Rebutting Jesse Kornbluth’s rebuttal re his original Andrew Sullivan article


Jesse Kornbluth, whom I took to task for his Sullivan hagiography, has responded to my rebuttal to his defense of that same hagiography. True to my lawyer’s credo, I’m trying here to have the last word, although I certainly don’t mean to preempt Kornbluth from doing the same, if he is so inclined. As I did before, I’ll put Kornbluth’s entire response here (indented) along with my comments:

3,467 words. Whew! (Okay, that includes generous quotations from my article and message board post.) If length mattered, Bookworm, you prevail.

We can kick this back and forth forever, but on the assumption we both have more serious work, let me make a very few points, in as few words as possible.

Just FYI, Kornbluth came in at 1,060 words but he didn’t quote me or Sullivan at any length. Tsk, tsk, tsk.

Certainly, brevity can be a virtue, but there is merit to solid argument and analysis, regardless of the number of words in play. I leave the reader to consider content — mine and Kornbluth’s — without regard to word count, and to determine which added more value to the debate.

Here’s Kornbluth again:

First, your take on my conduct as a professional journalist. The important words are “careless” and “laziness” – I am “as lazy a writer and researcher” as you had supposed. And why? Because I could have answered your charges had I done any research; instead, I challenged you to look for links that I should have discovered myself, if only I had done any research at all.

This is a remarkable accusation. It is credible only to those who think that a former Contributing Editor to Vanity Fair, New York, Reader’s Digest, Departures, Architectural Digest and The Los Angeles Times Magazine – and an occasional contributor to the New Yorker, The New York Times, Esquire and many other magazines – either 1) built a career on lazy, fraudulent reporting or 2) had a loss of professionalism when the subject was his favorite blogger or 3) found in Harvard Magazine (of all places!) a journal that did no fact-checking or shared his views on Sullivan so completely that it didn’t give a damn what I wrote about him, as long as I burnished his halo.

Which of those do you believe?

If you believe that whatever meager reputation I have built over a 40-year career is built on deception or that I am in my dotage and unable to do my job properly or that all those East Coast publications that have published me are liberal-left and lack the high standards of [name any conservative publication], then nothing I say will make any difference.

I believe that I couldn’t care less about Kornbluth’s resume. I was looking at his journalistic conduct vis a vis a single article. The fact that he wrote for myriad publications for which I have little-to-no respect is irrelevant to the quality of the magazine article at issue.

I should add that Kornbluth may not be aware that I’m a neocon who cut her eye teeth on all the publications he names, plus a few more he doesn’t name. I read them assiduously, and with the attention of a true liberal disciple. It was that attention to detail that led me to neoconservativism, since I could no longer tolerate the unacknowledged bias, carelessness, and rank dishonesty that plagued so many of those magazines and newspapers.

By the way, I certainly don’t mean to imply that Kornbluth was guilty of any of those sins. As it is, before reading the Harvard Mag article, I’d never heard of Kornbluth, so I read the article with an open mind as regards authorship.

Kornbluth again:

Or we could consider what actually happened here.

l) All those links you cite, Bookworm? I read almost all, if not all, of them while I was working on the profile of Sullivan. A chore – and a bigger chore than usual, because I’ve been a regular reader of Sullivan’s blog for years and I’d read most, if not all, of them before. If that is “lazy,” please define “conscientious” for me.

Perhaps, in my lexicon, “conscientious” means applying analytical skills to the reading material. As it is, if Kornbluth did indeed read the material I cited, he seems to have blithely accepted Sullivan’s own spin. As I’ve mentioned before (repeatedly), Sullivan’s spin consists of making vile accusations and then backing off with some version of “I’m merely suggesting this, and it’s mere coincidence that I’m offering these suggestions over and over, in every means possible and without any evidence, with a relentlessness that verges on obsession.” Just saying….

Kornbluth:

2) “…it’s reasonable to believe that, because he was not looking for evidence [of] Sullivan’s periodic monomanias, he did not find that evidence.

Did you read my profile of Sullivan, Bookworm? I presented Sullivan as “an intellectual diva, prone to epic battles.” I noted his obsessions: Israel, torture, gay rights and, yes, Palin and the use of language in politics. Anyone who reads Sullivan knows that these topics will come up again and again. Monomania – an obsession with a single subject or thought – is, for Sullivan, no more than a description of his method of blogging. In this, I plead guilty. And so should you, Bookworm. We all ride our little hobbyhorses.

Sullivan is all Kornbluth says: a dilettante, a diva, a gadfly. He’s also, which Kornbluth doesn’t say, a slanderer. That would seem to detract from his lavish praise for the man. It’s one thing to ignore eccentricities, or even to offer them as charming qualities in an otherwise sterling human being. It’s another thing entirely to gloss over behaviors and obsessions that have bypassed eccentricity and veered into rank dishonesty.

And back to Kornbluth:

3) Bookworm writes:
“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….”

Failed to discover? Then how do you explain this – from the Harvard piece:

Andrew Sullivan did not support John McCain in 2008. The torture flip-flop would have been enough of a reason. Then McCain added Sarah Palin to the ticket. The combination of her scant government experience and “raw political talent” terrified Sullivan–and with only two months between her nomination and the election, he started hammering.
“I was told: ‘Don’t touch this, it will hurt your reputation,’” he says. During a campaign when most pundits were, at worst, quizzical about Palin, Sullivan filled his blog with questions she was never going to answer. Did he pay a price? “I have become more of an outlaw in this town because I couldn’t hide my amazement from my peers–I’ve definitely become more alienated from mainstream media.
Since the election, Sullivan has continued to press for clarification about a rumor the mainstream media won’t touch: that Trig is not Palin’s son. Sullivan hasn’t flung any accusations at Palin; he’s just pounded her ever-changing stories about Trig’s birth, and her unwillingness to provide a birth certificate for him. In the heated conversation that surrounds all things Palin, nuance has been lost–and Sullivan has been cast as a crank who takes pleasure in badgering a woman who may have no political future. His response: “Early on, I figured out that anything I write about her can only help her, but I don’t care about that. The job of a journalist is to find the truth..

Is it not obvious that “don’t touch this” refers to the questions about Trig? And that, from this passage, Sullivan knew he would be criticized? And that he was criticized? And that I knew he had been, because I asked him about it?

The problem with Kornbluth’s writing is that he acknowledges Sullivan’s Palin monomania in such a way that it gives it credibility. Keep in mind, that the above passage occurs in the context of an entire article praising Sullivan as the world’s best blogger. Second, it seems that Kornbluth is being as disingenuous as Sullivan himself when he says “Sullivan hasn’t flung any accusations at Palin….”

As I used some of my 3,467 words to demonstrate, the only thing that has stopped Sullivan from making these direct accusations is the moral cowardice that permeates so much of his writing — writing that I quoted at some length. Sullivan assembles vast amounts of so-called evidence (rumors; innuendos; artful, and always coy, questions), all of which leads inevitably to a specific conclusion, and then announces that he, personally isn’t actually saying anything at all — and that he’s especially not asserting the logical conclusion one must reach if one accepts his purported facts.

Because Kornbluth didn’t state explicitly that Sullivan has repeatedly attacked Palin’s relationship to Trig, I assumed he hadn’t done his research. Apparently I was wrong. It seems that Kornbluth simply buys into Sullivan’s little authorial game of bait and switch, game that sees Sullivan strongly implying something, and then taking cover by arguing that he hasn’t actually said it. That line of argument may work in middle school, but it shouldn’t work amongst those with somewhat more analytical experience and intelligence.

As for the birth certificate, I can find no evidence that either Kornbluth or Sullivan cared one iota about the President’s missing birth certificate (a document tied in with a Constitutional requirement for his office). I must therefore assume that Sullivan’s obsession with Trig’s birth certificate, as well as Kornbluth’s tacit acknowledgment that this is a valid question, both belong in the realm, not of impartial journalism, but of mad dog partisan political attacks.

(And before Kornbluth asks, no, I’m not now, nor have I ever been a Birther. I’ve always believed that Obama was born in Hawaii. I’ve also thought it was mean-spirited and inappropriate for him to hide the certificate. As for me, I’m much more interested in Obama’s college and law school grades. I’d be interested to see whether they support the narrative that he an unusually brilliant man. Since I find his off-teleprompter speech limited, unmusical and ill-informed, I have my doubts.)

Kornbluth’s turn again:

[You’ll hate me for this, but the Harvard snot in me compels me to point out that you misspelled a key word. A “flack” is someone who works in public relations --- essentially, what you think I do. “Flak” means criticism and is derived from warfare --- anti-aircraft guns and the bullets they fire.]

I don’t hate you at all. I’m a terrible proofreader, and I tend to type words by sound as much as by spelling. Regular readers know that I make these mistakes, which I call “thinkos” rather than “typos,” and I always appreciate corrections. I’m sufficiently secure about my writing not to be offended by constructive criticism. So — thank you.

And back to Kornbluth:

The bulk of your response, Bookworm, is an analysis of Sullivan’s blogging. How he dances right up to a statement, then pulls back, disingenuously. Well argued, though this doesn’t require your a-game. Yes, he doubts that Palin is Trig’s mother – that’s why he writes about the “question” so often. And of course he’s going to examine all the rhetoric around the Tucson shooting – his hero is George Orwell.

One can’t simply dismiss my argument about Sullivan’s writing style as a naive failure to recognize his Orwellian drive and curiosity. What both Sullivan and Kornbluth seem to miss is that Orwell understood better than anyone else that words can be used to obfuscate as well as to elucidate. Sullivan’s perpetual little verbal dances are not intended to analyze data. Instead, they are quite obviously intended to advance specific and defamatory lines of argument, all the while maintaining plausible deniability.

In other words, Sullivan seems to have read Orwell to learn the worst lessons about writing, not the best. For him to spend substantial amounts of time relaying, without analysis, gross slanders about both the Tea Partiers and Palin in the wake of the Tucson shooting, and then to add approving codas to those slanders, is not an example of “examin[ing] . . . rhetoric.” It is, instead, a nice Goebellian example of advancing the Big Lie.

Kornbluth speaks again:

Finally, re Tucson, you write:
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.

“Should,” Bookworm? That’s not a word I associate with journalism. JFK shouldn’t have been shot. We shouldn’t have invaded Iraq. Donald Trump shouldn’t make an ass of himself. Yes, the air “should” have been thick with facts that day. Sadly, that wasn’t what happened.

Pardon me, but that argument makes no sense whatsoever. In the real world (as opposed to the Progressive echo chamber), journalists are supposed to report facts. Sullivan, however, repeatedly and approvingly used (and uses) his well-read blog to relay completely unfounded slanders — slanders of both of an American political movement and an American politician. If Kornbluth thinks that’s journalism, we are indeed at an impasse.

Here’s Kornbluth’s last point, after which I too will wrap up my argument:

So, to the facts, which you concede: Andrew Sullivan never said, in so many words, “Trig is not Palin’s kid.” Nor did he say, “Tucson was a conspiracy.” As for what he did write, why not take it up with him?

In answer to Kornbluth’s question, I took the issue up with Kornbluth because:

(a) I try to avoid Sullivan, whose emotional, gossipy, malicious writing offends me (although he has a knack for finding interesting videos);

(b) Harvard Rag . . . er, Mag arrived on my doorstep unrequested, and I was less than pleased to see the magazine serve as an advertisement for someone whose personal biases, spite and dishonesty don’t deserve that kind of platform; and

(c) It was Kornbluth who tried to play clever little word games by pretending that Sullivan’s myriad hysterical and untrue posts about Trig’s parentage or the Tucson shooting can and should be discounted entirely because Sullivan never said certain magic words. We are not playing “mother may I” here. The perfectly formulated sentence (i.e., “Trig is not Sarah’s son.” “The Tea Partiers and Sarah are responsible for the Tucson shooting”) is not the only one that will work. Sullivan has been dishonest, and Kornbluth has put Harvard’s imprimatur on that dishonesty — and that’s just wrong.

Cross-posted at Bookworm Room

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Tags assigned to this article:
Andrew SullivanHarvard MagazineJesse Kornbluth

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