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Marc Haefele on reporter Alexander Cockburn, 1941-2012

Author and journalist Alexander Cockburn, December 6, 2007 in San Francisco.
Author and journalist Alexander Cockburn, December 6, 2007 in San Francisco.
Robert B. Livingston/Wikipedia Commons

Alexander Cockburn soared like a comet across the sky of New York Alternative Journalism in the early 70s, arriving propitiously, just in time for events like Nixon’s abdication and  the Allende coup in Chile. He had a style seemingly inherited from his communist journalist father Claud Cockburn and from his  cousin Evelyn Waugh, whose debonair style of insults influenced and infected his own work.

He trod on all toes. He was occasionally brilliantly inventive—I still recall his parody of a Mobil Oil newspaper ad contending that a major oil spill disaster had been good for the environment. He regularly was merciless on the daily US working press of the time and their perceived faults. He derided every conceivable action of the American liberal establishment—including those that history has supported, like the Camp David Accords.

But never mind. If you were a young  leftist writing in the 70s, he set your political signposts for you—way out from any of the other popular media of that time.

I met him just once, at some rustic  1970s Leftish gathering on the East Coast. He was affable and — I noticed, for some reason drove a vast, immaculate late 1950s Imperial convertible, shiny red, slathered in chrome. What statement was this, I wondered? But did not ask. The car he owned when he died was a later iteration of the same machine in the same color. It never surprised me, therefore, that he turned into a global warming denier.

I don’t know how his peers felt about him. But Kevin McAuliffe, in his 1978 The Great American Newspaper: the Rise and Fall of the Village Voice, portrayed Cockburn as a virtual management stooge of his Voice supervisors. Even of Rupert Murdoch, who owned the little paper for a few years, before starting up Fox News. In 1984, his Voice career ended after a Boston alt paper disclosed he’d taken $10,000 from a pro-Arab foundation to write a book that never appeared.

This was a blow from which his reputation never truly recovered. For his part, he became an increasingly uncritical partisan of the Palestinian cause.

He moved over to The Nation, as well as the Wall Street Journal, of all places, and co-founded the Counterpunch tabloid based in rural Petrolia, California. It published interesting writing and some worthwhile investigations, but never developed the inner-sanctum credibility of its obvious model, I.F. Stone’s Weekly.  

Over the years, Cockburn’s columns got more erratic. He  spoke against gun control, and at one point suggested that it was socially beneficial for girls to get pregnant early in their teens. Some of his hastily written sallies even skirted sanity, like the one I remember in which he surmised that the Neolithic cave paintings of Southern France were created by out-of-work tour guides. I don’t recall when he became too annoying  to read. Or was this simply my disappointment in a fallen idol, perhaps, who had gradually turned himself into an outlier beyond the outliers ... the sort of sloppy factoid-monger he himself would have lustily lacerated in his prime?

This should not detract from the groundbreaking work he pulled off in his best years. When, with dedicated intelligence and irreplaceable zeal, he did nothing less than totally reinvent press criticism in the English language. He leaves countless inheritors. 

Here is a sample of his best  from nearly 39 years ago, from the Village Voice archive.

A Week After Coup Leaves Allende Dead, No One Knows Anything  

September 20, 1973 - by Alexander Cockburn

THERE HAVE BEEN HEADLINES in the papers and cover stories in Time and Newsweek but one of the central facts about Chile, so far as the world's newspaper-reading population is concerned, is that one week after the coup no one knows what is going on there.

IN SATURDAY'S WASHINGTON POST, Marlise Simons said in a dispatch which the Post honestly stressed had been "passed by Chilean censorship" that there have been "shoot-outs at large factories, the bastions of pro-Allende forces, and fighting in working-class districts around one knows how many dead or wounded there are, though rumors range from hundreds into the thousands." She referred to military displeasure at reports of "catastrophic assaults on working-class districts and large-scale resistance in the rest of the country."

ARE THERE REALLY thousands dead -- piled up in hospitals -- as many reports claim? Or merely "scores" or "hundreds" as other journalists estimate? Nobody has the slightest idea. An AP report in the New York Times conjures up an image of a bustling reporter on the job, marshaling the facts, sifting evidence. Not so. All reporters were immobilized wherever they were when the coup broke out, crouching in their offices or hotels, harassed by soldiers, and subjected to thorough censorship.

SOME REPORTERS WERE LUCKY or prescient. The Wall Street Journal's Everett Martin arrived in Santiago just in time for the coup and has filed two interesting reports. The London Sunday Times diplomatic correspondent flew back to London 12 hours before the coup, saying nothing was afoot. Jonathan Kandell of the New York Times had just left for Buenos Aires.

MOST OF THE WORLD'S PRESS is actually sitting in Mendoza, on the Argentinean border, waiting to be admitted. It was up to the papers, therefore, to develop useful analysis and reports in the absence of a coherent narrative of events. Here the European press has been incomparably better than the U.S.

FRIDAY LE MONDE, the leading French paper, had five pages on the coup and its consequences, ranging from an analysis of the copper market to the facts of State Department foreknowledge. Corriere della Sera ran three pages. No such coverage was proffered in American papers. All this week there have been few foreign papers available in Hotaling's Times Square. As the man there put it, "because of that Chile business, everything has been gone all week. People buy them just for news." Nowhere in the New York public library system can you read current foreign newspapers.

IN GENERAL U.S. EDITORIALISTS have joined with the Pope and Max Lerner and called the events "a tragedy.: The nice thing about tragedy is that it somehow absolves human beings from responsibility. Beyond that, the general consensus was that, as the New York Times put it, "a heavy share of responsibility for the disaster must be assigned to the unfortunate Dr. Allende himself." The romantic Marxist "who never lost his taste for Scotch whiskey" had gone too far, and divided the nation.

IT TOOK RICHARD GOTT in the Manchester Guardian to point out that Allende "was elected with 36 per cent of the vote and in the past three years he has not lost a single supporter. His support went up to 44 per cent at congressional elections this year." American newspaper readers might have formed the impression that Chile was populated entirely by middle-class housewives demonstrating against Allende. Gott points out that the week before the coup the largest demonstration in Chilean history, an estimated one million people, saluted the third anniversary of Allende's presidency.

BOTH THE NEW YORK TIMES and the New York Post said Allende had "tragically alienated" the Christian Democrats, as though that party was lusting to participate in Allende's program. It took Christopher Roper of the Manchester Guardian, reprinted in the Saturday Washington Post, to report that Frei, former president and prominent Christian Democrat, had been traveling in Europe and the U.S. urging bankers to mount an economic boycott of Chile and that six months ago he had predicted military intervention. Roper says that in "off the record briefings" State Department and CIA officials had been referring to the possibility that Frei should return as leader after "new elections."

WE MIGHT HAVE EXPECTED intensive investigation of possible U.S. involvement from a press corps fresh from triumph and self-congratulation over Watergate. Nothing much has happened. Marvin Kalb on CBS national news Wednesday night, said the State Department had known the coup was coming, and that Nathaniel Davis, the U.S. ambassador in Chile, had been back in Washington for the two days before the coup. Kalb hinted there were divisions in the State Department, though dwindling, over the desirability of the coup.

NEWSPAPERS HAVE REVIEWED the evidence at their disposal and generally remarked that in "the absence of evidence" one must assume that the U.S. government played no part, beyond a decision not to warn Allende of the impending attack, which it knew of at least 12 hours in advance.

In "the absence of evidence" it might seem journalistically more responsible to assume there was American involvement, until evidence emerges to the contrary. We have coups from Guatemala and Guyana forward to guide us: there seems little reason to wait for Kissinger's memoirs or a congressional hearing in 1984 to get the full story.

THIS WEEK NACLA (North American Council on Latin America) published some interesting research into the career of U.S. Ambassador to Chile Nathaniel P. Davis. From 1956 to 1960 he was Chief Officer in charge of Soviet Affairs at the State Department (he had previously worked in Moscow and Eastern Europe and NACLA alleges he had previously had OSS connections). From 1960 to 1962 he was first secretary in the U.S. embassy in Caracas at a time when it was one of the centers for CIa planning of the Bay of Pigs.

In 1968 he replaced John Mein (who had been killed by guerrillas) as U.S. ambassador in Guatemala. Following Davis's arrival a successful pacification program took place, with estimated deaths among the guerrillas and population of 20,000.

In 1971 he arrived in Chile to replace Edward Korry, "whose usefulness," in the frank words of an ITT memo, "as a diplomat in Latin America has been destroyed and who in a subiness capacity in Latin America has become questionable." By 1972, according to a memo leaked to Jack Anderson, Davis was cabling the State Department that "there is considerable variety in ways military might intervene." On September 8 Davis flew to Washington to see Henry Kissinger. On September 10 he returned to Chile. On September 11 Allende was dead.

Of course Davis may be as pure as a lamb, devoting his waking hours to the study of Chilean church paintings. The U.S. press has not tried hard, so far, to make the assessment , either way, of the role of Davis or of the institutions he represents. At the moment, so far as events inside Chile are concerned, we have to depend on material censored and, as the Washington Post has stressed once, altered. Are we to assume that similar hindrances exist beyond that country's borders: that "tragedy" alone was the impelling force behind the death of Allende and the massacre or prosecution of his supporters? It seems late in the day for that kind of naivete.