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.)