“The left in general tends to bewimpy,” rages journalist Ken Silverstein, himself a confirmed leftist. He quivers with indignation: “They’re chickenshit about going after people.” To remedy that ill, Silverstein last year founded CounterPunch, a bloodthirsty little newsletter that covers official Washington from a shamelessly radical perspective. “Rush Limbaugh is not a role model,” he says. “But the idea of actually going after people and hitting hard makes sense.”
Back in 1989, while an intern at the Nation, Silverstein had discussed such a fiery newsletter with his mentor, columnist Alexander Cockburn. Cockburn knows fire: A master of invective, he has for years positioned himself to the left of the left, championing Maoist values, admitting that he preferred Brezhnev to Gorbachev, and writing that Stalin didn’t kill all that many people. Cockburn liked the idea of a feisty newsletter, a fortress from which to attack the “bipartisan blotch of evil.” He laments, “Even the Nation feels it necessary to defend Clinton occasionally.” As editors of a newsletter, he and Silverstein would feel no such compulsion.
But at the end of ’93, when Silverstein returned from a reporting stint in Brazil, Cockburn didn’t rush to help launch the enterprise. The diplomatic Silverstein explains that Cockburn was spending his energies on such other projects as his column for the Nation and his syndicated newspaper column. Cockburn, on the phone from his California home, cheerfully casts himself in a less flattering light: “When I saw that Ken had bobbed up and not sunk like a stone, then I jumped on the boat.”
And so Silverstein at first worked alone, either at his home or in a dingy Dupont Circle office. He released his debut issue with a small bang: He’d uncovered a memo that revealed Commerce Secretary Ron Brown, in his former incarnation as a Patton, Boggs & Blow lobbyist, flagrantly sucking up to Haitian dictator Jean Claude Duvalier. Brown blamed Baby Doc’s problems on an “unfair image” created by the U.S. media, and bragged that the lobbying firm had established “personal contacts” with Democratic leaders.
Roughly twice a month after that first issue, Silverstein provided downtrodden leftists with more such aid, encouragement, and fuel for cocktail-party conversation. He warned readers that the Clinton administration was granting special trade status to Indonesia, never mind the Suharto government’s nasty human rights record. He documented the pharmaceutical industry’s recruitment of Sen. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.) to fight against health care reform. And he noted with outrage that the White House is quietly protecting Zaire’s corrupt dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko.
Silverstein says he’s had no trouble finding such stories. “The Washington press does a terrible job,” he charges. “Its image as a fierce watchdog is ridiculous, a fiction of Ollie North and the far right. That means there’s a huge opportunity for CounterPunch.”
Still, the newsletter needed a dash of vinegar and salt to render its high vitamin content more palatable. A relentless stream of foreign-policy stories threatened to weary all but the most world-literate readers. And worse, those stories occasionally succumbed to leaden prose: for instance, “Leiken’s appointment to the panel was noted in a recent story in CubaInfo, a small newsletter edited by Julia Sweig and sponsored by the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) at Johns Hopkins University.” Readers yearned for an active verb.
In September, they stopped yearning. Cockburn signed on, apparently convinced that his protégé could not only stay afloat, but could make a credible run for the America’s Cup. CounterPunch doesn’t byline its stories; Silverstein explains that he and Cockburn collaborate heavily on most pieces, and besides, that bylines would consume precious space in the four-page newsletter. Still, you suspect that Cockburn lurks behind the suddenly peppery verbs: “trolled” and “bellowing” and “flailed.”
Since Cockburn’s addition, the newsletter has also displayed a new talent for name-calling. According to CounterPunch, author Charles Murray leads the “mad thinkers of the Right.” Maureen Dowd of the New York Times qualifies as “the Rona Barrett of the Clinton era.” And Andrew Marshall, a 72-year-old Defense Department apparatchik, is an “ancient pork-seeking missile.”
Besides such irresistible barbs, Cockburn brings CounterPunch the strange, low-wattage glow of left-wing star power. So far, the newsletter has recruited readers chiefly through its half-page ads in the Nation, where fellow travelers no doubt recognize the columnist’s name. (Good copywriting helps, too: CounterPunch bills itself as “an explosive twice-monthly report on power and evil in Washington.”) Silverstein says the newsletter now claims approximately 1,000 subscribers—nearly double its goal for the first year.
Some quick math bears out Silverstein’s assertion that he runs CounterPunch on a shoestring. The newsletter is funded solely by subscribers, and a standard one-year subscription costs $40. (True to its ideology, CounterPunch offers a cheaper rate to low-income readers, and a more expensive one to institutions.) A back-of-the-napkin estimate shows that CounterPunch‘s income this year hovers around $40,000—not bad until you subtract the costs of printing and mailing. Silverstein and Cockburn divvy whatever trifling amount remains.
But when the pair dream of CounterPunch‘s future, they don’t mention money. Cockburn conjures 100,000 passionate readers, all laughing, all saying, “God, I never knew that.” He hopes to raise hell, rouse rabble, and rake muck.
He predicts that the newsletter will continue to work the beats it’s assigned itself— foreign policy, labor, and Washington’s slimiest inside players. The mainstream media, he says, leave those fields wide-open in their haste to parrot “a litany of the obvious.” He calls the New Republic “virtually a Nazi magazine,” and its owner Marty Peretz “a racist.” Cockburn complains of the “paralyzing drivel coming out of All Things Considered—and with that grotty little music in the background!” The New Yorker he dismisses as a “once-proud periodical,” now reduced to second-rate political writers; he rails that editor Tina Brown, a Brit, “doesn’t know the first thing about American politics.” (The charge is particularly delicious delivered in Cockburn’s Irish accent.)
Silverstein shows no more respect for his competitors, but he’s gratified when the mainstream notices his newsletter. Several daily newspapers followed his lead on the Ron Brown memo, and Harper‘s has reprinted a couple of CounterPunch items. In May, the Utne Reader named the newsletter one of the best new titles in the alternative press.
Silverstein bridles at the mainstream’s failure to follow a particularly juicy story: his scoop that Clinton political advisor James Carville secretly worked for a Brazilian presidential campaign—and failed to mention that job on the very financial disclosure form that he’d trumpeted as a sign of the Clinton administration’s high ideals. The story made front-page news in Brazil for three days, Silverstein says, but to his knowledge no American paper covered it; one reporter told him that it lacked a U.S. angle. Silverstein pooh-poohs that explanation in favor of a darker one: that reporters fear the wrath of an important tipster. “Carville is the source of half the stories in Washington, and his wife is the source of the other half.” Such timidity, he says, “typifies the relationship of the press and power.”
For a second, Silverstein looks tired. He has just delivered an issue of CounterPunch to the printer, and now faces the demands of a new issue waiting to be filled. “Our aim is not respectability or credibility,” he says, but you can tell he’d still like to see the Carville story on American front pages. Had that respectability/credibility line appeared in CounterPunch, you’d have attributed it to Cockburn, ever the bomb-throwing outsider. Silverstein, God bless him, actually wants to change the world.
For information, write CounterPunch, Institute for Policy Studies, 1601 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20009.