Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Jeffrey Goldberg, The Atlantic, and journalistic ethics

On Friday, just after the horrific attacks in Norway, Jeffrey Goldberg posted this two-paragraph screed, “Mumbai Comes to Norway,” in which he pinned the blame squarely and without equivocation upon Islamic terrorists: “Jihadists did this in Norway because they could.” Of course, he had no substantive evidence for the inflammatory assertion. Any rush to judgment is foolish. This was reprehensible. Some of his critics would also say it is characteristic of Goldberg’s work.

Since then no apology has been forthcoming from Goldberg. Quite the contrary, on Saturday he doubled down, posting “On Suspecting al Qaeda in the Norway Attacks.” This purports to be a defense of other writers who similarly had rushed to denounce Muslims for the murders. However that is disingenuous; Goldberg plainly intended the piece as a roundabout way to justify his earlier ‘Mumbai’ post. And yet he managed to say almost nothing specific about what he’d actually written the previous day, though some of what he did say about ‘Mumbai’ was inaccurate and disingenuous. Remarkably, he didn’t even provide a link to ‘Mumbai’. (After I wrote to him criticizing his failure to link to his own work, he published a ridiculous revision of ‘Suspecting’ on Monday in which he blamed that failure on vague technical problems; apparently we’re supposed to believe that his own ‘Mumbai’ post was the one relevant link he was prevented somehow from including.) Thus, Goldberg’s purpose in ‘Suspecting’ was to persuade readers that he had had every reason to join others in blaming Islamists in ‘Mumbai’, and hence was not himself to blame.

In the aftermath, nobody else at The Atlantic has criticized either of Goldberg’s controversial posts much less called for an apology. Indeed, none of their writers have even mentioned them.

This despite the fact that James Fallows on Saturday rebuked the Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin and called for an apology for her own rush to judgment. Fallows repeatedly updated that post as he recorded how much time had elapsed without an apology from Rubin. Her piece, as reprehensible as it is, was surely no more extreme than what his Atlantic colleague Goldberg had written and then defended. In fact, Rubin’s original post had acknowledged, by the back door, at least the possibility that the attacks in Norway were not the work of Islamic terrorists. Goldberg’s ‘Mumbai’ post, by contrast, originally expressed total certainty in blaming Muslims.

Fallows’ denunciation of Rubin was quickly joined by two other colleagues at The Atlantic, Steve Clemons (here and here) and Ta-Nihisi Coates. Nevertheless none of them to date has said a thing about their colleague Goldberg’s two controversial posts.

I wrote to Fallows on Saturday asking why Goldberg did not owe an apology as well. In correspondence over several days, Fallows repeatedly defended his colleague, minimized his journalistic lapses, accepted Goldberg’s ridiculous self-justifications or offered his own, and avoided as far as possible taking any action to hold Goldberg to account for such gross unprofessionalism.

It gets even worse.

On Monday I gave Fallows evidence showing that Goldberg had substantially revised his original ‘Mumbai’ post sometime later on Friday, making himself appear less imprudent by appending a final (third) paragraph. That paragraph mentions the possibility the attacks were the work of a right-wing terrorist. This radical revision of the original post was in line with the police report that afternoon about the blond Norwegian who had been arrested. But Goldberg did not mention that he’d made any changes to ‘Mumbai’. His silence left the reader to assume that his absolutely confident assertions about Islamic terrorists at the top of the post were really intended all along to be taken as just one of several possible theories, including the scenario he mentions at the end.

It is egregiously wrong to revise a post so substantially as to alter its meaning or intended interpretation without signaling that a revision was made. In terms of journalistic standards, an unacknowledged revision as radical as this is just as reprehensible as Goldberg’s original offense of rushing out inflammatory allegations without evidence to back them up.

Fallows response upon receiving this information was, at first, to say nothing more than he hadn’t known about the unacknowledged addition of the third paragraph. (I should add that, in his first email to me on Saturday, Fallows had based his defense of Goldberg entirely on this third paragraph, which he described as the “caveat” that raised Goldberg’s post above the level of Rubin’s. To my mind it was transparently an afterthought, one that scarcely mitigated Goldberg’s clear intention to pin the blame on Islamists. But for Fallows it was the key that made it permissible to criticize Rubin while saying nothing about his colleague.)

So I pressed Fallows again about what he would do now that he did know of the unacknowledged revision. Fallows finally said that he would look into it.

A short time afterward on Monday evening, Jeffrey Goldberg revised his ‘Mumbai’ post again, this time in order to justify his failure earlier to mention the first revision. His rambling excuse is such gibberish that a reasonable interpretation would be he intended it to be nearly incomprehensible. It reads like the blather you’d associate more with a Jeffrey Lebowski than a journalist at The Atlantic. This update is easily the most ridiculous thing I have ever seen in the established news media.

UPDATE ON THE PREVIOUS UPDATE (Monday the 25th): A number of readers have pointed out that my previous caveat give the impression that it was an instantaneous caveat, when in fact it wasn't. It was written a short while after the original post went up, and was labeled "Update" originally (I've since affixed the word "update" to it again. What happened was that I was driving and had connectivity problems, and so when I added further updates (below), I inadvertently erased the whole post, and had to rescue it from a Word document, but in re-posting that word document (or most of it—I saved only most of it) I dropped the word "update," along with a couple of other things. And then I thought I had saved it and posted it, when it fact the "save" didn't go through until a later "save" of another update. When the post went out on my RSS feed, I believe it still had the word "update" in it. Though I don't know for sure, but will check my RSS feed when I get back. I'm sorry this sounds so confusing, but I want to clear up the impression that I folded in caveats later without saying that they were added later. In truth, I can't figure out what happened, because I thought when I wrote the aforementioned caveat, it had successfully posted, when it seems that it hadn't.

i barely understand the previous paragraph. Suffice it to say I don't want to leave anyone with either the impression that the caveat paragraph was posted simultaneously with the original content of the post, or that it was added hours or days later. I wrote it almost right after I posted originally, but it apparently wasn't saved into text until one of the next times I opened up this post. My bad—no blogging and driving for me. And of course it was my bad not to lard even more caveats into the post in the first place.

Goldberg’s account of why he failed until late Monday evening to mention Friday’s radical update is not even remotely convincing. My reasons for rejecting his convoluted self-justification will be left to another post (see below). My point here is that, on its face, his Monday evening blather strains credulity. And yet Fallows seems to accept it. He told me nothing about what he learned upon looking into the matter. Instead he just sent me without comment the link to Goldberg’s explanation. Fallows has not responded to my further emails challenging the explanation.

In short, James Fallows is again excusing his colleague Jeffrey Goldberg’s egregious practices. Sad to say, it is not for the first time. One would have thought that Goldberg’s journalistic credentials would be in tatters long before now given the appalling record of inaccuracies, blithe inconsistencies, and gross biases that mark him out as a propagandist in foreign affairs. Are there no professional penalties to be paid for shamelessly advocating for a disastrous war as in Iraq? Evidently not. Goldberg’s friends and colleagues repeatedly have shielded him from justified criticism and even promoted him, no matter what he gets up to.

As so often, there appears to be a double standard among Beltway insiders. Those whom one is friendly with are good and serious people simply because one knows them to be, and therefore one’s friends must be placed effectively above criticism. No amount of public embarrassment is allowed to pierce this bubble of impunity.

And there can be few things more embarrassing than the preposterous and pathetic self defense Goldberg published on Monday evening in the final revision of ‘Mumbai’. Never mind for now Goldberg’s obvious disingenuousness, or his tone or the rather terrified-sounding gobbledy-gook prose. I would note simply that the premise of his explanation – that vague technical difficulties were to blame for his failure over three full days to mention the radical revision on Friday of the ‘Mumbai’ post – is nearly identical to the unconvincing explanation he’d already offered in ‘Suspecting’ for his failure to provide a link back to ‘Mumbai’.

I can’t help but notice that Goldberg had posted a longish series of uncontroversial things on Friday and Saturday at The Atlantic, without ever mentioning or seeming to have technical difficulties. But on Monday, as he sees himself under criticism for what clearly was highly controversial writing, Goldberg suddenly became all chatty in his updates to both ‘Suspecting’ and ‘Mumbai’ about how technical difficulties had been undermining him right and left, two and three days earlier, thus spoiling all his very admirable intentions. Curiously, they were spoiling his intentions only with regard to the inflammatory posts. The non-controversial posts all managed to bypass the technical gremlins somehow.

I’m reminded of the phony-sounding, convoluted narratives that undergraduate students offer up so often when they’re caught red-handed in something like plagiarism. Vague and nearly incomprehensible technical difficulties, as it happens, often turn out to be the actual culprits – not the authors themselves, apart that is from their acknowledging some slight element of sloppiness in not overcoming a series of almost unparalleled challenges in order to compel those pesky machines to do things right.

And so too with Jeffrey Goldberg, who assures us that despite his best of intentions it was the machines that made his two controversial posts seem unethical. But he’s set the record straight now because he wouldn’t want to leave his readers with the impression that he radically revised his ‘Mumbai’ post without acknowledging the revision. Except, that is, for the three days in which he did give that impression.

Fallows was right that Rubin owed an apology for her terrible misuse of the terrorist attacks in Norway to push her own agenda. He is wrong not to call for an apology from Goldberg as well. The Atlantic needs to sanction Goldberg for that reprehensible ‘Mumbai’ post, as well as for revising it later to make it seem less extreme while leaving readers for three days to assume that no repairs had been done to it. His excuse mongering on Monday also warrants an investigation, though I doubt it’s possible ever to get to the bottom of whatever it is Goldberg is claiming.

I am leaving to a second post, which can be found here, my detailed description of what Goldberg posted and when, and my analysis of that. I’ll also discuss Fallow’s record in this a little further.

Update, Wed. July 27: This evening at 6:39 ET, shortly after these two pieces were posted and crossposted at two other sites, the google cache for the original version of Goldberg's 'Mumbai' post was overwritten with the current version of the page. However I have a screen grab of the original version, should anybody wish to consult it. I have quoted its text in its entirety.

Update Two, Friday July 29: James Fallows finally responds here to the allegations of wrongdoing and hypocrisy. It’s pretty thin stuff. He states that Goldberg was having connectivity problems “that morning” and would have to be crazy to lie about the circumstances of his unlabeled update to ‘Mumbai’ (from later in the day).

Also, our system logs changes, and any of us would be additionally crazy, knowing that, to pretend that something happened if it didn't.

Setting aside the fact that Goldberg has said some pretty crazy things – for example, rushing to blame the Norway attacks on Muslim terrorists – apparently neither Fallows nor Goldberg has made any effort to dig out those logs to prove that Goldberg misled his readers accidentally as he claims. As I’ve noted repeatedly, it should be a simple thing to produce that evidence if it actually backs up Goldberg’s story. Further, Goldberg said that his memory is hazy and his convoluted account is nearly incomprehensible. So why is nobody at The Atlantic trying to clarify what is otherwise an extreme embarrassment for them?

As regards the issue of whether he should condemn Goldberg’s rush to use the massacre to score points, Fallows argues (a) that others did not condemn Goldberg either, and (b) he didn’t see ‘Mumbai’ until Goldberg had already tried to walk back some of its extremism. Left unaddressed, I think, is whether Fallows and The Atlantic should condemn it now that he realizes it was originally as indefensible a post as the Jennifer Rubin piece he denounced. Goldberg has not admitted that he was wrong to post it. Quite the contrary, he continues to defend the decision. Goldberg is still trying to portray the controversy disingenuously as criticism that he merely ‘suspected’ al Qaeda’s involvement in Norway. That is intellectually dishonest (not to say crazy given that people can go back and read what he wrote).


  1. I'm pretty sure Jeffrey Goldberg also deleted his tweets from July 21 about muslim involvement in the Norway attack. He's @Goldberg3000 and there are two non-shooting morning tweets on the 21st and then nothing else until an all too convenient tweet from the next morning (22nd) asking for "information about right-wing extremists". This big empty gap doesn't fit his tweeting pattern at all and it's clear he just went back and deleted tweets from July 21 that, in retrospect, make him look like the hack "journalist" he is.

  2. Thanks, an interesting observation. He certainly was active on line at the time.

    Tweets from that period might also have helped to pin down when and how he'd updated 'Mumbai'.

    I wonder if there are caches of tweets?

  3. Yup, there's a gap between the single morning tweet at 9:40 AM, and the next one at 7:52 PM. Thereafter they resume as normal, every few minutes.

    The tweet at 7:52 PM helps us to estimate the time at which he posted to 'Mumbai' the first thing he actually labeled as an "UPDATE". His tweet asks for links regarding right-wing extremism in Norway. His update includes this: "I'm looking for something to read about Norwegian extremist groups. If anyone has any recommendations, I'll post and link."

    So that helps to confirm what I said in "No Shame at The Atlantic?", that the first time his 'Mumbai' title included the word "UPDATED" was between 5:30 and 8:00 PM. All the things he actually marked as "UPDATE" were added many hours after the post originally went up.