Saturday, July 21, 2012

Alexander Cockburn, 1941-2012

[Updated below]

The left-wing journalist Alexander Cockburn died last night after a long battle with cancer, reports his colleague and friend Jeffrey St. Clair.  Cockburn was a contentious and sometimes obnoxious writer, and I think the label "contrarian" fits him better than it fit Christopher Hitchens, with whom he had a famously antagonistic relationship.  Rather than simply say "No!" like a two-year-old when everyone else said "Yes!", I had the impression that he would ask himself "Why not this instead of that?" and follow the implications of the position or argument to its conclusion.  Granted, this often led him out on limbs that wouldn't support him, but it was often interesting to see how far he'd go.  (If I'm right about this, he influenced me more than I'd realized till now.)  He was sexist and homophobic, and he enraged many of his fellow-leftists by flirting with Far Right positions. (Not all that surprising, really: political positions don't lie on a spectral continuum.)  I never met him, and if I'd ever talked to him I'd probably have gotten into an argument with him in no time.

Even though he made even me wince at times, I always read what he had to say.  I first encountered his writing in the Press Clips column at the Village Voice in the late 70s, which was also the first news-media criticism I read.  When he was fired from the Voice for alleged financial impropriety (taking a fee for giving a speech, as I recall)* and moved to The Nation, I followed his work there, and later at Z, and when his newsletter Counterpunch went online, I began reading it too.  I learned a lot from him, and I'm going to miss his work.

* I relied on memory for the reason Cockburn left the Voice, though I should have looked it up.  It seemed dodgy at the time, as I remembered, and so it turns out to have been.  The Boston Phoenix published an article revealing that Cockburn had accepted "a $10,000 research grant from the Massachusetts-based Institute for Arab Studies to investigate Israel’s invasion of Lebanon."  The Phoenix reporter called Cockburn's editor at the Voice, "who eventually suspended Cockburn because of an alleged 'conflict of interest.'"
The validity of this charge, however, is significantly diminished by the fact that receiving a grant from an American foundation is normal, acceptable, and standard practice, as evidenced by the multitude of books in which author acknowledgements thank the various foundations that have funded their research.

As James Wolcott recently pointed out in his Vanity Fair blog: “Much handwringing to-do was made at the time of the incident about the need for journalistic transparency and accountability and such but let’s be honest — if it had been a Jewish-American organization or Israel front forking off the relative piddling sum of $10 thou, there hardly would have been this gummy uproar.”
Not only that, but "according to prominent pro-Israel journalist Michael Kinsley, numerous journalists have gone to Israel on trips financed by the Israeli government – a far sketchier proposition."
A vigilant reader wrote in to chide me for not checking my facts.  While I don't think it was all that important to get the details in this case -- Cockburn committed no impropriety, at least by the standards of American journalism -- I thank her for motivating me to do the work.