Damage Control: Adam Serwer realizes he screwed up
The eXiled obtained a bombshell email sent by Mother Jones blogger Adam Serwer that reveals Serwer’s own private doubts about the smears he publicly leveled against journalist Max Blumenthal in his blog and on Twitter. The smear campaign against Blumenthal, spearheaded by Serwer of Mother Jones and ex-Israeli Detention Camp guard Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic Monthly—a notoriously unreliable neocon warmonger and Islamophobe–coincided with a broad-based attack last week on several American journalists deemed critical of Israel, as reported in Salon.com.
Before explaining this story, the question must be asked: Is Mother Jones now in the business of smearing journalism that dares to investigate the ties between U.S. police departments responsible for violently crushing the Occupy protests, and Israeli occupation forces that violently repress Palestinians? What are the venerable labor-left magazine’s editorial guidelines and ethical standards? Will its editors apologize for hosting a malicious, McCarthyite smear campaign against a fellow investigative journalist, particularly now that MJ’s own blogger has already disowned his own smear? Has Mother Jones looked into whether it was used as a platform for last week’s coordinated smear campaign against several journalists whose work was deemed critical of Israel’s occupation?
Last Wednesday, Adam Serwer attacked Blumenthal’s reporting on his Mother Jones blog, accusing Blumenthal of inventing a source’s quotes. The smearing began with the completely misleading headline, “Is Israel Responsible for the Occupy Crackdowns?” and devolved into outright smear from there. Let’s be clear about the seriousness of Serwer’s smear: Accusing a journalist of inventing or fabricating quotes is the kind of accusation that ends careers and destroys trust between the journalist and his sources and editors. It’s not the sort of smear that a Mother Jones staffer should throw around lightly.
And yet, just a day after publicly smearing Blumenthal’s reporting, Serwer sent an email to labor journalist Mike Elk essentially admitting that Blumenthal “quoted her words accurately,” and that his source’s complaint may have been that she was merely “taken out of context.” There’s a vast, existential difference between publishing a quote that was never actually uttered by the source, and accurately quoting the source’s words in or out of proper context. Generally, it’s the difference between certain career-death, and common gripes that go with doing controversial investigative journalism.
Even more disturbing, Serwer never gave Blumenthal an opportunity to comment or respond to the smear before Serwer posted it on Mother Jones’s website. Serwer simply took the word of one unhappy source in Blumenthal’s article, and used that as the basis to smear Blumenthal’s reporting–without first calling Blumenthal for comment. Only after the smear was out in the open—and after Serwer changed the substance of the source’s quote at least three times before abandoning it– did Serwer, in his email, admit to the possibility that Blumenthal “quoted her words accurately.”
In one of the emails sent by Serwer to Elk, he writes:
“[Karen] Greenberg is a frequent source of mine. She felt misquoted/taken out of context, and she doesn’t have the knowledge to back up the claim Max attributed to her. Even if Max quoted her words accurately, the underlying claim that Israeli interrogators trained the US in torture isn’t proven. I have no idea if it’s false or not, but it’s not proven, because (a) Max didn’t prove it and (b) the person he quoted to substantiate the claim says she doesn’t know if it’s true.”
And in a follow-up, once again, rather than arguing about the accuracy of the words quoted, Serwer concedes that the words may be accurate, but the “claim” remains “unsubstantiated”:
I appreciate your sentiments, but I’m not apologizing for anything. Blumenthal made claim x. His source for claim x says she was taken out of context, and she doesn’t know the claim attributed to her to be true. But even if Max did quote her accurately, he still doesn’t know that what she said was true. So it’s weird for him to say he “quoted her accurately” since, even if he did, claim x remains unsubstantiated.
Here we see a different Adam Serwer, both contradicting his published smears, and distancing himself from his own allegations of making up false quotes, attempting instead to shift the debate to a more respectable disagreement over whether or not Blumenthal “proved” a particular claim (a claim which is in fact substantiated by the New Yorker‘s Jane Mayer, as reported by Philip Weiss). With Serwer’s smear already out in the open, the Mother Jones blogger suddenly tried taking the high ground of journalism ethics.
The equivocations and qualified accusations are a complete reversal from the strident, confident smears that Serwer, together with Jeffrey Goldberg, leveled against Blumenthal in public.
It began last Wednesday, when Serwer’s cohort in the attack, Jeffrey Goldberg, directly accused Blumenthal of inventing quotes attributed to Karen Greenberg:
“she said she never told Max Blumenthal any such thing. Here’s what she told me: ‘I never made such a statement. I’ve never seen any proof of this.’”
After seeing that, Adam Serwer excitedly tweeted to Goldberg,
“she said the same thing to me”
By “the same thing” Serwer meant that Karen Greenberg also told him that she had “never made such a statement” to Max Blumenthal, right?
Not exactly. Here is what Adam Serwer published on his Mother Jones blog:
“What I remembered saying to him [Blumenthal] was you ought to look at these allegations that others have made about Israeli training in interrogation techniques. I did not intend to assert these allegations as fact…the entire sense of the quote is inaccurate.”
I’ll leave Karen Greenberg’s credibility and why she might have gotten cold feet aside—read Phillip Weiss’s excellent analysis here for more on that—but what’s important here is that even before his email to Elk in which he concedes that Blumenthal may have accurately quoted Karen Greenberg’s words, Serwer was already contradicting himself. On Twitter, he claimed that Greenberg told him “the same thing” she’d told Jeffrey Goldberg—that the quote was invented out of thin air and had never taken place. In Mother Jones, Serwer discredited Blumenthal’s article by pretending that the meticulously documented reporting somehow relied on one source’s quote, which Serwer disparaged as a “mischaracterized” quote. Only later, in Serwer’s update, did he raise the possibility which he conceded in his email to Elk: That Blumenthal accurately reported his source’s quote. But once forced to admit this, Serwer dismisses the value of accurately quoting your source as having any bearing on the validity of your reporting.
“what Blumenthal is doing here is arguing that quoting Greenberg accurately exonerates him from having to actually prove that what he reported is true.”
Read that again, and try and make sense of it–Serwer’s smear-logic just boggles the mind. As if accurately quoting your source means you accurately quoted your source!
Again, to recap: The smear began as, “She never told Max Blumenthal any such thing” and the smear faded away with, “She felt taken out of context…even if Max quoted her words accurately…quoting Greenberg accurately [doesn't] exonerate him…”
And so far, no apology or retraction or statement of any kind from Mother Jones, save for a few panicky tweets and a couple of hurrumphing “updates” Serwer posted to his smear, intending to give it more gravitas and “balance.”
Finally, and perhaps most shocking of all, when labor journalist Mike Elk called Serwer out for using a classic McCarthyite smear tactic against Blumenthal’s reporting, Serwer tweeted back actually boasting of of his McCarthyite approach to smearing fellow journalists:
As unbelievable as it sounds, Adam Serwer tweeted to the public: If I publish a smear accusing a journalist of lying, it’s not up to me to back up my smear; rather, it’s up to the smeared journalist to disprove my smear.
This sort of malevolent, reactionary mentality should be familiar to the editors and board members of Mother Jones. It’s the same old smear-mentality that has underpinned decades of corporate right-wing attacks on labor and leftwing journalists, going back to the day Mother Jones was founded: Smear the uppity labor organizer or left-leaning journalist with a career-killing accusation (“Communist”); publish the smear before the accused can respond; and then once it’s public, force the accused to disprove the smear. Accusing a journalist of inventing quotes is a career-killing accusation–proof for such an outrageous accusation should rest on the accuser, and not on the accused to disprove such a smear.
Lastly, as we reported, Serwer has a bizarre history of maliciously smearing Max Blumenthal. In 2008, Serwer, writing under the name “dnA,” anonymously accused Max Blumenthal of racism, basing his attack on the completely unsubstantiated claim that Blumenthal didn’t support Obama’s candidacy, and that he didn’t support Obama because he didn’t think a black man could win the election. In the 2008 smear, the anonymous Adam Serwer, or “dnA,” rolled out the oldest dirty trick in the rhetorical book: the “reductio ad absurdum” strategy:
After all, why stop with the president? Blumenthal’s rationale extends itself to all spheres of life. Don’t make him manager, people won’t respect him because he’s black. Can’t let her into Yale, folks are racist, they might think she just got in because of affirmative action, and she might not be able to handle it. Might as well forget about going to medical school, because some white people don’t want a black doctor.
And then last week, as Blumenthal (and his supporters including The eXiled) sought to defend himself and his reputation against Serwer’s smears, the Mother Jones blogger responded with fatuous snark, calling Blumenthal a “mean girl”–basically calling him a bitch– shocking, coming from a Mother Jones blogger who had just tried ruining Blumenthal’s credibility and career.
Whatever the motivation, whatever the grudge, the question remains: Is Mother Jones happy with playing the role of host to Adam Serwer’s smears and grudges, or for a hard-right coordinated smear campaign against journalists who dare question Israeli policies and US police brutality?
Even with all the shocking revelations over the past few years of just how depraved and corrupt America has become, it’s impossible to believe that Mother Jones has completely abandoned its purpose, and today allows its magazine to be used by powerful interests to smear investigative journalism that dares to upset violent power. If Mother Jones doesn’t support this, then surely its editors will apologize for Adam Serwer’s libelous smears against Blumenthal’s reporting—smears that Serwer has already disowned– and issue an apology and retraction.
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