Does HNN Screen Articles for Vituperative Statements?


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At the 2003 annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians, Eric Foner, past president of the OAH, criticized HNN. Mr. Foner said:

Today also, statements about history that in normal times might be considered uncontroversial are regularly labeled treasonous. If you don't believe me, just click into History News Network which regularly publishes scurrilous, if not libelous, attacks on historians including myself, often with no basis in fact whatsoever, and that's their freedom of speech, but I hope nobody here takes that stuff seriously.

Mr. Foner afterwards explained to HNN that he was upset with the personal criticism Ronald Radosh and David Horowitz have leveled. He said he does not want to infringe on anybody's freedom of speech, but mentioned that the attacks have led some individuals to harass him.

In response to his criticism, HNN has published the following statement in FAQ's:

Deciding where the line falls between personal vituperation and freedom of the press is, of course, a challenge. The line moves constantly. What is acceptable today wasn't acceptable a decade ago. What can be said about a politician with power is different from what should be said about a historian, even a prominent one. Applying the same standard to a historian as a politician is unfair given the disproportionate power that they exercise in our society. But what is personal and what is political? The distinction is a pretty fine one. And as the women's movement made clear, what is personal is often political.

Because publishing a piece confers legitimacy on it, it is vital to screen out pieces that are solely vituperative. But what about a piece that is both vituperative and educational? Many pieces fall into this category. And deciding what is and is not vituperative is often difficult, liberals and conservatives reaching different conclusions.

Then there are the articles that seem worthwhile as artifacts of the age--primary sources, in effect--valuable not so much for the analyses they offer as for the evidence they provide of the broad range of American opinion.

Completely ignoring writers who make strong personal statements would be a disservice to our readers, leaving them with a falsely narrow impression of the parameters of the national debate. At the same time it is inappropriate for HNN to appear to endorse attacks which are needlessly personal or incendiary.

A practical solution, fortunately, is at hand given the way HNN is now organized. Pieces that we publish in full -- these are the pieces listed on the homepage -- must pass the Above Board Test, meaning that strictly vituperative statements about historians will be disallowed. But to give the reader a clear picture of the wide range of statements being made about historians we include excerpts in ROUNDUP and other places where appropriate. Excerpting a piece does not confer on it the HNN seal of approval. Plainly libelous statements of course will never be published anywhere on the site, though determining what is and is not libelous is a matter of judgment.

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Tom Hagedorn - 4/16/2003

I watched the OAH Panel wherein Foner made his comments. A much more interesting topic for me was the constitution of the panel. Four scholars against the war to varying degrees and one, Hahn from Ohio State, whose position could not be determined. And the pro-war position? I suppose it was argued from an empty chair on stage. What stirring debate!! (It makes me long for another night of reality TV.) I suppose they couldn't find a conservative historian or at least one with tenure who had the courage to back Bush. Don't you love the free debate that the academy celebrates?

Al Czervikjr - 4/12/2003

>>With David Horowitz, Daniel Pipes, and Ronald Radosh, one must expect to absorb a good dose of right wing bile. HNN would be strengthened with some thoughtful essays and posts from some less bilious conservatives.

I generally agree with you, Mr. Luker. By the way, what is your opinion of the columns and posts of Carpenter, Spencer, et al? Don't you think that HNN would be greatly strengthened with some thoughtful essays and posts from some less bilious leftists?

Josh Greenland - 4/11/2003

Which National Review article are you talking about that started all this?

Wesley Smart - 4/11/2003

Is there any way we can have HNN try harder to have real historians write some of the pieces, instead of just port in pieces by talking heads or columnists from other websites? It tends to be more 'news' than 'history' these days.

mtalbert - 4/11/2003

I was not familiar with this dispute until I saw it in HNN, and I went online thanks to Google and had a look around. Eric Foner is a remarkably public person. He is not an obscure academic picked on out of context. He has writen very widely. He is a personality, and he has been very public in his points of view--some of which are open to wide disagreement. Cool. That is what free speech is all about. Another side of that free speech to disagree. What I have read of those who took Foner on were relatively mild, especially in the current political climate. In fact the National Review article that touched off this debate was rather mild. Right wing bile. A much better response would be a specific refutation. I don't like such a vague term as right wing bile. For instance, I consider myself politically very conservative and might disagree with Foner. Is it bile to to say I feel he is in error?

Josh Greenland - 4/11/2003

"With David Horowitz, Daniel Pipes, and Ronald Radosh, one must expect to absorb a good dose of right wing bile. HNN would be strengthened with some thoughtful essays and posts from some less bilious conservatives."

I absolutely agree with this. I don't bother to read anything by Horowitz or Radosh, and I don't care what Pipes has to say about that assistant professor at Columbia.

I'll go further and say there's a great deal of variability in the quality of HNN essays from all political perspectives. Some of them are just sentiment and a scaffolding of tortured logic built on a few facts. The essays' variety of political perspectives is okay, but I wish HNN would start being more particular about their quality.

Ralph E. Luker - 4/10/2003

With David Horowitz, Daniel Pipes, and Ronald Radosh, one must expect to absorb a good dose of right wing bile. HNN would be strengthened with some thoughtful essays and posts from some less bilious conservatives.

Dorothee Schneider - 4/10/2003

The recent OAH convention was a good one and it was also good to see and hear historians, whose voices were heard outside their classrooms. Eric Foner is one of the few folks whom the media will give airtime when he speaks up as a historian and as an individual concerned about the current situation. His comments have been clearheaded and forceful.

The sniper fire from HNN mail against Foner is therefore a real turnoff for me. The "tough guy" tone in the recent comments on this remind me of the hecklers at the recent anti-war demos and annonymous backbenchers in some of the lecture halls I have taught in.

Yep, the personal is political for me too and there fore HNN won't get my internet time for a while.

Richard Henry Morgan - 4/10/2003

I wish Foner had been more explicit in his charges. I did find the following statement by Horowitz overblown:

"Foner, whose father and uncle were Aptheker's comrades is a relentless apologist for American communism, as witness his recent remark to a reporter covering the Columbia protest that Paul Robeson -- a pawn of the Soviet dictatorship and enemy of his own country -- defined (for Foner) real patriotism."

I hadn't noticed that Foner "is a relentless apologist for American communism" -- just a piecemeal apologist for sundry communists like Aptheker and Robeson. "Relentless" is a little hyperbolic. As for putting a hat over the horns, that trespasses into the realm of mind-reading, though I have elsewhere noted Foner's blanket absolution of the anti-war movement (at the OAH meeting). I'm still trying to figure out what Radosh said that triggered Foner's ire. Foner called their remarks, in a roundabout way of indirect reference, "scurrilous" -- I think he has a responsibility to be more explicit in his charges, lest he also implicate himself in those charges.

Jerry West - 4/10/2003

Tempest in a tea pot. I can't believe that anyone would take Horowitz or Radosh seriously to begin with. :)

me - 4/9/2003

If you talk out loud, someone will hear you. If someone hears you, comments will be made.
Don't talk if you don't want others to hear you.
That will keep you from feeling like you are being brutalized.

howard n meyer - 4/9/2003

How about they are both (Foner & HNN )absolutely right?

mtalbert - 4/9/2003

the many posts, but I didn't realize I was doing it.
Went baack and read the postings that spurred the Foner complains, and frankly, unless he didn't host the dinner in question, and unless his father and uncle were not communists, and if someone is libeld by who one's relatives are, I don't see his gripe. As a sportswriter I was called much worse. Usually by fans of thhe losing team.

mtalbert - 4/9/2003

I have not read the specifics of Foner's complaint's yet, I will do that later. Only the Article above, but I want to say something first. I think that once a person becomes a public figure by presenting himself as an authority he (and she) by so doing proclaims his integrity, and thereby invites public commentary on his honesty. I think there are bounds. For instance if a commentator (I think that hiding behind the garb of academia should no more protect one than Rush Limbaugh is protected from criticism by his microphone; once one becomes a public figure by espousing a cause he or she is fair game in the bounds of taste) makes a statement one disagrees with, and one finds that said commentator has a history of lying and exaggeration, one has the right to say that a proven liar has said a specific thing. But at the same time, that does not give one the right top accuse one of being a sloppy eater, or of dubious sexual inclinations, or a welcher on bets. If one wishes to avoid the unpleasant, one must avoid the occasion of public commentary. I love what HNN does in that it invites immediate public commentary and feed back. I remember a friend of mine who grew up in Gettysburg PA at a time when there were still locals who had memory of the great battle. He recalled with glee men arguing end on end over things like which way the wind was blowing, proving or disproving that the smoke of gunpowder influenced the way certain parts of the battle developed. My point being history remaiins immediate and is not just for obscure, unreadable adaemic journals that provide fodder for theses and tenure. History belongs to those who are its results. And the facts of history are disputable. If you don't believe me, just go to the various Battle of Little Big Horn sites. About the only thing they all agree on is that sometime between 3:15 and 5:30 of the fateful day most of the nearly 200 men in Custer's column were wiped out, only his scouts escaped. But everything else is open to discussion, and that is in one of the most visable historical events of the 19th century.
i HAVE NO DOUBT thin skins develop over academic disagreements, which are usually thrashed out like family fueds behind closed doors, where reputations can be made or broken in private. But that is not the way it is in reality. This is HNN and not CNN, this is still a relativly exclusive area.
I think the professor doth protest too much.

John Zwicky - 4/9/2003

I quite agree with Foner about Radosh, Horowitz and company. But I also agree that they should have a right to say what they want to say. We don't have to agree with them. In fact, we don't even have to read them. I've seen enough of their articles to pass over anything they write since they're so predictable. Same with Aptheker on the other end of the spectrum. I have much more respect with a historian who hasn't such an obvious bias.

Bill Maher - 4/9/2003

Professor Foner should get a grip. Whining about us common folks having computers indicates that he does not like the masses. I am shocked!

John Moser - 4/9/2003

"Mr. Foner afterwards explained to HNN that he was upset with the personal criticism Ronald Radosh and David Horowitz have leveled. He said he does not want to infringe on anybody's freedom of speech, but mentioned that the attacks have led some individuals to harass him."

Mr. Foner wants to suggest we are living in a police state because a few jackasses have "harassed" him. I'd like to know what constitutes "harassment." If he's talking about abusive e-mails and telephone calls, welcome to the club. Everyone who takes strong stands on controversial issues--whether on the Left or the Right--end up taking garbage from idiots, and there are plenty of those on both sides of the political spectrum. But no matter what one's ideology, harassment is a problem for law enforcement. Don't blame HNN.