A rebuttal to Jesse Kornbluth on the subject of Andrew Sullivan


I wrote a post taking Harvard grad Jesse Kornbluth (class of ’68) to task for his carelessly flattering portrayal of “journalist” and blogger Andrew Sullivan. It’s fine to like Sullivan, although I would question a person’s judgment in doing so. What bothered me was that Kornbluth failed to discover that Sullivan has taken a fair amount of deserved flack for (a) obsessing about Trig Palin’s putative maternity and (b) launching a frothing, entirely ill-informed tirade against the Tea Party and Sarah Palin in the wake of the Tucson shooting.

I was willing to forgive Kornbluth for that oversight in the first go-round, because the internet sometimes suffers from a surfeit of information. Given that, for Kornbluth, Sullivan’s issues were “unknown unknowns,” it’s reasonable to believe that, because he was not looking for evidence Sullivan’s periodic monomanias, he did not find that evidence.

What really bugged me was that, when a reader left a comment on the Harvard Magazine website pointing out Kornbluth’s oversight, Kornbluth, rather than going to Google and typing in “Andrew Sullivan Trig Palin” or “Andrew Sullivan Tucson shooting,” instead professed ignorance and asked the reader to provide the links. That was a laziness that grated on me and that, retroactively, tainted my willingness to believe that the oversights in Kornbluth’s article were carelessness, rather than the unthinking adulation Democrats/Progressives so often accord Progressive bloggers, especially those, like Sullivan, who pretend to a false “sane” conservativism.

My post made its way to Kornbluth’s attention, and he left a long comment on my blog defending his position. Because he took the time to do so, I think he deserves an equally detailed reply. In the remainder of this post, I interlineate my comments (which are not indented) with Kornbluth’s p0ints (which are indented). Here’s Kornbluth’s first point:

Bookworm is eloquent about my inadequacies as a journalist, but she’s chosen the wrong tool for the job. I asked for specifics. I’m posting now – here and on the Harvard Magazine site – to ask for them again.

In my profile, I did not deny, overlook or obscure that Sullivan wrote a great deal about Sarah Palin’s pregnancy. My challenge was: Show me a post in which Sullivan writes some version of these words: “I believe Sarah Palin is not Trig’s mother.” I repeat the challenge.

I freely admit that Sullivan has never written “Sarah Palin is not Trig’s mother” or “Trig is not Sarah Palin’s son.” In the grand tradition of the “have you stopped beating your wife” question, Sullivan, while coyly avoiding saying that Sarah Palin is not Trig’s mother, has repeatedly, and for years, demanded evidence that she is, which is tantamount to claiming that she isn’t. In addition, he highlights, and applauds, every harebrained piece of “evidence” coming down the pikeway that purports to prove that Sarah Palin wasn’t really pregnant. I could provide dozens of examples, but I’ll confine myself to five, which I found within minutes of starting my research:

On August 31, 2008, Sullivan posted without comment (therefore impliedly approving of and supporting) a reader’s email which contained this gem of paranoia: “There is a serious possibility that this narrative is completely false, that, in fact, Palin’s daughter became pregnant, and that she decided to take the following steps: first, hide the pregnancy by withdrawing her daughter from school; and second, pretend that the child was hers, in the process lying to everyone around her, including the public and her staff.”

Just one day later, Sullivan concedes that, in a photo, Palin looks pregnant, but really, he still needs actual proof. He suggest a little testimonial from the doctor who watched the baby crown? (Maybe a DNA test would make him happy.) “This seems to put the kibbosh on this, although it would still be good to have official confirmation from the McCain campaign, which should be easy enough to do. Just a simple confirmation from the doctor who was present at the birth.” This coy pretense of belief, coupled with unreasonable demands for evidence, is equivalent to a public announcement that he believes the photo is a trick (a pillow under the shirt perhaps) and that, really, nothing will make him comfortable with Sarah Palin’s claimed parentage. Incidentally, it’s rather peculiar that Sullivan didn’t bring that same demanding rigor to Obama’s natal state. If he had, perhaps the years’ long “silliness” of birtherism could have been nipped in the bud

In November 2008, Sullivan was still going strong: “We have been given no actual records of the last pregnancy, or any records at all, although we are told by the elusive Dr. Catherine Baldwin-Johnson that labor was at 35 weeks – not as premature as previously believed (if you research the average weight of full term DS babies, you find, by the way, that Trig was not underweight).” Sullivan’s insistent demands for proof of birth can exist only in a universe in which he doesn’t believe the birth story. It would take someone remarkably naive, credulous or stupid not to read between Sullivan’s lines.

More than a year later, Sullivan’s Trig obsession was on full display. In December 2008, he went on The View and, in a somewhat incoherent interview with Joy Behar, cast doubt upon every aspect of Palin’s pregnancy and concluded by stating explicitly — which is rare for Sullivan — that he didn’t believe her story was true:

SULLIVAN: That Harper Collins, a major publication has put out without any fact checking what so ever in order to make money. I find the whole thing just bizarre. I find the whole thing of a governor quitting in her first term when she wants to have a career, bizarre. There are so many bizarre questions including this extraordinary story of the birth of Trig, which is, on a basis, extraordinarily hard to believe the way she`s told it. Maybe there is some truth there that we don`t know fully know. Or she`s confusing –

BEHAR: What do you mean the way she`s told it? She gave birth to the baby –

SULLIVAN: You just don`t behave that way? No one behave that way.

BEHAR: Which way.

SULLIVAN: No one is eight months pregnant, thousands of miles away from home, as she says, in a hotel room in Dallas.

BEHAR: Oh, yes.

SULLIVAN: With a special needs child. Wakes up, bolt right up in bed, has a strange sensation low in her belly and tells the “Anchorage Daily News” that her water broke and doesn`t go to the hospital. No one does that.

BEHAR: Oh that`s a very interesting point.

SULLIVAN: Let alone, then give a speech, in her own book she says she gives a speech while she`s having contractions. She tells a joke in the speech.

BEHAR: I see.

SULLIVAN: She says, big laughs, more contractions.

BEHAR: Is no one investigating this? She`s getting a pass on a lot of things.

SULLIVAN: The (UNINTELLIGIBLE) media didn`t do any investigations to the plausibility of this story. But then she gets on two airplanes back to Alaska in labor and the “Anchorage Daily News” -

BEHAR: Now how do you -

SULLIVAN: This is all in the public record, not me.

BEHAR: Yes, yes, yes.

SULLIVAN: The Anchorage Daily News asked the flight attendants, well goodness, how did you let a woman eight months pregnant, whose water has broken according to her, who is experiencing contractions according to her on the place. An Alaska Airline spokeswoman says they were not aware she was pregnant.

BEHAR: So are you saying there`s some kind of cover up?

SULLIVAN: I have no idea, Joy.

BEHAR: So you`re just putting these pieces together.

SULLIVAN: I have no idea. I`ve been trying to make -

BEHAR: Alleging to -

SULLIVAN: I`m alleging anything.

BEHAR: Conjecturing -

SULLIVAN: No, I`m not. Not even conjecturing.

BEHAR: What are you?

SULLIVAN: I am simply saying I cannot believe the story that she’s told.

As recently as two weeks ago, Sullivan was still advancing Trig birther theories, all the while cynically begging to be proved wrong. Considering that he’s been gnawing at this bone for almost three years, reprinting every crackpot and hackneyed claim that came along, his tone is disingenuous at best, and fraudulently dishonest at worst.

I add here only that Sullivan’s repeatedly coyness on the subject (attributing the false pregnancy argument to others, professing confusion even as he advances conspiracy theories, continually demanding proof of parentage even while denying that he thinks there is a problem) is consistent with Sullivan’s general and, may I say, sleazy approach to “journalism.” There’s a certain indecency to a man who doesn’t even have the courage to stand behind his own slanders.

And now back to Kornbluth:

While we’re waiting for a response, cooler heads might like to read one of Sullivan’s posts on the Palin/Trig question:

http://www.theatlantic.com/daily-dish/archive/2008/12/a-fourth-picture/207848/
I begged the McCain campaign by private email and in a private meeting to give me something – anything – to kill the story off. I promised to run any evidence that would blow this out of the water. That offer still stands. Please make me look like an idiot for asking these questions.

I trust that I’ve addressed sufficiently the logical fallacy of believing Sullivan’s own denials of the story he can’t stop pushing. Sullivan’s disavowals of his own theories are mere cover to give people such as Kornbluth plausible deniability when they claim that Sullivan has never explicitly stated that Palin is not Trig’s mother. Sullivan proves that engaging in byzantine innuendo; cheerfully, and without criticism, quoting others’ slanders; and asking stupid questions (“where is the doctor?”) are more than adequate substitutes for an overt statement.

Back to Kornbluth:

As for Sullivan’s “hysterical screeds” about the Tucson shooting, Bookworm mistakes persistence in writing about an event for obsession. The simple fact was this shooting obsessed the nation for a week. A great many people – from Sarah Palin to Paul Krugman – wrote or said things about the alleged shooter’s motives they had reason to regret. My question was: Did Sullivan – like many others – suggest a conspiracy or a political/ideological reason for the shooting? Again, I ask for a citation that shows he did.

Again, a few Sullivan quotations should suffice to demonstrate that, in a complete information vacuum about the shooter’s motive, Andrew Sullivan could not stop writing in the most extreme terms about the Tea Party’s and Sarah Palin’s entirely nonexistent responsibility:

By January 9, 2011 (one day after the shooting and before anybody knew anything about Lougner’s motives), Sullivan quoted two Tea Party candidates who used war metaphors in their speech (ignoring the fact that Democrat candidates routinely do the same), and then added his own editorial comment: “One can only hope that this horror causes us all to say: Enough!” Enough what? Enough of Tea Party candidates using the metaphors of war for campaign speech? It is worth remembering in this regard that modern politics is a form of bloodless warfare, with opposing camps, a battle and a victor. That’s why candidates, all candidates, find useful metaphors of targeting, enmity, and battle. To suggest otherwise bypasses disingenuous and wanders directly into stupidity.

Not content with indirectly targeting the Tea Party, on that same day, in a post entitled “Reading Loughner’s Mind” Sullivan quoted approvingly from another liberal blogger who had — in the absence of any evidence — concluded that Loughner was inspired by the Tea Party’s allegedly violent rhetoric, and added his Sullivan-esque own coda: “The latter point is a good one, I think. The entire psychological structure of the “Tea Party” is rooted in the theme of patriotic armed revolt against an illegitimate tyrant. Violence and the rhetoric of violence is embedded within it. When you do that, someone somewhere will take you seriously.” Sullivan pretends Olympian, but this was a mud wallow.

Our dogged little Sullivan couldn’t stop there. Buoyed up by a lack of actual information, he just kept theorizing about the evil Tea Party’s influence on events in Arizona. His next post managed to marry this ugly obsession with his pre-existing obsession with Palin. The post’s title — “Palinspeak and Violence” — pretty much gives the game away, but I’ll quote the choicest nugget, which is the post’s opening paragraph: “One of the constants in Sarah Palin’s worldview is violence. You see it in her reality show where most wildlife is immediately identified as a threat to be guarded against or killed. You see it in her inflammatory language, and the ways in which she corrals supporters to sometimes shockingly violent threats.”

As proof of Palin’s evil — and her connection to the Tucson shooting — Sullivan included in his post an advertisement Giffords’ opponent ran in the past election, showing a Marine on duty, with gun in hand, and asking the question “Does this look like a Rino?” Oooh.

Then, in typical Sullivan fashion, having come as close as he possibly could to having said that Palin’s violent rhetoric inspired a threatening, gun-filled Arizona campaign, which led inevitably to the Tucson shooting, Sullivan then drags protective covering over himself: “The point here is not that there is any connection between this random post and political violence.” No, Andrew, the point is that, having argued that there is a connection between your opponent’s political rhetoric and another politician’s shooting, you lack the courage to reach the obvious conclusion of your own arguments.

A few hours went by, and Sullivan was back at it, pounding conservatives while refusing to acknowledge that he knew nothing about Loughner’s motives. Once again, he hid behind someone else’s skirts, this time a reader who engaged in theorizing unhampered by evidence. In response to the reader’s opinings about Republicans, paranoia and violence, Sullivan added only “My own view is that this is a moment for sane conservatives to control their jerking knee and reflect a little on what they have enabled. If politics is warfare, people will die.” So, your own view, Andrew, is that the only thing standing behind conservatives and mass bloodshed (i.e., “what they have enabled”) is “sane conservatives.”

Sullivan’s readers totally understood what Sullivan said, as Sullivan demonstrated when, later in the day, he quoted one of his readers, who agreed with Sullivan about Palin’s dangerous rhetoric, but questioned whether Sullivan had chosen the best example of Palin’s writing to make his point. The reader said, “I agree with you that her rhetoric is dangerous and over-the-top, and perhaps even that one of the constants in her worldview is violence. I don’t think this post of hers proves it, though, at least not in the way you suggest. Battle imagery and violent metaphors in relation to sports are commonplace and, in my opinion, largely harmless. If Palin’s post had actually been about sports, then I don’t think it would be worth discussing. But the subtext of her post is that there is no difference between the use of battle imagery in sports talk and in political rhetoric.”

Sullivan responded by casting even more stones at Palin: “Yep, that context matters, and changes things a little. But if anything – for the worse, as my reader explains. The truth is: that kind of language is out on a limb even in the most gung-ho sports-speak, let alone politics. No one, moreover, is going to pull out a gun while playing in a basketball game. American history is littered with examples of people pulling out a gun in politics.” Please keep in mind that when Sullivan wrote this, there was no evidence whatsoever tying the Tea Party or Sarah Palin to Loughner. There never would be any such evidence. Loughner was proven to be a deranged man who had been obsessed with Giffords for years.

I’m getting bored with Sullivan’s ill-informed rantings, and will stop clogging my post with them. I think I’ve adequately made my point. The bottom line is that Sullivan made the fatal error of theorizing (wildly, one might add) in advance of his data. What resulted wasn’t dogged journalism; it was, instead, mad dog journalism, coupled with slanderous obsession.

Back to you, Jesse:

While waiting [Just as an aside, I wouldn't bother with the sarcasm. It doesn't work. -- Bookworm], it might be instructive to read Sullivan’s live blog on the day of the shooting. Consider, please, the context. As you may recall, the air was thick with accusations that day. On his way to the hospital, Congresswoman Giffords’ father was asked if his daughter had any enemies. His reply: “Yeah, the whole Tea Party.” Also on that afternoon, a video surfaced in which Giffords spoke about a graphic on Palin’s website: “We’re on Sarah Palin’s targeted list, but the thing is, that the way that she has it depicted has the crosshairs of a gun sight over our district. When people do that, you gotta realize there’s consequences to that action.”

On that Saturday, when emotion and politics and violence were cooked into a nasty soup, here are some of Sullivan’s posts. The complete 6 hours of blogging is here: http://www.theatlantic.com/daily-dish/archive/2011/01/an-assassination-attempt-in-arizona-live-blogging/177552/

3:15 PM This is so awful that political grandstanding seems both inappropriate right now, and yet also very appropriate. An attempted political assassination is a political act and deserves a political response. We cannot wish this side of the question away. We do not yet know the motives for this excrescence.

3.49 PM Various Palin sites are frantically removing various incendiary materials – -which is both gratifying, but also, it seems to me, an acknowledgment of previous rhetorical excess. TakeBackThe20.com is in meltdown, images like these are being removed ASAP, and Palin’s Facebook page simply cannot cope with the number of commenters blasting her.

4:52 PM We’re live-blogging and piecing shreds of information together as best we can. That means that information is provisional and any attempt to understand a mind like Loughner’s is close to impossible at this propinquity and with this amount of information.

5:47 PM I have no expertise in this at all, but my impression of his writings and web presence does indeed suggest to me that some mental illness is probably a key part of this. But this does not exonerate violent or excessive rhetoric from the far right or far left: it’s precisely the disturbed who can seize on those kinds of statements and act on them. The danger of violent rhetoric, especially involving gun violence, is its interaction with the disturbed…

These posts consider possibilities and suggest avenues of investigation. They are remarkably free of accusation – even Sarah Palin is treated fairly. To me, this is blogging at its best and one very good reason for my high opinion of Andrew Sullivan.

I’ll ignore Sullivan’s contemporaneous posts, which are practically meaningless, since I believe the posts he wrote the day after the shooting, more than demonstrate my point. I will add, though, that I find it peculiar that Kornbluth defends Sullivan’s journalistic acumen by saying that “the air was thick with accusations that day.” It shouldn’t have been. The air should have been thick only with known facts that day.

That there was a poisonous accusation cloud was because a biased media was willing to offer crude, vile theories in a complete absence of facts. For Sullivan to have spent the day after to shooting blogging obsessively about those foul rumors does him no credit. It proves, instead, that he is not deserving of the praise showered upon him. He is a partisan hack, not an objective, intelligent journalist. And, as always, Sullivan hides. He advances all the evidence, and then retreats from the conclusion, making him simultaneously vindictive and craven.

Here’s Kornbluth’s last word on the subject, after which I’ll add my own:

I realize that Sullivan is widely hated by conservatives and that, for some readers, Harvard=liberal – or worse. But I hope that those who disagree with me will cease their amped-up rhetoric and begin a fact-based conversation worthy of Harvard and Harvard Magazine.

Conservatives dislike Sullivan for good reason. He’s a mean-spirited intellectual lightweight who gets a much bullier pulpit them someone with his minimal analytical skills deserves. To see him talked up in a publication that purports to be written by America’s best and brightest, and that is mailed automatically to those who themselves claim the “best and brightest” mantle, is a travesty of intellectualism and journalism.

I had actually assumed when I starting reading Jesse Kornbluth’s rebuttal that I would see that I was guilty of his claimed “amped-up rhetoric,” and that Kornbluth was not as lazy a writer and researcher as I had supposed. (I had no hope that I would come away thinking that Sullivan is anything more than a cock crowing on his own dunghill.) Having spent a few minutes research the evidence, I see that my initial impressions were correct and that Kornbluth’s rebuttal is as ill-thought out as his original article.

Cross-posted at Bookworm Room

The Bookworm Turns : A Secret Conservative in Liberal Land,
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