Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The Real Lesson From The Beachamp Affair

For former President Richard Nixon, it was not the Watergate break-in that toppled his Presidency. It was the web of lies, secrecy and deceit that followed. Nixon learned the hard way that it's not the crime; it's the coverup that counts.

For former President Bill Clinton, it was not the blue dress or the act that stained it. It was the perjury, the wagon-circling and subornation of perjury that led to his historic impeachment trial and forever soiled his legacy. Mr. Clinton learned a lesson that his mother should have taught him by age 4: If you've done something wrong, fess up to it and take your medicine. If you lie about it and get caught, you'll get a dose you'll not soon forget. The mythical "father, I cannot tell a lie" anecdote about George Washington and the Cherry Tree sends a message that rings true whether the incident took place or not: Tell the truth about your missteps and you will be forgiven. Catholics, through the Sacrament of Confession, are allowed opportunities to confess their sins, do Penance and receive Absolution. Our society's fabric is woven with the thread of truth because the ability to trust and believe one another is so important to the social contract.

Journalists enjoy no immunity to the terms of that contract. We expect journalists to tell us the truth when reporting straight news stories, acknowledge bias in opinion pieces, correct errors when they are discovered and rid themselves of those whose only intent is to deceive. Hence the storm of criticism of The New Republic over the alleged "Baghdad Diarist" stories, written by PVT Scott Beachamp. As soon as the factual basis for the anecdotes disintegrated, TNR should have printed a retraction and ceased any further relationships with PVT Beauchamp.

Instead, TNR Editor Franklin Foer donned the ideological blinders and circled the wagons. As The Weekly Standard, Confederate Yankee, Ace of Spades HQ and Little Green Footballs peeled away the last husks of credibility from the anecdotes, it became clear to all but the staunchest defenders of TNR that a serious fraud had been perpetrated against the publication.

Thirty-three years ago this month, Senator Barry Goldwater led a group of courageous GOP lawmakers to a meeting at the White House. There, Senator Goldwater famously informed Nixon that the votes to convict were there and that he must either resign or be forced from office.

While the Beauchamp affair is in no fashion as earthshaking as the resignation of the President of the United States, one has to ponder the gravity of a news media that has become more interested in protecting its image than it is in finding the truth. Very recently, scandals associated with faulty reporting and outright deceipt have been hung on The Associated Press and Agence France Presse. AP has published factually decrepit stories on civilian casualties and ammunition shortages. AFP has been caught three times in photographic journalism deceipt. As with the TNR "Baghdad Diarist" affair, it took extraordinary journalism on the part of the bloggers to root out the truth. While no single blogger can compete with an army of stringers, researchers, reporters and fact-checkers, the blogging community as a whole most certainly can.

It most certainly will, too. The mainstream media must be put on notice: We expect you to fess up and take your medicine when you've screwed up. Your sins will be forgiven, but only after an appropriate penance. If you lie to us though, and try to conceal your wrongdoing, and there will be HELL TO PAY.