Some twenty years ago, Paul Berman and Eric Alterman were friends and contemporaries in New York’s liberal media scene — Alterman a media critic, author, and MSNBC commentator, and Berman a leading New Republic intellectual and author of the influential 2003 book Terror and Liberalism.
The two men split ideologically over the great trauma of the 2000s-era Democratic Party and the country: Iraq. Alterman opposed the war, Berman wrote in support. Now, in a kind of dark coda, they are the central players in an ugly drama playing out in public to a captivated New York media and literary world.
On Monday, Berman published an account in Tablet claiming that a “well-known professor at one of the New York colleges, who is also a columnist at a liberal magazine” — a very thinly veiled description of Alterman — approached him after a panel event at Manhattan's 92nd Street Y and told Berman he had in his possession Berman’s “erotic correspondence.” Alterman denies mentioning the correspondence.
In Berman’s words, the unnamed professor wrote in a series of emails afterward that he wanted Berman to “write a self-denunciation in the style of Augustine or Alexander Hamilton” or he would release the correspondence (Alterman denies threatening to release the correspondence). The professor wrote to Berman that the public confession would be a good career move since Berman was “best known to the world for having pimped George Bush’s disastrous war.”
Alterman confirmed to BuzzFeed News that he is the subject of Berman’s story, though he disputed some of the account and said that his messages did not amount to “blackmail,” as Berman calls it in the story.
“The emails in question were not written for the purpose of ‘blackmail’ as Paul well knows,” Alterman said in an email to BuzzFeed News on Thursday. “They arose from a deeply personal matter between us. Paul omits all the relevant details because they reflect so poorly on his character.”
According to a person familiar with the matter, Tablet knew of the personal issue but chose to not include it in the story.
“We fully stand by the story,” Alana Newhouse, Tablet’s editor-in-chief, said in an email. Berman did not return requests for comment.
The messy situation between the two liberal luminaries is a strange cap to the battle that split the Democratic Party and shaped the current political sphere on the left. Alterman, 57, a longtime liberal critic, was an early skeptical voice decrying the media’s role in the Iraq War. Berman, in his late 60s and a defining liberal hawk, wrote in support of the war, which in recent years has seen him ostracized from much of the left.
In the late 1990s through early 2000s, Berman and Alterman were a part of a monthly discussion group with intellectuals like Hendrik Hertzberg and Michael Massing, according to one member of their social circle. Over wine, the group would talk about the issues of the day. But the Iraq War, this source said, ultimately resulted in the end of some friendships.
Berman and Alterman have sparred publicly on other topics. In 2006, both took to the American Prospect to argue about Alterman’s intellectual mentor, journalist I.F. Stone. The disagreement appeared amicable. Berman writes his criticism of Alterman “with all due respect and honest affection” and says his counterpart “offers some wise and nuanced comments… and I honor him for these comments.” As Alterman writes, “I have been friends with Paul for over decade. For longer than that, I have been an admirer of his work and an informal student of his method.”
On Tuesday, when asked about Berman’s story, Alterman sent BuzzFeed News a statement which appeared to deny his involvement in the entire situation.
“Yes, I saw the piece. I feel sorry for Paul, who was once a close friend of mine. I would never blackmail anybody if that's your question,” he wrote in an email. “I have my doubts about all of it. But other than that, I prefer to stay out of this as the whole thing saddens me, and especially for Paul's sake, I hope it dies down.”
Berman did not respond to inquiries about his thinly anonymized allegation — or the motivations for it, but one writer watching the situation suggested it was a pre-emptive strike.
“If you happen to have a public outlet, one strategic possibility is to put out the fact that this is happening,” said Ben Wittes, a writer who has researched cybersecurity and the editor-in-chief of Lawfare, where Berman also has written. “By putting it out there, you provide a significant disincentive from releasing the material.”