Nat Hentoff has had a remarkable career spanning six decades. He began to work as a journalist at Northeastern University in Boston, where he grew up. There Hentoff established his lifelong devotion to free speech issues, doing battle with the university president who wanted nothing but nice write-ups of sporting events and articles that burnished the school’s image. Hentoff protested, affirming his right not only to criticize the school administration but also to publish without censorship. Confronted with an obdurate authority figure, Hentoff resigned.
Hentoff’s early career, however, focused primarily on music. He was a devotee of jazz, and he met virtually every important musician working in the Northeast. No musician himself, Hentoff observed performances carefully, consorted with his favorite artists, and gradually built up a resume that made him an authority as a columnist and as an author of liner notes to record albums.
Hentoff learned about more than jazz from geniuses such as Duke Ellington. This master taught Hentoff to appreciate new music and to welcome artists whom Ellington deemed “out of category”—that is, creative musicians who were exploring innovative forms and sounds. This open-mindedness obviously had political implications suited to Hentoff’s natural individualism. He admired not only musicians but also political activists such as Malcolm X who challenged the status quo and were unpredictable.
To Hentoff, it did not matter particularly whether he believed in everything someone like Malcolm X stood for. What impressed him about this African American radical in particular was his willingness to speak freely. It amused Hentoff that at his first meeting with Malcolm X he was kept waiting—the only white man in the place— while Malcolm X (unbeknownst to Hentoff) sized up the journalist from a corner. If Hentoff was there to take Malcolm X’s measure, Malcolm X wanted Hentoff to know that he was taking Hentoff’s.
Such confrontations stimulate Hentoff, who is not one to look for cozy relationships with the people on whom he reports. Even though some of his subjects have become friends, he has continued to argue with them. This includes his wife, Margot, who disapproves of his pro-life position on abortion, and most of his colleagues at The Village Voice, for which he has written a column since the 1950’s.
Hentoff’s journalistic models have been feisty, independent reporters such as I. F. Stone and George Seldes. Stone operated his own newspaper for many years, refusing to hobnob with Washington politicians. Stone drew the ire not only of government officials but also of the press corps, which ostracized him for many years. Stone favored reading tedious but revealing government reports, working up his own analyses rather than relying on off- the-record interviews and deep background briefings, which politicians often use to manipulate the press. Similarly, Seldes was his own man, not only studiously absenting himself from government favors but also harshly criticizing the press for not investigating public figures more vigorously. He was one of the first journalists to report on the media and to examine their own practices.
Although Hentoff might be called a liberal because he has been associated with organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), he disparages the label. Too often he has found that liberals and other leftists support free speech only when it concerns those who are liberal themselves. When Hentoff developed his pro-life position, he was shunned by colleagues at The Village Voice. They did not merely disagree with him; they stopped speaking to him, wanting to punish him for holding what they deemed to be a retrograde opinion. Hentoff is no stranger to harsh criticism, and he does not usually complain of attacks on him. What is more troubling, however, is his colleagues’ lack of tolerance for the very expression of opinion.
It was indeed ironic that when Hentoff was invited back to Northeastern University to receive an honorary degree—it took decades for his protest against the university president to be forgiven or forgotten—he learned that many students argued against inviting him because of his pro-life views. His supporters prevailed, though Hentoff went to the event expecting some kind of disruption. It is a mark of his desire to raise First Amendment issues that he was a little disappointed that no one attempted to interrupt his speech. Hentoff likes people to air their grievances, even when they are against him.
Hentoff resigned from the ACLU rather than endorse a policy that resulted in pregnant women not being informed that...
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