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NPR Ombud: 'Critics are Right' on Zinn Obituary
Cites 'Flood of Emails'
WASHINGTON - NEW YORK - NPR ombud Alicia Shepard responded to the over 1,500 activists who wrote individual letters to NPR regarding the Howard Zinn obituary that aired on All Things Considered.
Her response is below. Thanks to all of those on the list who wrote to NPR.
Activist Historian Howard Zinn's Obit Causes a Firestorm
There's a taboo not to speak ill of the dead. Or if you are going to,
then at least be nuanced and even-handed about it.
And that's what hundreds said about a Jan. 28 remembrance of Howard
Zinn, the activist historian who died Jan. 27.
Zinn was decidedly left of the American political spectrum and the
first to say he was biased. His best-known book, "A People's History of
the United States: 1492 to Present," was a surprise best-seller. It
told history from the point of view of those who had been vanquished or
oppressed by the powerful.
Zinn, 87, died of a heart attack last Wednesday while on a speaking
tour in California. NPR scrambled to get something on the air for All
Things Considered (ATC) the next night.
The four-minute piece by Allison Keyes quoted three sources: two who
praised Zinn and one, David Horowitz, who was harshly critical. It was
the commentary by Horowitz that led Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting
(FAIR), a left-leaning media watchdog group, to initiate a campaign
that resulted in over 1,600 emails, over 100 phone calls and 108
comments on npr.org. Others complained on air.
Horowitz, 71, is a former leftist radical who morphed into a right-wing
author and commentator in the early 1980s. He is also founder of
Students for Academic Freedom, a national watchdog group that promotes
tolerance of conservatives on college campuses.
Not surprisingly, he was no fan of Zinn's.
"There is absolutely nothing in Howard Zinn's intellectual output that
is worthy of any kind of respect," Horowitz declared in the NPR story.
"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."
"I thought it was not only disrespectful, but ridiculous--and so
typical of the 'liberal' media's desire to seek legitimacy by giving
credence to hateful right-wingers," wrote Laura Paskus, from Paonia,
CO. "I was one of those young people Zinn influenced; he didn't expect
people to blindly accept his version of history. Rather, he taught us
to question, probe, seek out alternative perspectives and to always be
Victor Tishop of Kent Cliffs, NY added this:
"You don't alter the minds of millions if you are a fringe mentality,"
he said. "That's a contradiction in terms. Horowitz's whole commentary
was specious and designed to destroy the works of Dr. Zinn. Many
right-wing spokespeople on NPR are allowed latitude that doesn't seem
to be accorded to quote unquote liberals on the left."
Many critics pointed to NPR's even-handed coverage of William F.
Buckley, "a figure as admired by the right as much as Zinn was on the
left," according to FAIR, which gave its members talking points and
urged them to contact the Ombudsman.
NPR was complimentary and respectful in memorializing Buckley, who died
in 2008. The network was equally nuanced in remembering pioneering
televangelist Oral Roberts (who died in December) and Robert Novak, a
conservative columnist who played a key role in the Valerie Plame
debacle and who died last August. NPR's obituaries of these men did not
contain mean-spirited, Horowitz-like comments.
It should be noted that Talk of the Nation did a segment on Zinn that
discussed all aspects of his life that FAIR overlooked.
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. But, several professional obituary writers said, Horowitz's harsh
comments about Zinn were not appropriate.
"Obviously the deceased has no ability to refute or discuss or explain
the accusation," said Carolyn Gilbert, founder of the International
Association of Obituarists. "To pick a fight in the obit is not in the
guidelines. It is a little too over the top and begins to open doors
that shouldn't be open in an obituary."
Adam Bernstein, the Washington Post's obituaries editor, also heard the Zinn obit.
"I think the Zinn story misses the mark for two reasons," said
Bernstein. "It quotes people with a vested interest in celebrating the
man and then quotes a man who vividly despises what Zinn represents."
Neither works well.
The Horowitz quote "seems a low blow that doesn't add much insight to
the reader or listener," said Bernstein. "It seems to me your story
would have been better to get a more-neutral authority who expresses
why Zinn was influential and helps the reader/listener understand why
many scholars -- not just conservative firebombers like Horowitz --
felt Zinn was not a force for good in academia."
NPR doesn't have a full-time obit reporter. Last year, the network ran
317 obits and the year before 327. So when someone dies, pieces are
often crafted at the time of death. [NPR does prepare advance
obituaries of many prominent people. For example, Neda Ulaby had
already done a piece on J.D. Salinger, who also died last week, in
anticipation of the 91-year-old author's death.]
The Zinn obit was assigned to Karen Grigsby-Bates late on the day he
died but she had difficulty getting callbacks that day. Keyes got the
assignment the next day to do the story for ATC that night.
"She reached out to as many voices on both sides about Mr. Zinn as she
could," said managing editor David Sweeney. "Some were not available or
refused to talk." Keyes reached Horowitz, who was willing to talk.
Keyes declined to be interviewed.
After the flood of emails, I asked Sweeney to take another listen.
He agreed the Horowitz quote is harsh in tone. "That doesn't undermine
the legitimacy of using his point of view," said Sweeney. "If there is
a problem with what Horowitz has to say, it's that he's allowed to
wield a sharp tongue without providing any justification or evidence to
support his words: more heat than light."
I also asked Alana Baranick, author of "Life on the Death Beat: A
Handbook for Obituary Writers," to listen to the story. She wrote obits
for the Cleveland Plain Dealer for 16 years. She thought it was fair to
use Horowitz to balance out leftist academic Noam Chomsky, who said
"Zinn had changed the conscience of a generation."
"If I had been doing that NPR obit, I would not have cited Horowitz or
Chomsky," said Baranick. "I would have looked to less controversial
figures for comments. [Quoting] historians, who are not considered
political activists, would have been more appropriate."
Writing an obituary can be a challenging assignment because it is often
the last thing that will be said about someone, and the subject can no
longer speak on his own behalf. It must be fair. It must provide
context and it must tell warts and all -- all in a limited space.
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.
FAIR, the national media watch group, has been offering well-documented criticism of media bias and censorship since 1986. We work to invigorate the First Amendment by advocating for greater diversity in the press and by scrutinizing media practices that marginalize public interest, minority and dissenting viewpoints.