Tuesday, May 20, 2003

The New Yorker and the neocons. Has the liberal New Yorker become an outpost of neoconservative war-hawkery? That is the argument made by Daniel Lazare in the current issue of the Nation.

Lazare contends that the New Yorker and its editor, David Remnick, have been in retreat ever since that infamous post-9/11 mini-essay by Susan Sontag, in which she blamed the terrorist attacks on American ineptitude (and worse) even as the remains of the World Trade Center continued to blaze.

Lazare's argument is not without merit. Remnick, in signed pieces for the "Talk of the Town" section, came out in favor of the war in Iraq, and Jeffrey Goldberg's reporting built the case both for Al Qaeda's worldwide capabilities and for the essential evil of Saddam Hussein's regime.

But this being the Nation, Lazare travels down several roads that many readers will find puzzling, and occasionally offensive. To wit:

  • Lazare blasts Nicholas Lemann, the author of several important post-9/11 pieces (and the newly named head of the Columbia School of Journalism) as someone who "seems to have reinvented himself as the sort of star-struck journalist who daydreams about fly-fishing with Dick Cheney and gushes over Condoleezza Rice." His evidence: Lemann's use of a pro-Condi quote from another White House official. Really.
  • In a case of moral equivalence run amok, Lazare writes: "Whenever The New Yorker uses the word 'terror' or one of its cognates, for instance, it is almost always in an Arab or Muslim context. While a Nexis search turns up numerous references in the magazine to Palestinian, Egyptian and Pakistani terrorism since the Twin Towers attack, it turns up no references to US or Israeli terrorism or, for that matter, to terrorism on the part of Christians or Jews. A Nexis search over the same period reveals that the word 'fundamentalism' appears almost always in an Islamic context as well." I'm not sure what to say about this except the old standby: I am not making this up.
  • Last year Goldberg wrote a densely reported, important piece on Saddam Hussein's gas attack against the Kurdish population in Northern Iraq in 1988. Lazare, though, is put out that Goldberg had found far greater evidence of perfidy on Saddam's part than had Human Rights Watch in an earlier report, even though Lazare gives us no reason to think that HRW is definitive on this matter. To be sure, Lazare accurately notes that Goldberg reported claims of ties between Saddam and Al Qaeda that have yet to be borne out. Still, Goldberg's report of what happened in Kurdistan was impressive and disturbing. And why does Lazare care that Goldberg served in the Israeli army?

Strangely, Lazare looks at the alleged ideological swings of the New Yorker's investigative reporter, Seymour Hersh, without really considering just how plain wrong the guy has been. Hersh's most egregious piece appeared in the April 7 issue, in which he reported that the war was faltering, that there weren't nearly enough troops on the ground, and that the generals were furious with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld for leaving American soldiers vulnerable and exposed. I understand that Hersh is a captive of his sources, but he obviously needs better sources. Count me among those who felt used.

In that respect, Jack Shafer's recent Slate deconstruction of Hersh is more valuable for what it says about the New Yorker's shortcomings than is Lazare's ideologically blinkered essay.

It's not that Lazare isn't on to something. It's that this isn't it.

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