In the April 12, 1983, Voice, Cockburn took note of a New York Times magazine piece by Nicholas Gage, who wrote of his desire to avenge his mother’s murder in the 1940s at the hands of Greek communists in that nation’s bloody civil war. (Gage has also written a book about his mother, that war, his search for revenge, and his own struggles with his conscience.) Cockburn wondered, was “Gage, fervid with fathomable emotions of anti-Communism, quite the man to have been entrusted, in that special guest appearance in the New York Times a couple of weeks ago, with a long story on a new Bulgarian defector, claiming special knowledge of the KGB-Bulgar attempt on John Paul II?” He criticized Gage’s story as inaccurate and chided the Times for not having been more “cautious.”
The question rightly can be turned now on Cockburn. Should he not have been more cautious than to accept $10,000 from an organization whose political views he espouses in print?
In the December 12, 1982, Voice, Cockburn discussed a survey of Columbia University journalism students. he said the survey was skewed to predestined right-wing conclusions because 80 percent of it was funded by a foundation that promulgates conservative views. “What’s more interesting about these Columbia students,” he wrote, “is how few questioned the study, or their own participation, for which they were paid $10. Only two of those asked refused to be subjects. Of the rest, only a handful were concerned about why the study was being done. Few who participated looked at either the funding or the study sponsorship. They trusted in the good name of Columbia University. For those who remember the days of the Vietnam War and riots over university complicity, such docile trust says more about the journalists of the future than any results of questionnaires asking about sexual preference.”
That's quite a leap in that last sentence. Nonetheless, it does suggest a set of standards by which Cockburn would have journalists judged. By what standards, then, did Cockburn accept $10,000 from an organization promoting the “Arab dimension”? Did he ask where the money had come from? “Of course,” he told the Phoenix last week. “I’m not that stupid. I asked Edward Said if the money was from nations? Organizations? he said it was from private sources, from both America and abroad. I trust Said and his judgment.”
But if accepting the money did not violate Cockburn’s journalistic standards, then why, at the least, would he not tell his readers of his good fortune? Certainly, neither the Voice or the Phoenix is averse to personal journalism. And no newspaper is shy about announcing fellowships and grants and awards — papers usually announce them out of pride. If the money happens to come from a special-interest group, then at least the reader knows that the writer or paper has had financial dealings with a group espousing a particular cause — whether it’s a clean environment, supply-side economics, Zionism, or anti-Zionism. The receipt of some benefit does not necessarily imply a conflict of interest, but a newspaper’s failure to make public note of the awarding of money does raise at least the appearance of a conflict. Because money from special-interest groups — in the form of awards, trips, or other goodies — poses a serious ethical question.