Boyer Plate

This week's New Yorker contains a profile of Wesley Clark with a striking thesis -- that the general's "military career, the justification for his candidacy, may also be a liability." Author Peter Boyer argues initially that Clark's plans for a military campaign against Slobodan Milosevic during the 1999 Kosovo conflict were too aggressive; then Boyer argues that the target list of sites to be bombed by NATO jets was not ambitious enough; then he faults Clark for pushing too hard to draw up plans for a ground war against Milosevic. Clark critics, such as former Defense Secretary Bill Cohen and former generals Tommy Franks and Hugh Shelton, get plenty of space in the piece. Meanwhile, those members of Clinton's national-security team who supported Clark's conduct of the war, such as Madeline Albright and Richard Holbrooke, are not heard from at all. Perhaps most incredibly, after heaping derision on Clark's theory that the mere threat of ground forces would be enough to bring Milosevic back to the bargaining table, Boyer doesn't bother to note that Clark's plan worked. The New Yorker staff writer goes on to present Milosevic's eventual fall from power as a kind of coincidence, rather than a consequence of America's -- and Clark's -- successful campaign against the Serbian dictator. (You can read Boyer's whole article here.)

Such schizophrenic charges about Clark's role in the Kosovo War -- he was too aggressive; no, he was too timid -- have been percolating in the conservative press for months. But while the charges are not surprising, it is surprising to see them appear in the level-headed, liberal New Yorker. Until, that is, one knows a little bit about the article's author, Peter Boyer.

Boyer appears to have made something of a career for himself as a conservative interloper at otherwise liberal media outlets. Back in 1992, his sympathetic profile of Rush Limbaugh for Vanity Fair drew praise from the conservative Media Research Center as being "fair." In 1997, as a Frontline correspondent, Boyer promoted one of the more obscure "scandals" of the Clinton years in a show (titled "The Fixers") based around an allegation that Commerce Secretary Ron Brown had been involved in a complicated scheme to convince a Hawaiian couple to buy an Oklahoma natural gas company. An independent counsel appointed to investigate the matter filed no charges against Brown.

Before Howell Raines became executive editor of The New York Times -- and before he became an object of hatred among conservatives -- he was known for his vast number of zealously anti-Clinton editorials during the late 1990s. Who leapt to Raines' defense? Boyer, with a 1995 New Yorker profile of the then-editorial page editor. Boyer's apparent interest in Clinton scandals later led him to write Frontline's 1997 documentary, "Once Upon a Time in Arkansas," which was ominously subtitled, "The deals and relationships at the heart of the scandal called 'Whitewater.'"

Later, Boyer produced "Secrets of an Independent Counsel" for Frontline, a highly sympathetic portrayal of Donald Smalz, the man who managed to spend $15 million dollars on an investigation into $36,000 in gifts received by Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy. Espy was successfully driven from office by the investigation, and then acquitted of all charges. Beyond the Clinton scandals, Boyer also authored a 1994 profile of Al Gore for The New Yorker. The piece's disparagement of Gore's military service and portrayal of his childhood in a Washington hotel became a source of the largely hostile storyline into which the media fit future Gore coverage during the 2000 campaign.

Earlier this year, in The New Yorker, Boyer wrote a piece on Mel Gibson and the controversy surrounding his new film, which many have denounced as anti-Semitic. Boyer's article was so sympathetic to Gibson that it received Bill O'Reilly's stamp of approval. Somehow, despite the fact that Gibson told Boyer that he wanted to "kill" New York Times columnist Frank Rich, put "his intestines on a stick," and "kill his dog," the New Yorker writer still managed to portray Gibson as a victim. Rich, who had earned Gibson's ire by accusing the movie star of refusing to show his film to Jewish leaders, subsequently accused Boyer of sloppy journalism:

[T]he article's author, Peter J. Boyer, sanitizes the senior Gibson [Mel Gibson's father, Hutton] further by saying he called the Holocaust a "tragedy" in an interview he gave to the writer Christopher Noxon for a New York Times Magazine article published last March. Neither the word "tragedy" nor any synonym for it ever appeared in that Times article, and according to a full transcript of the interview that Mr. Noxon made available to me, Hutton Gibson said there was "no systematic extermination" of the Jews by Hitler, only "a deal where he was supposed to make it rough on them so they would all get out and migrate to Israel because they needed people there to fight the Arabs. . . ."

Perhaps most relevant, however, is Boyer's previous work on the Kosovo War. Slate's Fred Kaplan, in an excellent debunking of Boyer's profile of Clark, wondered, "Does anyone care to argue that intervening in Kosovo was a bad idea?" Kaplan might want to take a look at Boyer's work on Frontline's "Give War a Chance", a late-1990s documentary about American policy in the Balkans. The documentary is structured as a double-profile of Balkan hawk Richard Holbrooke and dovish admiral Leighton "Snuffy" Smith. Here's what the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette had to say about the program (via the show's press page):

Ideologically, the hour is tilted to the side of non-interventionism and is in no mood to say anything nice about the Clinton administration. And, for those who think that PBS and 'Frontline' are all-liberal all-the-time, Boyer et al. make little effort to hide the fact that they think more highly of practical military men like Smith than they do of the impulsive idealists like Holbrooke who order them into battles they cannot win.

Boyer, of course, is entitled to his isolationist views, and if The New Yorker wants to incorporate conservative perspectives into its editorial mix then it has every right do so. But neither Boyer nor his editors should pass off the Clark profile as the work of an unbiased journalist.

Matthew Yglesias is a Prospect writing fellow.

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