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.