Greenwald-Goldberg I: The Thrilla in Vanilla

by A. Jay Adler on June 29, 2010
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Somewhere something irritated Dave Weigel. Those were the butterfly wings flapping. (Whatever provoked the irritating behavior – caused the wings to flap – has long dissipated into the stratosphere.) Weigel breezed into a little venting on a not-so-private-as-he-thought listserve, and someone fed those growing winds into a full public downdraft: the blogosphere was scattered to all corners in the crosscurrents as Weigel lost his job at the Washington Post. Everyone was now huffing like the West Wind. Then Jeffrey Goldberg went all Dizzy Gillespie on us and offered his own judgments – not his best reporting – which in several posts over the same day he gradually retracted. All in all, a brouhaha of a storm in journo-politico circles, a fly fart to everyone else.

Until Glenn Greenwald decided to huff and puff and try to blow Jeffrey Goldberg’s house down. Had it been my house with that kind of shit storm leveled at it, I would have delivered his legal Greenwald of a New York closing argument, but Goldberg, despite his serious resume, decided to be a nice Jewish boy and invite Greenwald on a trip with himto Iraqi-Kurdistan – so maybe Goldberg is cleverer than I am. But all this led me to be catching up on my reading of Greenwald, of whom I am not a regular reader for reasons that will become quite apparent.

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Let it be known right away that I think Greenwald levies some very substantive criticisms against Goldberg regarding his reporting on the Middle East in general, and Iraq particularly, in the period leading up to the Iraq War. Goldberg chose not to respond to the criticisms. That might seem evasive, but the criticisms – about supporting the war and Goldberg’s allegiances to Israel – are not new, and I can well understand that it might be Goldberg’s position at this point that every time someone decides he wants to reargue these issues, Goldberg is not going to feel obligated to defend himself anew. Keep in mind that for a certain kind of political-absolutist Iraq War opponent, no kind of response other than self-commitment to a reeducation camp will suffice. And even then, upon release, the offender would have to bear daily to be spat upon in the street. In England, this monomania consists of a determination to have Tony Blair adjudged by God, man, and even himself, in shameful tears, a spawn of Satan who knowingly and willfully led England into and “an illegal and immoral” war, rather than someone, instead, who arrived at a different political – and moral – judgment than they did.

Greenwald wants Goldberg to admit his errors:

Given how completely discredited those articles are, those are awards [for Goldberg’s pre-war reporting] which any person with an iota of shame would renounce and apologize for, but Goldberg continues to proudly tout them on his bio page at The Atlantic.

Let me not be the one to abjure honest confession of error, if, indeed, such has been committed, but let’s not fool ourselves about the nature of such calls from our adversaries. On the one hand, Ross Douthat describes Weigel’s own mea culpa so:

a model mea culpa: Forthright and self-critical, rather than defensive and self-justifying.

On the other hand, the comments following Weigel’s account of himself, on Andrew Breitbart’s Big Journalism, are not badly represented by the following:

How old is this guy? 10? Man get some Clearasil. No wonder he is a Marxist he is a dweeb and ugly goes right down the profile of a leftist. Ugly women emasculated men all become leftists as they can whine about being victims.

As Michael might more honestly have told Carlo near the end of Godfather I, “Just tell me honestly that you fingered Sonny, and then I’ll give you a plane ticket and let you live – until you get to the car, where I’ll have you strangled in the front seat.”

In this instance, Greenwald is not just finding fault with some of Goldberg’s reporting.

To see what a representative blight on journalism Jeffrey Goldberg is, one need not go back several years.

Even Goldberg’s backtracking later in the day was itself fueled by full-scale journalistic sloth and shoddiness.

Other recent comments from Goldberg illustrate the menace to journalism that he is.

And, to conclude:

The Jeffrey Goldberg Media continues to exert substantial influence and wreak real havoc, but as is true for most of America’s once-respected institutions — and, indeed, as is true for America itself — it’s inexorably weakening and crumbling, and the merit-free elites (like Goldberg) who cast themselves as the unfair victims are, in fact, the prime authors of their own demise.

It’s an indictment intended to be damning. Goldberg needed to respond to it, and the response he has chosen, rather than continuing debate, is to invite Greenwald to the scene of the crime, so to speak, to interview witnesses, thinking that might influence Greenwald’s thinking. I doubt it, and I will be surprised if Greenwald accepts.

Why, then, am I unsympathetic to Greenwald? For reasons, in fact, not unlike those that feed his antipathy for Goldberg, but that Greenwald never directly acknowledges. I have mentioned one of the reasons already: the tendency to characterize those who differed on Iraq not simply, if one believes it, as wrong, but as dishonest. Another reason for Greenwald’s antipathy emerges over the course of his attack.

Goldberg, whose devotion to Israel is so extreme that he served in the IDF as a prison guard over Palestinianswas described last year as “Netanyahu’s faithful stenographer by The New York Times’ Roger Cohen.

That fantastical, war-fueling screed — aimed at scaring Americans into targeting the full panoply of Israel’s enemies – actually won a National Magazine Award in 2003.

Two weeks ago, Goldberg — like all Israel-obsessive devotees — turned his ire toward Turkey for daring to oppose Israel’s policies.

As one emailer put it to me:  Goldberg is open about the fact that “he’s only interested in the plight of the Kurds when he can gleefully use it as a cudgel against Israel’s enemies.”

If anything provokes greater ire from Greenwald than does Goldberg it is Israel, and note that Greenwald goes so far as to accuse Goldberg of choosing his subjects and slanting his reporting with the aim only of leading the U.S. into war in Israel’s interests. This isn’t even a charge of dual loyalty. It is an accusation of serving as a foreign agent. It is also an example of what William F. Buckley, when he rejected John Birch Society founder Robert Welch, termed the “Birch fallacy.”

The fallacy,” I said, is the assumption that you can infer subjective intention from objective consequence: we lost China to the Communists, therefore the President of the United States and the Secretary of State wished China to go to the Communists.

Greenwald won’t mind my citing the conservative Buckley in criticism of him, since Greenwald used to write for paleoconservative Pat Buchanan.

What loses, or should lose, trust in Greenwald’s argument is the overwhelming animus that motivates it. Greenwald, who is all for showing one’s cards in displays of honest reporting and analysis – though he doesn’t quite here – would perhaps find no flaw in this. There is a difference, though, between having a point of view and even passions (and succumbing, as anyone will, to some ill-advised invective) and forming one’s arguments out of the passionate point of view, rather than the passion from the argument. The former leads to the kind of closed, monovision of absolute believers like Greenwald, and the kind of slanting of which he himself accuses Goldberg – not showing one’s cards, but stacking them.

In the days surrounding the Goldberg post Greenwald took up many big issues – well, that is what Salon pays him for. They are big issues because of their weight and because of their complexity, but Greenwald never sees the complexity. It is all always very simple and clear to him. For instance, Greenwald wrote about the controversy surrounding Michael Hastings’ Rolling Stone piece on General Stanley McChrystal. The controversy for most of us was what McChrystal and others said of their civilian superiors; in the journalistic world the controversy was over Hastings’s reporting. Greenwald tellingly titled his post “The two poles of journalism.” Generally, this would lead to an analysis seeking some more nuanced ground between the poles. Not for Greenwald. Here is how he characterizes the criticism of Hastings and presents the two poles:

[Hastings] exposed and embarrassed rather than flattered and protected a powerful government official, and in our upside-down media culture, doing that is a sign of irresponsibility rather than fulfillment of the basic journalistic function.

Objectively put, no? No. There may be establishment journalists who flatter and protect, but that is no one’s argumentative position. And is it, rather, the job description of journalist to expose and embarrass? What if the subject does not warrant exposure? And anyone can be embarrassed. We are all that non-hero to our theoretical valet.

Greenwald rightfully went after Marc Ambinder for being among those, like David Sanger of The New York Times, who attended Vice President Biden’s pool party and had water gun fights with Rahm Emmanuel. One would think a high school newspaper editor would spy the cooption by power that represents. Ambinder never saw it. Still, in response to Greenwald, Ambinder wrote:

Greenwald demands skepticism toward those in power — which any good journalist must have — but then confuses this with implacable hostility. They are not the same. The job of a reporter is to question, understand, and inform. You need a vigorous skepticism to do this. But unreasoning hostility is as inimical to understanding as blind deference.

In considering the McChrystal imbroglio, then, Greenwald contrasts a video of Hastings with one of Lara Logan of CBS vehemently criticizing Hastings. Logan here is supposed to represent that other pole (flatter and protect), but that is because Greenwald (expose and embarrass) cannot hear Logan’s arguments: that the reporter is in a human relationship, which for Hastings permits developing the pretense of a trust the subject should not be fooled into placing, and for Logan includes the possibility of actually respecting the subject and what he does. Subjects can, in fact, warrant either treatment. However, that is a more stereoscopic vision Greenwald cannot have.

Greenwald wrote a post criticizing the use of the word “terrorist,”

the most meaningless and most manipulated word in the political lexicon.

It becomes clear relatively soon, however, that the post is another opportunity to bash Israel, and while the purpose of the post is avowedly to challenge the meaningful usage of the term, it unselfconsciously (self-consciousness requires a second train of thought, a second “vision”) states:

If any group meets the definition of “terrorism,” the Irgun does


It was once commonly accepted that Irgun members were Terrorists.  But that was then and this is now.

But the point of the post was to reveal the unreliable meaning of the word “terrorist,” resorted to these days – “now” – only to serve an American or Israeli agenda. Yet the sentence above offers the reverse, that now we have suffered some politically motivated debasement of a word that once had very clear meaning – that, if no one else, Jews could be terrorists.

Much as in his brief against Goldberg, Greenwald cannot resist stacking the rhetorical deck and skewing the presentation of an issue according to his position on it – precisely what he charged Goldberg of doing in his Iraq reporting. Here he posts on the very important subject of targeting American citizens who might be fighting with the enemy, Islamic terrorists, against the United States. Notice I used the words “fighting” and “enemy.” Greenwald is amongst those who insist on conceiving widespread and organized Islamic terrorism as a law enforcement problem. Other people claim the nature of war in the contemporary era – access to massive amounts of conventional weaponry and potentially WMD, and ease of organization across national boundaries of non-state actors – has necessarily altered. This raises a host of complex issues, including that of how to confront citizens who side with the enemy. Were they advancing on a battlefield with weapon in hand, there would be no question. But since Greenwald will not acknowledge these complex new developments, these complexities are not represented in the discussion and so cannot be considered. Further, he loads his presentation with prejudicial terms such as “assassination.” People like Greenwald do the same with Israel. Israel, too, for more than sixty years has had to fight a long war that does not fit conventional understanding, and the killing of the enemy in war, if we accept it as such, is not assassination.

In the “terrorism” post, Greenwald argues that Anwar Al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen apparently based now in Yemen and considered an enemy combatant by the administration, is being wrongly targeted based on “his constitutionally protected advocacy of Muslims fighting against the U.S.” Mere advocacy of violence is a free speech right and Greenwald being a former “constitutional law and civil rights litigator” one might not bother to follow his link to the 1969 Supreme Court decision Brandenburg V. Ohio. and read it oneself. The exception to protect advocacy is “where such advocacy is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action,” with “imminent lawless action” having become the legal test. “Imminent,” of course, is not a precise term, but you can read here the history of Al-Awlaki’s “advocacy” and judge for yourself whether at this point he constitutes a danger of imminent lawless action. None of this you will read from Greenwald, for whom the complex tends to be inarguably simple.

In the current consideration – raised again by the Weigel incident – of what kind of journalism is superior, the traditional effort at an impossible objectivity or the acknowledgment to start of the biases at work, Greenwald does not offer a model case in support of the latter.

Update: Goldberg offers further response.

Update II: Greenwald replies to Goldberg’s initial response. As I anticipated, there will be no trip to Iraqi Kurdistan.

I’m not interested in an overly personalized exchange with Goldberg.

Along the way, Greenwald manages many unflattering juxtapositions to the Iraq War, including the Nazi invasion of various nations, in order to discount the relevance of how the Kurds may feel about the war, but these are not comparisons, he says. The Iraq War “may or may not be” comparable, “but that’s irrelevant” to his point. Still, it would take little effort to quickly concede “is not comparable” if that is what he thinks, though this would lead Greenwald into that gray world he prefers to live beyond. He even quotes Goldberg as having said that Greenwald has

an overly simplistic, black-and-white view of the situation

to which Greenwald responds

yes, I think unprovoked acts of aggression are clearly wrong; as lead Nuremberg prosecutor Robert Jackson put it in his Closing Argument about the crimes of World War II:  “the kingpin which holds them all together, is the plot for aggressive wars.”

So we almost end with what certainly seems a comparison to Nazi aggression. I say almost end because though he had managed it till then, Greenwald in his closing sentence cannot resist dragging Israel into the matter, his point appearing to be that while the U.S. is wrong in what he considers an act of aggression, Israel is wrong even in self-defense.



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