Studs Terkel vs. NY Times

Howard Zinn pens a forceful response to what he terms Edward Rothstein’s “sour commentary” on Studs Terkel (New York Times, 11/2/08). Read Zinn’s defense here.

For good measure, here’s FAIR’s take on the same, as heard on this week’s CounterSpin:

Author and radio legend Studs Terkel passed away on October 31 at the age of 96. Terkel was honored with numerous awards over the years for a body of work that told the stories of working people who were mostly ignored by the corporate press. Terkel’s commitment and passion made him an icon and a hero to many–including us here at CounterSpin. His passing was noted broadly throughout the media, and his life’s work was celebrated as it should have been–and not just on the day he died.

Others, however, marked his passing differently, and in doing so spoke volumes about the kind of world they live in. In the New York Times, culture critic Edward Rothstein took aim at Terkel’s politics–you see, Studs took a keen interest in what working people thought of work, and, as Rothstein put it, “This vision of work, though, is an obvious translation of a traditional Marxist view of the alienation of labor.” He added that: “It is, in fact, impossible to separate Mr. Terkel’s political vision from the contours of his oral history. You grow more cautious as you keep reading.” Rothstein argued that Terkel shaped his work to reinforce these political beliefs, and that Terkel’s leftist positions were no secret–but this nonetheless was a problem: “The difficulty is for readers who presume they are being presented history without perspective”–which makes a rather unflattering presumption about the poor dumb reader of Studs’ work.

Rothstein warned: “Look more closely and it becomes less clear where his liberalism slips into radicalism. Though Mr. Terkel was not a theorist, nearly every one of the positions approvingly intimated by him seem to fit models shaped by Marxist theory; he even wore something red every day to affirm his attachment to the working class.” Perish the thought. Rothstein closed his piece–obnoxiously titled “An Appraisal”â┚¬”by noting that while Terkel’s gifts and humanity were evident, “there are also times when such dreamers should make us wary.” Better, we think, to save your wariness for institutions like the New York Times–and put some faith in dreamers like Studs Terkel.

About Peter Hart

Activism Director and and Co-producer of CounterSpinPeter Hart is the activism director at FAIR. He writes for FAIR's magazine Extra! and is also a co-host and producer of FAIR's syndicated radio show CounterSpin. He is the author of The Oh Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly (Seven Stories Press, 2003). Hart has been interviewed by a number of media outlets, including NBC Nightly News, Fox News Channel's O'Reilly Factor, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and the Associated Press. He has also appeared on Showtime and in the movie Outfoxed. Follow Peter on Twitter at @peterfhart.