The main point about journalism is its perishability. That is also the main point about the reputation and sway of its practitioners. They are read or heard, have influence for good or ill, and are known only as long as they are at work. Then things move on. When I first became conscious of political journalism in the late 1960s, it was dominated by figures whose names would draw blank stares now. This is the life and the craft we have chosen.*
I mention this to explain a gap in reactions to the surprising news of Alexander Cockburn's death -- surprising because, very much unlike Christopher Hitchens, Cockburn had kept word of his cancer private. People who have come to journalism and politics during the Blogocene Era would scarcely have heard of Cockburn and might wonder why his passing is being noted. If they knew anything about him, it would probably be because of his more mainstream-journalist brothers, Andrew and Patrick, or his niece Olivia Wilde. But for people of my generation, Alexander Cockburn was a tremendously influential figure, despite his withdrawal from the main stage in recent years.
As Michael Tomasky points out in this appreciation, Alex Cockburn essentially pioneered the modern persona for which Christopher Hitchens became much better known: the fancily Oxford-educated leftie Brit litterateur/journalist who would say all the outrageous things his bland Yank counterparts lacked the wit, courage, erudition, or épater-spirit to utter on their own. As both Tomasky and James Wolcott make clear, Cockburn was far more committed and purposeful in his outrageousness. His own brutal obituary about Hitchens both explains and exemplifies the differences. Short version: Cockburn said that Hitchens always knew just how far he could go; Cockburn knew, and kept on going. His "Press Clips" column in the Village Voice genuinely revolutionized the way people talked and thought about the mainstream press.