Balkan War of Words
The Sydney Morning Herald, November 26, 2005
After a magazine poll anointed him the world's greatest intellectual, Noam Chomsky, the American linguist and political dissident, granted an hour-long interview in his Boston office to a British journalist named Emma Brockes. He wore an old jumper, a grandpa jacket and white sneakers. A half-finished packet of fig rolls sat on his desk. On this much, at least, Chomsky and Brockes are agreed.
But the Guardian article, when it appeared, seemed to confirm all the worst suspicions of the mainstream media held by Chomsky and his ardent following.
To his supporters, Chomsky is a truth-telling advocate of human rights, a brave and lonely critic of American foreign policy and an expositor of the mainstream media's collusion with government and big business.
But to Brockes, he came across as "flaky", "arrogant", a share-owner who sometimes gets "ratty" and, more seriously, a "hypocrite" who claimed the media exaggerated the Srebenica massacre of an estimated 7000 Muslim men during the Bosnian war.
Much of the piece dealt with Chomsky's alleged conclusion that the "massacre" at Srebenica (Brockes's quotation marks) was "probably overstated".
"Chomsky uses quotations marks to undermine things he disagrees with," Brockes wrote. "In print at least, it can come across less as academic than as witheringly teenage; like, Srebrenica was so not a massacre."
Brockes referred to an open letter signed by Chomsky praising a journalist, Diana Johnstone, who, in a magazine article, questioned the official number of victims of the massacre.
"Does he regret signing it?" "No," he says indignantly. "It is outstanding. My only regret is that I didn't do it strongly enough. It may be wrong, but it is very careful and outstanding work."
As Brockes noted, this was not the first time Chomsky has been accused of holocaust denial. In 1977, he co-wrote a controversial article claiming the number of people killed by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia was being exaggerated by the Western media. Two years later, he defended a French literature professor who claimed the Nazi gas chambers did not exist.
Brockes, who tends to write snarky, irreverent first-person profiles of public figures, ended the piece by asking Chomsky whether he had a share portfolio.
"He looks cross. 'You'd have to ask my wife about that. I'm sure she does. When I visit peasants in southern Colombia, they don't ask me these questions."'
Chomsky's admirers - many of whom seem to be online bloggers - were livid. "The hate against Chomsky is such the 'journalist' doesn't mind to lie, to misrepresent the facts and to write about things she doesn't know," wrote thecatsdream. "A truly revolting article," claimed interbreeding.
The Australian journalist and Chomsky admirer John Pilger used the piece as an example of "disgraceful" journalism during a discussion about the media at London's National Film Theatre. Pilger called the piece a "hatchet job" and urged his audience to stop buying The Guardian.
But Chomsky's detractors - and many are bloggers, too - were overjoyed. "Fiction exposed," declared The Daily Ablution. A columnist at The Times, Oliver Kamm, said it was "the most constructive and thoughtful exchange with him I have yet seen". A Cambridge academic, Marko Attila Hoare, said Chomsky was "a revisionist in the mould of [David] Irving; the general thrust of Brockes's exposure of him was therefore bang on target."
In a letter on his website, Chomsky said the piece was "an exercise in defamation that is a model of the genre" and was "what one might expect to find in the scandal sheets about movie stars". He warned future interviewees of The Guardian to "be cautious" and to "make sure to have a tape recorder that is very visibly placed in front of you".
He wrote a letter to the newspaper, saying the piece displayed "invented contexts" and "personal opinions, interpretations and distortions". He took umbrage with the headline and denied he used quotation marks around the word "massacre".
Johnstone also wrote a letter, saying she had not sought to recount the events at Srebrenica but to highlight the media's presentation of the Bosnian conflict as "a Manichaean struggle between evil and innocence".
Chomsky then complained to the newspaper, saying his defence of Johnstone related entirely to her right to freedom of speech. He also objected to the juxtaposition of his letter with a furious letter from a survivor of the Omarska concentration camp in Serb-occupied Bosnia. The Guardian published an unreserved apology and removed Brockes's piece from its website. The correction apologised for the use of the quotation and found that neither Chomsky nor Johnstone had ever denied the fact of the massacre.
For The Guardian, it was the end of the matter. Online, the saga continues. Two weeks after her piece appeared, Brockes was back on the interview circuit, asking Sting about his interest in tantric sex. "I ask him to give the frustrated Guardian readers a few tips. He looks indignant and says it's about 'a journey', not 'f---ing for eight hours'. OK, I say."