- Staff writer for The New Yorker Magazine
- Professor at the Graduate School of Journalism, University of California - Berkeley
- Professor of Social Studies and Journalism at Bard College
- Author of agitprop book The Massacre at El Mozote, which depicts El Salvador communist guerrillas sympathetically and government anti-communist forces unsympathetically
- “I must admit a secret preference for the violent outcome.” -- Mark Danner
Mark Danner is a staff writer for The New Yorker Magazine and writes frequently for the New York Review of Books. Danner is also a Professor at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California Berkeley and is the Henry R. Luce Professor of Human Rights, Democracy and Journalism at Bard College in Annadale-on-Hudson, New York.
Mark David Danner was born in November 1958 in Utica, New York. His father Robert was a dentist, amateur historian and World War II veteran. His mother Rosalyn Sitrin Danner was a high school Spanish teacher. His journalistic talents were first recognized when the high school newspaper he co-edited at Utica Free Academy won an award as the best in the state of New York.
In September 1976 Danner entered Harvard College, where he never took the customary aspiring-journalist step of writing for its campus newspaper the Harvard Crimson. After abandoning a major in Religion and traveling in Europe for a year, Danner graduated in June 1981 with an interdisciplinary degree that combined literature, philosophy and art history.
Danner’s work ever since has been characterized by its blend of journalism with fictional techniques, and by its blurring of reportage, ideology and art as if in Danner’s mind reality is merely a huge stylized painting to be constructed and deconstructed.
In September 1981 Danner found work as an editorial assistant at the left-liberal New York Review of Books.
In 1984 Danner took a job as a Senior Editor at Harper’s Magazine as part of its tectonic shift to the left under restored editor Lewis H. Lapham and new publisher John “Rick” MacArthur, a black sheep leftwing grandson of the MacArthur Foundation founder.
(In 1999 Danner was recipient of a lavish MacArthur Fellowship, popularly known as a “Genius” grant. It can be profitable to be the comrade of a MacArthur.)
While working on a Harper’s article, Danner traveled to Haiti. “There are these stories that seize you,” he later told an interviewer, and Haiti enchanted him.
“I must admit a secret preference for the violent outcome,” wrote Danner, who has quoted former Haitian President Leslie Maningat describing violence as “a force that strips the society nude, strips it naked, the better to listen and hear the heartbeat beneath.”
“So I think during violent situations – quasi-revolutions, coups d’etats,” Danner told an interviewer, “you start to understand how a society works….who has what interests, why people are acting in a certain way that may seem illogical to you.”
Danner’s passion for seeing societies stripped naked by violence, combined with the excitement he has felt from nearly being killed amid the violence in Haiti, Sarajevo and elsewhere, prompted Danner to devote much of his career to reporting from combat zones.
In 1986 Danner was hired as a story editor at the New York Times Magazine, shortly after it published three of his articles about Haiti.
In April 1990 Danner was hired as a staff writer at The New Yorker and has held this position ever since. He was hired five months after this magazine had published his three-part series on Haiti “A Reporter at Large: Beyond the Mountains” and days after this series won the 1990 National Magazine Award for Reporting. Out of his ongoing reportage on Haiti came the 1993 book Beyond the Mountain: The Legacy of Duvalier (Pantheon).
At The New Yorker Danner was in the company of left correspondents who relentlessly attacked American policies, including anti-nuclear weapons crusader Jonathan Schell and Seymour Hersh, the Pulitzer-prizewinning exposer of a Vietnam massacre by U.S. troops at My Lai. Danner fit neatly into their tradition, blaming the United States for much of what he found wrong in Haiti. Danner would soon find and win fame with a “My Lai” of his own.
On December 6, 1993, The New Yorker devoted its entire issue to Danner’s article “The Truth of El Mozote,” an investigation into the slaughter of approximately 750 men, women and children in and around a remote village in El Salvador. This atrocity, Danner reported, was committed by the Salvadoran Army’s elite Atlacatl Battalion, which had been trained in the United States to carry out counter-insurgency warfare against Communist guerrillas.
Using his skills at narrative and description, Danner tugged at reader heartstrings with vivid descriptions of the victims and their deaths. Danner sympathetically portrayed the Communist terrorists backed and armed by Cuba’s Marxist leader Fidel Castro, but the anti-Communist troops allied with America were given Danner’s usual depiction as a mixed bag of dupes, crooks, lackeys, zealots, egomaniacs and villains.
Danner made much of El Mozote being a mostly-evangelical Protestant village free from the pro-Communist Liberation Theology aimed at the nation’s majority of Roman Catholics. As Danner painted the scene, once again a misguided imperial United States was destroying and discrediting its own best values in a foreign land.
But might El Mozote’s Protestant faith have been a factor in how both Communist revolutionaries and Catholic government soldiers saw it? Reading between Danner’s lines we discover that El Mozote had tried to stay on good terms with both the Marxist terrorists and the government, thereby making itself a target for both sides in El Salvador’s bloody ongoing guerrilla war.
Danner’s New Yorker article won an Overseas Press Club Award and a Latin American Studies Association award.
In 1994 Danner published his second book, The Massacre at El Mozote: A Parable of the Cold War (Vintage). This book and the article it sprang from might not have been written as pro-Communist, anti-American propaganda, but both have been used extensively as agitprop by the Marxist side in Latin America and around the world.
In 1994 Danner also co-wrote and helped produce two ABC Television documentaries for the Peter Jennings Reporting series: While America Watched: The Bosnian Tragedy, which won an Emmy and a DuPont Award Golden Baton, and House on Fire: America’s Haitian Crisis.
“We may tell you all the time that our principal aim in life is to communicate and assist, inform,” said Danner’s boss Peter Jennings in 2001, “but….there’s nothing a reporter likes more than to have an effect on policy.”
By the late 1990s Danner was becoming more pundit than reporter and was eager to influence U.S. policies and politics. Evidence of this is his didactic 16,000 word essay “Marooned in the Cold War: America, the Alliance and the Quest for a Vanished World” that appeared in the Fall 1997 issue of World Policy Journal, the international journal of the left New School in New York City. Danner was gratified when President Bill Clinton’s Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke and Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott wrote letters to the journal supporting his internationalist analysis.
In 1998 Orville Schell, Dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California Berkeley (and brother of Danner’s New Yorker colleague Jonathan Schell) gave Danner a position there as Visiting Professor. Danner was also named a Senior Research Fellow at U.C. Berkeley’s Human Rights Center. In 2000 Danner was promoted to full professor of Journalism at Berkeley, where he has taught for half of every year since.
In 2002 Danner also was named Henry R. Luce Professor of Human Rights and Journalism at Bard College in the Hudson Valley of New York.
In the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 Danner has become increasingly outspoken against American responses like the intervention in Iraq. He has debated against Christopher Hitchens, Michael Ignatieff, David Frum, William Kristol, Leon Wieseltier and others, dismissing as “rubbish” the very idea that an “imperialist” America was in any way threatened by Saddam Hussein’s terrorist-harboring, terrorist-training, UN-defying and international law-breaking regime in Baghdad.
In Danner’s view, 9/11 provided the Bush administration with a convenient pretext for invading foreign nations. “The attack of September 11,” he says, “made it possible for the administration to safely introduce a doctrine of overwhelming conventional power, and also to state, very clearly, that it was in the vital interest of the United States to prevent certain states, many other states, from obtaining weapons of mass destruction. . . . My view is that, to some extent, this was a marriage of convenience between pre-existing ideas about weapons of mass destruction, their ability to deter the United States’ conventional power, and the new opportunity presented by the war on terror.”
Danner objects to President Bush’s assertion that America’s al Qaeda enemies are “evil.” “You can hear echoes again and again in President Bush’s speeches,” says Danner, “of a vision of the world that is very familiar to American ears. That is, there is ‘us,’ and there is ‘them.’ There is ‘good,’ and there is ‘evil.’ His speeches have divided the world into good and evil in a way that's very reminiscent of President Truman’s Truman Doctrine speech in 1947. . . . Terrorism has become the new communism. Terrorism is being used as an ideological justification for use of U.S. power in the world.”
In Danner's view, George W. Bush did not rightfully win the disputed presidential election of 2000. In 2004, months before the next election, Danner published his third book, The Road to Illegitimacy: What Really Happened in the 2000 Florida Vote Recount (Melville House).
How, according to Danner, did President Bush win reelection in 2004? “In the world of American hucksterism, the sin may be the draw,” wrote Danner at the left Nation Institute weblog Tom Dispatch, “but the payoff’s always in redemption.” President Bush won in 2004 through moralizing propaganda and the demonization of his opponent Senator John F. Kerry, wrote Danner, but in a high turnout election a turnaround of “fewer than 60,000 Ohio voters” would have elected Democrat Kerry.
But Kerry lost, Danner recognized, by vacillating on whether the U.S. should be in Iraq. “Democrats themselves, haunted by the traditional charge of ‘weakness on national security,’” wrote Danner, “…were deeply divided on what should be done about the Iraq war.” Kerry failed to separate Iraq from the war against terror in voter minds, wrote Danner; Kerry failed to provide a clear alternative to President Bush, and Kerry failed to exhibit a firm, decisive and trustworthy personality whose steadfastness could sway the undecided.
In 2004 Danner also published his fourth book, Torture and Truth: America, Abu Ghraib, and the War on Terror (New York Review of Books Press). Like his New Yorker colleague Seymour Hersh, Danner has tried to blame the mistreatment of prisoners at this Iraqi facility not on a handful of lawbreaking guards but on a Bush Administration policy to use torture as “enhanced interrogation” both to obtain information from and to terrorize presumed terrorists.
“I try to tell the story, to get it right, and to tell it well. I really don’t think about the moral education of readers,” Danner told an interviewer in 1999. “I don’t have any pretensions to alter the moral views of people.”
But Danner has been a familiar face at anti-war protests and events across the country and has been a self-righteous preacher of the leftist gospel. “The United States is losing its war in Iraq,” he wrote in the November 4, 2004 New York Review of Books. “The Bush administration has succeeded in making the Iraq war a recruiting poster for Osama bin Laden’s region-wide cause of Islamic jihad. . . . the expedition in Iraq has revealed once again an America that is a strange hybrid – a military giant yoked uncomfortably to a political dwarf.”