'Al Qaeda in Norway' Reaction: Toadyism and Hypocrisy

I have put off doing this, since my observation of online disputes is that the only winners are people who stay out of them. But in the week since the horrific murders in Norway, three lines of criticism about my response to that event have been directed at me and, in some circles, keep being repeated often enough to become "true," even though they are not. I summarize them below and address them after the jump.

The lines of criticism -- first two from the right, the third from the left -- are:

1) That I am a hypocrite for responding to this event when I "made light of" earthquake tragedies in China. (I am not making this up.)

2) That I am a hypocrite for criticizing people who rushed to the conclusion that al Qaeda was to blame in Norway, when (allegedly) I rushed to criticize right-wingers after the Rep. Giffords shooting in Tucson.

3) That I am a hypocrite for criticizing a writer at another publication (for the al Qaeda in Norway assumption) and not criticizing one of my colleagues who made the same mistaken assumption early, Jeffrey Goldberg.

I disagree on all points and explain the reasons -- unfortunately, at some length --below.

1) Heartlessness about the Earthquake. This is preposterous, and I won't even link to the original source (which was then re-circulated by Instapundit and given right-wing life). What's the story here?

Around 2:30 on the afternoon of May 12, 2008, I was in a taxi on Beijing's Third Ring Road, headed back to our apartment. When I got there, I found that hundreds of people had poured out of that building, and the surrounding office towers, and had filled the streets, causing a big traffic tie-up. I took a picture and posted a brief item essentially saying: what is this all about?

Within an hour, news of the catastrophe far away in Sichuan began to spread -- as it would continue to do, to the country's mounting horror, over the next week. Until there was a clearer idea of what had happened, I thought it wiser to remove that initial light item -- which I quickly did, with this explanation:

>>I previously had posted a quick item about the minor disruption in Beijing this afternoon after the earthquake hundreds of miles away in Sichuan. In light of the emerging reports of possible large loss of life, including children, I thought it was better to remove that and simply express sympathies for these latest probably-rural, probably-poor victims of natural calamity.<<

This was in the middle of the night in the US and most people would never have seen the first item, but I thought it was better to explain a deletion. Then through that day, and the months ahead, I tried to describe in a long series of reports some of the consequences of this disaster for the people and communities involved. For instance, this was a pre-earthquake picture I had taken of schoolchildren in one of the mountainous areas that was affected. (To the best of my knowledge this school and these children were eventually OK.)


And this was a picture (not by me) of a sports day just 24 hours before the earthquake at a school that was completely destroyed, although many of its children were rescued by a teacher who kept looking for survivors in the rubble.

I won't go through the whole chronicle, but if you go back to one of the original posts and keep pushing the "next" button, you'll see the reports over the months that followed. Or you could read the chapter in my book Postcards from Tomorrow Square about how the villages, schools, and people were coping two months later when I traveled for a week through that zone. If any of the people advancing the "making light of tragedy" criticism has been within 500 miles of these villages, I will eat a copy of my book.

2) Tucson. The post-Oslo column I criticized (as did, independently, Steve Clemons and Ta-Nehisi Coates) was by Jennifer Rubin, on the Washington Post's site. I objected to these things about it:
   - That it rushed to the assumption that al Qaeda had carried out the attacks;
   - That it used that assumption to belabor preconceived points about American politics and to attack proponents of other views. For instance, "This is a sobering reminder for those who think it's too expensive to wage a war against jihadists." That link goes to an article about former Gov. Jon Huntsman saying that it was getting too expensive to stay in Afghanistan. And "Some irresponsible lawmakers on both sides of the aisle -- I will point the finger at Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), who sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee and yet backed the Gang of Six scheme to cut $800 billion from defense -- would have us believe that enormous defense cuts would not affect our national security."
    - That for nearly two days it stood on the Post's site, uncorrected, even though its central premise was suspected to be false at around the time it first went up and was provably false within the next hour or two.

Many of Rubin's supporters on conservative sites have recirculated the claim that I have no standing to offer this critique. A sample expression, via Instapundit: "One James Fallows -- he who made light of earthquakes in China and never offered a word of apology for his screwy defamation of conservatives in the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords" [and goes on to say that I cannot properly criticize Rubin.

Here is what I actually wrote on the day of the Tucson shooting. Its title was "The Cloudy Logic of 'Political' Shootings" and it discussed the difficulty of understanding why assassins did what they did. This was its conclusion, the supposed "screwy defamation of conservatives," in full:

>>So the train of logic is:
1) anything that can be called an "assassination" is inherently political;
2) very often the "politics" are obscure, personal, or reflecting mental disorders rather than "normal" political disagreements. But now a further step,
3) the political tone of an era can have some bearing on violent events. The Jonestown/Ryan and Fromme/Ford shootings had no detectable source in deeper political disagreements of that era. But the anti-JFK hate-rhetoric in Dallas before his visit was so intense that for decades people debated whether the city was somehow "responsible" for the killing. (Even given that Lee Harvey Oswald was an outlier in all ways.)

That's the further political ramification here. We don't know why the Tucson killer did what he did. If he is like Sirhan, we'll never "understand." But we know that it has been a time of extreme, implicitly violent political rhetoric and imagery, including SarahPac's famous bulls-eye map of 20 Congressional targets to be removed -- including Rep. Giffords. It is legitimate to discuss whether there is a connection between that tone and actual outbursts of violence, whatever the motivations of this killer turn out to be. At a minimum, it will be harder for anyone to talk -- on rallies, on cable TV, in ads -- about "eliminating" opponents, or to bring rifles to political meetings, or to say "don't retreat, reload."

Meanwhile condolences on this tragedy, and deepest hopes for the recovery of all who still have a chance.<<

I believed and believe it is "legitimate to discuss" whether there is a connection between general tone and specific events. And I think it is significant, and heartening, that even in the extremely polarized rhetoric of today's budget standoffs we hear many fewer uses of violent allusions or imagery than we did before the Giffords shooting. It is of course also legitimate to discuss whether there is a connection between extremist rhetoric, right-wing or Islamofascist, and the violence in Norway. If the column by Ms. Rubin had made similar points -- that we don't know what happened, that tracing motives is often obscure, but that it's legitimate to discuss possible connections -- obviously I would have supported rather than objected to her analysis. She didn't say those things. Read them both and compare.

3) Toadying for a colleague.  Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic put out an early item on the Norway deaths called "Mumbai Comes to Norway." It also assumed that al Qaeda was to blame. Many on the left have asserted with increasing rancor that I am a craven toady, loyal to the Atlantic's corporate interests above all else, for not lumping him with the Post column I criticized.

Here are the differences: Jeff Goldberg's initial posting, when I saw it for the first time, contained something the Post item did not: a "we can't be sure what's happening" paragraph, thus:

>>Of course, this could an act of right-wing extremism, perhaps in reaction to the rise of radical Islamism in Europe.  I'm as confused as the rest of you are about the authorship of these attacks. There have been early claims of responsibility by jihadist groups, followed by denials, followed by reports that a blonde "Nordic-looking" man was the one who opened fire on the youth camp. Was this "Nordic-looking" man an Adam Gadahn-type, or someone not motivated by jihadist ideology? Stay tuned.<<

Then, through the day, he kept updating his original post as new information came in, even as the Post item stood uncorrected and unchanged. Also, while he said in his first item that he hoped the event would not drive Norway out of Afghanistan, he was not using his assumptions about the event to attack people he disagreed with, unlike the Post column.

Was I alone in thinking that the Washington Post item was unusually egregious? No. Stephen Colbert talked about it, and had a picture of Rubin, on his first show after the attacks.

He also mentioned rush-to-judgment examples from Fox News and the Wall Street Journal editorial page, but he said nothing about Jeffrey Goldberg. Presumably he had reasons other than being an Atlantic company-man toady for making that distinction. So I am proud to say that I show news judgment at least as sound as Stephen Colbert's. [Note to the aggrieved: this is a joke.]

A twist in this story emerged when a reader/blogger found a cached copy of an early version of Goldberg's first post, which did not include the caveat paragraph that I quote above and that was part of his post when I first read it. The assumption in that blog entry, which has spread to other sites, is: Goldberg posted an "al Qaeda did it!" item like Rubin's; he saw that things were changing and added a CYA caveat; but to really cover his tracks, he didn't label it as an "update," so as to give the false impression that it had been there from the start.

Jeffrey Goldberg has explained, in an update-update, that the initial lack of an "update" label  was a mistake rather than a deception. He was on the road, by car in upstate New York and Vermont, and was having trouble connecting. He filed the post, erased part of it inadvertently (this has happened to me) when adding later updates, and refiled it piecemeal. He says:

>>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.<<

His critics assume that of course he is flat-out lying, and that I am his enabler in accepting the lie so as not to embarrass our company.

I don't like the general "he must be lying" assumption, and I have specific reason to believe his account of how things unfolded that day. I was corresponding with him on other topics that morning, and a recurring theme was how he was on the fringe of internet coverage and was going crazy trying to update a post. Also, our system logs changes, and any of us would be additionally crazy, knowing that, to pretend that something happened if it didn't.

So you can believe that he is lying to the world and to me, and that I am also lying about what I recall. Or you can believe that this was a mistake, and that I -- like the producers for the Colbert show -- thought that the Washington Post item deserved attention on its own.

But this raises a more general point about disagreement among members who coexist within the same journalistic operation:

The Atlantic was set up from the start to be a host and vehicle for diverse views. In the 30-plus years I have worked here, I have always respected the seriousness with which we try to approach issues, but I have never thought that the point of the magazine or web site was to publish only things that I personally agree with 100%. No one of us who has written for the magazine or web site agrees with everything that appears here. I could point out right now ten web posts and two articles I think make the wrong point. But this would be a sorry, homogeneous, and less valuable organization if we all thought and said the same thing.

On economics, a few of us here have views that are at odds with the views of a few others. On war-and-peace issues, there have long been deep differences within the staff. In 2002, Michael Kelly, then the editor, was among those most strongly advocating the need for an invasion of Iraq. (As everyone knows, he was serving as an embedded correspondent with the Third Infantry Division when he was killed in the first days of the invasion.) But that did not keep him from publishing, as a cover story, my anti-war article "The Fifty-First State" -- paired with Robert Kaplan's more supportive argument for the war in the same issue. There is no expectation that we are policemen for one another's views. Jeffrey Goldberg and I agree about many important things and have disagreed about others, including the Iraq war. Our jobs, and the jobs of everyone here, are to make our respective cases and let readers decide.

In this specific instance: on the merits, his item did not have the traits I objected to in the Washington Post's. And on the inclusion of the caveat, you either have to believe that we're both lying or assume that it was a mistake.

In short: I did not make light of the terrible disaster in China three years ago; I did not display after the Tucson shootings the assumptions I criticize in others' reactions to Norway; and it was not because of toadyism that I distinguished between an Atlantic item and one in the Post.

I am sorry to have had to do this, and that it has taken so much space.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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