Remember Scott Thomas Beauchamp, that soldier who wrote candidly about the dehumanizing effects of the war for The New Republic while pursuing a passionate affair with the TNR intern fact-checking his pieces until the conservablogosphere began campaigning to get him shitcanned? Former TNR staffer Spencer “Attackerman” Ackerman tracked him down in Germany for a fascinating profile in next month’s Radar. The story contains a lot of chilling details about Beauchamp’s experiences at war, like mass graves and running over dogs in Bradley Fighting Vehicles and how a mob of soldiers in a mess hall mock a woman whose face has been gruesomely disfigured by an improvised explosive device, but probably the most nauseating passage describes what it was like for the 24-year-old Army private to be the target of evildoers and insurgents and such while simultaneously being the target of an internet struggle session: “I began to make mistakes. Once I nearly forgot my eye protection before a mission. I was thinking about bloggers as much as I was thinking about my buddies,” he tells the magazine. “That scared me.” Tell us about it.
In the end TNR retracted Beauchamp’s columns in a hand-wringy 7,000-word piece called Fog Of War describing in painstaking (and also, gratuitous) detail their efforts to corroborate Beauchamp’s claims of which Beauchamp’s fact-checker-turned-wife Elspeth Reeve says: “That piece says, ‘Pity me. I’m a victim of these two crazy kids.'” (She no longer works for them, duh!) (But Beauchamp is still in the Army!)
The big takeaway of the piece is that Beauchamp is an eminently decent, credible young who made a few mistakes — the infamous “mess hall incident” happened in Kuwait, for instance, not Iraq — in the execution of some of this war’s most truly courageous journalism, only to get thrown under the bus (Bradley!) that rightfully ran over the careers of young TNR fabricator Stephen Glass and young TNR plagiarist Ruth Shalit. Because: conservatives are evil people with no interest in truth and TNR editor Frank Foer is fundamentally a pussy.
To be sure, that is the angle one would expect from Spencer “Attackerman” Ackerman who has not exactly been grinding his axe against the magazine that fired him in private. To be also sure, Beauchamp did a lot of caving under all the fact-checking pressure. (He was assigned backbreaking labor in 120-degree heat and Ackerman tells us he was hospitalized for a viral infection and the Army put a gag order on him but in any case, he disappeared.)
But motives aside the piece rings true. Because it most certainly has gotten to the point where internet skirmishes are as pointlessly vicious and traumatizing as real ones. I am not being melodramatic! You read that Times Magazine story about the internet trolls who wouldn’t stop making fun of that poor sweet-faced 13-year-old kid who had already killed himself. (Also, if I am not mistaken you are reading Gawker!) Why would it surprise you that over in Iraq this same generation kicks around the corpses of Iraqi children or whatever? That is the cruel radiance of what is, friends, and laying it bare is the only purpose journalists can possibly serve.
But there’s a dramatic disconnect — has been for awhile, but it’s widening — between the guys who run lofty cash-strapped journalism outlets and the actual world they profess to strive to portray. For years those guys have lived in the world of prestige and peer esteem and talking points and ASME applications and panel discussions and correspondents dinners. But once there was a time when they didn’t have that whole scene going on all day long on Bloggingheads and Memeorandum.
As long as this disconnect deepens amidst this backdrop of tightening news budgets, a nagging insecurity about the future of journalism combined with a hardening certainty among its younger generation of practitioners that success within it requires above all else a commitment to one’s personal “brand”…well, guys like Frank Foer are going to take chances on hot young “voices.” And those voices will invariably get silenced by mobs of angry haters in protracted, embarrassing sagas ending in tortured lamentations that “those young folks, all they care about is their personal brands!” but in the end only serve to expose how little anyone really gives a shit about the truth at this point.
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