Activist Historian Howard Zinn's Obit Causes a Firestorm

[NOTE: (2-5-10) Note: I said that Allison Keyes declined to comment on her story. In fairness to Keyes, I should have said that David Sweeney, managing editor of NPR News, told me he would respond on behalf of the news department. It should also be noted that journalism is done collaboratively, and Keyes alone did not make the decision to put the story on the air. This is why Sweeney responded.]

There's a taboo not to speak ill of the dead. Or if you are going to, then at least be nuanced and even-handed about it.

And that's what hundreds said about a Jan. 28 remembrance of Howard Zinn, the activist historian who died Jan. 27.

Zinn was decidedly left of the American political spectrum and the first to say he was biased. His best-known book, "A People's History of the United States: 1492 to Present," was a surprise best-seller. It told history from the point of view of those who had been vanquished or oppressed by the powerful.

Zinn, 87, died of a heart attack last Wednesday while on a speaking tour in California. NPR scrambled to get something on the air for All Things Considered (ATC) the next night.

The four-minute piece by Allison Keyes quoted three sources: two who praised Zinn and one, David Horowitz, who was harshly critical. It was the commentary by Horowitz that led Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), a left-leaning media watchdog group, to initiate a campaign that resulted in over 1,600 emails, over 100 phone calls and 108 comments on npr.org. Others complained on air.

Horowitz, 71, is a former leftist radical who morphed into a right-wing author and commentator in the early 1980s. He is also founder of Students for Academic Freedom, a national watchdog group that promotes tolerance of conservatives on college campuses.

Not surprisingly, he was no fan of Zinn's.

"There is absolutely nothing in Howard Zinn's intellectual output that is worthy of any kind of respect," Horowitz declared in the NPR story. "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."

Ouch.

"I thought it was not only disrespectful, but ridiculous—and so typical of the 'liberal' media's desire to seek legitimacy by giving credence to hateful right-wingers," wrote Laura Paskus, from Paonia, CO. "I was one of those young people Zinn influenced; he didn't expect people to blindly accept his version of history. Rather, he taught us to question, probe, seek out alternative perspectives and to always be fair."

Victor Tishop of Kent Cliffs, NY added this:

"You don't alter the minds of millions if you are a fringe mentality," he said. "That's a contradiction in terms. Horowitz's whole commentary was specious and designed to destroy the works of Dr. Zinn. Many right-wing spokespeople on NPR are allowed latitude that doesn't seem to be accorded to quote unquote liberals on the left."

Many critics pointed to NPR's even-handed coverage of William F. Buckley, "a figure as admired by the right as much as Zinn was on the left," according to FAIR, which gave its members talking points and urged them to contact the Ombudsman.

NPR was complimentary and respectful in memorializing Buckley, who died in 2008. The network was equally nuanced in remembering pioneering televangelist Oral Roberts (who died in December) and Robert Novak, a conservative columnist who played a key role in the Valerie Plame debacle and who died last August. NPR's obituaries of these men did not contain mean-spirited, Horowitz-like comments.

It should be noted that Talk of the Nation did a segment on Zinn that discussed all aspects of his life that FAIR overlooked.

Obituaries are news stories that place a person in time and history — not tributes. For this reason, Zinn's obituary did need to mention that he was controversial and that some historians were dismissive of his work. But, several professional obituary writers said, Horowitz's harsh comments about Zinn were not appropriate.

"Obviously the deceased has no ability to refute or discuss or explain the accusation," said Carolyn Gilbert, founder of the International Association of Obituarists. "To pick a fight in the obit is not in the guidelines. It is a little too over the top and begins to open doors that shouldn't be open in an obituary."

Adam Bernstein, the Washington Post's obituaries editor, also heard the Zinn obit.

"I think the Zinn story misses the mark for two reasons," said Bernstein. "It quotes people with a vested interest in celebrating the man and then quotes a man who vividly despises what Zinn represents."

Neither works well.

The Horowitz quote "seems a low blow that doesn't add much insight to the reader or listener," said Bernstein. "It seems to me your story would have been better to get a more-neutral authority who expresses why Zinn was influential and helps the reader/listener understand why many scholars — not just conservative firebombers like Horowitz — felt Zinn was not a force for good in academia."

NPR doesn't have a full-time obit reporter. Last year, the network ran 317 obits and the year before 327. So when someone dies, pieces are often crafted at the time of death. [NPR does prepare advance obituaries of many prominent people. For example, Neda Ulaby had already done a piece on J.D. Salinger, who also died last week, in anticipation of the 91-year-old author's death.]

The Zinn obit was assigned to Karen Grigsby-Bates late on the day he died but she had difficulty getting callbacks that day. Keyes got the assignment the next day to do the story for ATC that night.

"She reached out to as many voices on both sides about Mr. Zinn as she could," said managing editor David Sweeney. "Some were not available or refused to talk." Keyes reached Horowitz, who was willing to talk. Keyes declined to be interviewed.

After the flood of emails, I asked Sweeney to take another listen.

He agreed the Horowitz quote is harsh in tone. "That doesn't undermine the legitimacy of using his point of view," said Sweeney. "If there is a problem with what Horowitz has to say, it's that he's allowed to wield a sharp tongue without providing any justification or evidence to support his words: more heat than light."

I also asked Alana Baranick, author of "Life on the Death Beat: A Handbook for Obituary Writers," to listen to the story. She wrote obits for the Cleveland Plain Dealer for 16 years. She thought it was fair to use Horowitz to balance out leftist academic Noam Chomsky, who said "Zinn had changed the conscience of a generation."

"If I had been doing that NPR obit, I would not have cited Horowitz or Chomsky," said Baranick. "I would have looked to less controversial figures for comments. [Quoting] historians, who are not considered political activists, would have been more appropriate."

Writing an obituary can be a challenging assignment because it is often the last thing that will be said about someone, and the subject can no longer speak on his own behalf. It must be fair. It must provide context and it must tell warts and all — all in a limited space.

Critics are right that NPR was not respectful of Zinn. It would have been better to wait a day and find a more nuanced critic — as the Washington Post did two days after Zinn died —than rushing a flawed obituary on air.

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