When the historian and political activist Howard Zinn died recently of a heart attack at 87, NPR’s All Things Considered ran a short obituary consisting of snippets of interviews from three people: the linguist Noam Chomsky, the civil rights leader Julian Bond and the radical right-wing provocateur David Horowitz.
Personally, while I found the poetry and audacity of Zinn’s work exhilarating upon first encountering it, by the time I earned my history doctorate, it felt overly schematic, simplistic and ideologically driven. Politically, I also found myself at odds with Zinn, who supported Ralph Nader not only in 2000 but also in 2004 and even in 2008, and who recently judged Barack Obama’s approach to foreign policy to be “hardly any different from a Republican.” Even so, I was shocked when I heard that NPR had chosen Horowitz to assess Zinn’s legacy.
Keep in mind that Chomsky and Bond were fellow left-wing activists and friends of Zinn. Quoting friends and peers is the customary practice in obituaries. Horowitz, on the other hand, does not claim to have known Zinn personally, and shares neither his goals nor views. He has no specialized knowledge of Zinn whatsoever. The single qualification that David Horowitz possessed to be included in the piece on Zinn’s obituary was that he could be depended upon to be deeply critical of the deceased. And he did not disappoint. “There is absolutely nothing in Howard Zinn’s intellectual output that is worthy of any kind of respect,” he explained. “Zinn represents a fringe mentality which has unfortunately seduced millions of people at this point in time. So he did certainly alter the consciousness of millions of younger people for the worse.” (An aside here: did no one at NPR notice the contradiction between the words “fringe mentality” and “millions of people”?)
This inclusion of an attack quote in Zinn’s obituary is itself significant, since this is obviously not standard practice save perhaps for dictators and criminals. As NPR’s ombudsman, Alicia Shepard, pointed out in her column dealing with the obit–a column that was inspired by more than 1,600 e-mails and over 100 phone calls that followed an “action alert” sent out by Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting–NPR did not go fishing for attacks in its recent obituaries of right-wing icons William F. Buckley, Oral Roberts or Robert Novak. One suspects that someone was nervous about quoting the radical leftist Chomsky and so sought “balance” with the radical rightist Horowitz for the purposes of political cover. No less disturbing, however, is that NPR did not quote a single historian on Zinn, given the fact that this happened to be his profession. (The New York Times quoted Sean Wilentz and cited Eric Foner; the Washington Post cited Arthur Schlesinger and quoted biographers Deb Ellis and Denis Mueller.)
I tried to find out why reporter Allison Keyes; David Sweeney, managing editor for NPR News; and the NPR brass thought it appropriate to include Horowitz in the obituary rather than, say, Wilentz or the historian Michael Kazin, who recently penned an extremely critical evaluation of Zinn’s oeuvre for the democratic socialist publication Dissent. But the network declined to make anyone available. I did receive a statement in which “NPR News Management” averred that while Horowitz’s quote was “harsh in tone…that doesn’t undermine the legitimacy of using his point of view,” despite its “missing supporting evidence.”
Hello? What exactly is this “legitimate” point of view? As everyone at NPR must surely be aware, for the past thirty or so years, Horowitz has made a career exclusively devoted to attacking what he deems to be the various crimes against humanity generally, and David Horowitz personally, committed by virtually every liberal or leftist on the planet. According to the account he published on his website, he told Keyes that Zinn was responsible for “helping Stalin” to “slaughter” and “enslave” Eastern Europe; that he “never flagged in his political commitment to freedom’s enemies”; and that he “supported every enemy of the United States in every war…including the Islamic Nazis whose first agenda is to finish the job that Hitler started.”
Did no alarm bells go off at NPR after hearing this? Does NPR news management really believe these views to be deserving of airing on its network? In an obituary? Or is it possible that the reason Horowitz’s view of Zinn was “missing supporting evidence” is that his “point of view” on Zinn is–to put it mildly–crazy?
The use of David Horowitz to assess the life’s work of Howard Zinn on the occasion of his death would be indefensible in any serious news organization, but it is particularly painful to see in one that is so admired by other journalists and trusted by so many millions of listeners to uphold what remains of the standards of honesty, decency and respect for complexity in news coverage. It is no secret that NPR, like PBS, has felt itself to be under siege from the likes of Horowitz and other right-wing culture warriors for decades. The station has taken steps to try to appease these critics by including a bevy of conservative pundits and representing the views of the far-right viewpoint in its reporting whenever possible. In the case of its Middle East reporting, a particular target of neocons and self-appointed censors, it has gone so far as to hire an independent evaluator of its work. But in the case of Horowitz and Zinn, its reporters and producers have behaved so contrary to the rules of both good journalism and fundamental fairness that it has seriously compromised the reputation that hundreds of people have labored mightily (and for not much pay, I might add) to create. Let’s hope that this episode–and the reaction it engendered–stands as a wake-up call for everyone concerned. One Fox News is more than enough!