National Review reporter caught fabricating; where is the "liberal media"?

The leading conservative journal is caught in a far more serious scandal than the TNR/Beauchamp controversy that it helped fuel.

Published December 2, 2007 12:34PM (EST)

(Updated below -

Update II -- NR on notice six weeks ago -

Update III -

Update IV)

National Review reporter Thomas Smith has been exposed as a fabulist for plainly fictitious claims he made in two separate NR posts in September regarding Hezbollah's alleged armed threat to the Lebanese Government. The most comprehensive report detailing Smith's fabrications is from Thomas Edsall in The Huffington Post, who examines some of the most factually dubious claims (including Smith's "report" that "between 4,000-5,000 Hezbollah gunmen had 'deployed to the Christian areas of Beirut in an unsettling 'show of force'" and his separate claim that "'some 200-plus heavily armed Hezbollah militiamen' occupied a 'sprawling Hezbollah tent city' near the Lebanese parliament") Smith's war-fueling conclusion: "Hezbollah is rehearsing for something big here."

Edsall quotes four separate experts on Lebanon, who respectively labelled Smith's claims "insane," said his most grandiose stories simply "never happened," and stated that Smith is a "fabulist." As Edsall notes, Smith's melodramatic and highly suspicious claims about armed Hezbollah activities in Lebanon "appear to be designed to bolster support for the ongoing presence of U.S troops in the Mideast."

Rather than acknowledging any errors in a clear and straightforward way, National Review chose late Friday afternoon to raise this matter -- the favored time period of politicians to dump embarrassing stories, when as few people as possible will see it -- in the form of a mealy-mouthed, self-justifying "Editor's Note" from Kathryn Jean Lopez. Lopez apologizes to readers on the ground that "NRO should have provided readers with more context and caveats in some posts from Lebanon this fall," but never says what those caveats should have been or what the missing context was.

Instead, Lopez just relies upon vague cliches that say nothing. She claims, for instance, that she reached these conclusions about Smith's posts "after doing a thorough investigation of some of the points made in some of those posts," but she never identifies a single specific fact which this supposed "investigation" revealed or what "some of those points" were that need correction, nor does she identify a single step which this supposed "investigation" entailed.

The bulk of Lopez's post is devoted to paying homage to Smith's virtue ("Smith did commendable work in Lebanon earlier this year"; "I thank Smith for his good, brave work"; "He's a smart, reliable reporter with a great patriotic spirit and sense of service"; "It's understandable how it happened -- the nature of blogging being what it is"). And she ends her post by complimenting NRO's handling of this embarrassment, hailing all the "due diligence" they supposedly did, even though one would have absolutely no idea reading her Editor's Note what the issues even are and what inaccuracies were in Smith's reports.

Worse, Lopez's self-justification was accompanied by a defiant self-defense from Smith himself, who confines his acknowledgment of error only to a conditional non-retraction ("If I mistakenly conveyed that impression to my readers, I apologize"). While Lopez claims that all sorts of (unspecified) added context and clarity was needed, Smith largely suggests the opposite, defending -- even praising -- his original stories as legitimate: "I would say I was justified in believing not only my sources, but also my own eyes in this case."

Most notably, Smith is writing about all of this now only because an unnamed journalist contacted him and NRO to ask about this brewing scandal. Most damning of all, Smith, in his post, continuously references the "critics" and "detractors" of his stories without bothering to identify a single one of them, let alone link to what they said in exposing his fabrications, and neither does Lopez. In fact, nobody reading Smith or Lopez's posts would really have any idea what the allegations against Smith even are. Both his and Lopez's statements are clearly designed to conceal and bury this story, not to clarify what the fabrications are.

Even to understand what any of this is about, one has to go to other sources. In a post titled "National Review Fabulist Update," Andrew Sullivan prints an email from David Kenner, an American journalist in Beirut, who criticized Smith's piece back in October. Kenner also detailed many of the factually dubious aspects of Smith's claims this weekend.

Several other commentators have now written excellent analyses regarding why NRO's conduct here is so scandalous. Sullivan labels Smith's Friday post on this topic "shady" and notes that he "does not provide links in his apology to his original disputed stories, doesn't name or link to his critics, and appears, by his own account, to have reported events and facts that were actually relayed to him by anonymous sources as if he had seen them himself." Sullivan also notes: "The alleged factual inaccuracy -- reporting 4,000 Hezbollah gunmen when they didn't exist -- dwarfs any alleged incident Beauchamp reported for TNR."

Similarly, John Cole points out that the right-wing punditry world -- from Weekly Standard to right-wing blogs -- has not uttered a word about any of this, even as they made -- and continue to make -- the far less significant issues of Scott Beauchamp's TNR articles a matter of a religious crusade. As Cole notes, while Beauchamp's stories did nothing other than highlight the bruatlity of war, Smith "radically overstate[d] a military threat to a key ally, perhaps to agitate for American military involvement." And John Amato at C&L wonders whether this scandal will attract anywhere near the breathless media coverage which the Beauchamp matter has generated.

* * * * *

To all of these excellent points, I want to add two issues. First, National Review did not merely help to fuel the Beauchamp outrage against TNR; they were one of the leading instigators of the months-long lynch mob. They repeatedly posted one self-righteous attack on TNR after the next over what they insisted was TNR's reckless, even deliberate, deceit. They re-printed a vicious anti-TNR rant by Charles Krauthammer, first published in The Washington Post, in which Krauthammer accused TNR of publishing the Beauchamp stories only because "it fits perfectly into the most virulent narrative of the antiwar Left."

Mark Steyn called on TNR's owners to take action, and sermonized:

Presumably The New Republic's readers are relatively relaxed about the editors colluding in slandering the troops at a time of war: only uptight squares get hung up on that sort of thing. But they ought surely to be concerned at the abuse of trust perpetrated by the magazine against its own readers. . . .

The issue now is the magazine's conduct, and the [TNR owner] Aspers should recognize that and act accordingly.

Victor Davis Hanson compared the Beauchamp affair to "Rathergate," and told us all: "The issue is only whether a story in its entirety is truthful and can be vouched as such in a reasonable amount of time -- time being critical in journalism both in the writing and publication of a story and just as much in verifying or rejecting its truthfulness."

More interestingly still, Kathryn Jean Lopez published an e-mail from blogger Michael Yon urging a boycott of TNR's advertisers. Yon proclaimed: "The New Republic needs to be the latest example that the good old days of no-accountability are ending."

And Lopez herself went to Smith's blog -- "The Tank" -- to chastise TNR by quoting an Army major who claimed that there is "no credible evidence that TNR made any attempt at fact checking prior to publishing the articles." Lopez's oblique posting late Friday afternoon all but admits that NR did absolutely nothing to fact-check Smith's extraordinary claims, and though she now claims that NR conducted an "investigation," she has revealed nothing about what they learned -- in stark contrast to the impressive transparency of TNR's Franklin Foer.

Finally on this issue -- and most ironically -- Smith himself, like virtually all pro-war polemicists, milked the TNR/Beauchamp matter with a long post on his own blog that contained a stirring tribute to the paramount importance of journalistic accuracy:

Kathryn, for me it's as simple as this: No matter who said what, who fact-checked or did not, who corroborated what, and how much Franklin Foer may be a gentleman, a good editor, and a straight-shooter (and he may well be for all I know) -- and I wasn't there with Scott Thomas Beauchamp when the things he alleged happened supposedly happened -- but I do know this: It would have been virtually impossible for the things Beauchamp said happened to have played out the way he says they did.

That's they bottom line for me, and -- without exception -- every single soldier, sailor, airman, and Marine I've discussed it with. It has nothing to do with the politics of the Iraq war. It has everything to do with someone trying to tell you it's a beautiful, sunny, cloudless day outside when you know for a fact it's raining. Or vice versa.

Yet now, after months of milking the far less serious TNR inaccuracies and mercilessly attacking that magazine, National Review compounds their own far more serious fabrications by obfuscating, evading, concealing, and even defending these false claims.

* * * * *

This blinding (though unsurprising) double standard leads to the second point, one which is related to the first. The hysteria generated by Weekly Standard, NR and right-wing blogs led -- as always -- to extensive establishment media coverage of the Beauchamp affair. Howard Kurtz, who has turned into nothing more than a right-wing blogger -- using his Post column and CNN show to fuel every "scandal" they manufacture while steadfastly ignoring every one created by their own dishonest behavior -- provided endless coverage of the Beauchamp affair. Kurtz also reported on the matter on CNN.

The New York Times published two separate news articles on the Beauchamp affair. Peggy Noonan wrote a whole lecture on it at the WSJ. And the right-wing blogosphere obsessed on this story for months, and continues to.

Completely fabricated accusations designed to fuel their war agenda and other political interests are not new for the world of right-wing punditry. It is par for the course. Last year, they lied in a swarm by claiming the Iranian parliament passed a new law requiring Iranian Jews to wear distinctive clothing yellow stars. They falsely accused AP of inventing a non-existent source, Jamil Hussein, who existed exactly as AP said. They accused Democrats of ghost-writing the vile Terry Schiavo memo written by Mel Martinez (a false accusation Kurtz, of course, pumped). They repeatedly lied about Bilal Hussein's photography, falsely claiming that he photographed executions of hostages in Iraq and other insurgent actions. And that's just a small sample of their chronic fabrications and false claims.

None of those falsehoods was covered in the establishment press in any meaningful way. And now, here is the leading conservative magazine, outright inventing facts about Hezbollah's military conduct in Lebanon. And -- in stark contrast to the transparent efforts of Franklin Foer to investigate and disclose what he learned -- National Review's editors do everything possible to obscure what happened and to justify the falsehoods, praising the reporter who did it and keeping him on. Will attention be paid to this obviously serious -- and quite representative -- episode of journalistic fabrication by National Review?

UPDATE: One has to give credit where it's due. Michelle Malkin sharply criticizes Smith's reporting and (much more tepidly) Lopez's reaction:

Ugh. This is bad on many levels. W. Thomas Smith, Jr., a former Marine and milblogger who writes at National Review Online's The Tank (and whose work in Iraq I've praised and linked to here), posts a long-winded defense of bogus, shoddy reporting he published while he was in Lebanon earlier this fall. It's painful to read because he takes nearly 1,400 words to get to the main points . . .

As you read the explanation, ask yourselves this: If Thomas Beauchamp had written it instead of Thomas Smith, would you buy it? . . .

After linking to Lopez's Editor's Note, Malkin writes:

The problem is that "more context" and "caveats" aren't what was needed. Just the facts would have sufficed. Smith's work in those posts was not "good" or "brave." And "the nature of blogging" doesn't excuse the phenomenal errors. Given Smith's admissions, "reliable" is not a word that should attach to his Lebanon reporting.

We are all fallible. We all make mistakes. But these were not small mistakes. They were XXL ones.

Moreover, online journalists and bloggers can't have it both ways: They can't ask for mainstream media parity when their reporting is dead-on and ahead-of-the-curve -- and at the same time hide behind the "well, I was just blogging" excuse if their reporting turns out to be as ill-sourced and wrong-headed as the legacy media's. Also note: In one of the tainted posts, the headline isn't "Blogging from Lebanon." It's "Reporting from Lebanon."

Just as was true in the Joe Klein case, where Time protected and even endorsed the errors, National Review is making Smith's fabrications their own. Now that Malkin has written this, perhaps Howard Kurtz and Glenn Reynolds (if he ever stops obsessively campaigning for himself in online popularity contests) might feel like they have permission to mention this scandal.

UPDATE II: Apologists for National Review are claiming that its online editor, Kathryn Jean Lopez, acted properly by quickly and clearly disclosing the falsehoods. But additional facts prove that this is clearly untrue.

Two highly experienced reporters stationed in Lebanon -- Mitchell Prothero and Chris Allbritton (both of whom are cited by Tom Edsall in debunking Smith's claims) -- sent emails to Lopez six weeks ago, which she simply did not answer. I communicated today with Prothero, currently in Beirut, who says that in his email to Lopez, he "was pretty blunt about how [Smith] was reporting things that were not accurate" and raised concerns about Smith's obvious "unprofessionalism." According to Prothero, Allbritton sent a similar e-mail. Neither Lopez nor anyone from National Review ever contacted Prothero nor, to his knowledge, Allbritton. (Lopez has failed to respond to an email asking her to confirm this and/or comment on it).

Instead, NR allowed the stories to sit uncorrected and unremarked upon for the last six weeks, and dumped ambiguous non-retractions late Friday afternoon only once a reporter began calling around to ask about the brewing scandal. Such foot-dragging behavior in the face of outright fabrications published by their magazine is the opposite of a forthright and honest retraction. As Prothero said:

I assume the post from the NRO was a preemptive strike because Edsall called them but I have not spoken with him on that and he'd have to speak to that. . . .

What's funny is that the Beirut press corps and myself would have accepted a correction or retraction but by ignoring reality: I mean did the editor of NRO not notice the lack of war in Lebanon that day? Half the posts don't pass even the weakest of sniff tests for anyone with even the slightest foreign reporting experience.

Prothero communicated these concerns to Lopez six weeks ago, yet she disclosed nothing until late Friday afternoon, when it seemed she had no choice. Andrew Sullivan, who also communicated with Prothero today, has more on this obviously damning aspect of the NR fabrications.

UPDATE III: Harper's Ken Silverstein publishes the email sent by Chris Allbritton to NRO all the way back on October 6 -- more than seven weeks ago -- labelling Smith a "liar" and warning NR: "stop lying and making careless errors. It's your credibility on the line, after all." But Lopez, in a subsequent post, claims she didn't know about any of this until Tom Edsall contacted her in the second week of November, a claim she repeated to me by email ("I became aware of questions about the Smith posts in early November for the first time via e-mails forwarded to me from Tom Edsall").

Whether it was Lopez herself or someone else at NRO who received Allbritton's scathing email (along with Prothero's), it is inexcusable simply to ignore such concerns from a well-credentialed reporter in Lebanon. At the very least, the idea that NR acted quickly to resolve these concerns is obviously false. Even Lopez's own rendition of events demonstrates that.

On a separate though even more important note, Lopez -- in trying to explain why Smith "reported" what he did -- quoted an NR source in order to blame it all on "the Arab tendency to lie and exaggerate about enemies." Mother Jones's Jonathan Schwarz says most everything that needs to be said about that amazing outburst.

UPDATE IV: Media critic Howard Kurtz will host an online chat at The Washington Post today, beginning at 12 noon EST, here. You can ask Kurtz why he has said absoultely nothing about two of the most-discussed media controversies over the last week -- the Joe Klein/Time scandal (Time is a corporate "partner" of CNN, Kurtz's employer) and the National Review fabrications. While silent on these media controversies, Kurtz (who is married to former GOP strategist Sherri Annis) has been quite busy working on behalf of Rudy Giuliani.

By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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