Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 15, 2013

Fact checking the New Yorker

Filed under: journalism — louisproyect @ 8:05 pm



Like most people on the left, I was appalled by Jon Lee Anderson’s error-filled and tendentious report on Hugo Chavez’s death in the New Yorker Magazine. It was sad to see Anderson turning into a sputtering reactionary. While he was never a fearless radical, at least it could be said that his Che Guevara biography was pretty decent, only going downhill after the guerrillas took power. That, I suppose, was an early warning about how he would treat another leftist in power.

And like most people on the left, I was elated by NACLA’s Kean Bhatt’s demolition of Anderson’s ongoing reporting that elicited two retractions from the New Yorker. Here is a sample:

Anderson’s article, “Slumlord: What Has Hugo Chávez Wrought in Venezuela?,” is indeed filled with blatant misrepresentations. The New Yorker’s vaunted factcheckers somehow permitted the publication of the following statement: “Chavez suggested to me that he had embraced the far left as a way of preventing a coup like the one that put him in office.” While it is true that in 1992, Chávez attempted a coup against an administration that had deployed security forces to massacre hundreds, perhaps thousands of civilian protesters, Anderson is misleading his readers. Chávez was “put in office” much later, in 1999, through a free and fair election—not a coup—a fact which he did not see fit to include in his piece. He instead wrote, vaguely, that Chávez “assumed” power in 1999.

Yes, what ever happened to those “vaunted factcheckers”? I suppose that compared to the Jared Diamond fiasco at the magazine in 2009, Anderson’s reporting was a mere peccadillo. A January 5, 2013 profile of Diamond in the Guardian summed things up:

Several years ago, Diamond says he met a tribesman called Daniel Wemp who said he had organised a clan war in New Guinea to avenge the death of an uncle. According to Diamond, after three years, and 30 deaths, Wemp’s target – a man called Isum Mandingo – was left paralysed in an attack. Diamond wrote up the story for the New Yorker in 2008 – and found himself at the receiving end of a $10m libel lawsuit from Wemp and Mandingo.

An investigation by Rhonda Roland Shearer – the widow of the evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould and publisher of iMediaEthics, a not-for-profit news website – alleged that the New Yorker article was riddled with errors, that Wemp had not organised the clan war and that Mandingo was injured in an unrelated attack when he was protecting his land. It was also claimed that Wemp was now living in fear of his life because of Diamond’s article. Hence the lawsuit. For their part, both Diamond and David Remnick, the editor of the New Yorker, vigorously denied the allegations. Their story was backed by careful notes that had been taken at the time by Diamond, while his text had been carefully scrutinised by one of the magazine’s best fact checkers, Remnick added.

 I imagine that Remnick’s reference to “one of the magazine’s best fact checkers” is accurate if you read it in terms of “one of Obama’s greatest contributions to social justice” or “one of the healthiest entrees from Macdonald’s”.

I first ran into the magazine when I was ten years old or so when my mom used to take me over to see Mrs. Basner’s canaries. Mrs. Basner was one my little village’s few eccentrics and likely saw me a potential recruit to her bohemian cause. She kept the canaries—numbering at least 25—flying freely in a sunny upstairs room and the New Yorkers stacked neatly at the bottom of the stairwell set aside for me. I loved the cartoons even if the short stories and nonfiction were lost on me. For me Gahan Wilson’s mordant wit was the nearest thing to Mad Magazine to be found in a refined format.

Years later I would be able to appreciate the quality of the nonfiction, even if the short stories continued to be lost on me. (Except for John Updike, most seemed pointless in the minimalist style that was characterized widely as “New Yorker type fiction”.)

For example, Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” originally appeared in the New Yorker, as did Jonathan Schell’s reporting on Vietnam. This was the type of journalism to be expected under the editorship of William Shawn, who began working at the magazine as a fact checker in 1933 and stayed there for 53 years until being forced out by the execrable Si Newhouse Jr. in 1987. (Shawn was the father of playwright/actor Wallace Shawn, an open socialist.)

The original editor was one Harold Ross who founded the magazine in 1925 with financial backing from Raoul Fleischmann, heir to the margarine manufacturer’s CEO. In the 1920s Ross was a member in good standing of the Algonquin Round Table, a sort of American equivalent of the Bloomsbury Group, that used to meet regularly at the Algonquin Hotel dining room in New Yorker as a salon devoted to the discussion of politics and culture—something like the Marxism list. It included a wide variety of talents from Harpo Marx (I imagine he was out of character on such occasions) to the acerbic Dorothy Parker. Harpo’s brother Groucho once described them as a group where “The price of admission is a serpent’s tongue and a half-concealed stiletto.” Of course, this point was somewhat moot since Groucho once said that he would never join a club low enough to admit him as a member.

Ross was succeeded by Shawn in 1951 and probably had more of a political edge than the founder.

After buying the magazine in 1985, media mogul Si Newhouse Jr. decided to replace Shawn with Robert Gottlieb two years later, a move that precipitated a protest letter by 154 contributors to the magazine. A NY Times article suggested what might have caused the eruption:

Mr. Gottlieb’s editorial stamp is also apparent in his passion for kitsch, exemplified by the garish statues of Elvis Presley and the Lone Ranger among the knickknacks on his desk. But few longtime New Yorker staff members seem to share that taste, which probably accounts for their general annoyance with a recent article about a convention of Scottish terrier fanciers. The piece was written by Jane and Michael Stern, who wrote a book for Mr. Gottlieb on Elvis Presley.

In any case, Gottlieb’s stay was a short one. In 1992 Newhouse put Tina Brown, the British editor of “Vanity Fair” (another Condé Nast property), in charge. It was widely understood at the time that Brown, now the editor of the Newsweek/Daily Beast atrocity, would reshape the New Yorker along the lines of “Vanity Fair”, a temple of vacuous celebrity worship. Wikipedia reports that two months after the first Gulf War started, she removed a picture of the blonde Marla Maples (Mrs. Donald Trump) from the cover and replaced it with a photograph of Cher. She told the Washington Post: “In light of the gulf crisis, we thought a brunette was more appropriate.”

In 1998 Brown moved on to a new job at the Walt Disney Corporation. Newhouse replaced her with Sovietologist David Remnick, who is still the editor. With no apparent appetite for kitsch or celebrities, Remnick does seem to have an unquenchable appetite for neoliberalism and bellicose foreign policy initiatives.

One of Remnick’s early hires was Jeffrey Goldberg, the Zionist booster of George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq. Alexander Cockburn did not mince words back in 2003 when he called attention to Counterpunch readers that Goldberg had written a New Yorker article tying al-Qaeda to Saddam Hussein.

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 gráce to Goldberg’s credibility fell on February 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.

Given Goldberg’s talent for the fabulous, and Remnick’s role in vetting his garbage, is it any wonder that Jared Diamond falsely accuses Samuel Wemp of murder and that Jon Lee Anderson is caught with his pants down reporting on Venezuela?

I’ve had my own complaints about the New Yorker in recent years. I found Malcolm Gladwell tendentious on social networking and was appalled by Jill Lepore’s pissing on Howard Zinn’s grave.

Finally, although I have serious problems with the Nation Magazine, I am glad they gave Daniel Lazare a platform from which he could expound on the New Yorker’s perfidy at length. Written in 2003 (The New Yorker Goes to War) and inspired like Cockburn’s piece by the magazine’s support for Dubya’s war, the article went straight for the jugular:

The New Yorker has not been the only publication to fall into line behind the Bush Administration’s war drive, but for a number of reasons its performance seems especially disappointing. One reason has to do with the magazine’s track record. One doesn’t have to be a William Shawn devotee to agree that the magazine has published some astonishing journalism over the years–Hannah Arendt’s “Eichmann in Jerusalem,” James Baldwin’s “Letter from a Region of My Mind,” Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring,” Jonathan Schell’s pieces on Vietnam and Pauline Kael’s wonderful demolition job on Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah, to name just a few. During the Vietnam War, it was one of the few mainstream publications to try to unmask the sordid reality behind the brass’s regular 5 o’clock press briefings. And if it published too many long and hyperfactual stories in the 1980s about wheat or geology, at least it preferred being trivial and obscure to the glories of being a team player in Washington, which is a moral stance of a sort.

Though its style may have been genteel, The New Yorker succeeded in challenging middle-class sensibilities more often than any number of scruffier publications. Another reason to mourn the magazine’s lack of resistance is that it represents an opportunity lost. Just as the magazine helped middle-class opinion to coalesce against US intervention in Vietnam, it might well have served a similar function today by clarifying what is at stake in the Middle East. Rather than unveil the reality behind a spurious War on Terrorism, though, The New Yorker helped obscure it by painting Bush’s crusade as a natural and inevitable response to the World Trade Center/Pentagon attack and, as a consequence, useless to oppose. Instead of encouraging opposition, it helped defuse it. From shocking the bourgeoisie, it has moved on to placating it at a time when it has rarely been more dangerous and bellicose.

How does a magazine bring itself to such a pass? The process probably began when Tina Brown took over in 1992. Politically, Brown wasn’t left wing or right wing so much as no wing. She fawned over Ronald and Nancy Reagan in Vanity Fair and then, a dozen years later, fawned over Bill Clinton in The New Yorker (“his height, his sleekness, his newly cropped, iron-filing hair, and the intensity of his blue eyes…”). While publishing the occasional exposé, such as Mark Danner’s memorable “Massacre at El Mozote,” she was more concerned with putting the magazine in the swim. David Remnick, who succeeded her in 1998, is a different case. Where Brown is catty and mischievous, his style is earnest and respectable. Although a talented reporter and a graceful writer, he lacks Brown’s irreverent streak. (One can hardly imagine him writing a first-person account of dancing topless in New Jersey, or whatever the male equivalent might be, as Brown famously did at the beginning of her career.) Remnick’s 1993 book, Lenin’s Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire, dutifully followed the Washington line in reducing a complex historical event to a simple-minded melodrama about noble dissidents versus evil Communist apparatchiki. Under his leadership, The New Yorker has never seemed more like a tame, middle-of-the-road news magazine with cartoons, which may explain why its political writers, people like Nicholas Lemann, Jeffrey Goldberg and Remnick himself, have never enjoyed more airtime on shows like Charlie Rose. In traveling from irreverence to reverence, it helps to have someone in charge with a heat-seeking missile’s ability to home in on the proper establishment position at any given moment. But it also helps to have someone who knows when to ask the tough questions and when to turn them off.

You are strongly encouraged to read Lazare’s entire article here.


  1. Don’t forget top staffer Hendrik Hertzberg. From an interview published April 2007: “Most people won’t have read his [Obama’s] books, but they will have a sense of him as genuine, as expressing himself carefully and honestly. And I think that’s a very big part of his appeal. His appeal is really across the board. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen. I hope he’ll win. I hope he’ll be the nominee and then president. … Obama’s election would be such a cure for so much that ails the country. (Interviewer: In what way?) I think it would be a huge blow for anti-Americanism around the world.”

    Comment by Charles — April 16, 2013 @ 3:36 am

  2. Of course, Stephen Jay Gould needed a fact-checker himself. Luckily, he got one.

    Comment by Tony Clifford — April 17, 2013 @ 8:41 am

  3. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/14/science/14skull.html?_r=0

    Comment by Tony Clifford — April 17, 2013 @ 8:43 am

  4. The NYT article states: “Rather, Morton was measuring his skulls to study human variation, as part of his inquiry into whether God had created the human races separately (a lively issue before Darwin decreed that everyone belonged to the same species).” No surprise here. The article was written by Nicholas Wade, about whom I commented on the occasion of his worshipful article on sociobiologist Napoleon Chagnon:

    It should be mentioned that Nicholas Wade is an evolutionary psychologist (what used to be called sociobiology) himself. He wrote a book called “The Faith Instinct” that basically argued that worshiping a deity helps to guarantee “human success”. I can’t say that I am surprised to see a worshipful blurb from the National Review’s John Derbyshire on Wade’s website. Just to jog your memory, Derbyshire was fired from the National Review for writing an article elsewhere defending racial profiling in the aftermath of Trayvon Martin’s murder. Just the kind of guy you need to hype some sociobiological trash.

    From Wikipedia on Morton:

    In Crania Americana Morton divides humankind primarily into four races with the following characteristics:


    “The Caucasian Race is characterized by a naturally fair skin, susceptible of every tint; hair fine, long and curling, and of various colors. The skull is large and oval, and its anterior portion full and elevated. The face is small in proportion to the head, of an oval form, with well-proportioned features. … This race is distinguished for the facility with which it attains the highest intellectual endowments. … The spontaneous fertility of [the Caucasus] has rendered it the hive of many nations, which extending their migrations in every direction, have peopled the finest portions of the earth, and given birth to its fairest inhabitants.”


    “This great division of the human species is characterized by a sallow or olive colored skin, which appears to be drawn tight over the bones of the face; long black straight hair, and thin beard. The nose is broad, and short; the eyes are small, black, and obliquely placed, and the eyebrows are arched and linear; the lips are turned, the cheek bones broad and flat. … In their intellectual character the Mongolians are ingenious, imitative, and highly susceptible of cultivation [i.e. learning]. … So versatile are their feelings and actions, that they have been compared to the monkey race, whose attention is perpetually changing from one object to another.”

    Native Americans

    “The American Race is marked by a brown complexion; long, black, lank hair; and deficient beard. The eyes are black and deep set, the brow low, the cheekbones high, the nose large and aquiline, the mouth large, and the lips tumid [swollen] and compressed. In their mental character the Americans are averse to cultivation, and slow in acquiring knowledge; restless, revengeful, and fond of war, and wholly destitute of maritime adventure. They are crafty, sensual, ungrateful, obstinate and unfeeling, and much of their affection for their children may be traced to purely selfish motives. They devour the most disgusting [foods] uncooked and uncleaned, and seem to have no idea beyond providing for the present moment. … Their mental faculties, from infancy to old age, present a continued childhood. … [Indians] are not only averse to the restraints of education, but for the most part are incapable of a continued process of reasoning on abstract subjects.”


    “Characterized by a black complexion, and black, woolly hair; the eyes are large and prominent, the nose broad and flat, the lips thick, and the mouth wide; the head is long and narrow, the forehead low, the cheekbones prominent, the jaws protruding, and the chin small. In disposition the Negro is joyous, flexible, and indolent; while the many nations which compose this race present a singular diversity of intellectual character, of which the far extreme is the lowest grade of humanity. … The moral and intellectual character of the Africans is widely different in different nations. The Negroes are proverbially fond of their amusements, in which they engage with great exuberance of spirit; and a day of toil is with them no bar to a night of revelry. Like most other barbarous nations their institutions are not infrequently characterized by superstition and cruelty. They appear to be fond of warlike enterprises, and are not deficient in personal courage; but, once overcome, they yield to their destiny, and accommodate themselves with amazing facility to every change of circumstance. The Negroes have little invention, but strong powers of imitation, so that they readily acquire mechanic arts. They have a great talent for music, and all their external senses are remarkably acute.”

    Comment by louisproyect — April 17, 2013 @ 12:48 pm

  5. I’ve often been confused when Venezuelan emigres and conservatives still in the country complain that American liberals are overly sympathetic to Chavez. Even looking at publications considered to be liberal in the US the coverage of Chavez’s funeral was atrocious, and now with the mess caused by Caprilles in Venezuela isn’t even being looked at critically by them. They mention in passing “seven people died” but then go on to talk about the astroturfed student protests and Caprilles claims of fraud. There’s little mention that the picture of the supposed destruction of ballots were from years ago from a completely different source. Or that the seven dead were killed by the “protestors”, but instead claim that the protestors are experiencing repression.

    Honestly it the anti-Chavez crowd have it pretty easy in the US media circles.

    Comment by nzibari — April 17, 2013 @ 10:06 pm

  6. […] years ago I wrote about the decline of fact-checking at The New Yorker, as well as its overall decline under Newhouse’s ownership. This section is […]

    Pingback by Tasteless publishing magnate S.I. Newhouse Jr. dead at 89 | Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — October 2, 2017 @ 3:30 pm

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