Guardian Reader’s Editor evades key questions in column on Joshua Treviño debacle

Guardian Reader’s Editor Chris Elliott has written a column on “the bruising fallout” from the controversy over the newspaper’s hiring and decision to dump Joshua Treviño.

“This has been a bruising 10 days for the Guardian that could have been handled better,” Elliott wrote, though without offering a single specific suggestion for how.

Janine Gibson, editor-in-chief of Guardian US, acknowledged that Treviño’s tweet in which he said he’d be “cool” with Israel killing unarmed civilians aboard the Gaza flotilla was “reprehensible” and that she and colleagues had been “horrified” by it.

Elliott also addressed the conflict of interest over Treviño’s consulting contract in Malaysia that The Guardian cited as the reason to let him go and provided an answer to my complaint over Treviño’s truthfulness.

But the column evades substantive questions about the newspaper’s responsibility not to enable bigotry even as it offers readers diverse points of view.

I encourage people to read Elliott’s column in full, however I want to make a few observations.

A broad response

Elliott writes that The Guardian was subjected to an “extremely powerful campaign on the web attacking” Treviño’s role and adds:

The attacks were led chiefly by the Electronic Intifada website and heavily supported by the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign and its members. The Guardian readers’ editor’s office had received almost 200 complaints by the end of last week. In the first 24 hours the complaints turned on a tweet posted by Treviño on 25 June 2011: “Dear IDF: If you end up shooting any Americans on the new Gaza flotilla – well, most Americans are cool with that. Including me.” This was seen by the complainants as an incitement to shoot Americans taking part in a flotilla of boats that planned to break the blockade of Gaza in 2011.

We used the tools available to us – websites and social media – and encouraged people to use the feedback mechanisms The Guardian has itself made available to its readers.

In my posts I laid out the facts and my analysis as clearly as I could. That hundreds of people then took the time and made the effort to contact The Guardian was entirely a measure of the strength of feeling the issue generated.

I know – because dozens of people shared with me copies of the letters they sent to The Guardian – that responses were thoughtful, passionate and informed, and many came from lifelong readers who feel an enormous stake in the newspaper’s future.

Many people, and we made our contribution, did dozens of hours of research on Treviño’s disturbing record, some dating back several years, that, frankly, The Guardian ought to have been capable of doing itself or at least taking a look at.

These sources include in no particular order, Edinburgh Eye, Max Blumenthal, Yasir Tineh, “Red Dan” on FireDogLake, MJ Rosenberg and Sarawak Report among many others who offered useful insights and bits of information on Twitter.

Answering my complaint

Elliott addresses my complaint that Treviño’s 16 August “clarification” of his tweet saying he’d be “cool” with Israel killing Americans aboard the flotilla was dishonest and contradicted by plainly available facts. Treviño wrote:

any reading of my tweet of 25 June 2011 that holds that I applauded, encouraged, or welcomed the death of fellow human beings, is wrong, and out of step with my life and record.

As I showed in several posts, but this one in particular, Treviño’s “life and record” are full of examples where he “applauded, encouraged, or welcomed the death of fellow human beings.”

Referring to Treviño’s 16 August “clarification,” Elliott writes:

This triggered a further complaint from Ali Abunimah, co-founder of the Electronic Intifada, that this latest Treviño article was inaccurate because there was ample evidence from other tweets to show that Treviño did mean to encourage the shooting of Americans in that flotilla. …

… While I think it likely that a reasonable person might well believe this was the intent of the tweet, I don’t think it is possible to make an objective finding of inaccuracy about his denial. … I believe the complaint would require a judgment on Treviño’s sincerity: a matter of opinion, not a decision based on factual accuracy.

Elliott has avoided taking a position on whether the mountain of evidence that Treviño regularly “applauded, encouraged, or welcomed the death of fellow human beings” meant that he was being dishonest about his “life and record.”

Treviño’s Malaysia conflicts of interest had been raised several times before. I described the problem in my Al Jazeera article of 18 August, yet Elliott says that the issue did not come to editors’ attention until 23 August.

Treviño did not disclose facts to The Guardian which Elliott acknowledges should have been disclosed, and this was a serious enough breach of the Editorial Code to let him go.

Moreover, Treviño in 2011 “misdirected” then Politico reporter Ben Smith on precisely the same matter.

So it is odd, given all we know, that Elliott refuses to make a “judgment on Treviño’s sincerity.”

Where do we draw the line?

Of course a newspaper should offer a broad range of views and host vigorous debate among people who disagree.

The point that neither Elliott nor Guardian editors have addressed is where to draw the line.

We live at a moment when open hate speech – especially in the United States – primarily directed against Muslims, is becoming normalized as part of the ‘marketplace of ideas.’

Arson attacks and vandalism against mosques are becoming frigheningly regular occurrences, and the 5 August white nationalist terrorist attack on the Sikh Temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin was a horrifying symptom of this rising intolerance which has the potential to engulf many vulnerable communities.

Such hatred is being generated as part of electoral campaigns on which Treviño was supposed to write for The Guardian. But he was also an active participant, writing hateful speeches for political candidates that reflected these bigoted views.

If all things being equal, Treviño’s long history of bigotry had been directed against Jews instead of Muslims, Arabs and Palestine solidarity activists, would The Guardian have offered him a column in the first place?

If it had been revealed that Treviño wrote speeches for candidates suggesting that “civilization” was at war with Jewish rather than Muslim “barbarism,” how many would defend Treviño or the initial decision to hire him?

Guardian US editor Janine Gibson told Elliott that “we have learned several lessons.” Unfortunately, Elliott’s response leaves us in the dark about what those lessons are.

New York Times on the Treviño affair

Noam Cohen of The New York Times has written a good piece on this: “Guardian Backtracks From Bold Move in Hiring.” An excerpt:

It was tempting to see the addition of Mr. Treviño as an attempt not just to add political balance — an idea that is largely foreign to the partisan British press — but to generate controversy, as well. Unfortunately for The Guardian, the controversy started well before the writer did.

In 2011, Mr. Treviño used Twitter to comment on the international flotilla headed to Gaza to challenge Israel’s naval blockade of the Palestinian territory. The year before, nine people in a flotilla of six boats were killed when Israeli commandos boarded a Turkish boat headed for Gaza, and Mr. Treviño used the return of the flotilla to address the Israeli Defense Forces: “Dear IDF: If you end up shooting any Americans on the new Gaza flotilla — well, most Americans are cool with that. Including me.”

Those Twitter posts, and many others, were brought to light by Ali Abunimah, who runs the pro-Palestinian blog Electronic Intifada and wrote a recent column for Al Jazeera’s Web site asking: “What’s gone wrong at the Guardian?”

Let’s give the last word to Glenn Greenwald, who was very briefly Treviño’s colleague at The Guardian. From the New York Times:

There were bumps, certainly. Mr. Treviño was hired by The Guardian around the same time as the pugnacious civil-liberties writer Glenn Greenwald, who in an interview described his new colleague as “among the lowliest, most extremist cretins that exist.”

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You are a good writer and speaker. I heard you a few years ago at the University of Oregon. Please keep up the good work. The US is partner with Israel in crimes against the Palestinians. Its a terrible situation that needs focus and moral voices to explain what is really going on. The US must stop all aid to Israel.

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I put my hands together for Ali and all the other people who contributed to exposing the nauseating musings of Treviño. I would never blame the Guardian or any other newspaper to hire controversial opinion makers to stir up debate. Debate is good. As long as they're not hate mongers like Treviño. May he crawl back under the stone from which he came.

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Having read the Guardian's reader's editor column yesterday, I was just as disappointed as you were!

It is also very notable that comments were not enabled on it, as they otherwise always are on that particular blog! It seems clear they were afraid their weaselly reasons for terminating their contract with Trevino would be questioned just as much as his "clarification" they continue to stand by was! The fact that most of these below the line comments came from long-term readers who have been prolifically commenting on every subject throughout the site ever since the function was first created - myself included - was obviously far too uncomfortable to admit. Easier to pretend it was simply an "attack campaign" orchestrated from above by you and "the Palestinian solidarity movement".

You are of course right - they would never dream of hiring anyone with a history of making similar statements about Jews, or, indeed, about blacks or any other ethnic minority! But, perniciously, under the guise of "Islam not being a race", Arabs - whether Muslim, Christian or other - are considered fair game, even among far too many self-described liberal-leftists.

Tbh, I genuinely don't know WHAT they were thinking, but their claims to merely want to provide "the opposing view" are hardly credible, given that they never even ATTEMPT to do so regarding domestic British politics! I've been a daily Guardian reader for over a decade, but in the last few years I've increasingly gone off them due to their biased to the point of intellectually dishonest coverage regarding UK politics, the EU, and America. For me, the Trevino fiasco (and the continual refusal to be honest about it with their readers) may have represented the final straw!

Thank you Ali, for continuing to hold the rest of the media to account, and for upholding journalistic standards! Keep up the good work!

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The news that hate-blogger Josh Trevino (Chris Elliot, Open Door, 27 August), was to be employed by Guardian US, was received with horror by me and no doubt other old Guardian readers as well. His tweet of 25 June 20 2011, concerning shooting protesters on the second Gaza flotilla, is common internet knowledge. His denial of the accusation of encouragement-to-shoot consists mainly in the fact that he didn’t actually say “kill them.” But what would be the effect on world events, if all commentators stood back from the dark, sordid corners of conflict saying if A shoots B, “most of my readers are cool with that. Including me?” Surely a rational man could only describe that as encouragement to kill.
Equally disturbing from the standpoint of the credibility of the Guardian, is the fact that he was not sacked for openly holding these and similar views but for the relatively trivial crime of not declaring an interest in a piece on Malaysia.

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The cool precision of Ali Abunimah's demolition of the Guardian's disgraceful attempts at defending their hiring of islamaphobe Joshua Trevino, and the debacle of the newspaper's retreat and bad tempered capitulation, commands our awed respect.
The episode greatly enhances EI's already significant profile in the UK. and will hopefully encourage an increased number of readers' voluntary financial donations enabling the further expansion of EI's potent mix of high quality palestinian advocacy and authoritative global BDS coverage.

Ali Abunimah

Ali Abunimah's picture

Co-founder of The Electronic Intifada and author of The Battle for Justice in Palestine, now out from Haymarket Books.

Also wrote One Country: A Bold-Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse. Opinions are mine alone.