In this first issue of the new monthly Extra!, FAIR has to say goodbye to an old friend: Studs Terkel, the independent journalist and historian, who served on our advisory board from our founding in 1986 until his death on October 31, 2008, at the age of 96.
Studs used his mastery of the art of the interview to have a conversation about the things that matter. His books addressed some of the biggest subjects there are: work, war, race, class, death, hope. His real subject, though, was people—our real lives and what they really mean. And that’s what great journalism is all about.
Discussing his mortality, Studs told Phil Donahue (MSNBC, 8/19/02): “I don’t want them to grieve. I want them to celebrate.” It seems like whenever we lose one of the journalists who really matters, the New York Times does take that as a reason to celebrate (Extra!, 3-4/05, 3-4/08)—you’d think they have a guilty conscience over there or something.
This time it was Times culture critic Edward Rothstein (11/3/08) who did the traditional dance on the grave, which took the form of some old-fashioned red-baiting. “It is, in fact, impossible to separate Mr. Terkel’s political vision from the contours of his oral history,” Rothstein wrote:
[His] vision of work . . . is an obvious translation of a traditional Marxist view of the alienation of labor. . . . 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.
Rothstein professes to be concerned for Studs’ “readers who presume they are being presented history without perspective”—though he acknowledges that Studs made no secret of his political leanings, and the fact that he took an open pride in his beliefs makes Rothstein’s attempts to ferret out hidden meanings laughable. It’s the New York Times, actually, that would have its readers believe that they were getting their news direct from Mt. Olympus, untouched by human hands—even as it hires a cultural critic who wages a culture war against the left in virtually every article he writes.
Rothstein’s job is to police the line where “liberalism slips into radicalism.” Studs Terkel, being true to the spirit of journalism, didn’t care where that line was. He proposed as his epitaph, “Curiosity didn’t kill this cat,” and that’s a motto we can celebrate.