The New Republic magazine recently ran into big trouble for publishing a first-person account of military savagery in Iraq. The author, Pvt. Scott Thomas Beauchamp, used the pseudonym "Scott Thomas" to write of the debasement of war that he claims he saw in the cauldron of Iraq.
But it was soon discovered that one of the gruesome "wartime" incidents the private described — the author, desensitized by war, mocking a disfigured woman — took place in Kuwait before his unit actually went into Iraq.
And when, post-publication, The New Republic rechecked Beauchamp's other suspicious anecdotes and assured its readers they were at least still accurate, the magazine would not identify the sources it used for verification.
The result of keeping these sources anonymous is that the reading public still can't believe the once-anonymous Beauchamp's account — or what his New Republic editors are now saying.
Anonymity on rare occasions may have a place in protecting whistleblowers or honest journalistic sources fearful of retaliation. But lately it is being misused in a variety of different contexts to destroy people and institutions — and as a way for authors of all sorts to avoid responsibility for what they write.
Not long ago, a nameless CIA operative published "Imperial Hubris," a scathing analysis of the Bush administration's war on terror. Eventually, word spread that the author, called "Anonymous" on the book jacket, was one Michael Scheuer.
In the meantime, both the Washington press corps and the CIA had played a sort of coy game of gossiping in private about the real identification of the author while publicly maintaining the mystique of an anonymous authoritative insider whose station was too high up and too covert to be disclosed.
But once Scheuer was publicly identified, the world could examine what he had to say on various topics. People weren't impressed — especially by Scheuer's assertions in interviews that Osama bin Laden shouldn't be identified as a terrorist , and that the Holocaust Museum in Washington was a means to make Americans feel guilty about the Holocaust.
More often, the misuse of anonymity involves journalists' "unnamed" sources. Michael Isikoff wrote a story in 2005 for Newsweek, apparently based on an anonymous but "solid, well-placed" source, that told of callous military guards at Guantanamo flushing a Koran down the toilet.
The account turned out to be false, but the supposed blasphemy may have caused riots in the Islamic world — and untold damage to the prestige of the U.S. military at a time of war. Yet Isikoff never identified from whom he got such a tale or why he rushed to print something so explosive based on evidence so shaky.