Inconvenient News,
       by smintheus

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

  No Shame at The Atlantic?

As discussed here, The Atlantic disgraced itself over the weekend with two posts about the Norway attacks by Jeffrey Goldberg, subsequently updated disingenuously and bizarrely. Goldberg initially blamed the Norway attacks on Muslim terrorists, and then rather than retract and apologize for his reprehensible first post, he performed stupefying back-flips trying to justify the unjustifiable. In addition, three other Atlantic authors (James Fallows, Steve Clemons, and Ta-Nehisi Coates) made common cause in rebuking a Washington Post author (Jennifer Rubin) for her own grotesque rush to judgment, but nevertheless have managed to avoid even mentioning their colleague Goldberg’s offenses. Fallows in particular was notified of one especially egregious impropriety Goldberg engaged in, but rather than condemn it Fallows appears to have accepted Goldberg’s dubious and convoluted excuses. It’s a bundle of journalistic lapses shamelessly committed and just as shamelessly swept under the carpet.

The purpose here is to describe the events as I understand them and assess them in detail.

On Friday July 22, Jeffrey Goldberg posted “Mumbai Comes to Norway”. The link is to a cache of the original version of the post. The text reads:

I'm following news of the Norway attacks like the rest of you, and am curious to see, among other things, Norway's response. I hope it is not to pull troops out of Afghanistan; this would only breed more attacks. So, why Norway? It doesn't seem likely, on the surface. There are many countries with more troops in Afghanistan than Norway; and there are several countries whose newspapers have printed cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. My first reaction is two-fold: 1) Jihadists did this in Norway because they could. Norway is pretty well-known among homeland-security types for being among the softer, less-defended countries of the West, and 2) Norway is making moves to expel a jihadist called Mullah Krekar, who is one of the founders of Ansar al-Islam, the al Qaeda-affiliated group that operated in Iraqi Kurdistan with some help from Saddam's intelligence services. This could be a message about his coming deportation.

Of course, asking the question, "Why did jihadists attack (x)?" could lead people to believe that these sorts of attacks are responses to particular events. They are not. At the deepest level, they are responses to Western existence.


It is inflammatory. The entire piece, beginning with the title, presumes that the attacks were of course committed by Muslims. There isn’t even the slightest trace of doubt about that. The second bombastic paragraph could not be more sweeping or authoritative: Islamists seek to kill us because we exist, and softness invites attack. That is rhetoric in search of evidence, which Goldberg was eager to find in the current massacre.

Journalistic ethics, which don’t encourage rushing to judgment, certainly would have required Goldberg to issue a retraction as soon as possible after it became clear that afternoon that the only suspect in custody was a native Norwegian.

Instead, Goldberg revised ‘Mumbai’ by bolstering his second paragraph with two further sentences and adding a third paragraph. The third paragraph mentions the possibility that it was a case of right-wing terrorism, only to suggest further ways that it could still be linked to Muslims. He also remarks that he is “confused” about who was responsible. The effect of this radical revision was to make his extremely imprudent, one-sided, and indefensible original post seem less so.

Later that evening Goldberg made three further revisions to ‘Mumbai’ with stray thoughts and links. These are labeled “UPDATE”, “UPDATE 2”, and “UPDATE 3”. By stages he seems to be relinquishing his obsession with the non-existent Muslim connection.

Here is a cached version of the updated ‘Mumbai’ from around dawn the following morning. Notice that the original, radical revision still is not set apart as an update (in fact it begins in the middle of the second paragraph), and thus gives the impression that the third paragraph in particular was actually part of the original argument.

I'm following news of the Norway attacks like the rest of you, and am curious to see, among other things, Norway's response. I hope it is not to pull troops out of Afghanistan; this would only breed more attacks. So, why Norway? It doesn't seem likely, on the surface, if this is jihadist in origin. There are many countries with more troops in Afghanistan than Norway; and there are several countries whose newspapers have printed cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. My first reaction is two-fold: 1) Jihadists did this in Norway because they could. Norway is pretty well-known among homeland-security types for being among the softer, less-defended countries of the West, and 2) Norway is making moves to expel a jihadist called Mullah Krekar, who is one of the founders of Ansar al-Islam, the al Qaeda-affiliated group that operated in Iraqi Kurdistan with some help from Saddam's intelligence services. This could be a message about his coming deportation.

Of course, asking the question, "Why did jihadists attack (x)?" could lead people to believe that these sorts of attacks are responses to particular events. They are not. At the deepest level, they are responses to Western existence. I know that this sort of statement sounds too Bushian for some people, but I tend to think that many hardcore jihadists—i.e. ones who are willing to murder innocent people—develop a deep desire to murder infidels, and only then go looking for specific places to do this murder, and only then gin-up weak rationalizations for the murder. In other words, the list of ostensible grievances is endless.

Of course, this could an act of right-wing extremism, perhaps in reaction to the rise of radical Islamism in Europe. I'm as confused as the rest of you are about the authorship of these attacks. There have been early claims of responsibility by jihadist groups, followed by denials, followed by reports that a blonde "Nordic-looking" man was the one who opened fire on the youth camp. Was this "Nordic-looking" man an Adam Gadahn-type, or someone not motivated by jihadist ideology? Stay tuned.

UPDATE: Here's an interesting story from Atlantic.com about why jihadists seem to have it in for Norway, if indeed this attack was jihadist-inspired. And because this might be domestic right-wing extremism in origin, I'm looking for something to read about Norwegian extremist groups. If anyone has any recommendations, I'll post and link.

UPDATE 2: This looks promising -- http://bit.ly/rlnhB2

UPDATE 3: I'm sure someone on the Internets has pointed this out already, but if these are the acts of a Norwegian lone wolf—massive car bomb and point-blank massacre in a different location hours later—then this guy is a true terror prodigy, the Muhammad Atta of Norway. Terrorism is hard to do. This is one of the reasons the U.S. hasn't been hit by an organized plot since 9/11. Most psychopaths are incompetent at killing. This is our saving grace.


Later that morning an “UPDATE 4” was appended to ‘Mumbai’, which is how the post remained for more than two days, until Monday evening.

A blogger who posts at AbsurdBeats tells me that on Friday she read the original unrevised version of ‘Mumbai’, and later several times returned and saw the radically revised version before any of the further revisions that were marked as an “UPDATE” had been added. At no point did she see any indication that the radical revision (the 2nd/3rd paragraphs) was acknowledged as an update. On Monday evening she commented about that fact in this thread at The Atlantic:

It was two paragraphs straight-up on jihadis and why they might attack Norway, with, if I remember correctly, some mention of the impending deportation of Mullah Krekar; it could even have been those first two paragraphs of what is now a much longer post.

There was no "Of course, this could an act of right-wing extremism, perhaps in reaction to the rise of radical Islamism in Europe. . . . " That was added later, although, lacking an "update" notice, makes it appear as if it were a part of the original post.


The apparent implication, that Goldberg had been audacious in transforming his commentary to such an extent, was troubling so I searched for and found a cached version of the original post from Friday afternoon (which is linked and quoted above). I sent this evidence of an unacknowledged revision to James Fallows (with whom I’d been corresponding about Goldberg). He said he’d look into it. Shortly afterwards, late on Monday evening, Goldberg revised ‘Mumbai’ a final time. The passage quoted below begins with the second paragraph and includes all the changes he made then:

Of course, asking the question, "Why did jihadists attack (x)?" could lead people to believe that these sorts of attacks are responses to particular events. They are not. At the deepest level, they are responses to Western existence. I know that this sort of statement sounds too Bushian for some people, but I tend to think that many hardcore jihadists—i.e. ones who are willing to murder innocent people—develop a deep desire to murder infidels, and only then go looking for specific places to do this murder, and only then gin-up weak rationalizations for the murder. In other words, the list of ostensible grievances is endless.

UPDATE: Of course, this could an act of right-wing extremism, perhaps in reaction to the rise of radical Islamism in Europe. I'm as confused as the rest of you are about the authorship of these attacks. There have been early claims of responsibility by jihadist groups, followed by denials, followed by reports that a blonde "Nordic-looking" man was the one who opened fire on the youth camp. Was this "Nordic-looking" man an Adam Gadahn-type, or someone not motivated by jihadist ideology? Stay tuned.

UPDATE ON THE PREVIOUS UPDATE (Monday the 25th): A number of readers have pointed out that my previous caveat give the impression that it was an instantaneous caveat, when in fact it wasn't. It was written a short while after the original post went up, and was labeled "Update" originally (I've since affixed the word "update" to it again. What happened was that I was driving and had connectivity problems, and so when I added further updates (below), I inadvertently erased the whole post, and had to rescue it from a Word document, but in re-posting that word document (or most of it—I saved only most of it) I dropped the word "update," along with a couple of other things. And then I thought I had saved it and posted it, when it fact the "save" didn't go through until a later "save" of another update. When the post went out on my RSS feed, I believe it still had the word "update" in it. Though I don't know for sure, but will check my RSS feed when I get back. I'm sorry this sounds so confusing, but I want to clear up the impression that I folded in caveats later without saying that they were added later. In truth, I can't figure out what happened, because I thought when I wrote the aforementioned caveat, it had successfully posted, when it seems that it hadn't.

i barely understand the previous paragraph. Suffice it to say I don't want to leave anyone with either the impression that the caveat paragraph was posted simultaneously with the original content of the post, or that it was added hours or days later. I wrote it almost right after I posted originally, but it apparently wasn't saved into text until one of the next times I opened up this post. My bad—no blogging and driving for me. And of course it was my bad not to lard even more caveats into the post in the first place.

UPDATE: Here's an interesting story from Atlantic.com about why jihadists [… etc.]


Even if one cares to believe this explanation, it is not an adequate excuse. Goldberg left the first revision unacknowledged for three days. He acknowledged it only after he learned somebody had discovered the situation, and did so only on a post that most readers had long since left behind.

It’s also disingenuous. “A number of readers” pointed out how he had misled? What number? It looks as if Goldberg prefers not to admit that he acted only after I turned over to Fallows a cache of his original post. (The term ‘caveat’ is how Fallows had been describing Goldberg’s third paragraph in our correspondence; see below.)

And as regards his “my bad not to lard even more caveats into the post in the first place”, there were no caveats whatever in the original post. Not one. To talk about “even more caveats” is to deny the very nature of his original post. How extraordinarily ironic to conclude this update with a fiction that denies the very consequence of the update.

As regards the substance of his explanation, it is nearly incomprehensible, perhaps intentionally so. I have rarely read such gibberish. To me these seem like the plaintive and desperate words of somebody who has been caught red-handed in an unethical operation. In so far as I understand the ‘facts’ Goldberg alleges, I don’t find them credible. Here are some reasons why:

(a) The first revision actually began in the middle of the second paragraph. That’s hard to square with his explanation. He would have had to have ‘dropped’ two hard returns as well as the word “UPDATE” in his Word document when (as he claims) he reposted the whole text. He would also have to have forgotten within a very short time that he had updated and that there were now meant to be four rather than three paragraphs. Besides, Word documents don’t tend to delete late changes when you close them, unless you put some effort into losing material.

(b) All four other updates are numbered in order (except the second, which is simply labeled “UPDATE”). How does it happen that the first “update” has so little purchase that it doesn’t even affect the numbering system?

(c) His claim that he was distracted from blogging while driving, while barely possible, suggests he should be arrested for recklessness.

(d) The “UPDATE” in the post’s title and in its web address appeared only some 2 ½ to 5 hours after ‘Mumbai’ was originally posted, to judge by a review of cached pages from The Atlantic (see e.g. the google caches of Derek Thompson’s posts that day). Goldberg claims (above) that he added the ‘caveat’ paragraph “almost right after I posted originally” and not hours later, and that initially he notified readers that the ‘caveat’ was an ‘update’. So why does neither the title nor the web address for ‘Mumbai’ include ‘update’ until hours later on Friday evening?

(e) Goldberg posted other things at The Atlantic on Friday afternoon and evening with no apparent technical difficulties.

(f) His vague tale of repeated, obscure technical difficulties compounded by his own haplessness plus an astoundingly convenient three-day episode of amnesia sounds contrived. I’ve heard all too many similar tales from undergraduates when they’ve been caught plagiarizing papers. Such tales make a virtue of patheticness, and Goldberg’s explanation is nothing if not pathetic.

(g) Just as his excuse here is predicated on insurmountable technical difficulties, so too his excuse with regard to a lapse in his second controversial post (see below) is predicated on insurmountable technical difficulties. Both excuses were dredged up and published on Monday, after Goldberg found his lapses facing criticism. In both instances, the alleged technical difficulties evidently impinged on his work only to the extent that he was facing criticism.

(h) His explanation does not appear to be subject to proof. Apart from some probably unverifiable claims about technical difficulties, it ends up being a non-explanation. Goldberg says “I can't figure out what happened” and he leaves himself ample room to evade, revise or abandon the few assertions he does seem to make.

(i) It is transparently true that on Monday Goldberg could not get even the most basic things right about his ‘Mumbai’ updates from Friday. He slaps the new label “UPDATE” before the third paragraph rather than where it belongs, before the fourth sentence in the second paragraph. So how was he able on Monday to provide so many other florid details (however vaguely described) from his various technical adventures, and how was he certain that he labeled the first revision as an ‘update’, when he couldn’t even remember where the original post ended?

It would be a fairly simple matter to extract evidence to support his story of multiple updates from The Atlantic’s servers, if his version of events is accurate. That would also permit Goldberg to clarify what he says he can’t figure out. However no such evidence or clarification has been forthcoming for the last two days. The matter has simply been dropped.

On Saturday July 23 Jeffrey Goldberg returned to the fray with “On Suspecting al Qaeda in the Norway Attacks.” It purports to be a defense of others, especially Jennifer Rubin, who had rushed to blame the attacks on Muslims without waiting for actual evidence.

Clearly though it was designed at least as much as a justification for his now embarrassing ‘Mumbai’ post. He mentions his own controversial post in passing, but without much information a reader would need to understand what he’d written. It’s especially remarkable that he neglected to link to ‘Mumbai’ or cite its inflammatory title, though he linked to plenty of other people’s posts in ‘Suspecting’.

Some of what he says is frankly disingenuous. His main line of defense is that people like Rubin were justified in their speculation if only because The Atlantic had reposted an old piece by Hegghammer and Tierney on Norway’s problem with al Qaeda. He implies it influenced his decision to write ‘Mumbai’.

So it would have been possible, from reading The Atlantic alone, to suspect al Qaeda involvement in the Norway attacks. I myself suspected this, and wrote so.


The truth is that Goldberg noted the Hegghammer/Tierney article only as a late update to ‘Mumbai’.

He also doesn’t acknowledge that ‘Mumbai’ originally, even more than Rubin’s terrible post, blamed the attacks definitively and exclusively on Islamic terrorists. In fact, he disingenuously said:

To be sure, I wrote into my coverage a bunch of "to be sure" statements, along the lines of "if this in fact a jihadist attack," and, "perhaps this was an act of right-wing extremism," but I certainly suspected al Qaeda involvement initially.


There were not in fact a “bunch” of such statements, even in the fully updated version, just the two phrases he (mis)quotes. In any case the relevant point – about assessing the rush to blame Islamists – is that Goldberg’s original post contained not even one such statement.

On top of ‘Mumbai’, this was disgraceful stuff. I wrote to Goldberg explaining that I found ‘Suspecting’ to be disingenuous about what he had actually written, and asking why he had neglected to provide a link so that readers could assess his assessment of himself. Goldberg didn’t respond, but on Monday he revised ‘Suspecting’ to take account of such criticisms. The revision strikes me as a travesty.

To begin with, although he added a link to ‘Mumbai’ (as well as the title), Goldberg managed to imply that his earlier failure to do it had been caused by technical difficulties. Apparently, too, we’re supposed to imagine that by bad luck it was only his own post that he had been prevented from linking to:

I've added a link to the piece I wrote (I'm having terrible Interweb problems where I am, and this process of adding a couple of links has now been going on for a half-hour) […]


The very chattiness calls attention to its phoniness. The implication doesn’t stand up to scrutiny; was he having “Interweb problems” on Saturday as well? Anyhow there’s really no excuse in an internet apologia not to link to one’s post that one is trying to justify.

Additionally, Goldberg replies to the criticisms of ‘Mumbai’ by turning them into the worst kind of straw man. I[t i]s too preposterous to bother quoting here, but [this] serves as a measure of how seriously [he] engages with legitimate criticisms of his work. Even when he has posted something as scandalously unbalanced as ‘Mumbai’, Goldberg can’t face up to what he has done wrong. He prefers evasion and smokescreens and denial.

This is of course relevant to any assessment of the convoluted excuse he posted later on Monday evening for having failed to label his first revision of ‘Mumbai’ as an ‘update’.

To sum up, we had two posts from Jeffrey Goldberg that fell well short of journalistic standards, in both their original forms and in their disingenuous updates. ‘Mumbai’ in particular was reprehensible from the start and ought to have been corrected, apologized for, and sanctioned.

When I saw that James Fallows had (rightly) rebuked Jennifer Rubin and called for an apology from the Washington Post for her own rush to judgment, I asked Fallows why The Atlantic doesn’t owe an apology as well for Goldberg’s ‘Mumbai’. He replied that he hadn’t read it until after he’d posted on Rubin, but anyway Goldberg had “included some ‘caveats’ that she didn’t.” He meant the third paragraph of ‘Mumbai’.

On Monday evening after discovering that the third paragraph was in fact an unacknowledged revision, I sent the evidence to Fallows. His response was simply to state that he didn’t know about an unacknowledged revision. It was only after I pressed him on it (“And now that you do?”) did Fallows allow that he would “look into this”.

I never learned what the investigation found, but a short time later Fallows sent without comment a link to Goldberg’s final revision of ‘Mumbai’ with its seemingly preposterous excuse for misleading readers.

Even though the ‘caveats’ he mentioned on Saturday had disappeared into thin air on Monday, Fallows did not and has not criticized Goldberg publicly. In fact, neither he nor the other Atlantic authors who took Rubin to task (Steve Clemons and Ta-Nehisi Coates) have so much as mentioned Goldberg’s controversial posts in writing. Fallows at least is well aware of them. This is the purest double-standard, and in Fallows’ case a circling of the wagons.

The Atlantic faces a tangle of journalistic lapses:

(a) Jeffrey Goldberg’s original reprehensible ‘Mumbai’ post

(b) Goldberg’s failure to signpost for readers a radical revision of ‘Mumbai’

(c) Goldberg’s seemingly incredible excuse for (b)

(d) Goldberg’s disingenuous ‘Suspect’ post

(e) the failure, or refusal (?), of Atlantic authors, especially James Fallows, to hold their colleagues to the same journalistic standards they hold others to

It is a harvest of shame.

Update, Wed. July 27: This evening at 6:39 ET, shortly after these two pieces were posted and crossposted at two other sites, the google cache for the original version of Goldberg's 'Mumbai' post was overwritten with the current version of the page. However I have a screen grab of the original version, should anybody wish to consult it. I have quoted its text in its entirety.

Update Two, Thursday: This Goldberg tweet at 7:52 PM on Friday is very probably nearly contemporaneous with the first addition to 'Mumbai' that he actually labeled as an "UPDATE" (which includes this: "I'm looking for something to read about Norwegian extremist groups. If anyone has any recommendations, I'll post and link.") That helps to confirm what I said here, that the first time his 'Mumbai' title included the word "UPDATED" was between 5:30 and 8:00 PM. The label "UPDATE" did not come into play until five hours after the post originally went up.

I’ve tidied up the English in one sentence here, marking additions with square brackets [ ].

Update Three, Friday July 29: James Fallows finally responds here to the allegations of wrongdoing and hypocrisy. It’s pretty thin stuff. He states that Goldberg was having connectivity problems “that morning” and would have to be crazy to lie about the circumstances of his unlabeled update to ‘Mumbai’ (from later in the day).

Also, our system logs changes, and any of us would be additionally crazy, knowing that, to pretend that something happened if it didn't.


Setting aside the fact that Goldberg has said some pretty crazy things – for example, rushing to blame the Norway attacks on Muslim terrorists – apparently neither Fallows nor Goldberg has made any effort to dig out those logs to prove that Goldberg misled his readers accidentally as he claims. As I’ve noted repeatedly, it should be a simple thing to produce that evidence if it actually backs up Goldberg’s story. Further, Goldberg said that his memory is hazy and his convoluted account is nearly incomprehensible. So why is nobody at The Atlantic trying to clarify what is otherwise an extreme embarrassment for them?

As regards the issue of whether he should condemn Goldberg’s rush to use the massacre to score points, Fallows argues (a) that others did not condemn Goldberg either, and (b) he didn’t see ‘Mumbai’ until Goldberg had already tried to walk back some of its extremism. Left unaddressed, I think, is whether Fallows and The Atlantic should condemn it now that he realizes it was originally as indefensible a post as the Jennifer Rubin piece he denounced. Goldberg has not admitted that he was wrong to post it. Quite the contrary, he continues to defend the decision. Goldberg is still trying to portray the controversy disingenuously as criticism that he merely ‘suspected’ al Qaeda’s involvement in Norway. That is intellectually dishonest (not to say crazy given that people can go back and read what he wrote).

crossposted from Flapola

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