Joel Brinkley: Does His Article on Richard Falk Demonstrate the Right "Frame of Mind" to Teach Journalism at Stanford?
By Elizabeth Woodworth
December 31, 2008 - In a companion essay, I discussed the response of some articles in the mainstream press to the claim, made by some defenders of Israel, that Professor Richard Falk should be removed from his current position of UN rapporteur on human rights abuses in the Palestinian Territories -- a claim that was reflected in the refusal of Israel on December 14, 2008, to allow him to enter the country. I included in this essay a discussion of an article by reporter Joel Brinkley because, although it was published before Israel's action against Falk, it could be read as a defense of that action. Brinkley, who had previously worked for the New York Times, argued that Falk did not have the right "frame of mind" for his UN position. In the present essay, I will focus on Brinkley's argument for this charge, suggesting that it shows that he does not have the right frame of mind for his own current position as visiting professor of journalism at Stanford University.
Brinkley's Discussion of 9/11 Brinkley's charge that Falk is unfit for his UN role is quite remarkable, given Falk's stature. He is Professor Emeritus of International Law and Practice at Princeton University and currently Distinguished Visiting Professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara. He has had published (as author or editor) over 60 books by academic and other mainstream presses. He is also widely respected and sought after as a speaker and conference participant.
Brinkley's case against Falk rests on linking him to the millions of Americans who believe the "unusual theory," as Brinkley calls it, that the 9/11 attacks were a "false flag" operation -- "a conspiracy planned and executed by the Bush administration." This is a theory of which Brinkley, he admits, had been unaware "until a row broke out last month between Falk and U.N. monitors who try to defend Israel."
Is it not extraordinary that Brinkley, a former New York Times reporter deemed qualified by Stanford University to teach its journalism students, had not been aware that many Americans believe that 9/11 was a false flag operation, carried out to provide a pretext for attacking Muslim countries? Mainstream newspapers, magazines, and television shows have for years been reporting this belief, especially on the anniversaries of 9/11. TV talk-show hosts have debated members of the "9/11 truth movement" who advocate the false flag theory, including former Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura.
Nation-wide polls, moreover, have shown this belief to be shared by millions of Americans. In 2006, for example, a Scripps Howard/Ohio University poll found that 36% of Americans considered it likely that "federal officials either participated in the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon or took no action to stop them 'because they wanted the United States to go to war in the Middle East.'" This poll, which shows that this theory is not as "unusual" as Brinkley claims, was widely reported in the press, including Time magazine.
When I saw that Brinkley had been completely unaware of the 9/11 controversy, I could not help wondering how his reading habits differ from those of Sarah Palin.
Early in his article, Brinkley suggests that Falk is unsuited for his present UN position because he advocates this alternative theory of 9/11. Brinkley wrote: "U.N. monitors who already view Falk with grave distrust are now throwing up his advocacy of the 9/11 conspiracy theory as further evidence that he is not qualified to serve as an important U.N. envoy."
But a few paragraphs later, discussing a Scottish newspaper article by Falk about 9/11 that angered an organization called UN Watch, Brinkley writes: "In it, Falk does not say flatly that the [9/11 conspiracy] theories are correct---just that they warrant further investigation." So, without pointing out that the "U.N. monitors" who said otherwise were wrong, Brinkley concedes that Falk is not a 9/11 conspiracy theorist. This means that the title of Brinkley's article as published in the San Francisco Chronicle --"9/11 Conspiracy Theorist Should Leave U.N. Job" -- is misleading.
We can thus see that Brinkley's call for Falk's resignation or dismissal rests solely upon Falk's belief that the events of September 11 "warrant further investigation." It is, in other words, Falk's open-mindedness about this issue that makes him unqualified to write about human rights abuses in the Palestinian Territories. How can Brinkley justify such a claim?
Brinkley continues his argument by approvingly quoting Hillel Neuer, the director of UN Watch -- one of the "U.N. monitors" to whom Brinkley had referred -- who said: "Falk has a very serious mandate. People who question whether 9/11 happened are not serious people."
At this point, any good journalism professor would raise two issues. First, no one questions "whether 9/11 happened." The only debate is about who made it happen.
Second, the journalism professor would ask whether it is indeed true that no "serious people" have questioned the official theory of 9/11. The professor might, in fact, give his or her students the assignment of finding out. If so, the students could learn from a site called "Patriots Question 9/11" that a large number of serious people have indeed questioned the government's version of 9/11. Among them are:
" Hundreds of architects and engineers, including the following engineers: Jack Keller, an emeritus professor at Utah State University who has been praised by Scientific American as a leading contributor to science and technology; Robert Bowman, who was the head of the "Star Wars" program during the Ford and Carter administrations; and two structural engineers at the prestigious Swiss Federal Institute of Technology;
" Dozens of pilots, including Russ Wittenberg, who flew commercial airliners for 35 years after serving as a fighter pilot in Vietnam, and former Navy "top gun" pilot Ralph Kolstad;
" Dozens of scientists, including physicist David Griscom, a fellow of the American Physical Society who worked for over 30 years at the Naval Research Laboratory, and Lynn Margulis, a National Medal of Science winner;
" Dozens of former military officers, including Colonel Ronald D. Ray, decorated Vietnam veteran who became deputy assistant secretary of defense during the Reagan Administration, and General Leonid Ivashov, who on 9/11 was the chief of staff for the Russian armed forces;
" Several former intelligence officers, including senior CIA analyst Bill Christison and CIA presidential briefer (for Carter and Reagan) Ray McGovern.
An open mind might have led Brinkley to discover that all of these "serious people" reject the government's account of 9/11. But he took, he admitted, only "a cursory look" at some books, articles and Websites about 9/11. On that basis, he charged that Richard Falk -- one of the world's most respected professors of international law -- was unfit for his UN role simply because he said that the false flag theory about 9/11 should be given further study. What kind of model is this for journalism students?
Brinkley, moreover, made an outrageous comparison, writing:
"These 9/11 conspiracy theorists remind me of the people who used to think that Neil Armstrong didn't really land on the moon 40 years ago; the entire exercise was actually carried out in a water tank. It's a free country; you're entitled to think whatever you like. But this is fringe stuff. Would we ever have appointed an advocate of the water-tank theory to a senior position in government?"
If I were a journalism professor, this statement would provide me with two more examples of errors to avoid.
First, after having conceded that Falk is not himself one of the "9/11 conspiracy theorists," Brinkley here treats him as if he were. I would encourage my students not to contradict themselves, especially within the space of a single article.
Second, the fact that the 9/11 theorists remind Brinkley of the water-tank theorists does not mean that the two groups are actually anything alike. The water-tank theory is not supported by hundreds of scientists and professionals in relevant fields. Opinion polls do not show over a third of the US population holding this theory. It is indeed "fringe stuff." But this says nothing about the theory that 9/11 was a false flag operation. I would use Brinkley's error here to illustrate the fact that journalists should not confuse their subjective impressions, especially when based upon almost total ignorance of the issue at hand, with objective reality.
Reporters, of course, sometimes make mistakes. And their readers will sometimes let them know when they have done so. One would hope that our journalism professors would point out that, when the readers are right, reporters should acknowledge this fact and, when possible, issue retractions.
In the case of Brinkley, some readers did try to help him overcome his ignorance about 9/11. One well-informed researcher into the events of September 11, responding to Brinkley's apparent assumption that there are no credible critics of the official account, told him about three former members of the CIA, including Ray McGovern and William Christison, plus a former commanding general of US Army Intelligence. This correspondent also informed Brinkley that the Patriots Question 9/11 website contains "information about these and 1,000 other credible critics of the official account of 9/11."
How did Brinkley respond? Did he, as an inquiring and responsible journalist would, thank the correspondent, promise to check out the proffered information as soon as possible, and then, if he realized he had been mistaken, issue a retraction, including a public apology to Professor Falk? No. He wrote: "Thanks for your note. You and the CIA veterans are certainly entitled to your opinions, as I am to mine. All best, Joel Brinkley."
It would appear that, in writing this dismissive note, Brinkley did not even take the time to comprehend what the correspondent was trying to tell him. Brinkley had implied that no serious people challenge the official account of 9/11. The correspondent told him that there were four former intelligence officers, plus a thousand other credible people, who have criticized that account. But Brinkley's response -- that we are all entitled to our opinions -- assumed that the correspondent was asserting that these critics were correct, rather than simply pointing out that these were credible people.
If I were a journalism professor, this would provide me with another teaching point: "When readers write to you, trying to help you become better informed about a subject on which you have written, pay attention to what they are saying -- you might learn something."
But there is an even more serious problem with Brinkley's reply, in which he said he was as entitled to his opinion as the CIA officials were to theirs. That is true in their roles as US citizens, because the US Constitution enshrines liberty of thought. But surely Brinkley would not think that scientists as scientists are entitled to their opinions regardless of the facts.
Scientists, to be members of the scientific community in good standing, must show respect for the relevant empirical evidence.
Should not the same also apply to journalists? Is that not at least the professional ideal, which should be taught in schools of journalism? Surely no reputable school of journalism would teach its students that they, as journalists, are "entitled to their opinions" in the sense that they can simply write what they wish about various subjects with virtually no effort to discover the relevant facts.
Of course, the same empirical principle -- that opinions, to be responsible opinions, must not be contradicted by the relevant knowable facts -- applies to the intellectual community in general.
With that in mind, let us ask whether Brinkley, as a member of the intellectual community, is as entitled to his opinion as former CIA officials Ray McGovern and William Christison are to theirs. This would be true only if these men had not studied the relevant facts before forming their present opinions any more than Brinkley had.
But that is not the case. I have it on good authority that McGovern, after first being exposed to the idea of official complicity in the attacks, studied writings and talked to people on both sides of the issue for over a year before concluding that the 9/11 truth community was right. And Christison, revealing that coming to his present opinion was no easy matter, wrote in the summer of 2006: "I spent the first four and a half years since September 11 utterly unwilling to consider seriously the conspiracy theories surrounding the attacks of that day. . . . [I]n the last half year and after considerable agony, I've changed my mind."
McGovern and Christison have earned the right to their opinions. It appears that Brinkley has not. He seems, moreover, unconcerned about this fact. This apparent indifference to evidence was further revealed in his response to a second researcher into the events of September 11, who tried to supply him with relevant information.
Pointing out that Brinkley had referred to the alternative theory about 9/11 as "fringe stuff," this correspondent quoted Time magazine's response to the Scripps-Howard poll of 2006, which, as I mentioned earlier, found that 36 percent of the American public thought it likely that US officials were complicit in the attacks. Time wrote: "Thirty-six percent adds up to a lot of people. This is not a fringe phenomenon. It is a mainstream political reality."
This correspondent, realizing that Brinkley's "fringe stuff" comment meant that those who accept the alternative view of 9/11 are people who, no matter how numerous, need not be taken seriously, also informed him of two articles written by physicists and chemists providing evidence that explosives had brought down the World Trade Center buildings -- articles that have been published in respected, peer-reviewed, scientific journals. The same correspondent also informed Brinkley of an edited volume, containing eight essays contradicting the official view, that was published by the prestigious Elsevier Press.
Brinkley again responded dismissively, writing: "Thanks very much for your note. I have read a bit of the literature on this subject, and I understand why many people are concerned. I simply don't share that view. All the best, Joel Brinkley."
What view did Brinkley not share? Was it that Time magazine had said that the rejection of the official story is "not a fringe phenomenon." No. Was it that several world class science publishers had accepted ten papers written by members of the 9/11 truth community, thereby demonstrating that they considered them "serious people"? No. Again ignoring the point of a letter intended to help him overcome his ignorance, he casually replied that he, having read "a bit of the literature," did not share the view of the people who had written those papers---which he almost certainly had not read.
Brinkley again implied, therefore, that his opinion, being based on having read only "a bit of the literature," was as valid as the opinion of scientists and other members of the 9/11 community who had been studying and writing about the relevant evidence for several years.
Who Has the Inappropriate "Frame of Mind"? In concluding his argument that Falk should be dismissed from his UN role, Brinkley -- now remembering that Falk did not endorse the idea that 9/11 was a false flag operation but merely said that this theory warrants further investigation -- wrote that the problem is that Falk "believes that the U.S. government is capable of such unspeakable evil. What does that tell you about his frame of mind for his United Nations job?"
This conclusion raises two problems. How exactly would this belief show Falk to have an inappropriate "frame of mind" for his UN role? Brinkley seems to assume a logical connection between Falk's questioning of the official 9/11 account and his suitability for the UN role, but such a connection is far from self-evident.
The second problem involves something else that Brinkley considers self-evident: that it is absurd to believe that leaders of the Bush administration would have been morally capable of deliberately causing the deaths of thousands of Americans by arranging the 9/11 attacks. But it is not.
It is now widely accepted that the Bush administration lied us into the war in Iraq, and more Americans have died in this war than died on 9/11. Would Brinkley try to claim that, whereas engineering the 9/11 attacks would have been an "unspeakable evil," lying us into the war in Iraq was qualitatively different -- a merely "speakable evil"?
Brinkley's suggestion that the Bush administration was simply too decent to orchestrate 9/11 also runs up against another fact. It is now known that, shortly after 9/11, the White House ordered the EPA to announce, when news reports had already stated otherwise, that the air at the World Trade Center site was safe to breathe, thereby leading the clean-up and rescue crews to fail to take adequate precautions. EPA Inspector General Nikki Tinsley later wrote in an official report:
"The White House Council on Environmental Quality influenced, through the collaboration process, the information that EPA communicated to the public through its early press releases when it convinced EPA to add reassuring statements and delete cautionary ones."
Some experts believe that the resulting respiratory problems from the toxic air, which have been found in over half of the 40,000 Ground Zero workers, may eventually result in more premature deaths than occurred on 9/11 itself.
These documented actions clearly undermine Brinkley's conviction that the Bush administration would have been morally incapable of allowing or arranging the 9/11 attacks. Furthermore, as this conviction is Brinkley's only basis for charging that Falk does not have the right "frame of mind" to carry out the role he has been given, his argument would appear to have no basis at all.
I can only conclude that Brinkley's charge against Falk would be more accurately applied to himself. Given the "frame of mind" he has demonstrated in this episode, I am dismayed that he will be shaping journalists of tomorrow at one of America's premier universities.
Elizabeth Woodworth is a retired Canadian professional librarian, a career public servant, and a freelance writer on social justice issues.