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Old Habits

Cambridge Diarist

In this space a few weeks ago I published some words critical of Peter Jennings, the anchorman for ABC's "World News Tonight." My views provoked a good deal of mail in Jennings's defense—but none of it from ordinary TV-watching citizens. The responses came instead from what might loosely be called the journalists' mutual aid society, the cohort of reporters and news executives that sees every comment on the mediocrity or bias of one of the guild as a threat to all.

But there also came in the mail two letters telling me of an interview Jennings had given to The Journal of Palestine Studies, which was reprinted in Split Vision: The Portrayal of Arabs in the American Media by Edmund Ghareeb. Like those other ideological recalcitrants who refer to Peiping (rather than Peking or Beijing) or Rhodesia (rather than Zimbabwe), Jennings slips easily into talking about Palestine, as if that territory were not now a jurisdiction covered by Jordan and Israel. Knowing this, you won't be surprised to know that Jennings worries about the pro-Israel tilt of his colleagues. And, of course, he's also worried that those journalists known as pro-Arab, or who are critical of Israel, should not be thought of as anti-Semitic. Still, Jennings thinks the one category of reporter most suspect in the area is Jewish reporters. "It is unfortunate that we do assign Jews to work in Israel … I am against having a Jewish or Israeli correspondent serving ABC in Israel. "On the distinction between being anti-Semitic and merely anti-Israel, however, note Jennings's own equation of Jews and Israelis. More to the point is his casting of doubt on the journalistic objectivity of all Jews—Israeli, American,whatever. Who has written from the area with a more fiercely maintained objectivity than Thomas Friedman of The New York Times? Did the Begin government have a more relentless scrutinizer than Eric Silver of The Manchester Guardian? Jennings covered his ass by saying that he also wouldn't have "an Egyptian correspondent serving ABC in Egypt." But this insults the Arab journalists who, in far more threatening circumstances, have pledged themselves to the vocation of the facts: Ihsan A.Hijazi, a Palestinian now writing for the Times from Beirut; Tewfik Mishlawi of The Wall Street Journal and Youssef Ibrahim, whose writings on OPEC have won him exclusion from gatherings of the oil producers, one of the milderpunishments meted out to errant journalists in the Arab world.

The June 7 issue of The Economist points out the "peril of telling the truth" in Lebanon. This is a matter on which the European press has been far more candid than our own. It was not until long after American reporters were routinely filing their Lebanon stories from Cyprus that the BBC finally pulled out its three correspondents and a technical team from Beirut. The "difficulty of reporting truthfully" was simply too great. These days, The Economist notes, "those traditional rivals, the international news agencies, have been consulting each other before putting out figures of casualties, on which the Shiites are particularly sensitive." (This makes the vividness of Hijazi's reportage all the more notable.) The British newsweekly argues that because of the journalists' understandable fear of being kidnapped or killed, the full story of what happened in Beirut these last weeks will have been successfully suppressed. This fear has worked the same way before, but in the U.S. at least, it has been a taboo subject. Maybe Peter Jennings will take it up.

As the spring term wound down I spent a morning at the Harvard Law School discussing McCarthyism and Communism. I tried there to establish the proposition that some things were true even though mean-spirited folk like Joseph McCarthy and J. Edgar Hoover believed them. Alas, the most lasting legacy of McCarthyism turns out to be the impediment to telling the truth about the relationship between American Communists and fellow travelers and the Soviet Union, a relationship that can accurately be characterized as one of eager servant to cruel master. Now an old argument, enjoying revival in the writings of some New Left intellectuals, denies this subservience. These intellectuals have found in the era of the Popular Front an ideal, a fleeting moment when party and movement together stirred millions. But it was nothing more than a moment. As Irving Howe and Lewis Coser pointed out in their authoritative The American Communist Party (1957), "The quest for justice became indistinguishable from loyalty to a profoundly unjust system of totalitarian domination." Theodore Draper, the meticulous author of The Roots of American Communism (1957) and American Communism and Soviet Russia (I960), has in two important essays in The New York Review of Books (May 9 and May 30) tried to retrieve the radical history in America from its rhapsodists. Sean Wilentz, a professor at Princeton, has responded to Draper with a piece in the June 11 issue of The Village Voice. Here's something representative of its tone: "Draper is no Reaganite—far from it. … Nor should anyone fault him on the specious grounds that by criticizing left scholarship he abets the right." So far so good, no? Well, Wilentz continues, "Draper's problem is his dishonesty; by ignoring the right-wing assault, he further distorts the new historians' political situation. And the worst may not be over. Vintage Books is planning a new edition of American Communism and Soviet Russia with a revised version of his NYRB piece as an epilogue—thereby lending it additional respectability and further poisoning the air." Now, in this paragraph we meet old and ugly habits of mind. The last sentence with its unclear "it" indicts Draper for daring to reprint his essay. As for the political situation of these left historians, Wilentz asserts that their academic freedom is in peril, that they are vulnerable targets of a New Right "crusade to extirpate left and liberal criticism" of American history and society. I do not think this accurately characterizes the situation in the professoriat; rather, the evocation of a new McCarthyism seems to be a case of subpoena envy. But even if the "political situation" of the left historians were precarious, it does not follow that whatever they write is correct. Communists and fellow travelers were victims in the McCarthy period, but victimization is not coterminous with virtue—now or then. 

This article originally ran in the July 1, 1985 issue of the magazine.