them up. Is there anything so satisfying as being served a meal of our favorite prejudices?

Bon appétit, TNR.

*   A commenter on the original post said:

Did the current TNR editor really claim that his magazine coined the word “liberalism?” The word is much older than that. It was in common usage in the 19th Century, particularly in Britain where the Liberal Party was a major force. It was also used in this country in various contexts, including reference to political progress.

Dymphna responded:

It’s a good point: I ought to have picked up on that when Mr. Foer said it. Had I been thinking, I would’ve questioned it in the body of the text, as I did his other statements. It was an audio on NPR and I made some notes as I was listening.


One thought on “Bon Appétit, TNR

  1. I’ve long been a fan of David Sedaris (he’s often on BBC- sorry!- Radio 4), and more recently of P J O’Rourke, thanks to Dymphna, but never assumed that their tales were the literal truth.

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