Alexander Cockburn, arguably the leading journalist of the American left during the 1970’s and 1980’s, has died at age 71 after a two-year bout with cancer. Son of legendary British journalist Claud Cockburn, Alexander’s prominence began when he teamed with James Ridgeway for “Cockburn & Ridgeway” weekly columns in the Village Voice
. In his customary fashion, Cockburn soon had a falling out with both, leaving the Voice
in 1984 to write his own columns for The Nation
. I was among the many readers of both publications who rushed to read Cockburn’s columns as soon as they arrived, and they would inevitably become the most talked about of the issue. In contrast to the more celebrated Christopher Hitchens, Cockburn never fashioned his opinions for careerism or to fit the times, and even when you passionately disagreed with him he was always worth arguing about.
Although founder of the website Counterpunch
, Alexander Cockburn will always be best known for his vitriolic columns in the Village Voice
and The Nation
. Cockburn had a slashing wit all too rare in American-born journalists, and he (usually) steered his venom toward the rich, the powerful, and the politicians that did their bidding.
In 1970’s and 1980’s America, left-wing columnists for major print publications were hard to find. Cockburn was among the few voices criticizing the mainstream media, Democratic Party hypocrisy, and the unwillingness of progressive constituencies to play hardball with politicians. Today, we can find similar criticisms on dozens of websites each day; but in those days, Cockburn was unquestionably the most indispensable left journalist of his time.
I recall Cockburn’s public dissent when The Nation
reduced his column from two pages to one. He was not one to let such slights go without public complaint, and was never a go along to get along type of guy. Rather, he was a throwback to the days when journalists threw beer into rivals’ faces and denounced each other in print. And these fights were not about who got the higher book advance or other careerist issues, but were all about politics and ideology.
I did not share Cockburn’s political views, which were often described as Stalinist. And I criticized him in my 1999 book, Reclaiming America
, for distorting facts surrounding new Clean Air Act regulations. I realized from that experience that Cockburn sometimes had a problem with facts, and that his desire to make longtime targets look bad – in this case, the national environmental groups – led to very misleading accounts of political struggles.
Cockburn was enormously frustrated for what passed as a political “left” in the United States, and this could lead him to confuse necessary political compromise with “selling out.” He believed that progressives should never compromise on anything, which would be great if the United States had progressives running all branches of government and did not have filibuster rules that required super-majorities for legislative action.
But more often than not, those targeted by Cockburn’s venom were in fact betraying the public good and deserved his attacks. And nobody of our time could take wrongdoers down with words better than Cockburn.
Alexander Cockburn was a larger than life journalist, few of which remain. He will be missed.
Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron