The irrepressible Louis "Studs" Terkel was many things – oral historian, radio and TV host, actor, activist, Bronx-born icon of Chicago, the "great listener" who was hard of hearing, Pulitzer Prize-winner. But most of all he was an inspiration. He inspired every younger activist or independent journalist who ever met him. And who among us wasn’t younger than Studs.
The self-described "guerrilla journalist" died Friday at 96. Shortly before his death, Studs spoke of an Obama presidency in a fascinating interview with blogger Edward Lifson.
Studs was almost 70 when I first met him, more than twice my age. But I couldn’t keep up.
Whenever I did catch up with him, he never turned down a request for help – whether he was sick, under a book deadline, or in mourning over the death of his beloved wife Ida. If it was an issue of social justice or muckraking journalism, he (along with Ida) was ready to sign up and help out.
In 1986 when I launched the media watch group FAIR, Studs became a charter member of our advisory board. Along with I.F. Stone (whom he called "the north star of independent journalists"), Studs signed FAIR’s first protest statement ever: a telegram to ABC News criticizing its exclusion of progressives.
Studs received generally favorable treatment from mainstream media. The respect was not mutual. He decried the elite media’s coziness with the powerful, the timidity that subverted public television, and the censorial ways of corporate media bosses. He was outraged when GE/MSNBC muzzled Phil Donahue for questioning the Iraq invasion.
Studs wrote the following in his 1997 introduction to Wizards of Media Oz (a book by Norman Solomon and myself):
When I was young and easy, an old Wobbly rewarded me with a tattered copy of The Brass Check by Upton Sinclair. The title referred to the coin that young brothel women were handed by their tricks; they, in turn, cashed them in with their madam at the end of their day’s labors.
Sinclair’s game, however, was not the kept women; it was the kept press. The former recognized her work as demeaning; the latter served their publishers, if not tremulously, gladly. And righteously. Need we mention William Randolph Hearst and his derring-do reporters covering – or, in the words of San Simeon’s master, furnishing – the Spanish-American War?
A century later, our press, especially the Respectables, have gone Hearst one better. They helped make the Gulf War yellow ribbon time. It was glory, glory all the way. Our most prestigious journals found the horrors visited by our smart bombs upon Iraqi women and kids news not fit to print. It is no secret that our media – TV and radio, owned by the same Big Boys, compounding the obscenity – played the role of bat boys to the sluggers of the Pentagon.
With his legacy of best-selling books and historic recorded interviews, Studs will no more be silenced by death than Wobbly songwriter Joe Hill was by a Utah firing squad. If Howard Zinn wrote A People’s History, Studs developed "A People’s Journalism" – putting the stories and wisdom of poor and working class Americans on tape and the printed page.
In 1992, when South Central L.A. erupted in riot after white cops were acquitted in the videotaped beating of Rodney King, no one was caught more off-guard than mainstream media – who (as with Hurricane Katrina years later) suddenly discovered millions of desperate inner-city Americans. But Studs was not caught by surprise. Days before the riot, his quite prophetic book – Race: How Blacks and Whites Think and Feel About the American Obsession – was hitting the stores.
No matter his age, Studs always seemed a step ahead of everyone else. He was a premature anti-fascist in his youth. He was a premature, unrepentant anti-McCarthyite in the early 1950s: "I was blacklisted…I signed many petitions that were for unfashionable causes and never retracted." With mainstream media largely enthralled by Ronald Reagan’s "Morning in America" propaganda in 1986, he neatly sized up the era: "The only thing trickling down from the top is meanness."
My most treasured memory of Studs was the day we flew him from Chicago to New Jersey to be a special guest on the (short-lived) primetime MSNBC Phil Donahue show in August 2002 – at a time the show was getting heat from MSNBC management not to appear liberal. I was a Donahue senior producer. This was years before Rachel Maddow and way before Olbermann began his dissent. With little critical journalism, Bush’s approval rating stood at 70%.
Shedding his normal coat and tie, Phil decided to imitate his guest’s fashion sense and wore the traditional Studs garb: red-and-white check shirt and red socks. The two looked like bookends in a Saturday Night Live skit – but, with Studs as the solo full-hour guest, it was not all fun and games.
"What have I got to lose? I’m 90 years old." Studs declared, in taking off after Bush. "We have a mindless boy right now with the most powerful job in the world. And that is perilous. We have an attorney general [Ashcroft] who is like the guy Arthur Miller described in The Crucible in Salem, Massachusetts, 300 years ago, who urges people to spy on other people, witchcraft and all."
As for the Democratic leadership in Congress. it "will be renowned for its gutlessness and its lack of principle and its cravenness."
As for corporate media, he proudly described his 1950s blacklisting over civil rights advocacy, how he refused to sign a loyalty oath for CBS and how black gospel star Mahalia Jackson defended him. "The cards are stacked. We know who runs the networks," he announced on a GE-owned news channel. "NBC is owned by General Electric. If Tom Brokaw said something about General Electric, he’d be out."
With Enron and corporate scandals in the news, Studs recalled the 1930s depression: "Things don’t repeat themselves exactly. But we’ve learned nothing from it. Unregulated, free, untrammeled, what’s it called, ‘free market,’ fell on its ass again, as it did then. We’ve learned nothing."
The end of the show turned to the end of life, with Studs saying: "I’ve had a pretty good run of it. And so if I kick off at this moment, I do OK."
When Phil asked about busloads of fans coming to grieve, Studs responded: "I don’t want them to grieve. I want them to celebrate."
PHIL: You won’t slow down. You’re going to be tap dancing all the way to the end, right? That’s your plan?
STUDS: My plan – my epitaph is "Curiosity did not kill this cat."
Jeff Cohen is the director of the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College.