Forget H.L. Mencken — nobody could do invective like Alexander Cockburn. His lampoon of the sonorously balanced banalities of The McNeil/Lehrer Report (“A Galiliean preacher claims he is the Redeemer and the poor are blessed. Should he be crucified?”) remains the definitive takedown of intellectually neutered “balance” in journalism. He dubbed Commentary editor Norman Podhoretz “Norman the Frother,” and when the pompous neocon attacked Cockburn for “gutter journalism,” Cockburn proudly ran the quote atop his Village Voice column as the “Frother Seal of Approval.” (When Martin Peretz, then publisher of The New Republic, jined the tussle on Poddy’s side, Cockburn added the quote as the “Peretz Blue Ribbon.”) But early on, as nasty as he could get, Cockburn was usually more than just a snark-slinger. When Ronald Reagan began his John Wayne strut across Central America, Cockburn used the rape-murder of three American nuns and a church worker in El Salvador as the starting point for a viciously accurate assessment of the media’s moral calculus: x number of murdered Salvadoran peasants versus y number of Americans.
Cockburn, who just died at the age of 71, brought to mind a Christopher Hitchens unencumbered by the desire to be a clubby insider. The two were stablemates for a time at The Nation, which resurrected Cockburn’s “Press Clips” column as “Beat the Devil” after the Village Voice ousted him on a hazy conflict-of-interest charge. As fellow Voice alumnus James Wolcott notes in his farewell piece, Cockburn’s career seemed to drizzle away in the Eighties — even accounting for the fact that a combative leftist with an aversion to Greater Israel militarism is not going to have an easy career, one expected more from him. He could be factually unreliable, and in some of his positions — his dismissal of global warming, for example — he was not just wrong but stupidly wrong. But his biggest problem may simply have been that he was too much his own man to fit into any slot, and when he turned his back on medialand to live in northern California, he put an end to his chances for wider influence.
If you’re not familiar with Cockburn’s work, this lengthy C-SPAN profile will fill in some gaps. Apparently the title of his forthcoming memoir is Colossal Wreck. Now that is something I want to read.