Mentionable and Unmentionable Journalists
Olivia Wilde was on the Daily Show recently (full episode) to promote a film. Jon Stewart was not only bedazzled by her, but also by her having had Christopher Hitchens as a babysitter when she was much younger. They lauded good ol’ Hitch for a while ‘cause he was such a stand-up guy, especially for someone who was a raging alcoholic (their words). When Jon asked her how her family had gotten Hitch as a babysitter, she responded that her family was part of a wonderful group of journalists that all worked together at one point but that they were “unfortunately all dying out”. She was clearly thinking of Hitchens, who’d recently died of cancer but may also have been referring to Alexander Cockburn, her uncle, who was also a heralded writer and who’d also recently died of cancer.
They went on to discuss a recent trip she’d taken to Africa in the company of Nicholas Kristof, of the New York Times. Kristof is well-known as a hack and a shill for the elite and those in power. That he recently started paying attention to the plight in Africa and is lauding micro-financing as the way forward, out of poverty—there’s probably a catch where it will benefit his usual clientèle, but I won’t hazard a guess as to what that might be. This recent zag toward something potentially useful to the hoi polloi in no way redeems the decades he spent zigging in the other direction, spewing one power-kowtowing column after another—in what he doubtless considered to be a form of journalism—into the miasma that is the modern American media.
Now, here’s the thing. Hitchens gets not only mentioned but posthumously lauded on the Daily Show. This despite having spent his last decade essentially cheer-leading for the neo-conservatives and the Bush administration in every foreign clusterfuck they saw fit to stumble America into in the name of eradicating what Hitchens considered a scourge on the Western way of life, Islam. The only reason people—perhaps Jon Stewart included—even know of Hitchens is that, once he’d made his turn toward a political sun that gelled with America’s tastes, he was invited onto talk shows and news channels to share his erudite opinions in his unquestionably loquacious and vocabularily lush manner. Americans are kind of a sucker for the British accent, even now.
At the time to which Ms. Wilde referred to Hitchens as having been a member of a group of journalists, he was a leftist—a Trotskyist—with dashes of Marxist and anarcho-syndicalism thrown in for good measure. They all were and they fought the good fight for the little guy. He used to write for the Nation (still the preëminent leftist magazine in the States), as did Alexander Cockburn. Her father, Andrew Cockburn, is a regular contributer to CounterPunch, an amazing source of independent—and…wait for it…left-leaning—journalism. Her other uncle, Patrick Cockburn, is also a regular contributor and is one of the best sources of balanced and untainted news about the Middle East available anywhere (perhaps equaled by Nir Rosen or Robert Fisk). She didn’t mention any of these people, even though they are all much better people than the self-serving drunk, Hitchens.
Alexander Cockburn’s roots are in Ireland and he’d been living in America for 40 years when he died. He never, ever kowtowed and he never compromised his principles and he was always open to rational argument. This isn’t to say that his shit didn’t stink—some of his views took some nuance and squinting to see where he was not exactly supporting them but supporting their potential rationality—but he believed in science and fact and didn’t buy into the “us vs. them” mentality that gets so many in the end.
He gave amazing interviews and was a nearly peerless writer and would have been an amazing guest on the Daily Show—he had a lovely rhythm to his diction and was easily as erudite as Hitchens (see the links below). Alas, Stewart is a great guy and seems to have his head on straight, but he’s still an American and his show is still run by an American company, which means no out-and-out leftists (although Cockburn claimed that his views had more than a bit of libertarianism thrown in). In fact, leftists can’t be mentioned by name at all. Hitchens and Kristof could be mentioned—and lauded as wonderful chaps—because they know how to align their opinions with the American mainstream. Buck the trend and even your own niece won’t mention your name on TV.
If you’d like to hear Alexander Cockburn at the top of his game, then you can listen to a Tribute to Alexander Cockburn (This is Hell!). This is Hell! is a four-hour radio show that airs on Saturday mornings from the campus of Northwestern University, run by the venerable Chuck Mertz.
There’s another archival show (This is Hell!) where you can find interviews with the clearly self-enamored Christopher Hitchens (a relatively regular visitor to the show) to which you can compare, if you’d like. That show also features a great interview with Greg Palast, who’s an American journalist but is blackballed because of his relentless efforts to shed light on the corrupt elections process in the States. He’s not doing too badly, though: BBC NewsNight has had him on staff for years now—at least they can still recognize good journalism.
So there you go, Hitchens and Kristof are acceptable because they’re right-wing enough for the American media and don’t make anyone uncomfortable. Greg Palast is working in England because no major U.S. news organization will hire him. Alexander Cockburn is persona non grata because he never compromised and never went over to the dark side, fighting for truth to the bitter end. Ironically, his bitter end came in Germany, where he’d gone for his final cancer treatment—a final implicit ding on the state of things in America, perhaps, a shot over the bow of the American health-care system.
Another American, Noam Chomsky, arguably the leading American moralist/political analyst for decades has been on This is Hell! many times but is utterly ignored by the mainstream media.
Perhaps Cockburn himself summed it up best when he responded to Chuck Mertz’s apologies about not having had him on in a while:
“I know, I know, I know, I hear these things … it saddens me, but what do I care? Man is a fallen creature.”