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The Washington Post Fired Lefty Columnist Harold Meyerson

12/31/2015 10:01 am ET | Updated Jan 02, 2016
  • Peter Dreier E.P. Clapp Distinguished Professor of Politics, Occidental College
Richard Hartog via Getty Images

Fred Hiatt, the Washington Post's editorial page editor, has fired columnist Harold Meyerson, one of the nation's finest journalists and perhaps the only self-proclaimed socialist to write a weekly column for a major American newspaper during the past decade or two.

At a time when America is experiencing an upsurge of progressive organizing and activism -- from Occupy Wall Street, to Black Lives Matter, to the growing movement among low-wage workers demanding higher minimum wages, to Bernie Sanders' campaign for president -- we need a regular columnist who can explain what's going on, why it's happening, and what it means.

More than any other columnist for a major U.S. newspaper, Meyerson provided ongoing coverage and incisive analysis of the nation's labor movement and other progressive causes as well as the changing economy and the increasing aggressiveness of big business in American politics. He was one of the few columnists in the country who knew labor leaders and grassroots activists by name, and who could write sympathetically and knowledgeably about working people's experiences in their workplaces and communities.

Since Steve Greenhouse retired last year as the New York Times' brilliant labor reporter, no other major paper has a reporter who covers unions and working people on a full-time basis. Now with Meyerson's firing, there's not one weekly columnist who understands the ins and outs of organized (and disorganized) labor.

If Meyerson was a European, his views would be considered those of a left-of-center social democrat, but hardly radical. Many European newspapers would welcome his views as fitting within the normal spectrum of political discourse. But in the United States, a weekly columnist for a major newspaper who defines himself or herself as a "democratic socialist" is not simply a rarity, it is now -- with Hiatt's firing of Meyerson -- an extinct species.

And how ironic is this timing? For the first time in more than half a century, Americans are having a conversation about "socialism," thanks in large measure to the Sanders insurgency. Even more ironic, Hiatt gave Meyerson the boot the same week that Michael Moore -- who could be thought of as Meyerson with a camera -- released his newest documentary film, "Where To Invade Next," that explores different European social policies that make those societies more humane and livable. This is exactly the kind of thing that Meyerson's been writing about in the Washington Post for 13 years.

Unlike many columnists and pundits, who offer their opinions and analysis on current events but rarely do much legwork, Meyerson was also a reporter who spent time traveling around the country, interviewing folks and learning first-hand about what was happening in corporate boardrooms, working class neighborhoods, community organizing groups, and all kinds of workplaces and union halls. Most of his reporting showed up in the pages of The American Prospect, the liberal magazine whose staff Meyerson joined a decade ago after serving as editor of the LA Weekly for many years.But his reporting also showed up in his columns for the Post. (He wrote for both publications simultaneously).

In fact, Meyerson broke stories that daily reporters missed, in part because he has better sources than most journalists among labor activists, elected officials and political operatives, community organizers, academics and think tank staffers, and even corporate lobbyists. His detailed on-the-ground knowledge of politics was also informed by his years as a political campaign organizer in California, running local and statewide campaigns for liberal candidates and causes.

Like Bernie Sanders, Meyerson identifies himself as a "democratic socialist." He is a protege of the late writer/activist Michael Harrington, who is most famous for "The Other America," the book that inspired the 1960s war-on-poverty. But Meyerson was not a mindless cheerleader for all things left-of-center. His columns were filled tough love. When unions, progressive politicians, or left activists screwed up, he pointed it out. Combining an intimate and encyclopedic knowledge of the American left, of economics, sociology, and history, and of mainstream politics (including a remarkable memory for details about past elections and long-forgotten politicians at the local, state and national levels), Meyerson provided readers with a guidebook and roadmap to both big historical trends and day-to-day grassroots activism. No other syndicated columnist came close to providing his insights and analysis from a left perspective.

Meyerson was also a careful stylist whose prose was always readable and often funny. Although he mainly wrote about politics, he occasionally entertained readers with his knowledge of music and movies. (He coauthored a biography of leftist lyricist Yip Harburg, who wrote the songs for "The Wizard of Oz" among other films and Broadway shows).

Hiatt apparently gave Meyerson no warning that his job was at risk. It couldn't have been that the paper already had too many lefties. The Post's current line-up of regular columnists includes conservatives George Will, Kathleen Parker, Charles Krauthammer, Michael Gerson, and Marc Thiessen, and (with Meyerson out the door) but only two real liberals, Eugene Robinson and E.J. Dionne, and no one with Meyerson's leftist views.

And it couldn't have been office politics, because Meyerson didn't even have an office in the Post newsroom. He worked from his home, or from his office at the American Prospect, and sent Hiatt his weekly columns by email.

It might simply be that Hiatt disagreed with Meyerson's lefty views, including his support for labor unions, which don't otherwise get much coverage in the Post. Meyerson was a fierce critic the American war with Iraq -- a cause that Hiatt enthusiastically promoted as editor of the paper's editorial page.

Meyerson's last column for the Post, about how the wave of stock buybacks inflates CEO pay and keeps down workers' pay, was posted online on Wednesday. At the very end, Meyerson told readers that this would be his last regular column. He wrote: "It's been a privilege to use this space to follow the money, document the Republicans' war on empiricism, oppose the Iraq War, warn against the Supreme Court's restrictions on the franchise and its promotion of big money in politics, chart the rise of cities as a distinctive progressive force in U.S. politics, contemplate the achievement of Irving Berlin and the rise of non-Christian Christmas songs, and much, much else."

Meyerson's writing will continue to appear in the pages and on the website of American Prospect. But as great as that publication is (I write for it myself on occasion), it doesn't have the reach or influence of the Washington Post.

Especially in light of the tumultuous changes our country and world are going through, America needs Meyerson's voice. Hopefully another major media venue will provide Meyerson with another perch from which to help explain what's going on, help us avoid economic and environmental catastrophe, and help guide us to find a more humane, democratic path toward prosperity, peace, and justice.

Peter Dreier is professor of politics and chair of the Urban & Environmental Policy Department at Occidental College. His most recent book is The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame (Nation Books).

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