Friday, July 29, 2011

The latest Jeffrey Goldberg scandal

On Monday Jeffrey Goldberg added a bizarre and nearly incomprehensible note to a highly controversial post at The Atlantic. The note sought to explain and justify an earlier, unacknowledged revision to the piece whose effect had been to make him appear less foolish. He maintains that he misled readers inadvertently by accidentally deleting the word “UPDATE” from that revision. His account was far from adequate and refers to obscure technical difficulties. Goldberg even said that he couldn’t really understand what had happened as he repeatedly revised the post the previous Friday. He promised to look into his electronic trail to figure the situation out.

Since then, however, Goldberg has added nothing to his garbled explanation. It should be a simple matter to extract from The Atlantic’s servers a record of his updates to that post, if in fact it would corroborate and clarify his flimsy account. As things are, Goldberg stands accused of deliberately doctoring a post to mask how outrageous his original post had been. Prominent journalists such as Jay Rosen have called him to task. And yet four days later Goldberg still has produced no evidence on his own behalf. His colleagues at The Atlantic remain silent as well.

There are detailed descriptions of this scandal here and here.

The facts as I understand them are as follows: Last Friday afternoon Goldberg posted a two-paragraph screed, “Mumbai Comes to Norway,” blaming the attacks unequivocally on Islamic terrorists. When events demonstrated how reckless he’d been, Goldberg added a third paragraph raising the possibility of right-wing terrorism. By not labeling this as an update, he left readers to conclude that he was just exploring multiple theories rather than using the massacre to make a bold pronouncement about the worldwide jihadist danger. Later that evening, beginning around 8 PM, Goldberg began adding 4 further paragraphs on stray thoughts, each of which he did carefully label as an “UPDATE”. At the same time he also added “(UPDATED)” to the title. So he was capable of noting updates when there was nothing to be gained from not doing so.

On Saturday, Goldberg posted a roundabout defense of his decision to rush to judgment, “On Suspecting al Qaeda in the Norway Attacks.” It is characteristically disingenuous, particularly about what he had written in “Mumbai”.

On Monday, when he learned (via James Fallows) that I had found cached evidence that he’d made those unacknowledged changes to “Mumbai”, Goldberg hurriedly added another update to the post. This was the aforementioned bizarre explanation for not having labeled the first revision as an ‘update’. It is so ridiculous it really needs to be seen to be believed.

The Atlantic needs to address this disgrace. The ‘Mumbai’ post was reprehensible to begin with. The doctoring of it is a further scandal. Goldberg’s ridiculous excuse-mongering makes matters worse. His refusal to apologize for any of it is worse still.

And as if that weren’t shameful enough, his colleagues at The Atlantic have some answering to do for ignoring or excusing all of this. On Saturday James Fallows called for the Washington Post to apologize for a Jennifer Rubin post that, like Goldberg’s, used the Norway attacks to propagandize about Islamic terrorism. His call was seconded by two other Atlantic writers. But none of them has so much as mentioned Goldberg’s reprehensible “Mumbai” post. In correspondence, Fallows bobbed and weaved when pressed about holding Goldberg to basic journalistic standards.

So will Goldberg and The Atlantic ever properly address this bundle of scandals?

Update 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. To be as fair as possible to James Fallows, at least he has responded to these charges even though his role in this scandal was somewhat peripheral to the main issues.

    Jeffrey Goldberg, by contrast, has maintained total silence at The Atlantic all week. Meanwhile, on twitter he has been treating dismissively the charges that challenge his integrity. Instead of facing up to what he is really being criticized for, Goldberg has pretended that he is merely being chastised for "suspecting" al Qaeda involvement in the Norway attacks. You could not ask for a clearer demonstration of Goldberg's disingenuousness.

  2. Turns out that Goldberg did finally respond to criticisms of his slipping yet another update into his post, without fanfare. Here he is sounding like Richard Nixon in his Checkers Speech:

    “UPDATE ON THE UPDATE ON THE UPDATE (Thursday the 28th): Jay Rosen has pointed out that the previous paragraphs read like gibberish. He's mostly right. Here's a shorter version: I posted, updated,, erased the post by mistake, tried to restore the post, left things out of the post, then fixed the post. There are people out there -- people who are opposed to me on ideological grounds -- who are accusing me of intentionally doctoring the post. They offer no proof, however. All I can say is that the screw-ups were inadvertent.”