Chris Hedges, morally posturing plagiarist

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Chris Hedges

In our last couple of postings, we’ve pondered the career of Chris Hedges, the self-righteous New York Times journalist turned shrill anti-American polemicist.

What we haven’t touched on yet, however, is a bombshell that hit Hedges’s career in June of last year. In an extensive, carefully researched article in The New Republic, Christopher Ketcham showed that Hedges had “a history of lifting material from other writers that goes back at least to his first book, War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning, published in 2002.”

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Christopher Ketcham

First, Ketcham told about a piece Hedges had submitted to Harper’s in 2010 that had turned out to contain several instances of “flat-out plagiarism” from a series of articles by Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Matt Katz. When confronted about the similarities, Hedges said he had secured Katz’s permission to borrow from his work; but this turned out to be a lie. A Harper’s fact-checker said that Hedges’s stealing was “one of the worst things I’d ever seen as a fact-checker at the magazine. And it was endemic throughout the piece.” When the fact checker spoke with Hedges, moreover, the latter “was very unhelpful from the beginning, and very aggressive” and tried to “intimidate” him. The fact-checker told Ketcham: “Not only was the plagiarism more egregious than I had seen before, but it was shocking how unapologetic Hedges was when it was put in his face. He got very heavy-handed about it.”

Ketcham summed it up as follows: “A leading moralist of the left…had now been caught plagiarizing at one of the oldest magazines of the left.”

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Petra Bartosiewicz

But the Harper’s piece, it turned out, was only the tip of the iceberg. Passages in Hedges’s book War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, which is revered on the left, proved to contain slightly altered passages from Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. When a Texas professor brought this to Hedges’s attention, Hedges was, in his words, “dismissive and belittling” – just as he’d been with that Harper’s fact-checker.

There was more: Hedges stole several passages from a Harper’s essay by Petra Bartosiewicz for a Truthdig item; another piece he wrote for Truthdig included a passage about George Orwell and Aldous Huxley that was lifted almost word-for-word out of a work by Neil Postman. (When editors at Salon, where Ketcham’s piece was originally scheduled to run, challenged the editor of Truthdig about all these clear instances of plagiarism, the latter, instead of addressing the alarming facts, accused Salon and Ketcham of trying to damage the reputations of Truthdig and Hedges for “commercial” reasons.) Hedges even stole material from a piece on climate change by fellow Nation writer Naomi Klein. Presented with all these examples of extensive copying, a journalism-school ethics expert told Ketcham they were obviously not just instances of “inadvertent plagiarism…but carefully thought out plagiarism.”

hedges10Hedges, as we’ve seen, represents himself as a media outsider and a lone, fearless voice of truth. Yet Ketcham’s revelations about his serial plagiarism utterly decimated his right to pose as a man of truth. Any ordinary journalist who’d been found guilty of such extensive appropriation of other people’s words would’ve been fired on the spot by any reputable media entity. Yet Hedges’s plagiarism has been shrugged off by The Nation, by Truthdig, and by every other place he writes for.

And that’s not all: Ketchum’s article, as he notes, “first took shape as an investigation for The American Prospect and then for Salon, both of which eventually declined to publish it.” Why? One suspects that neither of those left-wing outlets wanted to cross Hedges. So much for him being a brave and solitary anti-establishment voice of truth – on the contrary, he’s a star in the crown of the left-wing media establishment, which plainly doesn’t care whether he’s an honest man or a thief, so long as he’s ideologically on point.

hedges9aOh well. At least a writer for The Weekly Standard got it, calling Ketchum’s exposé “so detailed, so voluminous, so explicitly damning, that it is difficult to see how any but the most credulous members of the cult can ever take Hedges seriously again.” The Standard writer also lamented the indifference of the editors of The Nation and Hedges’s other outlets to Hedges’s transgressions:

….plagiarism ought to be a capital offense in journalism. It is surely a kind of psychic disturbance in print. Whatever impels writers to steal language from other writers, and publish it as their own, also makes them vulnerable to discovery. Hedges’s demons, which seem so obvious on the page, clearly represent something deeper than politics. The last thing serial plagiarists need is editors willing, in the name of ideology, to ignore their plagiarism.

Trimming Hedges, part two

hedgescubaYesterday we started looking at Chris Hedges, a journalist and commentator who is a hero on the radical left – and, above all, a hero in his own mind. He routinely describes the U.S. as a totalitarian power, and routinely represents himself as a courageous truth-teller about that totalitarian power.

But that’s not all. When he’s not depicting the U.S. as a dictatorship, he’s celebrating the real tyrannies. Get a load of this, from last February:

We have a renaissance in Latin America taking place that is extremely exciting. Nations like Cuba, Bolivia, Ecuador.…Venezuela has spearheaded Latin America’s emergence from literally centuries of subordination to the U.S. regarding media, economic policies, culture, and international relations. That alone is a killable offense in the eyes of Washington. 

Like other critics of his persuasion – and other writers in The Nation‘s stable – Hedges has in recent years become a fixture on RT (Russia Today), the Kremlin-owned TV network, where he reliably bashes the U.S. and Israel (and what he describes as their lapdog mainstream news media) and stands up for assorted terrorists and tyrants. Appearing on RT last November, he describedfreedom of the press in the U.S. as a myth – quite a claim to be making on a TV network run by a government that orders hits on opposition journalists.

paris-je-suis-char_3160192kAnd this past January, rejecting the claim that the Charlie Hebdo massacre was an act of jihad, he argued that the atrocity had nothing whatsoever to do with Islam, but was, rather, an understandable response by “the global dispossessed” to a life of “poverty, aimlessness, and despair” that is the fault of the wealthy and privileged people of the Western world.

Charlie Hebdo‘s cartoons about Islam, Hedges insisted, were not brave free-speech acts carried out in defiance of acts of terrorism, but were inexcusable assaults on the poorest and most helpless people in France; the murdered cartoonists had been mocking the only thing that oppressed and brutalized Muslims have to cling to, namely their religion, and the Muslims had responded in the only way they had available to them. “When everybody is chanting ‘Je suis Charlie Hebdo,’” Hedges maintained, “what they’re really chanting is, you know, ‘We can’t stand dirty Arabs.’” (For good measure, he also called the killing of Osama bin Laden a “war crime.”)

But Hedges’s way-out-there views aren’t the worst thing about him. We’ll get around to that in our next installment.

Chris Hedges, legend in his own mind

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Chris Hedges

He was a New York Times reporter for 15 years, and for four of those years he was the paper’s Middle East bureau chief. But he couldn’t pose as an objective journalist forever, and eventually, in 2005, he left the Gray Lady to write opinion pieces for The Nation, for the Truthdig website, and for other left-wing outlets. Soon the former Timesman became known for his extreme anti-American views – as well as for his self-righteous posturing and over-the-top rhetoric. As Christopher Ketcham noted last year in the New Republic, Chris Hedges “has secured a place as a firebrand revered among progressive readers.” 

Here, from 2007, is a sample of the kind of stuff he churned out after leaving the Times: 

I will not pay my income tax if we go to war with Iran. I realize this is a desperate and perhaps futile gesture. But an attack on Iran – which appears increasingly likely before the coming presidential election – will unleash a regional conflict of catastrophic proportions. This war, and especially Iranian retaliatory strikes on American targets, will be used to silence domestic dissent and abolish what is left of our civil liberties. It will solidify the slow-motion coup d’êtat that has been under way since the 9/11 attacks. It could mean the death of the Republic.

In a 2011 interview on a program broadcast by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, the host, Kevin O’Leary, called Hedges a “left-wing nutbar.” And last December, in an article entitled “ISIS – the New Israel,” Hedges provided a fine example of the kind of writing that has led people like O’Leary to view him as a nutbar: 

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is our Frankenstein. The United States after a decade of war in Iraq pieced together its body parts. We jolted it into life. We bathed it in blood and trauma. And we gave it its intelligence. Its dark and vicious heart of vengeance and war is our heart. It kills as we kill. It tortures as we torture. It carries out conquest as we carry out conquest. It is building a state driven by hatred for American occupation, a product of the death, horror and destruction we visited on the Middle East.

hedges5It’s easy to sum up the thrust of Hedges’s work these days. It is, quite simply, this: that pretty much every bad thing that happens on this planet it ultimately the fault of the U.S. – which, he insists, is, in its own way, as much of a totalitarian power as Nazi Germany or Stalin’s USSR ever were. Specifically, Hedges subscribes to the proposition, advanced by political scientist Sheldon Wolin, that the U.S. is developing a form of government that Wolin calls “inverted totalitarianism.” And if the U.S. is a totalitarian tyranny, what does that make Hedges? Why, of course, it makes him a courageous soul who dares to utter the dark truth about America while the rest of the nation’s journalistic community, as he depicts it, meekly echoes the U.S. government’s lies about itself and promulgates the pretense that American society is free.

hedges6Of course, to call the present-day U.S. a totalitarian state is to dismiss or trivialize the brutal day-to-day reality of despotism in countries like North Korea, Chad, Equatorial Guinea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, China, Eritrea, and Cuba; and to pose as a gutsy hero who risks untold danger to speak truth to power is to insult the genuinely brave men and women who stand up to the Kims and Castros. Hedges’s demonization of the U.S. government has led to teaching gigs at Princeton and Columbia universities and won him the Pulitzer Prize and other awards; for him to present himself as the moral equivalent of human-rights activists in genuinely totalitarian or authoritarian countries – where many of them end up being arrested, tortured, imprisoned, or murdered – is the height of arrogance.

But this is just the beginning of the case against Chris Hedges. More tomorrow.