Don't Shed a Tear for the Magazine That Backed Genocides and Coups for Decades
There has been much handwringing of late in Official Washington about an editorial shakeup at The New Republic and the possibility that the century-old political magazine’s legacy will somehow be tarnished by its new owner. But the truth about The New Republic is that it has more blood on its hands than almost any other publication around, which is saying something.
In my four decades in national journalism – that’s two-fifths of The New Republic’s life – what I have seen from the magazine is mostly its smug advocacy for U.S. interventionism abroad and snarky putdowns of antiwar skeptics at home. Indeed, you could view The New Republic as the most productive hothouse for cultivating neoconservative dogma — and at least partly responsible for the senseless slaughter associated with that ideology.
Though The New Republic still touts its reputation as “liberal,” that label has been essentially a cover for its real agenda: pushing a hawkish foreign policy agenda that included the Reagan administration’s slaughter of Central Americans in the 1980s, violent U.S. interventions in Iraq, Syria and other Muslim countries for the past two decades, and Israel’s suppression of Palestinians forever.
Indeed, the magazine’s long-ago-outdated status as “liberal” has long served the cause of right-wingers. The Reagan administration loved to plant flattering stories about the Nicaraguan Contras in The New Republic because its “liberal” cachet would give the propaganda more credibility. A favorite refrain from President Ronald Reagan’s team was “even the liberal New Republic agrees …”
In other words, the magazine became the neocon wolf advancing the slaughter of Central Americans in the sheep’s clothing of intellectual liberalism. Similarly, over the past two decades, it has dressed up bloody U.S. interventionism in the Middle East in the pretty clothes of “humanitarianism” and “democracy.”
The magazine – which has given us the writings of neocons Charles Krauthammer, Fred Barnes, Steven Emerson, Robert Kagan and many more – has become a case study in the special evil that can come from intellectualism when it supplies high-minded rationalizations for low-brow brutality.
In the world of the mind, where The New Republic likes to think it lives, the magazine has published countless essays that have spun excuses for mass murder, rape, torture and other real-world crimes. Put differently, the magazine afforded the polite people of Official Washington an acceptable way to compartmentalize and justify the ungodly bloodshed.
Perhaps The New Republic had a different existence in the years before I arrived on the scene. I’ve heard some longtime New Republic lovers wax on about its era of thoughtful progressivism. But The New Republic that I encountered from the 1970s onward was the magazine of Martin Peretz, a nasty neocon who cared little about journalism or even thoughtful analyses, but rather pushed a dishonest and cruel agenda including crude insults against Muslims.
In his later years after moving part-time to Israel, Peretz began to expose more of his personal agenda. In one TNR blog post regarding the proposed Islamic community center in Lower Manhattan which prompted post-9/11 right-wing outrage, Peretz declared: “Frankly, Muslim life is cheap, most notably to Muslims. And among those Muslims led by the Imam Rauf [the promoter of the Islamic center] there is hardly one who has raised a fuss about the routine and random bloodshed that defines their brotherhood.
“So, yes, I wonder whether I need honor these people and pretend that they are worthy of the privileges of the First Amendment which I have in my gut the sense that they will abuse.” (Facing accusations of racism, Peretz later issued a half-hearted apology which reiterated that his reference to Muslim life being cheap was “a statement of fact, not opinion.”)
A New York Times magazine profile of Peretz in 2011 noted that Peretz’s hostility toward Muslims was nothing new. “As early as 1988, Peretz was courting danger in The New Republic with disturbing Arab stereotypes not terribly different from his 2010 remarks,” wrote Stephen Rodrick.
Steven Emerson, one of Peretz’s favored TNR writers, also became notorious for similar Islamophobia as well as shoddy and dishonest journalism. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Unmasking October Surprise Debunker.”]
Ignoring the History
Yet, very little of this real history of The New Republic can be found in the mainstream media’s coverage of the recent staff revolt against plans by new owner (and Facebook co-founder) Chris Hughes to modernize the publication. Hughes’s new chief executive – former Yahoo official Guy Vidra – vowed to rebuild the magazine as a “vertically integrated digital media company.”
At the Washington Post, the New York Times and pretty much the entire MSM, there has been much rending of garments over these plans and the ouster of some top editors but almost nothing about what some of those now ex-TNR editors actually did.
One was longtime literary editor Leon Wieseltier, who was a prominent advocate for the Iraq War and a promoter of right-wing Zionism. Another was editor Franklin Foer, another hawkish intellectual. Their departures were followed by a walkout by a dozen or so members of the editorial staff, resignations from contributing columnists, an outraged letter from former TNR writers and furious columns by ex-TNR staffers.
“The New Republic is dead; Chris Hughes killed it,” wailed Post columnist Dana Milbank, another TNR alumnus.
On Monday, the 31-year-old Hughes took to the Post’s op-ed page to offer Official Washington something like a paper bag to control all the hyperventilating. He denied that he was behaving like some spoiled Silicon Valley rich kid imposing an Internet-style culture on an old-fashioned print publication, but rather was trying to save the institution.
“I came to protect the future of the New Republic by creating a sustainable business so that our journalism, values and voice — the things that make us singular — could survive,” Hughes wrote.
But the real question is: Does The New Republic deserve to survive? Wouldn’t it be appropriate that at least one neocon institution faced some accountability for the hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqis, not to mention the other victims of reckless U.S. interventionism in the Middle East or the tens of thousands of murdered Central Americans during the Reagan years?
Though The New Republic’s apologists depict the magazine as an honorable place where “long-form journalism” thrived and “serious thinking” was nourished, the reality was actually much different. Indeed, much of the trivialization of U.S. journalism in the 1980s stemmed from the punchy opinions voiced by TNR columnists as they moonlighted as talking heads on the TV “shout shows,” like “The McLaughlin Group” and “Inside Washington.”
Many of the regulars on those media “food fights” came from The New Republic and lowered the intellectual level of Official Washington into a “thumbs up, thumps down” reductionism where political leaders were rated on scales of one to ten. Their well-compensated behavior was the opposite of true intellectualism or – for that matter – true journalism.
The typical posture of these media-beloved neocons was to pretend that they were bravely standing up against some “liberal” orthodoxy, courageously daring to embrace the Nicaraguan Contras or other right-wing “freedom fighters” despite the danger of taking such principled stands.
The reality was that TNR’s writers were lining up behind the real power structure, standing with the Reagan administration and much of the major media while joining in the bullying of the relatively weak and vulnerable forces in Washington that went against this grain.
The phoniness of TNR’s pretend bravery was demonstrated by how the neocon commentators were rewarded with plum jobs, prominent op-ed slots, regular seats on the TV shows, lucrative speaking fees, book contracts, etc. The opposite was true for journalists who challenged the Reagan administration’s propaganda. They were the ones who faced real punishment.
Journalists who dared file critical stories about the U.S.-backed Salvadoran army or the CIA-trained Contra rebels found themselves reassigned or out on the street. The New York Times’ Raymond Bonner was the best known example after he was pulled out of Central America while under fierce right-wing attack for his accurate reporting on human rights atrocities in El Salvador.
In a similar case, the Reagan administration’s public diplomacy team browbeat National Public Radio for airing a story about a Contra massacre of farmworkers in northern Nicaragua. Sensitive to government strings on NPR’s funding, NPR executives appeased the administration by getting rid of foreign editor Paul Allen who had allowed the story to air.
Within a short time, Washington journalists understood that their route to professional success required them to swallow any propaganda from Reagan’s team, no matter how absurd.
That servility was on display when Reagan’s White House fumed over one human rights report citing 145 sworn affidavits signed by Nicaraguans who had witnessed Contra atrocities. Many of the witnesses described Contras slitting the throats of captives and mutilating their bodies.
In stepped The New Republic and one of its many pro-Contra writers, Fred Barnes, who countered the eyewitnesses by referencing the findings of a secret U.S. investigation which had absolved the Contras of many charges, he wrote. In a harsh article entitled “The Sandinista Lobby,” Barnes denounced the human rights community for hypocritically criticizing the innocent Contras and other pro-U.S. forces, while allegedly going soft on Nicaragua’s leftist Sandinista government.
But when I got hold of the investigative report in 1986, I found that it had been written by the CIA and was based on the word of the Contras themselves. One of the CIA’s key findings, supposedly debunking the slitting-throat allegations, was that the Contras said they could not have slit throats because they “are normally not equipped with either bayonets or combat knives.” The CIA failed to note that photographs of the Contras from that period showed them slouching off to battle carrying a variety of machetes and other sharp objects.
The absurdity of suggesting that the Contras could not have slit the throats of captives because they weren’t “normally” given knives should have been something a cub reporter would have laughed at. But clearly journalism was not what was going on at The New Republic where there was no interest in exposing the atrocities committed by the Contras. It was all about pushing a hawkish foreign policy and serving the Reagan agenda.
A Contra ExposÃ©
That sort of behavior continued throughout the Reagan era with one notable exception in fall 1986 – when editor Jefferson Morley and investigative reporter Murray Waas asked me and my Associated Press colleague Brian Barger to expand the work that we had done exposing Oliver North’s secret Contra support network into a New Republic cover story.
Our article appeared in November 1986 while Peretz was out of town visiting Israel. But he soon weighed in after receiving a furious letter from then-Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs Elliott Abrams, another arch-neocon. Abrams ostentatiously canceled his TNR subscription in protest of our article, and Peretz responded to Abrams’s complaint by excluding Waas from the magazine and putting Morley in the publisher’s doghouse.
The situation could have gotten worse for those who had a hand in bringing our story into the magazine, except that the Iran-Contra scandal broke wide open in November 1986, confirming that Barger and I had been right about North’s secret network. Abrams eventually pleaded guilty to misleading Congress (though he was later pardoned by President George H.W. Bush and was brought into President George W. Bush’s National Security Council to oversee Middle East policy, including the invasion of Iraq).
The New Republic’s pattern of playing fast and loose with the facts would eventually cause the magazine some embarrassment in 1998 when it was caught publishing a number of fabrications by writer Stephen Glass. But TNR never was held accountable for its support for atrocities in Central America, its pushing for illegal wars in the Middle East or its smearing of honest journalists and human rights investigators.
Though Peretz finally lost control of the magazine’s content in 2010, The New Republic has remained an important vehicle for pushing the neocon agenda. Earlier this year, TNR published a long exaltation to American interventionism by neocon Robert Kagan, a co-founder of the Project for the New American Century and a leading proponent for the Iraq War.
In the essay, “Superpowers Don’t Get to Retire,” Kagan “depicted President Obama as presiding over an inward turn by the United States that threatened the global order and broke with more than 70 years of American presidents and precedence,” wrote Jason Horowitz in the New York Times. “He called for Mr. Obama to resist a popular pull toward making the United States a nation without larger responsibilities, and to reassume the more muscular approach to the world out of vogue in Washington since the war in Iraq drained the country of its appetite for intervention.”
President Barack Obama, who remains hypersensitive to criticism from well-placed and well-connected neocons, responded by inviting Kagan to lunch at the White House and shaping his foreign policy speech at West Point’s graduation in May to deflect Kagan’s criticism.
So, when you read the endless laments from the mainstream U.S. news media about the tragedy of having some Silicon Valley barbarians violating the sacred journalistic temple of The New Republic, you might reflect on all the suffering and death that the magazine has rationalized and intellectualized away.