I did a double take when I got to the eighth paragraph of the Washington Post‘s eleven-paragraph August 21 news story on Kathy Boudin’s parole.
The story was by Charles Lane (whose byline I recognized from his days as editor of The New Republic) and one Christine Haughney, identified as reporting “from New York.” It began with a traditional opening paragraph: “New York State authorities granted parole yesterday to Kathy Boudin, a former left-wing militant who spent the last 22 years behind bars for a 1981 armored car holdup that left two police officers and a security guard dead.” The piece went on to describe, with quotations from both sides, the “intense debate” surrounding the decision.
And then came paragraph eight: “The child of a left-wing civil-liberties lawyer, Boudin, 60, was educated at the Communist-influenced Elisabeth Irwin High School in New York, graduated from Bryn Mawr College and…”
Here let me state my various interests. I too am a graduate (albeit ten years before Kathy Boudin) of the Elisabeth Irwin High School, the upper school of the Little Red School House, and to call it Communist-influenced (with a capital C, no less, thereby implying that it was under Communist Party influence if not control) seemed to me, for reasons I describe below, a confusing, and maybe even malicious, non sequitur.
I didn’t go to Bryn Mawr (which was “all girls,” as they used to say) but I did go to Swarthmore, which is only thirteen miles away and, like Bryn Mawr, was founded by Quakers. If we are going to play the academic-influence card, unless some preconceived agenda was operating here, why assume that Communists (big or small c) were more influential than Quakers in the education of Kathy Boudin?
And I guess I also should mention that when I am not at The Nation I teach at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, whose magazine, CJR, recently devoted the better part of an issue to “Rethinking Objectivity.” Brent Cunningham’s essay made it clear: “Ask ten journalists what objectivity means and you’ll get ten different answers.” Nevertheless, the received wisdom still seems to be that while pure objectivity may not be possible, the ideal of objectivity is to be honored, and that it is important for reporters either to acknowledge their biases or suppress them. Until I arrived at paragraph eight I thought I recognized a textbook case of mainstream journalistic objectivity–the headline (“Former Militant Is Granted Parole/Boudin’s Upcoming Release Angers Victim’s Family”) was arguably neutral, and the inverted-pyramid story structure, quotations from both sides and all the rest, could have appeared in an Associated Press report. But labeling my alma mater “Communist-influenced”–whether true or false–seemed to me, with my professor’s hat on, gratuitous.
Was I wrong? Perhaps there was something I was missing. I called the Post‘s New York office, where I discovered that Christine Haughney couldn’t help me, since the Communist-influence charge was not included in the material she’d filed from New York.