I have no strong view either way on the controversy over whether or to what extent Scott Thomas Beuchamp’s dispatches for TNR were fabricated or embellished, but I think John Podhoretz is right that there’s nothing per se shady about his turning out to be Elle Reeve’s fiancée/husband/whatever. In fact, that’s exactly the sort of person I probably would have looked for if I were in Foer’s shoes. (I might not have chosen someone whose previous work reads like some emo teenybopper doing a bad Richard Brautigan impersonation, but that’s another story.)
Think about it this way. Normally, when you commission a series of articles from someone, you’ve got at least three natural ways of ensuring the veracity of what you get:
- The writer will—certainly by the time he’s publishing in a venue at TNR‘s level—have a professional track record that can be scrutinized, and corresponding professional credibility.
- The writer’s byline will create accountability and an incentive to be truthful.
- The magazine can do its own fact-checking to confirm details reported.
Sure, journalistic fraud still happens, but the three in combination provide at least a reasonable guarantee. The problem is, if you want to do this sort of “soldier’s diary” feature, that model isn’t going to work nearly as well. The whole point, after all, is that you’re soliciting the perspective of a deployed soldier rather than a professional writer, so method one is out the window. And since anonymity would seem to be necessary to allow the correspondent to write freely, without fear of reprisal, two is gone as well. Method three remains to some extent, but especially if you’re attempting to preserve the correspondent’s anonymity, there’s going to be a lot of material that there’s no real way to check effectively. (And this is true for the general case even if it turns out that, in the instance, there were fishy elements of the stories that TNR could and should have checked but didn’t.)
In short, you’ve got a situation where trust is especially important, but the ordinary professional assurance mechanisms by which it’s generated are absent. So what’s left? Personal trust. Meaning the person you want is going to have to be someone you or your colleagues actually know well, even intimately. Whether or not it yielded a reliable correspondent in this case, the approach makes perfect sense for this kind of feature.