Alexander Cockburn, the intrepid journalist of the radical left, died in Germany last week. He was 71 years old and had succumbed to cancer, a condition he kept secret to avoid being smothered in sympathy, according to his longtime friend and professional partner, Jeffrey St. Clair.
Alex was my mentor, along with JoAnn Wypijewski – another of his friends – when I landed an internship at the Nation in the fall of 2000. That internship and the relationship that followed was a rite of passage for me as a budding journalist looking for a truth-telling medium that could resist cooptation by public-relations and state-propaganda machines. As someone instinctually distrustful of powerful institutions, including newspapers, that experience helped me forge a way. Miracle of miracles, I earn a living at it today. For that, and all the people on whose shoulders I stand, not least of all Alex Cockburn, I am deeply grateful.
Chris Kromm, executive director of the Institute for Southern Studies, gave me a letter of recommendation for the Nation internship in the summer of 2000, at a time when I was working for the Census Bureau in Durham, hosting at Elmo’s Diner, cashiering at Whole Foods and otherwise trying to puzzle through why it was so difficult for a college graduate to keep his head above water in an age of unparalleled prosperity.
Chris was himself one of Alex’s former interns, along with Michael Tomasky, a special correspondent to Newsweek and the Daily Beast. There are many others, I'm sure. I suspect that all of us were drawn to Alex because of an interest in challenging corporate power, and the hypocrisies and compromises of the liberal political establishment. Alex’s mentorship, which also meant friendship, instantly conferred a sense of confidence and ability. Chris summed up his legacy in a Facebook message to me on Sunday: “For all the things I disagreed with him about, his provocative and fearlessly independent spirit were very inspiring for me.”
Being catapulted from the host stand at Elmo’s in Durham to the Nation’s suite of offices at Union Square in Manhattan was a heady experience. The part that was most fun was working with Alex, who lived in northern California. The main part of the job was fact-checking his columns, which ran every other week. If I caught any errors, they’re unremarkable and unmemorable today. He was ravenous for information in the enterprise of independent reporting and enlisted me immediately to write a dispatch for CounterPunch, the online journal he and St. Clair have published for as long as I can remember, about a Ralph Nader for president rally at Madison Square Garden. It ran the next day with no editing; even a “ck” notation indicating that I was trying to nail down some fact or another was published.
He came to the city once and invited me to join him for a gathering of friends at a restaurant in the Village. There were about a dozen people present, including his journalist niece, Laura Flanders. Alex was the gracious and gregarious host, making sure everyone’s wine glass was full. He made me feel important by asking me whether I felt that George W. Bush or Al Gore was most in sync with the prerogatives of international corporate power.
In late 2001, when I returned to North Carolina to work with the Institute for Southern Studies, CounterPunch was required daily reading as I assisted the Institute’s project of chronicling and critiquing the post 9/11 expansion of the Southern military-industrial complex and peaking US imperial influence. We often fed Alex information to disseminate to his wider audience, and he in turn promoted our work. Later, after I joined YES! Weekly in 2004, we published Alex’s column for a period of time.
Whatever deadline was looming, Alex was always generous, willing to take time to dispense advice and encouragement. That’s rare for anyone, but particularly so for one with such commanding stature and such a wide sphere of contacts.
Tomasky writes that he prefaced a recent e-mail to Alex to criticize him for something by saying, “I know you probably think I’m a sellout and a stooge these days, but….” And Alex responded, “Sellout, maybe; stooge, never!”
That captures the tension between his contrarian streak and tender personality so well.
The last time I talked to Alex was in 2007 when I was researching irregularities in the conventional story about the 9-11 terrorist attacks. I wanted his advice and was secretly hoping he could help me get the story wider exposure. Alex told me in no uncertain terms that he had no use for 9-11 “truthers” and that I should steer clear of them, too.
It’s one of the bittersweet aspects of maturing as a journalist that you inevitably have differences of opinion with those who profoundly shaped your professional development. So it was: I knew I would plow forward with the story without Alex’s blessing and he knew that he had failed straighten me out, but both of us wanted to reaffirm our friendship.
I wish the exact words of the conversation were clearer in my memory because the sentiment behind them was unforgettable. I told Alex I hoped he wouldn’t think that I was credulous or lacked skepticism as a journalist.
He said, in so many words: “I would never think that you were credulous, Jordan.”