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Mr. Foner Vs. Mr. Horowitz

"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."

These were the charges leveled by Columbia history professor Eric Foner at the 2003 OAH convention, as reported by HNN on April 8.

Though he was referring to prior statements published by David Horowitz and Ronald Radosh, after the convention Foner became particularly exercised by an article written by Horowitz for his FrontPageMag site, which was excerpted in HNN's "Roundup" on April 8. Horowitz's attack, entitled, "Moment of Truth (For the Anti-American Left)," focused mainly on the comments anthropology professor Nicholas De Genova made at a teach-in at Columbia: "I personally would like to see a million Mogadishus," De Genova remarked. He added: "We have to believe in the victory of the Iraqi people and the defeat of the U.S. war machine."

But Horowitz's article also included a swipe at Foner, who spoke after De Genova and who, according to Horowitz, did not comment negatively on any of De Genova's extreme statements, though following the teach-in Foner called them "idiotic" and "reprehensible." Horowitz went on to criticize Foner personally, calling him "the scion of a family of American Communists (and American Communist leaders)" and "an anti-American Stalinist," at least during the Vietnam War. Horowitz also accused Foner of a "cover-up" of De Genova's remarks.

Upon seeing the excerpt on HNN, Foner asked HNN editor Rick Shenkman to remove it. Shenkman explained that the piece was merely excerpted by HNN and therefore was not required to meet the more exacting standards of the pieces that appear listed on the homepage. As he observed in an email to a board member who had caught wind of the controversy, "It is not Horowitz's analysis of Foner that is the justification for running an excerpt; it is his attack on Foner. The attack is news."

Concerned however about factual errors Foner pointed out, Shenkman removed the excerpt, not wishing to "pollute the public mind with false information." Horowitz had said that Foner was the chairman of the Columbia history department. He isn't. Horowitz had claimed that Foner is (or was during the Vietnam War) a Stalinist. Foner says he could not accurately be labeled a Stalinist: "I defy Horowitz to cite a single sentence I have ever written in praise of Stalin or the communist system in Russia." Foner also pointed out that his family was "Old Left" but could hardly be described, as Horowitz had indicated, as"American communist leaders":"The phrase 'American Communist leaders' will be understood by every reader to mean leaders of the American communist party. My uncles were leaders of unions, etc, not of the communist party. If he had meant to say they were union leaders or leading historians, that is what he should have written."

After taking down the excerpt we asked Horowitz to respond to Foner's criticism. Horowitz told us that Foner "invoked [Paul] Robeson--a Communist who sided with America's Enemy in the Cold War as a model for patriotism--at the teach-in." and that "Eugene Genovese wrote in Dissent that he had known Foner for thirty years and never known him to criticize any policy of the Soviet Union." Horowitz added that he believed one of Foner's uncles was "the Party's labor historian" and another was "head of the hospital workers' union." Foner told us he does not believe that these positions made his relatives part of the communist leadership.

Foner stands by his criticism of Horowitz. Horowitz stands by his attack.

What we are left with are multiple questions that go to heart of good journalism. Should the excerpt have been removed? Should HNN censor excerpts? Even if there are clear falsehoods, if an attack itself is news, does that give a website like HNN license to report it? And if factual errors are indeed grounds for removal of a piece, is it HNN's responsibility to screen not only its own articles but also those it excerpts? Or is it the burden of the aggrieved party to ask HNN for removal?

To read HNN's official policy, click here.