The insufferable Eric Alterman is at it again. His entire media column in the March 1st issue of The Nation is devoted to a blast at NPR. Why, might you wonder, is Alterman upset at the radio network which many of us despise for good reason, and which we often call “National Palestinian Radio,” for its one-sided coverage of the Middle East?
The answer is that when it aired their obituary coverage of Howard Zinn, the station actually used a few moments of negative comments about Zinn’s work from conservative activist and writer David Horowitz, whose words they put on the air. As Horowitz notes, the offending words took all of “30 seconds” of air time! But that, for Alterman, is too much.
They should not have asked for his comments, Alterman writes, because while they did use comments from friendly supporters of the late “historian,” both Noam Chomsky and Julian Bond, they were “were fellow left-wing activists and friends of Zinn. Quoting friends and peers is the customary practice in obituaries.”
Alterman should know that in fact, this is hardly the case. I don’t recall him complaining in print when the great screen director Elia Kazan died, scores of obituaries not only wrote that he was most well known for being an informer before HUAC who named names of Communists he once worked with, but went on to offer quotes and interviews with scores of Kazan’s enemies in the film community. Go look these up. You will be hard pressed to find friendly comments featured in any of them. Many of the obituaries failed to even tell readers why Kazan was regarded as one of our country’s greatest film directors.
So Alterman has made up an obit rule of his own, and he is mad that NPR, which he obviously expected to only report favorable comments about Zinn’s work, dared to have one out of three voices critical of Zinn. He then writes: “Horowitz, on the other hand, does not claim to have known Zinn personally, and shares neither his goals nor views. He has no specialized knowledge of Zinn whatsoever. The single qualification that David Horowitz possessed to be included in the piece on Zinn’s obituary was that he could be depended upon to be deeply critical of the deceased.”
Even if that was the case, there would be nothing wrong with that. Scores of the eulogies given for Zinn that you can find on the web are from those who simply loved him because he was a fellow leftist, and who did not know him at all. They liked him because they agreed with Zinn’s simplistic view of the world. But in fact, Horowitz was well equipped to judge Zinn. As he responded himself on his own website, “I am eminently qualified to comment on Zinn, having written a portrait of him and his writings in Unholy Alliance, and having devoted hundreds of thousands of words to my area of expertise, which is the Communist and neo-Communist left.”
Alterman, however, should see the irony in his opposition to NPR calling Horowitz. After all, Zinn claimed to speak up regularly for the right of dissent, and Horowitz was dissenting from the chorus of hosannas for Zinn that was appearing wherever you could look. That should be enough to justify his inclusion. But Alterman has yet another reason. He accuses NPR of covering themselves because they asked Chomasky, whom he calls a “radical leftist,” and therefore wanted to balance him with Horowitz, a “radical rightist.”
That, in fact, would be a valid reason. I suspect someone at NPR realized, however, that it was simply bad journalism to ask two avid supporters of Zinn and not ask anyone who thought Zinn was anything but the greatest gift to understanding our history. Even more egregious is something I do not see Alterman complaining about. A week or so ago, Time magazine had the following last paragraph in its obituary of Zinn:
Wherever there was a struggle for peace and justice, Howard was on the front lines: inspiring in his integrity, engagement, eloquence and humor, in his dedication to nonviolence and in his sheer decency. He changed the conscience of a generation. It’s hard to imagine how many young people’s lives were touched by his work and his life. Both leave a permanent stamp on how history is understood and the conception of how a decent and honorable life should be lived.
You cannot find a more one-sided, dishonest and inaccurate summary of Howard Zinn anywhere. Indeed, even his admirers in Alterman’s own magazine are not so euphoric. And this is Time, the nation’s preeminent newsweekly. Who wrote this, you ask? The answer is—-none other than Noam Chomsky! Yes, Henry Luce and Whitaker Chambers are turning over in their graves. It’s the equivalent in the 1800’s of the press back then asking Engels to write the obituary of Karl Marx. (well actually, he did write the gravesite eulogy.)
We have come so far that we can now expect our MSM organs of journalism doing The Nation one better. But to return to Alterman, he notes that NPR really bothered him because they “did not quote a single historian on Zinn, given the fact that this happened to be his profession.” Maybe it’s because aside from Eric Foner- who of course raved about Zinn for their own pages-most of the historians they might have asked would immediately show how bad Zinn was, and perhaps NPR did not want to give that impression.
To ask Horowitz, they knew, would immediately enable NPR’s friends to write him off as a crazy right-winger, therefore further establishing to their audience that Zinn must really have been great. Had they gone to Sean Wilentz or Michael Kazin, both of whom Alterman actually mentions in his column, they would have got very negative responses when they would have evaluated the body of his work. Really, would Alterman have been any more pleased? Indeed, I suspect that he would have been furious, since having legitimate historians who come from the left side of the spectrum criticizing Zinn would have actually opened up people’s eyes.
And of course, as Alterman undoubtedly knows, NPR could have come to me. I had already written a very lengthy blog a short while before his passing about Zinn’s television special. Then I penned my own obituary for Mindingthecampus.com. They could have included this one sentence that might have taken up a scant five seconds of airtime: “Zinn ransacked the past to find alternative models for future struggles. That, of course, is not the job of the historian, but of the propagandist.” It would have worked well, but somehow, I don’t think Eric Alterman would have been more happy about it than the soundbites they used from Horowitz.
Of course, had they used me, he could not have written a one page screed about how in using Horowitz, they were not using a “legitimate” point of view. And Alterman notes that as for the substance of Horowitz’s views, which he quotes from selectively, they are “crazy.” You can read what Horowitz writes for yourself, and you will find that they are anything but. You will find that he easily distorts what Horowitz actually says, something a historian- which Alterman is- (although he is a professor of English at Queens College which in itself is absurd) is something a historian caught doing would immediately be called on the carpet for. He chastises Horowitz for saying that “Zinn was responsible for ‘helping Stalin’ to ‘slaughter’ and ‘enslave’ Eastern Europe.”
But he leaves off Horowitz’s first sentence, in which he writes “Howard Zinn was a Stalinist in the years when the Marxist monster was slaughtering millions of innocent people and launching his own ‘final solution’ against the Jews. Put another way, Howard Zinn was helping Stalin to conduct those slaughters and to enslave all those who had the misfortune to live behind the Iron Curtain.” In other words, Horowitz is saying that by defending Stalin and the Soviet Union during its most horrific years, Zinn was serving as an enabler who allowed him to gain supporters in the West and in the United States who fought against those who saw the necessity of opposing Stalin in the Cold War. Horowitz did not mean literally, as anyone who reads can understand, that Zinn was sitting next to Stalin helping in doing the killing.
One thing is certain. At least NPR knew enough not to phone Eric Alterman.