The New Yorker Goes to War
How does a magazine bring itself to such a pass? The process probably began when Tina Brown took over in 1992. Politically, Brown wasn't left wing or right wing so much as no wing. She fawned over Ronald and Nancy Reagan in Vanity Fair and then, a dozen years later, fawned over Bill Clinton in The New Yorker ("his height, his sleekness, his newly cropped, iron-filing hair, and the intensity of his blue eyes..."). While publishing the occasional exposé, such as Mark Danner's memorable "Massacre at El Mozote," she was more concerned with putting the magazine in the swim. David Remnick, who succeeded her in 1998, is a different case. Where Brown is catty and mischievous, his style is earnest and respectable. Although a talented reporter and a graceful writer, he lacks Brown's irreverent streak. (One can hardly imagine him writing a first-person account of dancing topless in New Jersey, or whatever the male equivalent might be, as Brown famously did at the beginning of her career.) Remnick's 1993 book, Lenin's Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire, dutifully followed the Washington line in reducing a complex historical event to a simple-minded melodrama about noble dissidents versus evil Communist apparatchiki. Under his leadership, The New Yorker has never seemed more like a tame, middle-of-the-road news magazine with cartoons, which may explain why its political writers, people like Nicholas Lemann, Jeffrey Goldberg and Remnick himself, have never enjoyed more airtime on shows like Charlie Rose. In traveling from irreverence to reverence, it helps to have someone in charge with a heat-seeking missile's ability to home in on the proper establishment position at any given moment. But it also helps to have someone who knows when to ask the tough questions and when to turn them off.
A magazine like The New Yorker, of course, is a diverse and sprawling thing. It speaks with many voices, not all of whom completely agree. If Remnick leans to the right, Hertzberg still leans to the left, leaving it to the reader to triangulate between the two. Reporters like Jane Mayer and Jon Lee Anderson, for their part, have raised uncomfortable questions about the War on Terrorism. Still, an overall conservative turn has been apparent from nearly the moment the Twin Towers collapsed.
In its initial post-9/11 issue, for instance, the same one in which Sontag's mini-blast appeared, Hertzberg noted in "The Talk of the Town" that the Bush Administration was describing the assault on the World Trade Center and Pentagon "with growing ferocity...as acts of war." Instead of jumping on board, Hertzberg was duly cautious in his response: "Unless a foreign government turns out to have directed the operation (or, at least, to have known and approved its scope in detail and in advance), that is a category mistake." Pace Bush, harboring a terrorist did not make one as guilty as a terrorist; rather, you had to know what he was up to and be a party to his plans to be placed on the same moral footing.
Sobriety like that was a rare commodity in those superheated days. But then, sensing perhaps that too much sobriety might be a dangerous thing, Remnick enlisted Hertzberg a week later in co-writing an editorial stating that war was justified after all. "The trope of war has been omnipresent since the day of the attack," the two men wrote, and "President Bush did not, and could not, retreat from it." Still, "even as the President spoke of war his remarks reflected an awareness of the snares that word carries. Justice, more than war, was the speech's theme." This was the September 20, 2001, televised address in which Bush told the world, "Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists." Instead of targeting terrorists, he was now targeting those who failed to show sufficient alacrity for the new American jihad. Yet somehow Remnick and Hertzberg persuaded themselves that the President's remarks "went some distance in reassuring those who feared that his response to this crisis would be a primitive spasm of vengeful violence." Once The New Yorker convinced itself that Bush was well intentioned even if his performance was sometimes maladroit, it became one more courtier straining to get the king's ear.
A month later, the magazine published an investigative report by Seymour Hersh blaming a Pentagon culture of "political correctness" for the failure to assassinate Mullah Muhammad Omar. According to Hersh, military personnel could have taken the Taliban leader out with a Hellfire missile strike once a Predator drone got him in its sights. But they were blocked by overscrupulous higher-ups who "want you to kill the guy, but not the guy next to him," as one of his sources in the military put it. It was a form of legal squeamishness, apparently, that the Pentagon would soon overcome. Two months later Hersh explored the growing neocon push for an invasion of Iraq. But rather than ask why the United States was targeting Saddam despite a lack of evidence tying him to 9/11, Hersh confined himself to the purely practical question of whether the hawks could pull it off. "The issue is not how nice it would be to get rid of Saddam," he quoted one former Defense Department official as saying. "The problem is feasibility." If the United States could do it, in other words, it should.
To be fair, Hersh's reporting has grown more critical of late. The New Yorker's overwhelmingly antiwar readership no doubt cheered when his March 17 report about superhawk Richard Perle's business dealings with Saudi-born arms merchant Adnan Khashoggi led to Perle's resignation as chairman of the Pentagon's Defense Policy Board. Ripping into the work of special Pentagon intelligence analysts assigned to find proof of Saddam's ties to Al Qaeda and the arsenal of forbidden weapons he had supposedly assembled, Hersh quoted an angry ex-CIA official as saying, "They were so crazed and so far out and difficult to reason with--to the point of being bizarre. Dogmatic, as if on a mission from God." This was strong stuff. But in discussing how they may have allowed themselves to be duped by their own propaganda, Hersh couldn't bring himself to mention the likelier possibility--that "intelligence" like this is a smokescreen and that, from the analysts on up, the Bush Administration has simply lied. The New Yorker may criticize aspects of the War on Terrorism, but to suggest that Bush's jihad is fraudulent remains beyond the pale.