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Truthdigger of the Week: Ali Abunimah

Many journalists are compelled to nurse a grudging tolerance of the fact that their work has little to no visible effect on the course of world events. For a moment last month, Ali Abunimah, co-founder of the pro-Palestinian news and opinion site The Electronic Intifada, wasn’t one of them.

Abunimah is almost singularly responsible for The Guardian newspaper’s dismissal of former George W. Bush speechwriter Joshua Trevino from the historically liberal paper’s opinion pages. He was one of the loudest and clearest voices to speak out when the hire was announced in mid-August. One year earlier, he told readers, Trevino had encouraged the Israeli military to kill American activists aboard a flotilla that was set to defy the country’s embargo against the shipment of goods into the Gaza Strip.

“Dear IDF,” Trevino tweeted in June 2011, “If you end up shooting any Americans on the new Gaza flotilla—well, most Americans are cool with that. Including me.” Poet and author Alice Walker, Holocaust survivor Hedy Epstein and Joseph Dana of The Nation magazine were among the American citizens aboard the flotilla.

“Something has gone badly wrong at The Guardian,” Abunimah wrote in his central piece criticizing the paper’s choice, published at Al-Jazeera. “In the name of ‘robust debate,’ the venerable left-leaning liberal newspaper has effectively given its stamp of approval to speech that goes beyond mere hate, speech that clearly crosses the line into incitement to murder unarmed civilians and journalists. What lies behind this worrying development, and what does it tell us about the state of media in general?”

Readers expressed their dismay with the choice soon after Trevino’s hire was announced. Days before his column was set to begin, Trevino responded to Abunimah’s charge with a wriggly clarification that he didn’t “urge” the Israel Defense Forces to kill American citizens, but merely said he would approve if the killings were to happen.

That answer satisfied neither Abunimah, who called it a “lie,” nor the scores of readers who continued to vent their shock and disapproval. After Trevino’s piece, the paper’s editors wrote Abunimah directly, saying Trevino was not hired as a regular correspondent — a claim that contradicted the press release that announced Trevino’s new role — but as a contract writer, which was the title Trevino already held with the news organization. The editors then asked Abunimah to kindly make the correction in his article. By the time Abunimah received the letter, the editors had also revised the press release announcing Trevino’s arrival. Abunimah was not fooled, and he publicly embarrassed the paper by exposing the secret, unannounced revision — an act that ran counter to the paper’s tradition of openly reporting all corrections.

As far as the Guardian’s directors were concerned, none of this was grounds for Trevino’s termination. What felled the writer was a failure to disclose his interests in a previous article written for The Guardian shortly after the flotilla tweet. That piece included a quotation from the Malaysian prime minister that lacked a necessary disclosure of Trevino’s Malaysian business interests. Abunimah touched on this story in his initial cry against the paper’s pick.

“In July 2011, Trevino was caught in a curious controversy where a website in Malaysia accused him and another U.S. blogger of running a website named Malaysia Matters, allegedly secretly paid for by Malaysia’s prime minister and another politician in order to improve their image.

“Trevino told reporter Ben Smith, then of Politico, that the story was ‘completely false.’ But Smith stated that Trevino ‘misdirected’ him.

“While Smith was unable to get to the bottom of the murky financial arrangements behind Malaysia Matters, he revealed that, in 2008, Trevino had approached a number of prominent U.S. bloggers, offering them a free ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ Malaysian junket, paid for, he [Trevino] said in an email at the time, by business interests associated with Malaysian politics.’ ”

Trevino’s failure to disclose his interest in a source ran afoul of The Guardian’s editorial policies. It was on this technicality — not his warmongering against Americans and human rights activists — that the writer was let go. Just days after he joined the staff, the paper announced Trevino’s departure via a joint statement with the writer.“Joshua Trevino wrote a piece for The Guardian on February 28, 2011, titled ‘[New York Republican Representative] Peter King has hearings, but is he listening?’ The Guardian recently learned that shortly before writing this article the author was a consultant for an agency that had Malaysian business interests and that he ran a website called Malaysia Matters. In keeping with the Guardian’s editorial code this should have been disclosed,” the announcement read.

“ ‘Under our guidelines, the relationship between Joshua and the agency should have been disclosed before the piece was published in order to give full clarity to our readers,’ said Janine Gibson, editor-in-chief, Guardian U.S.”

The joint statement continues with a quote from Trevino: “I vigorously affirm that nothing unethical was done and I have been open with The Guardian in this matter. Nevertheless, The Guardian’s guidelines are necessarily broad, and I agree that they must be respected as such.”

The announcement ends by saying, “We have therefore mutually agreed to go our separate ways and wish each other the best of luck.”

The paper fell short of firing Trevino on the grounds of his belligerent excretions. But Abunimah — and untold numbers of Guardian readers — got the result they wanted: the ejection of a “paid political consultant and ideologue for hire” from editorial pages beloved for championing the interests of humans everywhere in the long-standing tradition of political liberalism. For serving as a steadfast guardian of that charge, we honor Ali Abunimah as our Truthdigger of the Week.

A small cheer should also be given to the editors of The Guardian, who respected the people who challenged and informed them. One wishes many American news outlets would follow suit.

— Posted by Alexander Reed Kelly. Follow him on Twitter: @areedkelly.

Alexander Reed Kelly
Associate Editor
In December 2010, Alex was arrested for civil disobedience outside the White House alongside Truthdig columnist Chris Hedges, Pentagon whistle-blower Daniel Ellsberg, healthcare activist Margaret Flowers and…
Alexander Reed Kelly

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