A treatise on columnist Alexander Cockburn

  • Caricature of Alexander Cockburn


WASHINGTON, D.C. - "Question Authority," reads the bumper sticker slogan, and good advice it is.

But so is this: Question the questioners of authority, who may have their own agenda, perhaps their own racket. Outrageousness sells these days, and as any viewer of "Crossfire" can attest, it sells better unencumbered by prudence or knowledge.

Which brings us to columnist Alexander Cockburn, long a practitioner of outrage, who has turned his attention to the land, water, flora and fauna of the West.

Cockburn dislikes President Clinton and Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt as much as any wise-user, even when he agrees with them. He and Babbitt are both unhappy about Montanans shooting bison, but to Cockburn, Babbitt is not unhappy enough.

"Babbitt is of course an Arizona rancher," Cockburn wrote, "and so he is perhaps in sympathy with the Montana buffalo-killers."

Babbitt is not a rancher.

Cockburn has been abusing reality for decades, once in the Village Voice, more recently in The Nation. These journals are left of center, as, nominally, is Cockburn, the son of a prominent British left-wing journalist. But he now also writes for a free weekly called the New York Press, which to the small extent that it escapes incomprehensibility seems vaguely right-wing.

Cockburn's commentaries over the years have been marked by anti-corporate populism, a tendency to blame the United States for all international tensions, and an unremitting hostility, often pungently expressed, toward the state of Israel and its American supporters.

Despite suffering from the unfortunate combination of being both predictable and inconsistent, The Nation is not without value. Since the decline of The New Republic (possibly in early stages of reversal) The Nation has been the only political journal which pays attention to both working people and the English language.

Considering these virtues, considering that most of the visible intellectual dishonesty these days comes from the right, exposing Alexander Cockburn's sins might seem unnecessary. Still, he speaks to a constituency which could be expected to support government action to protect nature, and misinforming that constituency should not go unnoticed.

So let's notice. In two recent columns Cockburn excoriated the wolf reintroduction effort in Yellowstone National Park and environs, specifically the provision exempting the wolves from full protection under the Endangered Species Act.

"The story begins in 1995," he wrote, "with a plan concocted by ... Babbitt and ... Defenders of Wildlife."

No, it didn't. It began in the early 1980s.

And it's working, which must be maddening to professional naysayers. Counting the pups born in April, there are about 120 wolves in Yellowstone, and their impact has been exactly as advertised - fewer coyotes, hence more small animals, hence more birds preying on the small animals. The result at least approaches a return to the natural state of things, creating what the project leader calls the "scientific opportunity of the century to watch how this population grows, how it fits in with the ecosystem."

In short, a triumph. But not to Cockburn, who was irritated by a fund-raising pitch on behalf of the Yellowstone Wolf Restoration Fund, which promised to inscribe the name of each $2,500 donor on a reintroduced wolf's radio telemetry collar.

"What's happening," he writes, "is that the wolf industry - i.e., the Wolf Fund, Defenders of Wildlife, (writer) Tom McNamee, National Wildlife Federation and some elements in Yellowstone National Park itself - are making so much money from wolf reintroduction ... that now they want to get radio collars on every wolf, whether imported from Canada or locally born."

What an extraordinary tour de force. In one sentence, Cockburn committed four errors:

* The Wolf Fund no longer exists;

* There is no plan to place a collar on every park wolf;

* No one is "making money" from wolf reintroduction; and

* All the park wolves were either "imported from Canada" or descended from such imports.

Here are the actual, as opposed to Cockburnian, facts: The Yellowstone Wolf Restoration Fund is a nonprofit organization established two years ago, thanks to a grant from the Turner (that's Ted) Foundation. So far, according to its lone employee, Benj Sinclair, who says he is not making enough money to afford a car, it has contributed $212,000, about $158,000 in cash, the rest in helicopter time (for keeping track of the wolves) and other equipment.

The only other people who are "making money" are volunteers recruited by Sinclair, who earn seven dollars a day plus dormitory lodgings. Sinclair said an accountant checks the Fund's books, and so can anyone else.

According to project director Doug Smith, the Fund provided resources that the government wouldn't, including money to buy 30 of the 43 telemetry collars now attached to lobian necks.

"The goal is not to collar them all," Smith said. "We want some wolves out there no human being has touched. We want 30-to-50 percent of the population collared so we can track them."

So far the tracking has revealed a good deal of information, including this observation from Ed Bangs of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: The reintroduced wolves or their offspring have found only other reintroduced wolves or their offspring. Because, Bangs said, "nobody is better at finding wolves than other wolves," it is all but certain that there were no wolves living in the park area before reintroduction, no matter how often Cockburn may fulminate to the contrary.

But fulmination is his game. Cockburn seems to talk to no one, bringing to mind A.J. Liebling's immortal description of the Chicago Tribune's Colonel Robert R. McCormick: "The Colonel never cites authority, being it."

The wolf reintroduction plan is neither sacrosanct nor above criticism. One can oppose it, as do the ranchers who want no wolves at all, or as do some environmentalists who dislike the idea of managing nature, who hate exempting these wolves from ESA protection, and who object to partial privatization of a public function. They would have preferred waiting for the wolves in northwest Montana to migrate southward.

Bangs and Smith, who are wildlife biologists, say this would have happened, in about 30 years.

So the case for waiting can be made. But it may not be made decently by playing fast and loose with facts (which are sacrosanct) or by implying falsely that those with whom you disagree are corrupt. Sure, Defenders of Wildlife and the National Wildlife Federation are using wolf popularity to recruit members. This is hardly "making money" as 99 percent of Americans understand the term.

An honest journalist who accused people of supporting a public policy because it enriched them would name the individuals so enriched and detail their emoluments. Cockburn didn't, and when challenged to name one such person he displayed more prudence if less courage than Joe McCarthy, who at least claimed to have his list of malefactors in hand. Cockburn said he'd call back.

And did, naming two alleged wolf beneficiaries - Tom France of the National Wildlife Federation (and an HCN board member) and Hank Fischer of Defenders of Wildlife. He then proclaimed that I was "doing a whoring job for High Country News" and hung up.

The last point aside (I leave to others to judge my propensity to whoredom, clinging only to the hope that my public would assume I'd hold out for higher prices) his response was poppycock. Both France and Fischer have had their jobs for almost 20 years - and their jobs, which precede and transcend the wolf program, net them less than either (France is a lawyer) could earn elsewhere.

As an accuser, Joe McCarthy was more responsible.

The comparison is instructive. We now know that McCarthy didn't care that much about communism; he was just looking for a gimmick. Cockburn's gimmick is reflexive antipathy to the respectable establishment. This is not the world's worst attitude, but in this case it lacks authenticity.

He performs (the precise word) in that tradition of British journalism for which information and ideas are merely tools of self-promotion. Faithful to that tradition, he need not even be ashamed of himself. The Nation should be, and so should anyone who takes him seriously.

Jon Margolis writes about pundits and other matters for High Country News.

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