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NPR listeners: Apology for Howard Zinn obit not accepted

NPR Ombudsman Alicia C. Shepard (source: npr.org)

It has been two weeks since National Public Radio more or less apologized for its controversial All Things Considered obituary of the historian Howard Zinn, and the bitter listener comments are still coming in.

“I have read your post on the Zinn Obit and find it to be wordy gobbledeegook,” a listener responded several days ago to NPR ombudsman Alicia Shepard’s blog commentary. “Your explanation at the end was sufficient! . . . Wordiness is no substitute for the simple conclusion you reached!”

The conclusion that Shepard finally reached in the last paragraph of her essay was that quoting former leftist and now decidedly right wing ideologue David Horowitz in the piece was inappropriate. “There is absolutely nothing in Howard Zinn’s intellectual output that is worthy of any kind of respect,” NPR quoted Horowitz as saying. “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.”

The Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting group jumped on that quote in a hot second. “NPR Finds Right-Wing Crank to Spit on Zinn’s Grave,” ran FAIR’s headline, “David Horowitz in ATC obituary with substance-free attack.” A gazillion furious e-mails later, Shepard replied, noting that the story had included words of praise from Noam Chomsky. But in the end she had this to say about the Horowitz quote: “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.”

But it’s also clear from the many subsequent responses to Shepard’s  post that NPR listeners are still bitter about the story.

“This lackluster piece of apologia is grossly insufficient,” wrote participatory_democrat on the 16th. “Howard Zinn deserves an on-air apology for the incredibly sloppy journalism of including Horowitz’s remarks and a replacement obituary (late, yes, but better than never). And if you’re going to include criticism this time, make sure 1) it’s constructive, 2) from a credible source, and 3) you provide comparable criticism the next time a right-wing icon drops dead.”

I have to agree with the angry mob about the piece. It reconfirmed my impression of NPR as a news agency that is terrified of the right, afraid to offer an obit of someone like Zinn without checking in with one of the schoolyard bullies. But I also think that an opportunity was lost in this instance—to have that nuanced discussion not just about Zinn, but about the whole concept of people’s history, which Zinn championed.

Who are the people?

Howard Zinn was one of the most effective historians of the twentieth century. He rejected the scholarly model of his time—researching and writing primarily for one’s fellow academic conference goers—and instead produced A People’s History of the United States, a startlingly compelling and original narrative of the North American experience from the conquistador days to the present. I read an early edition of the book in two sittings, and read it again years later. It’s a great work.

Zinn always had an easy time refuting the charge that he was a subjective historian. Sure, he replied, who isn’t? But Zinn was also a romantic historian, and it was this aspect of his narrative with which I parted company. In the end, “the people,” to Howard Zinn, were the people with whom he sympathized and liked—Native Americans, slaves in revolt, striking workers, civil rights activists, suffragists, and draft resisters. There was very little in Zinn’s framework to help us come to terms with, for example, the millions who joined the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s or who supported Joe McCarthy during the 1950s.

But weren’t they “the people” too? Zinn’s People’s History will always inspire those whose heart is on the barricades. But how does it aid us in understanding the Tea Party crowd? I’m not sure that it does.

In addition, I was never entirely comfortable with the way that Zinn represented himself in his frequent public appearances. Over the last month, I’ve read many one sentence memorials to him. A friend of mine on Facebook declared that he was mourning Zinn—”one of the few intellectuals who put people first.”

I thought that this was a rather mean spirited thing to say, albeit unintentionally so. There are literally thousands of intellectuals in the United States who put people first, among them the untrackable number of academic and community based social historians who chronicle the unordinary lives of ordinary Americans. Add to that an even larger list of sociologists, anthropologists, economists, and unclassifiable social commentators who see everything from the bottom up and you have a huge base of people’s scholars.

But, in fairness to my friend, he probably got the impression that Zinn was one of the few because Zinn branded himself as such—a lone rebel against the historical establishment. I never heard Zinn, celebrator of social movements, acknowledge that he was a participant in an intellectual social movement as well—that “people’s history” was not just about him. Given that truth, where does people’s history go now?

None of this is meant to detract from Howard Zinn’s huge accomplishments. But it is meant to stimulate the discussion that I would have expected from NPR and did not get.

National Public Radio, promised its founder four decades ago, “will regard the individual differences” among people “with respect and joy rather than derision and hate . .  . it will celebrate the human experience as infinitely varied.” That didn’t happen with the Zinn obit. Instead, a reporter grabbed a sound bite full of derision and hate, perhaps just to be on the safe side. I’ll bet that won’t be forgotten for a while.



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5 Responses to NPR listeners: Apology for Howard Zinn obit not accepted

  1. ansel February 20, 2010 at 9:45 am #

    I’m just curious – who are some of the other scholars that make up the “intellectual social movement” for people’s history, or studies in general that are in solidarity with the people? I can’t think of any off the top of my head.

    And my sense is that, while skepticism is good, you’re being a little unfair – I interviewed Zinn once and have seen many of his appearances… I don’t think he goes out of his way to make people’s history all about himself. An incredibly warm and humble individual. He frequently collaborated with other groups, other individuals. It’s just as far as I know, there weren’t too many other historians-per-se doing this kind of work.

  2. bob mason February 20, 2010 at 4:08 pm #

    The whole business of ‘fairness’ has always stumped me. What should NPR or similar outlets do when it comes to reviewing a decidedly leftist thinker like Zinn? It’s true, Horowitz is beyond the pale — not because of his views, but because (1) he is endlessly vicious, and (2) he never sees anything worthwhile in any one to the left of him. But suppose it was William Kristol or Mark Helprin carrying on about how worthless Howard Zinn was — how much better would that have been?

    It would have been better, mostly, because it would have shown that NPR gives stories like this to people reasonably knowledgeable in this area – i.e. they can tell the difference between an intellectual and a raving attack dog. But still, shouldn’t the issue be who can engage with Zinn’s ideas and say something interesting about them? Isn’t the whole ‘we’ll hear a little from the left and then a little from the right and then we’re done’ a stupid way to do serious journalism?

    The ghastly but probably true explanation is that NPR is completely back in its Bush era mode — abjectly fearful of the right, of Fox News, of those ready to call them ‘liberals’. NPR acts as if being called a liberal is the equivalent of being called a serial killing predatory child molester terrorist, and not only that, NPR acts as if the right says something bad about it, it must be true! There’s just no arguing with lies and non-facts, you have to make nice all the time to those ready to criticize you so as to preempt them from doing so. (Which of course doesn’t work anyway).

    Maybe I was imagining it, but when democrats won the presidency and both houses of congress, there was about 30 seconds (ok, maybe a couple of weeks) when NPR recognized that public opinion was not dominated by Limbaugh and O’Reilly and such. It cheered me greatly. But now we’re all the way back. It’s Dick Cheney rules. Bummer.

  3. Fernando March 3, 2010 at 6:23 am #

    Shepard was on our program several months before this happened.

    you can hear her now on

  4. geryhostone March 9, 2010 at 1:06 am #

    It would have been better, mostly, because it would have shown that NPR gives stories like this to people reasonably knowledgeable in this area – i.e. they can tell the difference between an intellectual and a raving attack dog. But still, shouldn’t the issue be who can engage with Zinn’s ideas and say something interesting about them? Isn’t the whole ‘we’ll hear a little from the left and then a little from the right and then we’re done’ a stupid way to do serious journalism?

  5. MM McGee November 11, 2010 at 7:18 am #

    To the commenter who asked “Who are the other scholars, etc.”, I’d note that the original statement was that Zinn was one of the few scholars who “put people first.” This is an incredibly ridiculous statement, and it assumes that putting people first means having a Marxist perspective on who “the people” are. What other intellectuals put people first? Well, the thousands of business professors who care about their students and try to place them in good, secure jobs as citizens trained to act ethically and democratically, to start with. The engineering professors attempting every day to create better, safer new environments and products for us. The high school English teachers trying to get their 17 year old poor students up to an eighth grade reading level so that they can get a decent job one day and not have to live on the margins of American life. Et cetra.

    In fact, as a graduate student in the Humanities, I increasingly have a hard time believing that professors doing “people’s” work in their left-leaning disciplines have any interest in the people at all. Many of them can’t stand the people sitting right in front of them . . . their students, who mostly don’t need or want an “intervention” to see how things really are vis-a-vis “oppression.” And that’s Zinn’s limitation, actually, as the original poster suggested. “The people” are centrist. But if Zinn and his ilk are going to study the margins, they really should study them left and right. What kind of sense does it make, after all, to follow Zinn in elevating Shay’s rebellion and noting that it encouraged the creation of a strong central government to control the people, on the one hand, and then dismiss the tea party as reactionary, racist, and whatnot because its members oppose a strong federal government?

    I learned my now libertarian-leaning anti-government stance from Zinn (and Emma Goldman) before I read another version of it in Ayn Rand. There’s a continuity in American dissent movements on the left and right in that they both tend toward a fierce democratic individualism. That’s “the people,” a bunch of individualists, take us or leave us.

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