Tom Henderson: Requiem for a crusading newspaperman
Nat Hentoff died this month at the age of 91.
That is a tragedy. A greater tragedy is how so few of you know he lived. The vast majority of you probably just read his name for the first time.
Many people who work in journalism are unfamiliar with his work. That is beyond a tragedy. That is a travesty.
What everyone should know is that we have lost one the greatest journalistic voices of the last century — especially when it came to defending the First Amendment and chronicling the art of jazz.
If you do remember Hentoff, he probably infuriated you on more than one occasion.
That’s because even though he was a fierce defender of the First Amendment and civil liberties in general, his politics on specific issues were often all over the map. For instance, he staunchly opposed legalized abortion, regarding it as a civil rights issue. He also supported the invasion of Iraq to stop the human rights abuses of Saddam Hussein.
Personally, I admire people who think things through issue by issue and take their politics à la carte.
Even when people disagreed with him, and they frequently did, Hentoff welcomed the debate. Indeed, there was nothing he welcomed more than a marketplace of ideas that was (to quote Justice William J. Brennan in 1973’s New York Times v. Sullivan) “uninhibited, robust and wide open.”
Nat Hentoff first crossed my field of vision when I was a senior at South Salem High School in 1980 and rode my bike every Saturday to the Capitol News Center on State Street next to what used to be the Capitol Theater (and is now a parking lot).
I was addicted to The Village Voice, especially the film reviews of Andrew Sarris and the social commentaries of Alexander Cockburn and Nat Hentoff. Later, at the University of Oregon, I proudly subscribed to The Voice (my very first real newspaper subscription, paid for with my earnings as a reporter and movie critic).
Some 20 years later, I was working as the editor of the Polk County Itemizer-Observer while I was president of the Oregon chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. The chapter was waging a campaign against government secrecy.
As I walked into the newsroom one day, Publisher Dave Weston asked, “Do you know a guy named ‘Matt Hentoff’ in New York City? He just called to congratulate on your SPJ campaign.”
What the what?
Understand, this is like Bruce Springsteen calling to congratulate your garage band. (I still have both the recorded phone message and the paper “While You Were Out” slip from the receptionist.)
Hentoff left his home phone number. I called back and so began a friendship that endured for years (although I admit we lost contact for the past few of them). He interviewed me for his final column in the newspaper trade magazine Editor & Publisher.
He also wrote a recommendation for Oregon SPJ to secure grant funding for a statewide public records audit as well as a personal recommendation for anyone who might want to hire me.
The high point of my professional career happened in 2004 when I attended the national SPJ convention in New York City. I met Walter Cronkite and Bill Moyers, but the big moment came when Hentoff was on a panel on media criticism along with Michael Wolff of Vanity Fair.
Some college student asked the panel the standard question about what advice panelists had for young people just entering journalism. Wolff advised her to change majors. There is nothing good about journalism, he said. It is a fish that stinks from the head down. All the field can do is rob you of your soul.
“No, [expletive deleted]!” Nat thundered as he pounded the table. “This is still a worthwhile profession and a noble calling! The evidence is sitting right here in front of me in the form of Tom Henderson, the editor of a weekly newspaper in Oregon! He is doing tremendous things with his small newspaper!”
When he autographed his 1997 memoir, “Speaking Freely,” he wrote: “To Tom Henderson, who is what journalism can be.”
I didn’t always agree with Hentoff’s opinion, and his impression of me falls under that category. I mention his comments not to promote myself, but to illustrate how much Hentoff meant to me. At that moment, this struggling small-town journalist at the bottom of the media food chain felt like he had been blessed by the pope — if the pontiff was a short, Jewish journalist from Boston.
My sentiments met with dismay from respected friends, including the late Arnold Ismach (who served as the dean of the University of Oregon School of Journalism from 1985 to 1994). Arnold wondered how I could have such warm feelings for a “conservative reactionary.”
Yes, Nat could definitely come across that way at times. However, this was a man who interned under no less a liberal journalistic luminary as the great I.F. Stone. And his credentials as a jazz journalist and historian were unimpeachable.
Aside from his columns for Down Beat and JazzTimes, he wrote numerous books on jazz is and is considered the jazz journalist of the 20th century.
He wrote dozens of books, equally divided between jazz and civil liberties. In addition to his column in The Village Voice from 1958 to 2009, he was twice a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and a staff writer for The New Yorker. His social commentaries appeared in the Washington Post, The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Progressive, New Republic, Atlantic, Free Inquiry, Legal Times, Commonweal and on and on and on.
For all that, he even infuriated me at times. I am going to miss being infuriated by Nat Hentoff. We all should. He made us think while encouraging us to speak. We need more people like in our national discourse, especially these days, God knows.
I mourn for our collective intelligence more than I do for Nat. He died, his family said, listening to Billie Holiday.
A fine note on which to end.