The First Amendment and A Free People Radio Show

Interviewed by Dr. Bernard Rubin • WGBH: The First Amendment and A Free People • Late 1970s

 

TRANSCRIPTION

EDITOR'S NOTE: This transcription has been reviewed and edited to capture and match sentence structures to the best of our ability. Please check the actual audio before quoting passages.

Program Announcer 
The First Amendment and A Free People. A weekly examination of civil liberties in the media in the 1970s. Produced by WGBH Radio Boston, in cooperation with the Institute for Democratic Communication at Boston University. The host of the program is the institute’s director, Dr. Bernard Rubin.

Bernard Rubin
My guest on this edition of The First Amendment and A Free People is the well-known historian, professor of political science at Boston University, Howard Zinn. He’s active in civil rights, to say the least of it, he has been very active in the anti-war movements, and is the author of the current stage production, the play Emma, about the feminist, the anarchist, Emma Goldman. He’s also well-known to those who read a lot as the author of such books as Disobedience and Democracy, The Politics of History, and Vietnam: The Logic of Withdrawal.

Bernard Rubin
Howard, if I may, let me ask you this as sort of the opening question. What is the state of dissent in this country today? If you have a point of view that’s not favored, just what is your situation?

Howard Zinn
Well, are you implying that I have a point of view that’s not favored?

Bernard Rubin
One. If one does.

Howard Zinn
Well, yeah, let’s talk about other people. The problem in the United States is a very special problem, and it’s not one of those totalitarian countries, banana republics. And it’s another kind of Republican, another kind of situation. We have all constitutionally an equal right to free speech. Our problem is that the resources for free speech are so badly distributed in this country. That, while we all have a technical right to free speech, some people have enormous opportunity to get across their message to very large numbers of people. And some are given the right to reach 27 people, or 2000 people, or 7000. But all of that is very miniscule.

Howard Zinn

It’s very hard for the centers, who go beyond the pale to reach very large numbers of people. They can publish little left wing journals, they can occasionally get a piece on the op-ed page of The Times, they can have something on a little radio station. I’m not talking about this one, of course. But prime-time, big stations, large mass media, Reader’s Digest: Now, that is available for people with a lot of money for corporations and for government.

Bernard Rubin
In other words, what they call access is the major problem.

Howard Zinn
I see that as the major problem.

Bernard Rubin
It’s a problem for all minority groups, whether there are racial minority groups or groups that hold divergent opinions. But for the dissenter, especially, you’re suggesting that the dissenter in politics is almost cut off from the mass audience? And what’s the result of that? In your opinion? What does that result in?

Howard Zinn
Well, it results in an, in a public, which is badly informed, or uninformed. A public which simply doesn’t know about lots of things that are happening in the country. That doesn’t know the extent to which corporate influence exists in high levels of government and low levels of government. Doesn’t know enough about foreign policy. In the 50s and 60s, I. F. Stone existed, and it was very refreshing to have him.

Bernard Rubin
I know he had I. F. Stone’s Weekly.

Howard Zinn

He had I. F. Stone’s Weekly.

Bernard Rubin
What was the circulation of that?

Howard Zinn
Well, it started out with a circulation of something like 5,000, and it ended maybe with a circulation of 80,000.

Bernard Rubin
But it was very influential, lots of influentials read it.

Howard Zinn
It was very influential, but, you know, when you think about even a circulation of 80,000 — that’s I. F. Stone when he is already becoming accepted at the margins of the establishment and he gets awards with Walter Cronkite and — even 80,000 is very tiny. I remember looking for I. F. Stone in the press conferences of the President of the United States, he wasn’t there. He was barred from the Press Club in Washington. They wouldn’t let him into press conferences. It’s still true today that people who are too far to the left have a very hard time getting on television, getting on very big radio programs, getting in, well, big metropolitan dailies. Now, I, I had a little experience with the Boston Globe.

Bernard Rubin
Go ahead tell us about it.

Howard Zinn
The Boston Globe, a couple of years ago did, what you might say they set out to demolish my theory. Here I was talking about how people on the left have limited access to the media. And then the Boston Globe goes ahead and offers me a column, a bi-weekly column. Me and another person, both of us considered radicals of sorts, by American standards. A man named Eric Mann. And so the two of us had an bi-weekly columns running alternately on Fridays. And then my theory, my theory was being demolished week by week, you might say. However, disquieting things began to happen. Two of Eric Mann’s columns did not appear because one dealt with a school situation, the other dealt with Israel, and The Globe was sensitive on both of those things. And then after a year and a half, my column just disappeared, without notice, even to me.

Bernard Rubin
So you’re alleging censorship of Mann’s columns, and in your case, the fact that they disappeared: Is this not part of the capitalist system of things appearing and disappearing? Or would we just assumed that this was again, some sort of censorship?

Howard Zinn
You say part of the capitalist system, you mean free enterprise? You may think it’s just a matter of coincidence, some things appearance some things, well, yes, in a capitalist this system, some things disappear more than other things.

Bernard Rubin
I see.

Howard Zinn
And radical opinions disappear from the pages of, of big metropolitan newspapers more often in a capitalist system than conservative…

Bernard Rubin
Is it part of the times, though, Howard, the country seems to have gone into a shift toward more conservative thinking? A popular newspaper like The Globe might have certain ideas that they wanted Howard Zinn at a certain time. And then they might say, at an editorial conference, Howard’s a great writer, but we want somebody else for another fad. Unfortunately, all ideas in the media are subject to fad-ism. They might have replaced you with no political connotation. It’s possible.

Howard Zinn
It’s, it’s always possible…

Bernard Rubin
But not probable…

Howard Zinn
Not probable, because politics enters into…well, you know that, you’ve written on that, and you’ve written about the relationship between politics and the media and, and business in the media. Politics enters the situation. It’s not always easy to prove, because those are the things that happen quietly behind the scenes, but they enter the situation. The fact is that you’re right. We are in a situation now, I think, where there has been a general agreement — and by agreement, I don’t mean a few people sat down in a room and planned it, although for all we know they did. But I mean, a kind of general, tacit or overt agreement on the part of the people who run this country. And I mean, both Democrats and Republicans, but people with money and power, to bring the country back from where it was in the 60s. And to, and from Vietnam and Watergate and an enormous disillusionment with government and business, which manifested itself in the American people around the time of Vietnam and Watergate in the early 70s. And I think, well, I think of the Bicentennial year. I think of the Bicentennial, and I think of the election of Carter as two things that happen in this country almost simultaneously, as attempts to bring the country back to the good old days of a kind of moderate, lukewarm liberalism, which doesn’t go too far, which cuts $92 off the military budget, cuts out this weapon, and adds this weapon, gives a little bit to welfare but cuts out the benefits for abortions for poor people. We’re in that sort of situation, and in that sort of situation — where the moderate left has taken hold and the country is back on its usual and orthodox track, a track which usually leads to disaster — at such moments, left wing critics are generally shut out of the picture.

Bernard Rubin
Let me ask you about other periods. For example, during the Eisenhower period of his presidency, that eight years, it was very hard to get dissent going. There was such disinterest, it was almost a plateau, a long plateau of American politics. We may be in a phase, a natural phase of politics rather than in some deliberate, something, rather the psychological reaction to all those tumultuous years like the reaction to the tumultuous years of the New Deal.

Howard Zinn
Well, you know, what is…these are tumultuous years, except that we’re not allowed to experience the tumult because the mass media gives the impression of quiet. There’s beneath the surface of calm, there are people living very tumultuous lives in this country, people without money, people who cannot pay their gas bills and electric bills and can’t pay the medical bills. People can’t make their mortgage payments because the economic system is squeezing people so hard. This is a tumultuous set of facts in the lives of ordinary people. But they don’t get exposed to the media as a big dramatic thing like the Vietnam War.

Bernard Rubin
And even then you’re saying that the media really ignores certain kinds of stories…

Howard Zinn
Yes.

Bernard Rubin
…almost entirely. We said this before on this program…

Howard Zinn
I haven’t heard it but I’m glad you have.

Bernard Rubin
Yeah, it is a problem that certain problems of the aged, of the sick and whatnot don’t, aren’t good copy for the media, and aren’t good entertainment and so on. They’d like overt violence, but it isn’t a left right kind of thing, though.

Howard Zinn
Yes, it is.

Bernard Rubin

You think so?

Howard Zinn
Well, left, right, makes it a little too mechanical. But it’s, it’s big and little, it’s rich and poor. It is the fact that the newspapers…It’s not just an accident that newspapers report the violence of the poor.

Bernard Rubin
And not their desperation…

Howard Zinn
…not the violence against the poor, not the violence, that…and I call it the violence of everyday life. The violence, of sickness, of anguish, of living in terrible places of mental difficulties over having to meet the bills. That kind of everyday violence that isn’t covered, but the violence that the poor then inflict, when they react to their condition, this is reported in the papers.

Bernard Rubin
Let me asked you, in regard to those who feel very strongly about this on the left of the political spectrum, they…Let us just assume that your proposition is correct, that they have limited access to the mass media. On the other hand, they have almost unlimited access to writing and what…in the literature of the left now, is there a real concern for these subjects, or is it polemic? I mean, is it, how if they had the opportunity, I’m not denying your proposition, but if they had the opportunity to use the mass media, would the left go off into a whole polemical harangue? Or would they say, “This is our program? This is our attitude this, these are the cases in point…

Howard Zinn
Yeah. You have, you have something important there. And it would be wrong of me, absurd of me to say, “If the left only had an opportunity, it would make beautiful use of it.” No, the left doesn’t always make beautiful use. Radical critics are of all sorts. And sometimes they go off into polemics. And sometimes they, they ignore the very, they ignore specific reality and facts and figures. And sometimes they’re full of criticism, and they don’t come up with solutions. Sometimes. But other times they do. The left is very mixed bunch of people. And, you know, and here in Boston, there’s a left-wing little publication called Dollars and Sense. I counterpose this to other left-wing publications, which may be full of rhetoric and not give any practical information and solutions. Dollars and Sense is published in Summerville. Has very practical information that you don’t get in the ordinary media, about prices, wages, unemployment, rents, what the nuclear power companies and what the Edison company is doing, how much money big, the corporations are making, and very specific stuff plus, occasionally suggestions for solutions.

Howard Zinn
Working Papers is a publication that does the same thing. It has experiments, solutions, attempts. How can you set up the electric power business so as to get the corporations out of it and distribute electric power cheaply so that people’s electric bills will go down? There are — there are — rhetorical and vague and silly things on the left…

Bernard Rubin
As there are in any other, any other…

Howard Zinn
…and important and good things. Yes, yes.

Bernard Rubin
Let me ask you, to change the pace a little bit. Practically everybody in the United States today is against the Vietnam War. I think you would agree with that. As a matter of fact…

Howard Zinn
Everybody wants our troops out.

Bernard Rubin
…many are retroactively against the war, including great many people who didn’t agree with your stand at the time, or who agreed with your stand but didn’t agree with your premises at all. When it comes to other issues, one of the issues in the world today is the absence of freedom of speech and of expression. In many of the countries of the world, especially the Soviet Union, I have noticed a remarkable reticence of certain people on the left of the spectrum to, to deal with that at all, to deal with the Middle East at all. It’s almost as if that kind of thing doesn’t concern them, but concerns others. I’m not saying this a blanket charge.

Howard Zinn

You mean the reluctance on the part of left to criticize the lack of freedom of speech in the Soviet Union?

Bernard Rubin
Not just the Soviet Union…

Howard Zinn
But in other countries?

Bernard Rubin
But in other countries as well. It’s not as popular as it were as the Vietnam War.

Howard Zinn
Oh, no. Well, it’s understandable why it’s not as popular an issue as a Vietnam War, because there’s not very much Americans can do. I won’t say there’s nothing we can do. There’s not a lot we can do directly about the problem of free speech in the Soviet Union. But of course, the Vietnam War was our war. Freedom, you know, sending people to camps not know our government stuff. So it’s understandable that people, you know, would get more excited about the Vietnam War. But I find that it’s, it’s not the way it was in the 30s, when the left, the left was dominated by the Communist Party in the 30s. And the Communist Party was pro-Soviet, and the tendency of the Communist Party was not to see what was happening under Stalin.

Bernard Rubin

I’m not suggesting that that is true now at all but nevertheless.

Howard Zinn

No, no, no. Yeah. Well, but I think today, most people I know on the left are very critical of the Soviet Union and of the lack of freedom in the Soviet Union and don’t see the Soviet Union as a true socialist state. I don’t I certainly don’t. And, you know, and I, you know, my own tendency is to is to criticize repression and freedom of speech, wherever I see it, you know, in any country, in any place in the world…

Bernard Rubin
This isn’t…

Howard Zinn
…including the United States. But you know, the United States problem of freedom of speech is a different sort of problem the Soviet Union has. We have a more sophisticated way of dealing with left wingers…

Bernard Rubin
What would you do, Howard, if you had the, if you had your druthers, some, some people say, and you could make one or two recommendations to the FCC, one or two recommendations for reorganization of broadcasting, what would they be?

Howard Zinn
Well…

Bernard Rubin
what of the print press?

Howard Zinn
You see the problem, the problem, unfortunately, is a deeper one than recommendations to the FCC, or to the print press, because the very idea of making recommendations suggests that their problem is that they’re, they’re ignorant, and they don’t know, and that they need to be informed, or that its a matter of a policy change. The problem is deeper. The problem is…

Bernard Rubin

Structure, the basic structure.

Howard Zinn

Yeah, the fundamental structure of the communication system in this country is like the structure of the economy. It’s controlled by real big money. And I’m afraid that whatever is done in law and regulation would be overcome by the power of money.

Bernard Rubin
Let us just say that it was possible to avoid the implications of big money. Is big labor any better or big anything else any better?

Howard Zinn
No.

Bernard Rubin
Big is the problem…

Howard Zinn
Big is the problem. I mean, of course, some things not as big as others. And as big as labor is, it’s still not as big, you know, as as big business. But the problem in this country is, I think, basically the control of the mass media by the industrial and financial corporations of the country. That I see is fundamental.

Bernard Rubin
Would you divest all large corporations from media activities, is this what you’re suggesting?

Howard Zinn

See, there’s nothing that we could do in broadcasting alone that would solve the problem. We’d have to change the economy of the country. This seems is very impractical. This is the prob-, it’s unfortunate, but it’s true. We would need to give access, wide access to all sorts of groups on television and on radio. Have a real spectrum of opinion. Right now the spectrum of opinion goes from Republicans to Democrats. You see how in the presidential campaign, they even, Congress, even, you know, passes laws and the FCC regulates it so that anybody other than Democrat and Republican can’t appear on these nationally televised debates. So we have to expand the openness of radio and television to include all sorts of opinions.

Bernard Rubin

One of the problems with open access is that a great many people would be absolutely shocked by all the groups and all the diversity in the country. I’m not saying this is a bad thing. I’ve suggested it’s a good thing to be a little shocked, but would you be prepared to hear all of the ideas that you find noxious and abhorrent, given full rein on the television?

Howard Zinn
I do, I do now.

Bernard Rubin
But I’m saying is if went beyond politics? If it went beyond ordinary, traditional politics, would you be prepared not only to state your case, but to stand by when so many people you would deem to be kooky or crazy or whatnot were stating their case.

Howard Zinn
Sure. Sure. That’s, that’s a fair trade.

Bernard Rubin
“It’s a fair trade.” What do you, when you say that, that what you suggest is impractical, have you, have you given up hope?

Howard Zinn
No…

Bernard Rubin
Are you less, less optimistic?

Howard Zinn
No, I just think it’s a long range problem. I haven’t given up hope. But I don’t think there’s any immediate solution. I think it’s gonna take a long time and a lot of organization and a lot of work for the American people to organize themselves to transform this economic system. It’s a very long, tough fight.

Bernard Rubin
What would in your view caused them to transform it? Would it be the collapse of economics?

Howard Zinn
Well, in itself, the collapse alone wouldn’t do it unless there were people already organized, conscious thinking, thinking about solutions. [Indiscernable] we had collapsed, and, you know, without readiness of people to do something constructive could lead to, you know, chaos and fascism, you see. And no, I think people have to organize starting now. People already are organized around economic issues, around trade union issues, even organized around communications issues at Boston University. Right now they’re organizing to try to prevent WBUR from being taken over by the president of Boston University. That’s organization. People have to be in a constant state of self-defense, and a constant state of trying to open up things for themselves economically, open up the media, fight for every bit of space they can get, fight for every bit of airtime they can get even though they’re minuscule.

Bernard Rubin
If somebody differed with you on the WBUR case, you would suggest that they ought to argue with you on the open airwaves, is this…

Howard Zinn
Yes, yes.

Bernard Rubin
this is the way to handle it.

Howard Zinn
Absolutely. Yes.

Bernard Rubin
In terms of the, of the changes that you would advocate, suppose we did have changes… the communications business — I even hate to use that word, but it is…

Howard Zinn
But it is.

Bernard Rubin
Communications enterprises are enormous. If you, if you didn’t have the primacy of the private sector, would it be the primacy of the government sector? How could we escape some form of tyranny of the state?

Howard Zinn
Oh, that is very hard. I like to think that it may be possible to escape both the tyranny of big business and the tyranny of the state, by a whole series of cooperatives around the country. My problem in talking about this is I’m talking about something that doesn’t exist anywhere. Now, even where something is government or public, it’s not good, but it’s better than big business. I’m thinking that probably BBC, and CBC, British and Canadian, probably are better off than the American system with more public control of more outlets. I don’t know if you would agree with me about that.

Bernard Rubin
But much more limited access than we have in this country. For example, the BBC says that they’re, the British government rather says that they shall be the BBC, two channels, and one independent in London area, in the Greater London area. They just don’t want to have seven or 10 channels.

Howard Zinn
There’s this problem. I agree. There’s a problem. Government interference, big business interference. And it’s a real problem to to get the media, out of the hands of these enormous centralized enterprises, and into the hands of councils of citizens representing a whole spectrum of opinions with access to all of these different groups. It’s a very hard thing to do. I don’t want to deny that but I know that the present situation, present monopoly of information, the sameness of stuff that we see on CBS and NBC. You know, you flip the channels from one channel to another, and you see the same things every night.

Bernard Rubin
I’ve spoken out against violence on television in every way that I can for years. This season they have so much kiddy behavior on television, I may be an advocate of violence, returned the violence and get rid of the cartoon work. Do you find yourself in agreement with such radical, middle of the roaders or middle of the road radicals as Nicholas Johnson?

Howard Zinn
Well, I think Nicholas Johnson has done very good critical work and in pointing to —well, his own experience on the FCC gave him so much knowledge about this — pointing to the way that the media has been controlled and the way government has stepped in. And we’ve talked about whether it’s good to have government or business, big business. Generally, it’s a partnership in this country between government and big business. They work for one another and I think at the expense of ordinary people.

Bernard Rubin

Is there an echelon of leaders that are saying the things that you think ought to be heard, now?

Howard Zinn
If they are, I can’t find them.

Bernard Rubin
In other words, they’re not in the pages of the New Republic. They’re not in Harper’s or Atlantic or Progressive or Commentary or…

Howard Zinn
Well, there is a whole set of little newspapers, sort of post I. F. Stone sources I do know: Seven Days, In These Times, The Nation, Wind Magazine, The Year One published by a little nonviolent group in Baltimore. So many thousands of community newspapers all over the country. Prisoners papers. You know, the prisoner, a perfect example of people shut off the air. People in prison, just…they don’t exist. They’re invisible. But you know, so you have to read their little papers that come out of the prisons in order to find out what’s happening.

Bernard Rubin
Have you written anything specifically about your views on the mass media? Or is it… Have you turned your mind to this specific problem, or are you beginning to think about it as a special problem?

Howard Zinn
Well, I’ve thought about the media. My mind has been turned to it a long time. But you asking have I written anything about it? No, not, I guess, not specifically. No, I…

Bernard Rubin
But isn’t that one of the problems?

Howard Zinn
I thought that that’s what you would do? But if you do it…

Bernard Rubin
Well, yeah, but you can’t leave it to somebody else to express you own views.

Howard Zinn
No, no.

Bernard Rubin
Isn’t that the problem of, of the left that has become so identified with [its] political stance that it hasn’t taken time out to address square on problems so that people can understand just what their premises are?

Howard Zinn
It’s true. We need a Upton Sinclair, Upton Sinclair used to do that. George [Selbies], I. F. Stone. Yeah, we do.

Bernard Rubin
By the way, Eric, Eric [Koffa] will take care of the whole story for you if you want.

Howard Zinn
Oh, yes. Yes. But the…No, we need, we do need radical critics of the media more and more. I agree.

Bernard Rubin
Is there anything going on in the mass media that is worthwhile? [Laughter] That you see some hope in?

Howard Zinn
I wish I could. I do see that there are people in the mass media who have been affected by the events of the 60s. Yeah. Tom Wicker is not a radical but he writes about things in a way that 10 years ago, you couldn’t find on the pages of the New York Times.

Bernard Rubin
What about Anthony Louis?

Howard Zinn
Anthony Lewis also, I think, has done a lot of good things. So there’s been an effect on orthodox and establishment writers by the movements of the last 10 or 15 years.

Bernard Rubin
But are you not going to suffer the same fate as Norman Thomas who, who pursued the point until the point that the major parties picked up on some of his more progressive…?

Howard Zinn
Well, they, of course, they usually pick it up, but not very much. They pick it up very lightly and therefore, the radical critics need always to push things even further.

Bernard Rubin
What’s your definition of radical?

Howard Zinn
Somebody who wants to do something to make very fundamental changes in the distribution of wealth, in the distribution of political power, and in a kind of culture of violence and, and oppression in which we exist today. Race, sex, class oppression, something that fundamental. That’s what I mean, I guess.

Bernard Rubin
Well, I think that’s a good statement for you to make at the end of the program. And I want to repeat that I’ve enjoyed having this conversation with Howard Zinn. Thank you very much, Howard.

Howard Zinn
Thank you very much, I enjoyed it.

Bernard Rubin
This is Bernard Rubin saying good night.

Program Announcer
The First Amendment and the Free People, a weekly examination of civil liberties in the media in the 1970s. The program is produced in cooperation with the Institute for Democratic Communication at Boston University, by WBGH Radio Boston, which is solely responsible for its content. — This is the station program exchange.