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Patriots vs. patriots

New scandals fuel the old war between the New Republic and the National Review.

December 07, 2007|Jacob Heilbrunn | Jacob Heilbrunn is a senior editor at the National Interest and the author of the forthcoming "They Knew They Were Right: the Rise of the Neocons."

Is it mere coincidence that both the New Republic and National Review Online are embroiled in controversy concerning outside contributors who wrote bogus reports from the Middle East? Not a chance. As someone who worked at the New Republic when the young fabulist Stephen Glass was making up stories there in the late 1990s, it was deja vu all over again.

Glass, a New Republic writer who published dozens of untrue stories, became Exhibit A for the dangers posed by young, ambitious journalists. But this story line is itself something of a fantasy. Missing in the condemnations of Glass is the fact that he simply wrote what his editors wanted to hear.

For example, for his first cover story for the New Republic, Glass lamented the supposed refusal of African Americans to work as taxicab drivers in Washington, and conjured up the specter of Arab taxi drivers meeting to worship at a shrine underneath Dulles International Airport. Not only did this play into the gloomy view of Muslims that the magazine favored, but there were some at the New Republic who had been looking for years for someone to deplore the laziness of African Americans. No one on the staff had been willing to do it until Glass came along.

Meanwhile, for Harper's, Glass concocted a story about working as a late-night telephone psychic that negatively depicted the workings of capitalism -- music to that magazine's ears.

So the New Republic's announcement this week that it could no longer stand by the reporting of Scott Thomas Beauchamp, an Army private in Iraq who had contributed several lurid articles about U.S. soldiers running amok, and the accusations against National Review's W. Thomas Smith Jr., who stands accused, among other things, of inventing a "scoop" about hundreds of Hezbollah gunmen moving into the Christian areas of Beirut, fit into a familiar pattern. As every confidence man knows, you can't sell someone something they don't want to buy.

But the story goes deeper than just overzealous magazines and young writers on the make. At least in the case of the New Republic, there is another element fueling the scandal, and it has to do, oddly, with a falling out between that publication -- a traditionally liberal magazine that grew increasingly hawkish on foreign policy issues over time -- and other, more consistently right-wing magazines such as the Weekly Standard and National Review.

Consider that when Glass' antics were disclosed, the Weekly Standard's editor, William Kristol, didn't let anyone at his magazine gloat about it in print. This time around, however, matters were different. It was the Standard that led the charge in depicting the New Republic as unpatriotic and treasonous.

"We at the Weekly Standard are well aware that editors make mistakes," wrote Kristol. "But what is revealing about this mistake is that the editors must have wanted to suspend their disbelief in tales of gross misconduct by American troops."

What changed? At the bottom of the right's campaign against the New Republic in recent months is the wrath of a spurned lover. During the Bosnia crisis in the 1990s, Kristol's magazine and the New Republic worked hand in glove to support American military action against the Serbs. Then, in the run-up to the war in Iraq, the New Republic championed military action every bit as fervently as the neoconservatives. One New Republic senior editor (who has since become a skeptic about Iraq) even co-wrote a book ("The War Over Iraq") with Kristol demanding that America become a global policeman.

But since then, the alliance has soured. The New Republic has performed a U-turn under its new editor, Franklin Foer -- and earned the ire of the right for doing so. Among other things, the magazine has become ambivalent about the war and even published an issue in which a number of its writers chastised themselves for having supported it in the first place.

The new civil war between the chastened "liberal hawks" of the New Republic and the neoconservatives of the Weekly Standard is not going away. In his 7,000-word statement retracting support for Beauchamp, Foer makes it clear that he's not really convinced that the essence of what he published is wrong. He appears to believe that he just doesn't have enough information to back it up, and he takes a few gratuitous swipes at the figures on the right who first exposed Beauchamp. If anything, the experience of having its patriotism noisily questioned by the right will probably move the New Republic even further to the left.

Meanwhile, just as the right was gloating about Beauchamp's perfidy, up popped the National Review's Smith, whose misleading reporting was exposed by the Huffington Post.

The truth is that as the right and left gear up for combat, Beauchamp and Smith are simply incidental figures, props manipulated on a stage to score larger ideological points about patriotism. Despite their shenanigans, perhaps these two latest journalistic sinners even deserve a twinge of sympathy.

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