A double standard for deaths on left and right
When progressive historian Howard Zinn died on January 27, NPR’s All Things Considered (1/28/10) marked his passing with a declaration that his life’s work was worthless.
After quoting positive assessments from Noam Chomsky and Julian Bond, NPR’s Allison Keyes turned to far-right activist David Horowitz, a practitioner of what the Nation (11/12/07) calls the New McCarthyism, for a ritual denunciation. “There is absolutely nothing in Howard Zinn’s intellectual output that is worthy of any kind of respect,” Horowitz proclaimed. “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.”
Horowitz’s substance-free attack contributed nothing to an understanding of Zinn’s life or work, other than conveying that he’s disliked by cranky right-wingers. (Horowitz has been best known in recent years for his race-baiting and Muslim-bashing—Extra!, 5-6/02; FAIR report, 10/1/08.) He seems to have been included merely to demonstrate that NPR will not allow praise for a leftist to go unaccompanied by conservative contempt.
NPR has not taken a consistent position that all its obituaries be thus “balanced.” Take its coverage of the death of William F. Buckley, a figure as admired by the right as Zinn was by the left. Upon his death in February 2008, NPR aired six segments commemorating him, none of which included a less than laudatory guest.
In two segments, All Things Considered (2/27/08) presented the remembrances of Rich Lowry (Buckley’s successor at National Review), Buckley’s son Christopher and his reverential biographer Sam Tanenhaus. One of the segments did include a soundbite of Noam Chomsky debating with Buckley in 1969: “No, I don’t believe that…. In fact, I think that….” But what Chomsky did not believe was unclear, let alone what he actually thought.
Talk of the Nation (2/27/08) featured admirer William Kristol, while Day to Day (2/27/08) had an extended interview with protegee David Brooks. Morning Edition (2/28/08) just quoted Buckley himself. The celebration of Buckley culminated with Weekend Edition host Scott Simon (2/29/08), who turned Buckley’s cause of death itself into a eulogy: “Emphysema, such an unseemly thing for a man who was so often a breath of fresh air.”
During his life, Buckley was an intensely controversial figure who supported, among other things, white supremacism in the U.S. South and South Africa, McCarthyism, nuclear war against China and the tattooing of AIDS patients (Extra!, 5-6/08). Reporting his death, however, NPR didn’t think it was worth bringing on a critic who would take a negative view. Why would the same outlet take such a different approach when reporting the death of a public intellectual on the right rather than the left? That’s something hundreds of media activists, some of them responding to a FAIR Action Alert (1/29/10), wrote to NPR ombud Alicia Shepard to find out—without getting a straight answer.
In an online response (2/4/10), Shepard admitted that Horowitz’s “harsh comments” were “not appropriate.” But at the same time, she insisted:
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.
“It would have been better to wait a day and find a more nuanced critic,” she concluded.
It’s true that an ad hominem attack from an ideologue fails to meet any responsible standard of journalism. At the same time, one could justify a rule that obituaries should always include balancing views. But as FAIR and many of NPR’s listeners pointed out, NPR does not consistently follow such a standard—a point Shepard’s response conspicuously ducked.
She did acknowledge that “NPR was complimentary and respectful in memorializing Buckley”—and added that “the network was equally nuanced in remembering pioneering televangelist Oral Roberts [12/15/09]…and Robert Novak [8/18/09]…. NPR’s obituaries of these men did not contain mean-spirited, Horowitz-like comments.” Shepard, strangely enough, appeared to be using the word “nuanced” here as though it were synonymous with “complimentary and respectful.”
In any case, her statement did not suggest that those obituaries of right-wing figures should have been handled differently—or that future obits of conservatives would get the “warts and all” treatment that she says is mandatory…for Howard Zinn.