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.
Then, of course, there was CBS anchorman Dan Rather, whose career imploded over the use of anonymity. An unnamed source had given CBS News a supposedly authentic memo showing that George W. Bush had weaseled out of many National Guard obligations. But despite Rather's insistence that the anonymous source was reliable, bloggers easily demonstrated how the document was an abject forgery.
What can we learn from all this — while savoring the irony of authors and journalists fudging on their own ethical standards as they race to uncover the supposed ethical lapses of their government officials?
If an "I accuse" author like Scott Thomas Beauchamp or Michael Scheuer avoids using his own name, or reporters like Dan Rather or Michael Isikoff won't name a source for a potentially history-changing story, there is often a good suspicion why: They apparently don't look forward to questions about why — and how exactly — they wrote what they wrote.
Instead, anonymity gives them free rein as judge and jury, exempt from cross-examination. This "trust me" practice goes against the very grain of the American tradition of allowing the aggrieved the right to face his accusers.
Sometimes the result of this increasing abuse is more lasting damage to the authors than any temporary discomfort of fending off cross-examination. Beauchamp is now a disgraced storyteller. The New Republic has lost whatever credibility it had regained after its embarrassment several years ago of printing false stories by Stephen Glass, the lying reporter who likewise used anonymous sources.
Scheuer sounds goofier each time he gives an interview — and the credibility of his once anonymously written "Imperial Hubris" shakier and shakier. Isikoff has never quite recovered his journalistic reputation. We all know what happened to Dan Rather.
And all this nemesis is as it should be. Anonymity is a vicious but seductive Siren that lures its heedless listeners to shipwreck on the shoals.