Seeing Red at the Post

Seeing Red at the Post

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.


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…”

Say what?

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.

It was only after conversations with Andrew McLaren, the director of the Little Red School House and the Elisabeth Irwin High School, that I discovered the story behind the story. McLaren had sent a letter to the editor strongly protesting the mislabeling of the school, and instead of getting the correction he asked for he got a letter from Charles Lane explaining why “I do not agree with you that my article requires a correction.” The reason:

“It is widely known that the school was a haven for blacklisted teachers during the 1950s (e.g., acknowledged Communist Party, USA, member Earl Robinson, the writer of ‘Joe Hill,’ who chaired the music department), that many of its students were the children of CPUSA members from New York, and that party members and fellow travelers such as WEB Du Bois and Paul Robeson spoke at the school and were celebrated in its curriculum. In his memoir, alumnus Ronald Radosh recalls learning Marxism-Leninism in his social studies classes during the 1950s.”

Lane then selectively quotes alumni who had contributed to a seventy-fifth anniversary commemorative publication, including one who reported, “We were all pretty much left-leaning ‘progressives.'” And, presumably as a clincher, Lane adds that “the school closed on the day of the execution of Soviet spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, also CPUSA members, in 1953, because all of its teachers were in Washington protesting the execution.”

Never mind that Lane conflates communists with Communists (i.e., members of CPUSA). Never mind that Lane conflates left-leaning progressives with Communists. Never mind that during this period the CP kept its distance from the Rosenbergs. Never mind that the only example of a party member on the faculty Lane cites is the music teacher. And never mind that despite a daily letters page, a Saturday “Free for All” page and a Sunday ombudsman column, the Post found no room for at least one letter (mine) pointing out that the real influence on the school came less from Karl Marx than from famously anti-Stalinist John Dewey, whose theories of progressive education provided its underpinning.

In the end, the Post persuaded McLaren to withdraw his request for a correction and published a watered-down version of his letter.

Of course, like all schools, EI influenced different students in different ways. At least one critic found Ron Radosh’s memoir, Commies: A Journey Through the Old Left, the New Left, and the Leftover Left, which includes a chapter called “The Little Red Schoolhouse,” to be a good example of “literature of leftist intellectual disillusionment.” Who knows how it impacted such other students as Elliott Abrams, neocon; Angela Davis, CP member; Robert DeNiro, actor; Karl Meyer, now editor of the World Policy Review, once a Post editorial writer and London bureau chief; or Dan Menaker, editor in chief of Random House, among others?

Like Ron, I came to appreciate folk songs through my exposure to EI’s popular-front culture, but my own memories of life at EI are happier than his. My favorite teachers included my junior-year homeroom teacher, Mr. Marvin, a New England transcendentalist. Once, when we were asked what the class thought of Moby-Dick (our summer reading assignment) and my friend Richard Atkinson courageously said he thought it was boring, Mr. Marvin responded, “Moby-Dick isn’t on trial, Mr. Atkinson, you are.” Another was Barney Boston, who couldn’t have cared less about the theory of dialectical materialism, but as the school’s phys-ed instructor he had a helluva theory about the zone defense.

My real question, then, was and is, Why refer to the influence–red or otherwise–of Kathy Boudin’s high school in a so-called objective story about her parole, unless to score an ideological point? There is plenty of room for a feature story on EI or an analysis of the various influences on Boudin, including no doubt the Quaker-influenced Bryn Mawr. But to arbitrarily inject as assumed fact a disputed accusation in the course of a news story about something else seems at best a dubious journalistic practice.

The Bush Administration has labored mightily to suggest–without quite saying it–a link between Saddam and terrorists. Now comes Charles Lane and the Post to suggest–without quite saying it–a link between the old CPUSA and terrorists. In the old days, there was a word for this sort of thing, two actually: red-baiting. Now that the cold war is over, I’m not quite sure what to call it. Maybe “bad journalism” will do. In the words of the old folk song, “When will they ever learn?”

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