Last week, while Anderson Cooper was in Egypt getting his hair tussled, Nat Hentoff wrote another pro-life column. It’s important to remember the latter when, in a few weeks, America’s brave, fearless journalists start giving themselves awards for the courage they have displayed reporting from Egypt. That is, if they haven‘t started doing so already — I mean, Katie Couric had her walk-and-talk interrupted by protestors!
Nat Hentoff is a journalist with 60 years experience. He has written beautifully about jazz, civil rights, censorship, totalitarian states, and, not least, abortion. Hentoff is a self-described “atheist left-wing pro-lifer.” His latest op-ed is about Nebraska‘s “Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act,” which prohibits abortion after 20 weeks unless a mother’s health is at risk.
Hentoff’s piece appeared in the Coshocton Tribune. No offense to the Tribune or to the fine people of Coshocton, Ohio (pop. 11,000), but what the hell is this journalistic legend doing in the Coshocton Tribune?
Oh, right. In the late 1980s, Hentoff became pro-life.
It happened when Hentoff was reporting on the case of Baby Jane Doe. She was a Long Island infant born with spina bifida and hydrocephalus, which is excess fluid in the cranium. With surgery, spina-bifida babies can grow up to be productive adults. Yet Baby Jane’s parents, on their doctors’ advice, had refused both surgery to close her spine and a shunt to drain the fluid from her brain. In resisting the federal government’s attempt to enforce treatment, the parents pleaded privacy.
As Hentoff told the Washington Times in a 1989 profile, his “curiosity was not so much the case itself but the press coverage.” Everyone in the media was echoing the same talking points about “women’s rights” and “privacy.” “Whenever I see that kind of story, where everybody agrees, I know there’s something wrong,” Hentoff told the Times. “I finally figured out they were listening to the [parents’] lawyer.” Hentoff dug into the case and the abortion industry at large, and what he found shocked him. He came across the published reports of experiments in what doctors at Yale-New Haven Hospital called “early death as a management option” for infants “considered to have little or no hope of achieving meaningful ‘humanhood.’” He talked with handicapped people who could have been killed by abortion. His liberal friends didn’t appreciate his conversion:
“They were saying, ‘What’s the big fuss about? If the parents had known she was going to come in this way, they would have had an abortion. So why don’t you consider it a late abortion and go on to something else? Here were liberals, decent people, fully convinced themselves that they were for individual rights and liberties but willing to send into eternity these infants because they were imperfect, inconvenient, costly. I saw the same attitude on the part of the same kinds of people toward abortion, and I thought it was pretty horrifying.”
The fallout from our fearless, intrepid fourth estate was instant. Hentoff, a Guggenheim fellow and author of dozens of books, was a pariah. His colleagues at the Village Voice, which had run his column since the 1950s, reacted like Mubarak supporters. In the 1990s, Hentoff recalled the fallout:
Nearly ten years ago I declared myself a pro-lifer. A Jewish, atheist, civil libertarian, left-wing pro-lifer. Immediately, three women editors at The Village Voice, my New York base, stopped speaking to me. Not long after, I was invited to speak on this startling heresy at Nazareth College in Rochester (long since a secular institution). Two weeks before the lecture, it was canceled. The women on the lecture committee, I was told by the embarrassed professor who had asked me to come, had decided that there was a limit to the kind of speech the students could safely hear, and I was outside that limit. I was told, however, that I could come the next year to give a different talk. Even the women would very much like me to speak about one of my specialties, censorship in America. I went and was delighted to talk about censorship at Nazareth.
At the Voice, some of my colleagues in the editorial department wondered, I was told, when I had converted to Catholicism — the only explanation they could think of for my apostasy. (Once I received a note from someone deep in the ranks of the classified department. She too was pro-life, but would I please keep her secret? Life would be unbearable if anyone knew.)
Still, Hentoff had built up such a canon of work, and had defended so many ACLU-approved causes, that it was not possible to instantly halt the momentum of his career. In 1995 he received the National Press Foundation award for “lifetime distinguished contributions to journalism.”
When he got to Washington, Hentoff had a conversation with a fellow journalist:
The head of the foundation had told me the selection committee’s vote was unanimous; but in the elevator on the way to the auditorium, I ran into one of the jurors who laughed when I thanked her for being part of that unanimous recognition.
“Well,” she told me, “there was a very lively session before the final vote.” Immediately guessing what had provoked that lively debate about my being the recipient, I said to the former juror:
“You mean because I’m pro-life?”
She nodded in affirmation.
So rather than abort Hentoff quickly, the media chose a slow, drawn-out lethal injection. They stopped running his columns. You heard his name less and less. In December 2008, the Village Voice let him go.
Just two months before Hentoff’s dismissal, Jack Shafer, the media columnist for Slate, wrote a piece arguing that the media is full of liberals because they make the best applicants: “In the 10 years that I hired at Washington City Paper and SF Weekly, only one reporter or editor job went to a self-identified conservative. I can’t be guilty of any pro-liberal bias partly because liberals — I’m thinking Timothy Noah — tend to creep me out. Yet year after year, the best applicants were almost exclusively liberal.”
I wonder why Shafer and Slate didn’t snatch Hentoff up. He certainly was one of the best working journalists — and his views seemed to reflect Shafer’s own libertarianism, although I think Shafer is more a liberal posing as a libertarian. A few years earlier I myself had approached Slate about freelancing for them, and been turned down — but in my case it may not have been for conservatism. Shafer had been the editor of the City Paper when I wrote an award-winning piece for them, and I soon discovered that he was something of a bully. He once kicked a Washington Post reporter, and he could be vindictive. When I was nominated for a journalism award, “The Dateline,” Shafer never told me I had been nominated. Then he went to the ceremony and collected it while I had no idea what was going on. I was informed the next day, when I called the paper for another reason. I still remember editor Kathi Whalen’s long, pained sigh when she realized what Shafer had done. Apparently a friend of my father’s was at the ceremony and had gone up to congratulate me — not knowing that I was not Shafer.
So in my case it may have been personal. But the fact that, like Hentoff, I had become pro-life certainly didn’t help.
Mark Judge is the author of A Tremor of Bliss: Sex, Catholicism, and Rock ‘n’ Roll.