by Alexander Cockburn
nominate The New Yorker's Jeffrey Goldberg as the Remington of our time, though without the artistic talent. Remington? Back in 1898, William Randolph Hearst was trying to fan war fever between the United States and Spain. He dispatched a reporter and the artist Frederic Remington to Cuba to send back blood-roiling depictions of Spanish beastliness to Cuban insurgents. Remington wired to say he could find nothing sensational to draw and could he come home. Famously, Hearst wired him, "Please remain. You furnish the pictures, and I'll furnish the war." Remington duly did so.
I wouldn't set The New Yorker's editor, David Remnick, in the shoes of a Kong-sized monster like Hearst. Remnick is a third-tier talent who has always got ahead by singing the correct career-enhancing tunes, as witness his awful reporting from Russia in the 1990s. Art Spiegelman recently quit The New Yorker, remarking that these dangerous times require courage and the ability to be provocative, but alas, "Remnick does not feel up to the challenge."
That's putting it far too politely. Remnick's watch has been lackluster and cowardly. He is also the current sponsor (Marty Peretz of The New Republic was an earlier one) of Goldberg, whose first major chunk of agitprop for The New Yorker was published on March 25 of last year. Titled "The Great Terror," it was billed as containing disclosures of "Saddam Hussein's possible ties to al Qaeda."
This was at a moment when the FBI and CIA had just shot down the war party's claim of a meeting between Mohammed Atta and an Iraqi intelligence agent in Prague before the 9/11 attacks. Goldberg saved the day for the Bush crowd. At the core of his rambling, 16,000-word piece was an interview in the Kurdish-held Iraqi town of Sulaimaniya with Mohammed Mansour Shahab, who offered the eager Goldberg a wealth of detail about his activities as a link between Osama bin Laden and the Iraqis, shuttling arms and other equipment.
The piece was gratefully seized upon by the administration as proof of The Link. The coup de grace to Goldberg's credibility fell on Feb. 9 of this year in the London Observer, administered by Jason Burke, its chief reporter. Burke visited the same prison in Sulaimaniya, talked to Shahab and established beyond doubt that Goldberg's great source is a clumsy liar, not even knowing the physical appearance of Kandahar, whither he had claimed to have journeyed to deal with bin Laden, and confecting his fantasies in the hope of a shorter prison sentence.
Another experienced European journalist, whom I reached on the Continent at the end of this week and who visited the prison last year agrees with Burke's findings. "I talked to prisoners without someone present. The director of the prison seemed surprised at my request. With a prison authority present, the interview would be worthless. As soon as we talked to this particular one, a colleague said after 30 seconds, 'this is worthless. The guy was just a storyteller.'"
The European journalist, who doesn't want to be identified, said to me charitably that Goldberg's credulity about Shahab "could have been a matter of misjudgment, but my even stronger criticism is that if you talked, as we did, and as I gather Goldberg did, to anybody in the PUK (the Kurdish group controlling this area of northern Iraq) about this particular Islamic group, all of them would tell you they are backed by Iran, as common sense would tell you. Look where they are located. It's 200 meters across one river to Iran. That's what I find upsetting. Misjudging a source can happen to all of us, but Goldberg did talk to generals in the PUK. I think it's outrageous that New Yorker ran that story."
An American with a lot of experience in interviewing in prisons adds, "It's tricky interviewing prisoners in the first place -- their vulnerability, etc. -- and responsible journalists make some sort of minimal credibility assessment before they report someone's statements. but the prisoner said exactly what Jeffrey Goldberg wanted to hear, so Goldberg didn't feel that he needed to mention that the prisoner was nuts."
On Feb. 10, amid widespread cynicism about the administration's rationales for war, Remnick published another Goldberg special, "The Unknown: The CIA and the Pentagon Take Another Look at Al Qaeda and Iraq." This 6,000-word screed had no pretensions to being anything other than a servile rendition of Donald Rumsfeld's theory of intelligence: "Build a hypothesis, and then see if the data supported the hypothesis, rather than the reverse." In other words, decide what you want to hear, then torture the data until the data confess.
This last piece of Goldberg's was a truly disgraceful piece of flackery (of Rumsfeld, Tenet, et al.), devoid of even the pretensions of independent journalism. "Reporter at Large?" Remnick should retire the rubric, at least for Goldberg, and advertise his work as "White House Handout." I should note that Goldberg once served in Israel's armed forces, which may or may not be a guide to his political agenda.
March 5, 2003 (http://www.albionmonitor.net) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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