Obituary Politics: Todd Gitlin Puts Down Ed Herman

From the obit by Sam Roberts in the November 25 New York Times:

Dr. Herman was primarily responsible for the manifesto “Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media” (1988), which he wrote with Professor Chomsky. It concluded that “market forces, internalized assumptions and self-censorship” motivate newspapers and television networks to stifle dissent…

Dr. Herman’s articles, interviews, letters and nearly 20 books defied popular convention and animated public debate on a broad range of issues, including corporate power, human rights and wars waged by the United States in Vietnam and Iraq.

His other books included “The Political Economy of Human Rights” (1979), also written with Professor Chomsky; “Corporate Control, Corporate Power: A Twentieth Century Fund Study” (1981); and “The Global Media” (1997), with Robert McChesney.

Roberts quotes Todd Gitlin, the Official Historian of the 1960s, expressing contempt for Herman (and Chomsky) in words so incredibly asinine I had to re-read them:

“If we consider mainstream media to be nothing but propagandistic,” said the author Todd Gitlin, a journalism and sociology professor at Columbia University, “we have no vocabulary left to condemn the likes of Fox News and Breitbart.”

Should we chip in and send him a thesaurus?

Professor Gitlin also criticizes Herman and Chomsky for decrying the US bombing of Cambodia more bitterly than they decried the Khmer Rouge regime that ensued. He ignores the fact that Herman and Chomsky were US citizens trying to influence their own government.  Also, that precipitating events, though less dramatic than what ensues, are more significant tactically if your goal is to prevent reoccurence of what ensued.

The Times’ obit quoted five academics who expresed varying degrees of admiration for Herman, ending with:

Jeff Cohen, an Ithaca College professor and founder of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, recalled on the group’s website last week that in the 1997 film “Good Will Hunting,” the title character, played by Matt Damon, heartily recommends Howard Zinn’s best-selling “A People’s History of the United States” to his therapist, played by Robin Williams. Like Dr. Herman, Professor Zinn was a self-described democratic socialist.

“Better than Chomsky’s ‘Manufacturing Consent’?” the therapist replies.

When the movie was released, Mr. Cohen wondered whether Dr. Herman was upset at being slighted by the script.

“I asked Ed if he felt left out,” Mr. Cohen wrote. “Not at all — the movie ‘will bring our book more attention, more readers.’ Pure Ed.”

By coincidence, a couple of lifetimes ago I was denied credit for something I’d devised by this very same Todd Gitlin —and like Pure Ed, I didn’t resent it at all. In the early ’60s, Gitlin was a honcho in the Harvard peace group, Tocsin. (A tocsin is a bell that tolls a warning; only at Harvard would they call the peace group by a name most Americans hear as a synonym for poison.) I never joined because I was a reporter on the Crimson, took myself way too seriously, and wished to avoid a formal conflict of interest. I had friends in Tocsin, shared their goal —nuclear disarmament— and went on their marches.

Over the summer of ’61 or ’62, I read a book by a sociologist named Seymour Melman, who pointed out that when civilian factory workers produce a guided missile for “national defense,” the missile sits on a launch pad and creates no new jobs for civilians. But if that same factory produced a bus for public transportation, the bus would employ drivers and mechanics to do maintenance and make repairs and produce spare parts and so forth. If memory serves, Melman projected that a New York City bus would create 40 jobs over the course of its usable lifetime.

That fall I contacted a friend in Boston, Harvey Gold, who worked for the Teamsters (or was it the ILGWU?) and had connections with the Electrical Workers. Harvey arranged for me and some other antiwar students to speak at union meetings, where we made Melman’s case for disarmament. I wrote a leaflet called “The Issue is Jobs” that we distributed outside the Raytheon plant on Route 128. Tocsin members were involved but Tocsin didn’t sponsor the two or three union-meeting speaking gigs we pulled off.

At some point that semester a man named Gar Alperovitz came to speak at Harvard.  He was a legislative aide to Rep. Kastenmeier of Wisconsin. Maybe Tocsin had invited him. I didn’t meet Alperovitz or hear his talk, but Gitlin subsequently declared that Gar Alperovitz, had devised a novel tactic: Tocsin should carry its message to union members in the Boston area! Gitlin even coined a name for this tactic. He called it “Alperovitzing,” which was neither mellifluous nor justified, but was certainly flattering to Mr. A.  I was glad to see Tocsin pursuing the approach and didn’t attach much significance to having thought it up.

By the start of the ’70s I had split with the classy left and written some leaflets critical of SDS leadership. Gitlin never forgave the affront. In 1988, when the Harvard class of ’63 held its 25th reunion and Tocsin had its own private get-together, he insisted that I not be invited because —he told friends who remarked my absence— my presence would have inhibited people from sharing their soulful intellectual intimacies.

It wasn’t until I was in my seventies and struggling to pay the mortgage that being denied credit for an original idea stirred my resentment. Ed Herman, bless him, was a tenured professor who could afford to be selfless to the end.

How many people read “Corrections?”

The New York Times corrects some whopping mistakes on a daily basis. By listing them along with the minor mis-spellings, their importance is somehow downplayed. The Ed Herman obit was followed by this item November 27:

An earlier version of this obituary referred incorrectly to Dr. Herman and Noam Chomsky’s arguments about genocide in Rwanda and, during the Bosnia war, Srebrenica. Those arguments did not appear in their book “Manufacturing Consent,” which was published several years before those genocides.

Add Gitlin Puke-inducers

The coffee-table book version of The Vietnam War,” based on the film version of the series by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick,”  includes five essays. The one by Todd Gitlin is called “Vietnam and the Movement.” The Sage of the Sixties repeats his thesis that “the Weatherman faction of Students for a Democratic Society destroyed the largest left-wing organization in the country.” This line may be superficially true but it’s profoundly misleading. The Weathemen could not have taken over SDS if there had been functional chapters doing meaningful political work on the campuses. Tom Hayden and the other national leaders, including Gitlin, failed to build an organization. (That would have involved real work, not just speechifying.) What the Weathercreeps took over was the hollow shell of an organization, a mere brand.

Gitlin’s essay concludes:

“The movement receded in memory —more a long moment than a movement. But in the lives of millions, what a moment it was.”

Thus the aging professor looks back with fond nostalgia on the years when he was president of SDS and a leader of the classy left. But for millions of us, the Vietnam War keeps recurring in memory —more a nightmare than a worthy cause. Lost friends. Lost youth. Lost pride. Just a fucked-up nightmare.

The Other “Movement” Spokesman

Burns and Novick’s go-to expert on the anti-war movement in the film series is Bill Zimmerman. Like Gitlin in print, Zimmerman on camera exudes self-satisfaction. Like Gitlin’s, his post-movement career has been very successful. He moved Santa Monica with Tom Hayden in the early ’70s and slurked into electoral politics. In 1996 Zimmerman was funded by George Soros and other enlightened billionaires to take over the Proposition 215 campaign from the grassroots organizers led by Dennis Peron (an Air Force vet, BTW, who lost count of how many body bags he had to load during the Tet offensive).

Here’s another coincidence: Like Gitlin, Bill Zimmerman had me blackballed!

In December 2011, needing to pay the printer, I asked a wealthy college classmate for a donation to O’Shaughnessy’s. He emailed my plea to another wealthy man, a proponent of medical marijuana named Chuck Blitz. Chuck Blitz then consulted with his friends Bill Zimmerman and Rick Doblin (director of the Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelic Studies)

This is Zimmerman’s response (forwarded by my wealthy classmate):

I’m sorry, guys, despite Rick’s positive experiences with Fred, I’ve had only the opposite.   I consider him to be one of the most dishonest journalists in the business.   He has a narrow and overly ideological approach to everything he does, especially in the medical marijuana arena where he has always been an acolyte of Dennis Peron.   His writing has been full of inaccuracies designed solely to push the Peron perspective, and as a result, he has often done damage to the larger cause of medical marijuana.   He’s bad news, and any support he gets going forward is likely to have more negative impacts, especially with a new medical marijuana initiative possibly heading for the California ballot. Sorry.   —Bill Z.

Zimmerman cced Ethan Nadelmann of the Drug Policy Alliance  to show that he was on the job

I emailed Zimmerman, asking him to cite any inaccuracies in my reporting (and never heard back, of course). I also wrote him:

As for dishonesty…  I can think of one lie of omission involving you, Bill.  Circa 2000 when you were promoting an admirable initiative — treatment-not-incarceration, I think— and I was Hallinan’s PIO, you came to SFDA to meet with him. (I later helped organize a well-attended forum  in support of your campaign.)   Before you left the office you asked Terence to sign something, which he did unhesitatingly and with barely a glance. His #2, Darryl Saloman, was appalled and said (as soon as you left),  “How can you just sign something so important without reading it?” Terence told him, “Oh I go back a long way with Bill Zimmerman. He was in the DuBois Clubs.” Darryl probably didn’t know what the DuBois Club were, but I did. And I wondered if Terence had  signed the Prop 215 ballot arguments that in the same trusting way. The reason I never wrote about this little episode, besides the fact that my old boss doesn’t come off looking good, is the implication that the medical marijuana movement was actually the product of a Communist conspiracy. Which I, as an acolyte of Dennis Peron, don’t believe for a minute.

The Prop 215 ballot arguments, drafted by Zimmerman, portrayed Prop 215 as merely an affirmative defense in court —cops could keep arresting and DAs could keep prosecuting people on marijuana charges. Judges would cite the ballot arguments in denying defendants’ pleas to get charges dropped on the grounds that they were medical users. Doctors had to appear in court on their patients’ behalf.  In December ‘96 Zimmerman told the Sacramento Bee that he approved of California Attorney General Dan Lungren’s “narrow interpretation” of the new law.

Fred Gardner is the managing editor of O’Shaughnessy’s. He can be reached at