High Crimes against Journalism and Decency: Jeffrey Goldberg’s Insane “Trump Called Troops Suckers” Piece Is a New Low


Jeffrey Goldberg wrote an article for The Atlantic that could harm Donald Trump’s chance to win re-election. Setting aside the controversial content of the remarks attributed to the president, it is important to note that this is an atrocious example of journalism.

You could almost call it “fake news.”

And corporate media is taking it at face value.

You may think Trump is a turd—I do. You may want him to lose the election—I do. (I also want Biden to lose, but that’s another column.) You may believe that Trump probably said what Goldberg reports—I think there’s a good chance. But everyone who cares about journalism ought to be deeply disturbed by the nonexistent sourcing for this story and its widespread acceptance by media organizations that ought to know better.

It’s easy to see why Democratic-leaning media corporations jumped all over Goldberg’s piece: it hurts the president and it reinforces militarism. But they’re degrading journalistic standards to manipulate an election.

According to Goldberg, four anonymous sources told him that Trump called American marines who died in World War I “losers” and repeatedly questioned why anyone smart would join the military or be willing to risk their life by fighting in one of America’s wars.

Anonymous sources have their place. I have used them. But basing a news story entirely on accounts of people who are unwilling to go on the record is journalistically perilous and ethically dubious. There are exceptions, as when a Mafia source fears physical retribution.

There is no such claim here. Most media organizations’ ethical guidelines are clear: news without attribution is not news. It is gossip.

            The Los Angeles Times, a publication my readers know that I hold in low regard, nevertheless takes a stance against anonymous sources. “When we use anonymous sources, it should be to convey important information to our readers. We should not use such sources to publish material that is trivial, obvious or self-serving,” the paper’s ethical standards say. “An unnamed source should have a compelling reason for insisting on anonymity, such as fear of retaliation, and we should state those reasons when they are relevant to what we publish.”

            The Atlantic piece falls way short.

Likewise, writing that strips statements of necessary context is anti-ethical. Trump, writes Goldberg, “expressed contempt for the war record of the late Senator John McCain, who spent more than five years as a prisoner of the North Vietnamese. ‘He’s not a war hero,’ Trump said in 2015 while running for the Republican nomination for president. ‘I like people who weren’t captured.’” He goes on to note that Trump wanted to deny McCain the honor of lowering flags to half-mast after McCain died.

Goldberg frames Trump’s comments as part of a general bias against the military and portrays his attacks as unprovoked. Truth is, long before Trump made those comments he had been engaged in a well-documented, long-running feud with the Arizona senator. McCain based his political career on his military service and the five years he spent as a POW in Vietnam. McCain was Trump’s enemy, and there is considerable evidence that McCain—known for a sharp tongue—started the war of words. Trump gave back in kind.

“Nor did he set his campaign back by attacking the parents of Humayun Khan, an Army captain who was killed in Iraq in 2004,” Goldberg continues in another context-free passage. Khan’s father famously spoke against Trump at the 2016 Democratic National Convention. “You have sacrificed nothing and no one,” Khan said. In Trumpian terms, Khan started it. But Goldberg’s omission makes it look like Trump attacked a fallen soldier out of the blue.

Goldberg does this a third time: “When lashing out at critics, Trump often reaches for illogical and corrosive insults, and members of the Bush family have publicly opposed him.” Both sides have insulted each other; as far as the record shows, Trump is usually running offense, not defense—but Goldberg falsely portrays the enmity as a one-way street.

One of the praiseworthy aspects of this president is his relatively restrained approach to military interventionism, coupled with his willingness to directly engage adversaries like North Korea and the Taliban in Afghanistan, the latter which recently signed a peace agreement with the United States. It is logical for Trump, who is skeptical of illegal wars of choice like Afghanistan and Iraq, to question why people would volunteer to fight and possibly die in such a pointless conflict. For Goldberg, militarism is a state religion. Questioning it is intolerable.

Goldberg’s piece, the tone of which reads like the pro-war hysteria following 9/11, reflects the aggressively militaristic neoliberalism of the Democratic Party in 2020.

Goldberg references Trump’s 2017 visit to Arlington cemetery with then-Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly. “A first lieutenant in the Marine Corps, Robert Kelly was killed in 2010 in Afghanistan … Trump, while standing by Robert Kelly’s grave, turned directly to his father and said, ‘I don’t get it. What was in it for them?’ Kelly (who declined to comment for this story) initially believed, people close to him said, that Trump was making a ham-handed reference to the selflessness of America’s all-volunteer force. But later he came to realize that Trump simply does not understand non-transactional life choices.”

            Joining the military, of course, is hardly a non-transactional decision. Soldiers get paid. They get medals. They get free college. They are revered and thanked for their service. Military service gives you a leg up when you run for political office.

Moreover, Trump’s question is one Americans should be asking more often. Why would a 29-year-old man volunteer to travel to Afghanistan in order to kill the locals? No one in that country threatened the United States. No one there did us any harm. Afghans don’t want us there. Why did Robert Kelly go?

Goldberg seems obsessed with Trump’s description of fallen soldiers as suckers. “His capacious definition of sucker includes those who lose their lives in service to their country, as well as those who are taken prisoner, or are wounded in battle,” Goldberg writes. But is he wrong?

            LBJ suckered us into Vietnam with the Tonkin Gulf incident, which historians of all stripes accept was a lie.

            George H.W. Bush suckered us into the first Gulf War with a tale of Iraqi soldiers rampaging through a Kuwaiti hospital and pulling babies out of incubators. Another lie.

            After 9/11 George W. Bush suckered us into Afghanistan by saying Osama bin Laden was there—he was not.

            Of course Bush lied about Iraq having weapons of mass destruction. More suckering. (At the time, Goldberg spread the lie that Saddam Hussein was allied with his enemy Al Qaeda.)

            Assuming that anything in Goldberg’s piece was true, Trump was right.

(Ted Rall (Twitter: @tedrall), the political cartoonist, columnist and graphic novelist, is the author of the biography “Political Suicide: The Fight for the Soul of the Democratic Party.” You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)



  • I’m surprised Matt Taibbi has not commented on this. Especially well-argued in his book Hate Inc., he notes the insanity of journalists falling for scoops from unnamed sources, who often have their own agendas.

    • … and here it is (or as much of it as isn’t subscriber only)

      interestingly unlike Ted, Taibbi doesn’t so much call into question the veracity of the assertions (let alone the veracity of what is asserted…);
      rather he points out we have been pretty much in the exact place before (with actual evidence) and Trump ended up getting a boost from this.

  • The evil Soviets, Socialists like the Germans with whom they were allied in WWII, lie that America did not single-handedly win WWII, a fact I learned in US schools and US TV, so I know it must be TRVE.
    And the US investigators learned, and the US courts ruled, that not one Saudi had anything to do with 9/11. It was organised, planned, and funded by Iran, and perpetrated by their co-religionists: the Afghan Taliban led by Mullah Omar, a very popular name with the Ayatollahs, Saddam and his henchmen (who fought the Iraq-Iran War, where Iran and Iraq allied to attack the US), the DPRK, Gaddafi’s Libyan minions, Assad’s Syrian jihadists, and, of course, the war-loving Cubans. So, since the Afghan Taliban were the plurality of the 9/11 hijackers, with Iraqis close behind, the US had no choice but to to punish them. It remains to finish the job St Obama started of destroying the evil Syrians, then the DPRK, Cuba, and Iran. And after that, as St Hillary told us, the evil USSR and the PRC.

  • alex_the_tired
    September 6, 2020 8:47 PM

    Submitted in exhaustion. I’m just so filled with despair. I used to be a journalist. And I loved being one. And I saw the cancer spreading and I thought, “It’s just a rough patch, it will pass.”
    And it didn’t. I watched the alt-press die by inches, fighting all the way for the most part. I watched the insipid network news turn insipider. I watched everything go online and the standards go merrily to hell. Reading things online now is like having my pubic hair ripped out with pliers. Social justice warriors on the one side, proud boys on the other. My God, I want to just start kicking in heads on both sides. I don’t even try for jobs anymore because the few good ones that are left? They’ll never hire me. There’s about 500 people calling in favors for each of those few seats on the lifeboat.

    I’m reminded of something Herman Goering said. It seems particularly relevant in that, should, um, Biden win, we will be going to have another war: “Why would some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best that he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece. The common people don’t want war; neither in Russia nor in England nor in America, nor for that matter in Germany. That is understood. But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a Parliament or a Communist dictatorship.”
    At that point in the interview, the interrogator raised a point. In democracies the people have a say. In the United States only Congress can declare war. (N.B.: Biden will ignore that, as did Cheney, Obama, Clinton, etc.)
    Back to Goering and his reply: “The people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.”
    I miss journalism so much. And all we’re getting is infant-children with advanced Trump Derangement Syndrome who will not look neutrally at the prior occupants of the position and admit, they’re all dirty rotten bastards.
    We deserve whatever happens to us.

  • @No: Taibbi still might in his podcast (useful idiots) which usually comes out by Friday

    Glenn Greenwald has a take on this sordid addair in which he castigates the media’s use of the concept “confirm” when they mean “retweet gossip”.

    The claim about Trump’s comments were about dead WWI soldiers. Indeed, why is there this insidious WWI adulation industry when there is quite obviously nothing heroic about trench warfare and mass deaths?

    WWI was widely regarded as the breakdown of the human spirit pure and simple. No concentration camps were liberated as in WWII. Nothing was resolved, the only tangible result was a system of reparations that was self-defeating and that some predicted would lead to another world war (spoiler alert: it did).

    At the home front, all “democratic” countries used the war fever to clamp down hard on dissent. This did not work as intended in Russia.

    What did they die for? What did anyone die for in WWI? (Not sure if they were suckers, though, as conscientious objectors and deserters were summarily executed).

  • alex_the_tired
    September 8, 2020 9:54 AM

    Barbara Tuchman wrote a very good book about World War I (The Guns of August). I think she wrote another one, as well, but I can’t recall for sure. Anyway, she points out that WWI was inevitable due to all the secret mutual-aid treaties. As soon as any two of the countries started fighting, everyone would get dragged in. The only benefit to WWI was that the lower classes woke up from their adulation of the rich upper classes.

    Now if they could just regain that sense of disgust at the idle rich.

  • But they [i e, «Democratic-leaning media corporations»]’re degrading journalistic standards to manipulate an election.

    What ? Are you sure, Ted ? Never would have imagined it in my wildest dreams ! I thought it was only those dastardly Russians – and latterly, those nefarious Chinese (and definitely not those god-fearing Israelis) – who interfered in and manipulated US elections…. 😉


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