I've written a few times about a curious organisation called Media Lens. ML is a sub-Chomskyite grouping that purports to "correct for the distorted vision of the corporate media". This means urging ML supporters to write to journalists who deviate from the organisation's ideological line. As ML operates in effect as a "care in the community" scheme for numerous species of malcontent on either political extreme, you will see why professional journalists often have trouble treating these campaigns with seriousness.
The former BBC political editor Andrew Marr credited ML with "brutally selective quotation" and being "pernicious and anti-journalistic". The foreign affairs editor of The Observer, Peter Beaumont, describes ML as "a closed and distorting little world that selects and twists its facts to suit its arguments, a curious willy-waving exercise where the regulars brag about the emails they've sent to people like poor Helen Boaden at the BBC - and the replies they have garnered. Think a train spotters' club run by Uncle Joe Stalin." Gavin Esler of Newsnight refers to ML's campaigns as "very sophomoric. The last time I remember a robotic response from people like this was watching film of the nuremberg rallies."
I don't recommend spending time on this, but you can see the type of harangues that ML's regulars send out because they cross-post their emails to the organisation's message board. They do the same (dishonourably, in my view, and certainly not a practice the sainted Professor Chomsky would approve of) with the replies they receive from the unreasonably accommodating journalists they target. It's a peculiarly unpleasant form of spam, as a journalist's reply will typically just elicit further harangues. There is an unsubtle strain of xenophobia among ML's supporters (the last time I looked at the message board, one of its supporters had posted effusive praise of the crank antisemitic conspiracy theorist Gilad Atzmon, who believes that the problem with Holocaust deniers is that there aren't enough of them). Genocide denial is the organisation's orthodoxy: one of its regular contributors is a blogger called David Peterson, a leading light in a disgusting outfit devoted to debunking the supposed "highly inflated casualty figures" of the Srebrenica massacre. (The organisation bears the strikingly inapt name "Srebrenica Research Group".)
You get the idea. Media Lens is an extreme, unsavoury and unrepresentative organisation whose function is the aggressive and often abusive targeting of working journalists. On one of the subjects about which it's been exercised, I've taken ML as a case study in historical illiteracy. This is the debate over the use of the A-bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. I once noticed that ML's co-founder and editor David Cromwell, an oceanographer at Southampton University, had written (and proudly posted on the organisation's message board) a stupefyingly pompous email to a film critic - a film critic - on The Independent on Sunday, David Thomson. Thomson's thought-crime had been to write about the Clint Eastwood film Flag of Our Fathers without referring to, as Cromwell put it, "the propagandistic basis for western leaders' claim of 'half-a-million' allied lives being saved by dropping atomic bombs on Japan". Having read Cromwell's letter, I wrote to Thomson myself to assure him that his unsolicited correspondent was a historical ignoramus who was best ignored. (Cromwell wasn't even familiar with the name of his own cited source, Gar Alperovitz, the principal promoter - though not the originator - of the comprehensively debunked "atomic diplomacy" thesis.) I cited several recent studies to demonstrate my point. I reproduced my letter, and Cromwell's, in this post.
Cromwell appears to have been hurt by this, because a couple of months later he posted once more on the ML message board. He reproduced an email he had sent to a friend of his, the radical historian Howard Zinn, appealing to be bailed out on the subject of the Truman administration's casualty estimates for a conventional invasion of Japan. It was a cruel thing for Cromwell to do. Zinn is not a historian of the Pacific War. He is a polemical far-left author of a largely worthless popular book on American history, and more recently has been a promoter of crank conspiracy theories about 9/11. In response to Cromwell's plea, he was unable to furnish sensible let alone informed comments. I did Zinn the courtesy of going through his comments at length, in this post in December 2006. I concluded - with, I modestly submit, ample and documented justification - that Zinn was a hapless incompetent and that Cromwell was confirmed as an ignoramus.
To my pleasurable surprise, Cromwell has beavered away for more than a year and now come back for a third attempt on the same subject. Last week he posted on the ML site what he called hopefully if technically inaccurately a "cogitation" on the historiography of the A-bomb decision. You can read it here. The parallel that immediately occurred to me when I read it was one I've mentioned a few times recently. Cromwell has graduated from crude Creationist tracts to the ostensibly more sophisticated but essentially identical reasoning of Intelligent Design. Out go embarrassing evangelists such as Zinn and in come the paraphernalia of footnotes and acknowledgements.
It is in vain. Cromwell's third attempt is a farrago of nonsense. He hasn't understood or even digested the fruits of his superficial and painfully restricted inquiries. He has no conception of the difference between archival research and dogmatic assertion. He desperately gathers citations where he may, regardless of the use to which they're put or the coherence of the resulting assembly. In particular, he has alighted on Tsuyoshi Hasegawa, author of Racing the Enemy: Stalin, Truman, and the Surrender of Japan, 2005, to whom he clings as a talisman. He hasn't understood how Hasegawa's argument relates to the historical literature, and is apparently entirely unaware of the criticisms advanced by specialists in Soviet, Japanese and American history about Hasegawa's use of sources.
I wrote a brief comment for The Times a couple of years ago on the controversy engendered by Hasegawa's tendentious and flawed work. The particular objection made by historians is to Hasegawa's handling of source material to generate his conclusion concerning a supposed "race". Michael Kort, author of The Columbia Guide to Hiroshima and the Bomb, 2007, comments in this essay on Hasegawa's "excessive liberty in interpreting his sources". (I'm grateful to Professor Kort for writing to me at length on this question.) Hasegawa appears to have an impressively international problem in this regard. Koshiro Yukiko of Nihon University, writing in The Journal of Japanese Studies 33.1, 2007, notes:
"On the Japanese side of the story, archival research is Hasegawa's most critical weakness. To examine aspects of Japan's decision for surrender, Hasegawa does not seem to have conducted full archival research in Japanese for new information and analysis.... His method of citation from Shūsen shiroku [Historical record on concluding the war] is replete with problems, leading the reader to wonder whether Hasegawa actually examined the sources, particularly in their original forms."
I'm afraid that this post, long as it is, is merely a preamble to my examination of Cromwell's purported "cogitation", which I shall come back to in a few days. But one thing I shall trail here is that Cromwell lamentably gives his readers no hint - and quite possibly doesn't realise - that his third strike on this issue is entirely incompatible with the previous two (and indeed with this preposterous "media alert" issued by his organisation in 2004). The particular example I'll discuss is Media Lens's uncritical second-hand reference to the US Strategic Bombing Survey of 1946 and its counterfactual reasoning about how soon Japan would have surrendered without use of the A-bomb. Cromwell will grasp at anything he thinks can help him, but lacks the interpretative skill or intellectual honesty to understand the price he thereby pays.
The A-bomb decision is obviously an issue of the utmost historical significance. Research in the past 20 years is strongly suggestive that the reason President Truman took the decision he did was the one stated at the time: to avoid a conventional invasion of sickening cost in lives and end the war quickly. There was no ulterior diplomatic motive. That doesn't resolve the ethical questions raised by the A-bomb, but it is the historical question that Cromwell imprudently sought to hector journalists upon. As I have, after each of Cromwell's previous ventures in this subject, concluded that he is an ignoramus, he is probably expecting me to do so a third time. I shall not disappoint him.