FAIR recently lost two of its mentors. On July 21 came the unexpected death of radical journalist Alexander Cockburn, who was one of two or three writers to whom FAIR most owes its existence. Cockburn inspired a revival of hard-hitting political media criticism in the Village Voice’s Press Clips column, which he launched in 1973; he moved his assault on the Fourth Estate to the Nation in 1983.
Part of his appeal was simply how well he wrote: He had a voice that was effortlessly stylish, boundlessly informed, savagely funny and unapologetically left. He once recalled C.L. Sulzberger (New York Press, 10/4/00), the Thomas Friedman of the 1940s and ’50s:
I used to look forward to C.L.’s narcotic musings as eagerly as Coleridge to his opium pipe…. C.L. was the summation, the Platonic ideal of what foreign commentary is all about, namely to fire volley after volley of cliché into the densely packed prejudices of his readers…. But Sulzberger had the graces of an older world, the decorum of the chancery or the embassy dinner. He slipped over the side quietly one day and was gone. I miss him, and sometimes, nodding over the Times op-ed with eyes half closed, I fancy I can hear him still.
As fun as he made it look, Cockburn demonstrated that a ruthless debunking of the factual distortions and ideological obfuscations of the establishment press was a vital part of any realistic project for political and social change. In particular, his dismantling of how the New York Times peddled right-wing fantasies about Central America and facilitated the Reagan-era bloodbath in the region was an crucial model for our work (and that of others).
FAIR had personal connections to Alex as well. He was the beloved uncle of Laura Flanders, the founding co-host of CounterSpin; I had the good fortune to be his intern at the Nation, and Extra! publisher Deborah Thomas worked with him as publisher of the literary journal Grand Street.
Less of a direct model—since nobody could imagine doing what he did—was Gore Vidal, who died on July 31. Only Vidal could write this critique of a negative and homophobic New York Times review (New York Review of Books, 7/14/77):
This is quintessential New York Times reporting. First, it is ill-written, hence ill-edited. Second, it is inaccurate. Third, it is unintelligent in the vulgar Freudian way.
Vidal was an early supporter of our work—referring to Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting as a “noble, doomed enterprise” (Nation, 8/7–14/89).
Both writers sometimes let their contrarianism descend into crankiness or worse, as with Alex’s embrace of climate denial claptrap and Vidal’s weirdly racialized analysis of geopolitics (Nation, 3/22/86). Alex called a later incarnation of his Nation column “Ashes and Diamonds”; he and Gore Vidal will be remembered for a hyper-abundance of the latter.
There will be a memorial for Alexander Cockburn on September 22, from 5–8 pm, at SLAM, 51 North 1st Street, Brooklyn, N.Y.