Media Analysis

Homage to Alex Cockburn

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Alex with his dog Jasper. (Photo: Tao Ruspoli/CounterPunch)

On Friday Alexander Cockburn, fearless journalist with a caustic tongue known for lashing corporate corruptors, jingoistic foreign policy, and compromising leftists—even colleagues—passed in Salzhausen, Germany at the age of 71. Although battling cancer, Alex kept his illness quiet. He chose to work right up until the end of his life with most unaware that his time was coming to a final stop.

From Jeffrey St. Clair, co-editor with Alex at CounterPunch:

Alex kept his illness a tightly guarded secret. Only a handful of us knew how terribly sick he truly was. He didn’t want the disease to define him. He didn’t want his friends and readers to shower him with sympathy. He didn’t want to blog his own death as Christopher Hitchens had done. Alex wanted to keep living his life right to the end. He wanted to live on his terms. And he wanted to continue writing through it all, just as his brilliant father, the novelist and journalist Claud Cockburn had done. And so he did. His body was deteriorating, but his prose remained as sharp, lucid and deadly as ever.


Alex lived a huge life and he lived it his way. He hated compromise in politics and he didn’t tolerate it in his own life.

Born in Scotland, raised in Ireland, Alex came from a family that are the Redgraves of independent media. He is the son of newspaperman Claud Cockburn, whose novel Beat the Devil, which became a film starring Humphrey Bogart, was the namesake for Alex’s acerbic column at the Nation magazine. He was also the brother to journalists Andrew and Patrick Cockburn, and the late novelist Sarah Caudwell. As well as uncle to Grit TV’s truth-telling mogul Laura Flanders, BBC editor Stephanie Flanders, and actress Olive Wilde, who peeks into food politics on her blog Wilde Things.

In the 1970s Alex got his start in U.S. media with the Village Voice, leading to a gig at the Wall Street Journal. Then Alex moved to the Nation and later co-founded CounterPunch.com.

In the obituaries that have poured out since Alex’s passing, those that knew him highlight his sharp opinions. He was “a punishing writer,” said Wayne Barrett, who worked with Alex’s during his Village Voice days.

And former Assistant Secretary to the U.S. Treasury under Reagan, Paul Craig Roberts (yes, Alex made friends across party lines), wrote:

Alex lived in the U.S. for a long time and became a U.S. citizen a few years ago. He wrote for the Village Voice and in the Reagan years had a column on the op-ed page of the Wall Street Journal, something that would be impossible today.

I will miss him and so will people who do not know who he was. The force has been weakened.

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(Photo: Tao Ruspoli/CounterPunch)

I was fortunate enough to also know Alex as his one of his research assistants during most of 2010. It was my first post-college, post-internship gig. Echoing what others have said, I learned from him what fearless writing looked like. Alex never dropped issues because they were out of fashion. He was persistent about ending nuclear energy from the time of the Three Mile Island disaster to today. And he did so with a charisma that made him forthright, not acrimonious. From one of his last columns published on March 26, 2012 in the Nation:

Nuclear power really is safe, because we didn’t lose Pennsylvania or Tokyo. Stratospheric levels of cesium, strontium-90 and tritium? No problem. ‘Even if you eat contaminated vegetables several times, it will not harm your health at all,’ the BBC reported Edano as advising. From the point of view of the nuclear industry, the great thing about nuclear fallout, provided it doesn’t fry you on the spot or within a day or two, is that cancer takes time to show up, during which more nuclear plants can be built and more money coaxed out of dangerous existing ones.

And he was one of the first writers to catch onto the Obama administration shoveling subsidies into nuclear energy, while it was deceptively re-named “clean energy,” or “green energy.”

His biting sensibility was also exercised in critiques of Zionism, making Alex an early fall guy for the pro-Israel lobby. The Evening News called it “journalistic hygiene,” when in 1984 he was fired from the Village Voice after the news broke that he received a grant from the Institute of Arab Studies to write a book on Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon. But the sanction did not censor Alex. Instead he carried on reporting per usual, firing away at injustices and sloppy analysis. In a 2010 the Nation column, “Israel: Into Deeper Darkness,” Alex called out Haaretz and ABC over reporting his friend Noam Chomsky was “denied entry into Israel:”

Entirely untrue. Chomsky was denied entry to Ramallah, not Israel. This distinction highlights, among other things, that Israel controls the borders into occupied Palestinian areas.

Most writers I’ve worked with are too timid to ruffle the feathers of friendly publications. But not Alex. However his more damning pieces were reserved for more questionable figures, for instance Marty Peretz of the New Republic. Even the New York Time‘s obituary noted Alex’s ropework used on Peretz in particular:

After Martin Peretz, the longtime owner and editor in chief of The New Republic, had a fainting spell in Paris in the late 1980s, Mr. Cockburn gleefully wrote that Mr. Peretz had been dining at an expensive restaurant where patrons were ‘so bloated that they have to be rubbed down with Vaseline to squeeze through the door.’

With Alex my assignments always varied, leaning to the esoteric if not outright bizarre. I liked his style and it suited me to scour archives looking up nudist colonies in California, or a cult leader who died in a mysterious 1960s fire, or the cost of medical compared to street marijuana . I saw many odd facts end up as logical empiricism in policy pieces. The marijuana figures fed a story on California’s proposition 19, which was reported as decriminalization, but Alex showed the measure was a tool for corporations to privatize family farms. He had a way of catching the insidious lurking behind the liberal. 

When I read Alex’s columns, I eagerly looked forward to what he would say next.  And although he has passed, still there is more to come. Jeffrey St. Clair mentions in his dedication two more books will be published posthumously.

Alex, it was an honor to have worked for you. Best,

Allison

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Politics of Antisemitism, such a prescient work. RIP Mr. Cockburn.

Alison, I think Alex started writing for the Village Voice in the 1970s. He wrote a column with James Ridgeway and the Pressclips column, dispenser of advice to benighted scribes. “Dear Dr Pressclips…” This was before you were born, so you are forgiven. His departure from the Voice has been glossed over in all the commentary. It came in 1983, after Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, and the Sabra-Shatilah massacre and seizure of a security… Read more »

Thank you, Allison.

My last submission to CP, whose rejection I mentioned above, was in January, and its entirely possible that he wasn’t attending to editorial duties closely, and it slipped past him. Either way, NO COCKBURN, NO VOICE.

Allison, thank you so much for your remembrance, and congratulations to you for having had the opportunity to work with Alex. I eagerly consumed his columns for about 35 years, ever since a law school buddy recommended him. I met him once, briefly, and he was very friendly to this fawning stranger (I actually asked him to sign one of his books), and still stung from the passing of his good friend Edward Said a… Read more »