For years, the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) has handed out “darts and laurels” — that is, criticism and praise — to media people and outlets. Any number of darts have gone to people who have been careless about real or potential conflicts of interest.
Back in 1980, for example, the magazine awarded a dart to 20 editors and publishers of various papers “who accepted the Republic of China’s most gracious invitation for an all-expense-paid trip to Taiwan last summer and whose papers subsequently carried their most gracious accounts.” it is frankly irrelevant that a couple of those papers are conservative and would have been “gracious” to Taiwan anyway. In the summer of 1982, the magazine awarded a laurel to the New Republic for reporting that a Public Broadcasting System series on Saudi Arabia was underwritten mainly by four major corporations that do business with the Saudis.
That same year, a big brouhaha erupted at Harper’s when the chairman of that magazine’s board criticized and temporarily suspended the editor, Michael Kinsley, for accepting a trip to Israel paid for by the Israeli Society of Journalists. Kinsley intended to write a piece based on his week overseas. The board chairman, Donald Petrie, said no way. “There are two rules that apply to Harper’s magazine,” Petrie told the Washington Post on August 27 of that year. “First, Harper’s does not solicit or accept money from people whom it plans to write about. And second, Harper’s does not write about people whom it has accepted money from.”
Kinsley told the Post that the trip was not unethical. “There’s a lot of high-minded baloney about this from people who haven’t paid for their own travel for years. The fact of the matter is that every major country in the world pays for journalists to visit them — including our own — and scores of responsible journalists take advantage of it.”
In the November-December issue of CJR that year, Kinsley argued that unlike newspapers, “We [at Harper’s] don’t pretend that all our articles are written by objective, neutral observers” and that the biases of magazine writers are “clearly laid out for all to see.” The CJR writer, paraphrasing Kinsley, then made what could be the most significant point — “As long as readers are informed of the trip, they can judge the article’s merits for themselves.”
Perhaps Cockburn finds such questions boring. In an article titled, “Wanted: An Irresponsible Press,” in the April 1981 issue of Harper’s, he wrote, “Few areas of human discourse become more rapidly sodden with cant than discussions of the purposes of journalism and of the ethical standards to be observed in pursuit of this profession.” For two issues in a row that year in Harper’s, he banged away at the theme that the serious press is given to pontificating, that it’s boring of the press to desire attention, that it’s foolish of the media to want to be taken seriously. Yet every week in the Village Voice, Alexander Cockburn takes himself seriously and clearly wants his readers to do so as well.
Well, the Institute of Arab Studies did.