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Paul Robeson and Media Myopia

Paul Robeson and Media Myopia
by L. Brent Bozell III
March 12, 1998

Even though it's been more than twenty years since Paul Robeson died, it may be at least another twenty before the media portrays him honestly. Of late, several reports - most pegged to the Grammy he received last month and/or the centenary of his birth next month - have correctly noted that he was a talented athlete, actor, and singer. As such, the conventional thinking goes, he was an exceptionally valuable role model for blacks during a racially turbulent time.

Except he wasn't.

The political Robeson was not merely a crusader for civil rights and against Jim Crow, a precursor to Martin Luther King in politics as well as to James Earl Jones in acting and Marcus Allen in sports. He was also a fervent supporter of Josef Stalin's Soviet Union, which oppressed its entire population - not to mention large portions of the globe - far more systematically and brutally than the United States ever oppressed its blacks and other minorities. Yet in many of the recent stories, that truth about Robeson has been played down, if not ignored altogether.

"The presentation of a lifetime achievement Grammy Award to [Robeson] resounded with posthumous vindication," read the March 9 U.S. News and World Report. "Robeson was branded 'un-American' during the McCarthy era after he refused to respond to allegations of Communism. [He was] blacklisted... His career plummeted."

National Public Radio's "All Things Considered" reverted to its old, predictably biased ways on February 26. Co-anchor Robert Siegel remarked that Robeson "lent his time and name to many left-wing causes: trade unions, the fight against racism and anti-Semitism... On several occasions, the House Committee on Un-American Activities cited Robeson as a communist sympathizer."

Peter Applebome, in his February 25 New York Times piece, romantically referred to Robeson's "flirtations" with Communism ("long-term commitment" would have been more fitting) and called him a "pioneering human-rights advocate." To his credit, Applebome added that Robeson "never... backed away from his support for the Soviet Union... even in the face of Stalin's atrocities." (Acknowledging that Robeson really did support the Soviet Union and that there really were Stalinist atrocities puts the Times ahead of U.S. News and NPR.)

Not only national outlets were guilty. Boston Globe columnist Derrick Z. Jackson suggested that the current flurry of Robesonmania proves that America "can handle strong black men [only] when they are dead." A Providence Journal-Bulletin editorial: "The tributes are long overdue for this cultural icon." A Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch feature: "Because [Robeson's] conscience was as large as his talent, the actor-singer ran afoul of the conservative mainstream in the late '40s and had almost a decade of his career stolen from him."

Quite a few reports declared that Robeson was not a member of the Communist Party. Actually, he was. But if he hadn't been a card-carrier, would it really matter? This is someone who very publicly defended Stalin's purges and the Nazi-Soviet pact; stated after World War II that "it's up to the rest of America when I shall love it... in the way that I deeply and intensely love the Soviet Union"; wrote in the mid-'50s about his "belief in the principles of scientific socialism (i.e., Marxism-Leninism)"; and described Communists as "people who have sacrificed... for all Americans and workers, that they can live in dignity." Robeson walked and quacked like a Communist; a Communist he was.

So why all the media tip-toeing around the truth? Because to report the truth would be to reduce this man's legacy to rubble. More to the point: It would be to acknowledge the horror of a hideous ideology actively and passively embraced by so many in the liberal art and entertainment communities at the time.

A February 9 Associated Press dispatch from Moscow sheds light on the regime Robeson proudly endorsed. The AP looked into the files of fifteen Americans who moved to the Soviet Union in the 1920s and '30s to serve the revolution. Two died in labor camps, five went to prison, and eight were executed. Among those in the third group was Arthur Talent, who accompanied his mother to the USSR when he was seven and who, as a young adult, was befriended by Robeson's wife when she and her husband visited Moscow. Talent was shot in 1938 after "confessing" to fabricated charges that he was a spy for Latvia.

The journalists who act as apologists for Robeson now join him in the Useful Idiots' Club.