letters to the editor

Letters to the Editor

Philip Gourevitch reacts to Tristan McConnell's piece about him, and McConnell responds
February 23, 2011

The Storytellers
Thanks for the excellent piece by Vanessa Gezari (“Crossfire in Kandahar,” CJR, January/February). I wished the story would have continued as, to me, it ended too soon. The time Vanessa has spent with Afghanistan’s wonderful storytellers has rubbed off on her in the best possible way. When thinking of Afghanistan, the book The Wasted Vigil comes to mind. That along with the fact that Vanessa Gezari and Patrick Cockburn are the two best information gatherers the Western press has in Afghanistan.
John Stanton
Arlington, Virginia

Gourevitch-CJR: An Exchange
Re: “One Man’s Rwanda: Philip Gourevitch softens some hard truths” by Tristan McConnell (CJR, January/February). The full version of this response is here.

So CJR, having produced a piece whose sole purpose is to discredit me and my work, attached a note to it, concurring in an apology to me by its author, Tristan McConnell. To me that translates into plain English as saying the reporter can’t be trusted. Why? Because when McConnell interviewed me last September, he did not tell me it was for a piece about me. He said it was for something else—“about the changing media perception of Paul Kagame . . . how attitudes toward Kagame have changed over the years.” McConnell represented the project the same way to the only other journalist he quotes who reported from Rwanda in the 1990s, Chris McGreal of The Guardian—and he used McGreal falsely in the piece, setting him up as if he were in opposition to me, and as if I disagree with what he says. Yes, I saw the killings of Hutus in the Congo by Rwandan army forces in 1996 and 1997 as a “worrying sign”—and yes, I believed, as most journalists who knew the situation in Eastern Congo firsthand at the time did, that the camps (and the mounting campaigns of terror that Hutu Power fighters from the camps were waging against Rwanda, and against Tutsis in the eastern Congo—a factor McConnell ignores) justified the invasion. The invasion, not the massacres. But McConnell never asked me about any of this. He never asked me about anything I’ve written, and never asked me to answer any criticisms. He pretends in the piece that I was “energetically” defending myself against accusations and then changing my mind, when I was, in fact, volunteering my longstanding approach to covering Kagame and Rwanda. No wonder the future of journalism is endlessly debated at journalism schools if this is how they do it at the best of them.

CJR calls itself a “watchdog and friend to the press,” and yet CJR wants you to believe that pretty much the entire international press corps in Central Africa took dictation from me for the past decade and a half. What a preposterous insult to so many journalists who risked their lives in the region. In reality, their work often inspired me.

Maybe I should really be thanking CJR and McConnell for recognizing my omnipotent domination of the media, and of the foreign policies of several great Western powers. After all, my subordination of all other points of view on Rwanda and the Congo wars to a facile fairy tale—that Paul Kagame is “benign,” and that the story of post-genocide Rwanda is “beguiling”—has never before been fully appreciated.

Then I should thank also the former New York Times-man turned Columbia journalism professor, Howard French, who has labored for years to bestow the respectability of his credentials on the legend of my awesome reach as a Tutsi-loving, Jewish-influence peddler, and master player of the Holocaust card. French’s writing about me reads like a template for CJR’s piece: agenda-driven, systematically dishonest in method and in substance. And now French has been appointed to CJR’s Board of Overseers, where he’s charged with helping to guide the magazine’s editorial strategy. What a shame that CJR didn’t disclose this cozy relationship, which was established before the article appeared.

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Now, CJR—on the defensive and after the fact—has invited me to respond. But what can you say about a piece that is such a porridge of innuendo and insinuation, misrepresentations and deliberate distortions—all of it conspicuously unsubstantiated? Of the critics McConnell quotes, the only one who makes a concrete accusation against me is Howard French with his insidious insistence, reprised almost verbatim from his book, that “one of the most important things Gourevitch did was to liken the Rwandan experience to the Israeli experience, to the Holocaust.”

Analogies with the Holocaust and Israel and the Jews are not, in fact, an important part of my work—but it beats me why French thinks that this is such a damning criticism. The crime of genocide was defined in response to the Holocaust, and the association is inescapable. Surely, French (who never, as far as I can tell, reported from Rwanda himself) is wrong to imply that imposing a taboo on comparisons to the Holocaust would strip the story of the Rwandan genocide of its emotional power. That he should be eager for that is bizarre and distasteful.

Comparisons of Rwanda’s agony in 1994 to the Holocaust were ubiquitous in the American press long before I ever went there. The association was immediate, and it was not controversial. I didn’t see the need for such an analogy to convey the Rwandan ordeal: the stories of Rwandans were sufficient. By contrast, toward the end of 1995, just before my first report from Rwanda appeared, the first major book on the genocide was published in America: The Rwanda Crisis by Gerard Prunier, a Frenchman. Prunier’s book, which was immediately devoured by everyone who needed to know about Rwanda (Clinton policy makers, for sure), remains the history of the genocide you most often see cited in others’ bibliographies—and it is rife with analogies between the Tutsis and the Jews, and between Israel and post-genocide Rwanda.

In his book, French fantasizes about how I manipulate American policy by tugging on Holocaust heartstrings in a passage that lambastes Clinton officials for enabling Laurent Kabila’s Rwandan-backed campaign against Mobutu in 1996-97. French proclaims that the “most powerful factor at work” behind America’s policy was the association of the Rwandan genocide with the Holocaust—and he blames me. Why? Because I wrote the sentence that McConnell also cites: “The analogy that’s sometimes made between Rwanda’s aggressive defense policy and that of Israel . . . is inexact but not unfounded.” But here’s the thing: that line appeared in a New Yorker article of mine in September 2000, three and a half years after the moment when French bogusly inserts it into his history and complains about its terrible influence—not to mention fully two years after my book was published, a book in which the word Israel appears exactly zero times.

In reviews of French’s book, both Neal Ascherson, in The New York Review of Books, and Deborah Scroggins, in The Nation, seized on my line about Israel and accepted French’s fabrication about its influence. Of course, it has been a long time since invoking Israel’s militarization was a way of winning the political sympathies of readers of The Nation or The New York Review of Books. On the contrary, French was doing to me exactly what he was falsely accusing me of doing—exploiting political passions about Israel to harness American sympathies to an unrelated African conflict.

Although French is outraged to hear dead Jews and dead Tutsis mentioned in the same breath, he has no problem likening the killing of Hutus in Congo in 1997 to the Holocaust. On a trip to Kisangani that year, he writes of staring down a road “that reportedly led to the killing fields” where Hutus were believed to be being put to death, and he declares that what lies at the end of that road is “a crude little Auschwitz.”

With overseers like French, is it too much to ask that CJR also hire some fact-checkers? There is a great deal more to object to in McConnell’s piece, but what matters for now is that by publishing it, and then proliferating it online after admitting that it is the product of journalistic malpractice, CJR has betrayed its own mission as the sort of honest broker of journalistic standards that we all need it to be.
Philip Gourevitch
Brooklyn, N.Y.

Tristan McConnell responds: My CJR article is no attempt to “discredit” Philip Gourevitch, nor is it a profile. There is scarcely more biographical detail here than you might find in one of his author’s bios, nor do I make but the briefest passing reference to his years of research and reporting on many subjects beyond Rwanda.

Rather, it is an exploration of the debate over how Paul Kagame and his Rwanda are represented in the Western press, a debate approached through the frame of one of Rwanda’s best known chroniclers—Gourevitch. It is precisely an article, “about the changing media perception of Paul Kagame . . . how attitudes toward Kagame have changed over the years.”

I told Gourevitch it was not a profile but that he figured prominently in the piece. It was a discourtesy not to make explicit how focused on him the story was to be, and for that I have already apologized in private.

For the rest, there is no apology to be made.

That the piece focuses on Gourevitch’s work is a function of his position as the most high-profile journalistic voice on the subject in New York, where both this magazine and his main outlet, The New Yorker, are published. He may not like the public position, centrality to the Rwanda debate, or scrutiny of his work that his success brings, but it is his to bear.

Of course, journalists were not taking “dictation” from Gourevitch. Rather his writing captured an image of Kagame that existed at the time. He didn’t create or invent it; he just described it better than most, and in a magazine that carries more influence than most, and in a book (We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families) that sold more copies than most.

The Rwanda narrative with Kagame at its heart captured by Gourevitch (and others) was powerful and so it held sway. But as that story has been assaulted by more recent events and revelations, this shift has not been reflected in his reported work.

I would point readers who want to draw their own conclusions to two of Gourevitch’s New Yorker articles that bookend his Rwanda reporting thus far: “After The Genocide” (1995) and “The Life After” (2009). The latter is analyzed in some detail in my article and clearly illustrates my argument that Gourevitch’s narrative does not reflect recent events and revelations.

Contrary to Gourevitch’s claims, “The Vanishing” (1997) contains plenty of kind words about Laurent Kabila, including the description of Congolese liberation hero Patrice Lumumba as his “mentor.”

I know that Gourevitch has not written about Meles Zenawi (a basic search on the New Yorker website reveals this), but what I wrote is that, at the time, he fell for the then-popular concept of the “New African leadership” which included Zenawi.

Gourevitch’s complaint that my piece wasn’t sufficiently fact-checked is nothing more than rhetoric and wishful thinking. Nor is this article a lone voice; rather, it makes explicit what many discuss in private, surely one of the aims of worthwhile journalism.

I spoke to leading Africanist professors such as David Anderson at Oxford and Rene Lemarchand at Florida to explore the intriguing distance between media and academic views of Kagame and his regime. For the same reason, I interviewed human-rights advocates and experts on Congo.

Although Chris McGreal of The Guardian was one of the only journalists whose quotes made the final edit, I interviewed others who had reported the Congo massacres at the time. The difference is that in Gourevitch’s writing, there is something akin to an acceptance of these atrocities because of the weight of the earlier ones committed during the genocide.

Howard French was another interviewee and I would not presume to defend his position myself. He was not an “overseer” of any kind. My connection to CJR is simply as a commissioned writer and my connection to French was interviewer to interviewee.

I included his comments about the Holocaust because it was interesting that Lemarchand had made the same point.

The article is largely based on what Gourevitch has written about Rwanda. What was striking was how much more measured he was in talking when I asked him to respond to his critics, as reported at length in the article.

Clearly Gourevitch takes a critical assessment of his work very personally. But the thesis of the article is that there are varied views of Kagame, that they are shifting, that we as journalists should try to represent those changes as they occur, that none of this is monolithic, that there is a debate to be had.

This article and Gourevitch’s response are a contribution to that wider, and I believe valuable, discussion.

Howard French responds: The best evidence, ironically, of Philip Gourevitch’s outsized influence on the issue of Central Africa (or at least of his belief in it) comes in his unmeasured response to this very measured and at all times respectful criticism of his work. At this late date, it seems to come as a surprise to Gourevitch that informed people could disagree with him, except perhaps as the result of an unholy cabal.

On that subject, let me just say that I had never heard of Tristan McConnell when he called me to request an interview for his CJR article, whose preparation I had known nothing whatsoever about. Moreover, I initially resisted granting an interview because I have never thought it useful to personalize the discussion of the fates of millions of people, and to encourage a me-versus-him debate might do just that.

On substantive matters, Gourevitch definitively lost me on Central Africa way back in October 1997, with a piece he wrote in The New Yorker titled “Stonewall Kabila.” In it, he seemed to argue against holding the new, Rwanda-backed government of Laurent Kabila in Congo to account for recent large-scale massacres of Hutus in that country. “It’s hard to imagine that anybody in the Congo stands to benefit from this test of wills,” he wrote, speaking of the UN’s efforts to pursue a doomed investigation into mass graves.

Tellingly, Gourevitch’s bile in this piece is reserved for the UN and, by inference, for sticklers for human rights. One detects very little energy and no outrage whatsoever on the subject of the atrocities themselves. Congo’s history, however, provides an eloquent and deeply tragic answer to Gourevitch’s question of whether anyone stands to benefit from a test of wills over what might best be called impunity. With Gourevitch often providing rationales like those he marshaled in “Stonewall Kabila,” the international community sided with continued impunity in the region, helping usher in a reign of bloodshed and mayhem in the Congo that by some estimates has cost that country over five million lives. As we know from recent reports from the United Nations and might well have known, or even prevented at the time, these included several tens of thousands of Hutus, including Congolese (not Rwandan) Hutu women, children, and the elderly, who were systematically exterminated by Rwandan forces or their surrogates simply because they were Hutu.

The editors respond: We agree that when an article is to focus on somebody’s work, as this one was from the start, that person should be told that fact up front. We are sorry that our writer didn’t make his focus clear in this case. Beyond that, we understand that Gourevitch may not like the judgments and conclusions in “One Man’s Rwanda,” but it was thoroughly reported and meticulously fact-checked. As for Gourevitch’s assertion that Howard French’s “work reads like a template for CJR’s piece about me,” and his suggestion that French, a member of our Board of Overseers, steered the piece: not true. The board did not exist when this piece was assigned and reported, nor did the editors know who would be on the board until the bulk of the editing was complete, nor did French have any bearing whatsoever on the direction of the piece beyond McConnell’s interview with him, one of many interviews. Finally, Gourevitch’s assertion that we invited him to respond because CJR is “on the defensive” is false. Any subject of any story in CJR is invited to respond anytime.

Some Rumor
David Glenn’s otherwise fine portrait of Carol Rosenberg (“The Record Keeper,” CJR, November/December 2010) is marred by its peripheral smearing of my Harper’s article on the June 2006 deaths of three Guantánamo prisoners. Glenn quotes Charles Swift, a former military detainee defense lawyer, speaking of “all kinds of crazy rumors” and then flags my article, which rests not on “crazy rumors,” but on on-the-record statements by four guards on duty that evening, a prominent forensic pathologist’s review, and research by a team at Seton Hall Law School, which meticulously reviewed FOIAed records of the government’s inquiry. My article does not purport to solve the question of the deaths; rather, it shows that the government’s claims don’t hold up. Specifically, eyewitness testimony by the sergeant of the guard puts the site of the deaths not in the cellblock of Swift’s client, but in another installation. What happened remains unclear. The suggestion of death associated with interrogation is only conjecture designed to show that hypotheses other than suicide can be sustained on the same facts, and not a conclusion.
Scott Horton
Contributing editor,
Harper’s Magazine
New York, N.Y.

The editors respond: The phrase “crazy rumors” was Swift’s assessment of the theory the prisoners had not committed suicide, not our author’s. Our article originally said Horton’s piece suggested the prisoners had been killed by their guards. It did not say that. The text has been corrected online. 

The Editors are the staffers of the Columbia Journalism Review.