Bob Herbert was born on March 7, 1945, in Brooklyn, New York. Following a military tour-of-duty in Korea during the 1960s, he decided to pursue a career in journalism. In 1970 Herbert found work as a reporter at the Newark Star-Ledger, where he went on to become the paper’s night city editor in 1973. In 1976 he took a job as a reporter for the New York Daily News and subsequently worked his way up to positions as City Hall bureau chief (1981-83), city editor (1983-85), and columnist (1985-93). In 1988 Herbert earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Empire State College.
In 1990 Herbert began a one-year stint as a panelist on Sunday Edition, a weekly discussion program that aired on New York City’s CBS television affiliate. He also became the host of Hotline, a weekly issues show on the New York public television station WNYC. From January 1991 to May 1993, Herbert was a national correspondent for NBC, where his reports aired frequently on The Today Show and NBC Nightly News.
Herbert, who is black, joined The New York Times as a twice-weekly op-ed columnist in 1993, shortly after the paper’s new publisher, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr., and its editorial page editor, Howell Raines, had begun enforcing policies and racial hiring quotas designed to increase minority representation on the Times‘s staff. In 1993 as well, Herbert chaired the jury responsible for awarding that year’s Pulitzer Prize in “Spot News Reporting.”
Herbert’s columns at the Times dealt with a wide variety of topics, most notably politics, urban affairs, race, poverty, social trends, and the war on terror. He frequently portrayed business owners as greedy capitalists who exploited and underpaid their employees. He endorsed ever-increasing degrees of progressive taxation and wealth redistribution. And he was very supportive of labor unions and trial lawyers, while characterizing tort reform as a deceitful scheme rooted in the “greed” of selfish doctors and right-wing politicians seeking to generate “additional profits for the insurance industry.”
Herbert has often depicted his political and ideological adversaries as racists. In the late 1990s, for instance, when New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani proposed curtailing a remedial-reading program at City College—where large numbers of academically weak, nonwhite students were enrolled—Herbert framed Giuliani’s suggestion as a call for “ethnic cleansing” at the college. In 2002 Herbert wrote, “The Republican Party has become a haven for white racist attitudes and anti-black policies. The party of Lincoln is now a safe house for bigotry.” Three years later, he claimed that the “white racist vote” in political elections had become extremely “important to the G.O.P.”
Herbert was adamantly opposed to America’s 2003 invasion of Iraq. While acknowledging that Saddam Hussein was a dangerous, unpredictable dictator, the columnist argued that the U.S. should nevertheless “search for a better alternative” to military intervention. In 2004 Herbert accused the Bush administration of cynically utilizing “the lofty language of freedom, democracy, and the rule of law while secretly pursuing policies that are both unjust and profoundly inhumane.” Herbert complained, moreover, that “it is the policy of the United States to deny due process of law to detainees at the scandalous interrogation camp at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, where prisoners, many of whom have turned out to be innocent, are routinely treated in a cruel and degrading manner.” In January 2005, Herbert wrote that U.S. involvement in the “hideous” Iraq War was “a dark moment in American history,” where, “for no good reason,” the national Treasury was being “raided” in order to harvest vast sums of “loot” for “those who [were] already the richest citizens in the land.”
In July 2006, when Israel was engaged in a two-front war against Hamas and Hezbollah terrorists who had been launching large numbers of deadly rockets into the Jewish state, Herbert charged that Israel’s “spasm of destruction” was causing the wanton and “unnecessary slaughter of innocents.”
In 2008 Herbert supported the “momentous” and “extraordinary” presidential candidacy of the “smart, hard-working, charismatic, good-looking” Democratic Senator Barack Obama. Asserting that “America has never seen anything like the Barack Obama phenomenon,” Herbert lauded “Mr. Obama’s message of hope, healing and change,” and his “capacity to make people feel good about their country again.”
Since his departure from The New York Times in 2011, Herbert has been a “Distinguished Senior Fellow” with the left-wing think tank Demos. He also serves as a trustee of the Schumann Center for Media and Democracy, and as a Board of Directors member for The New Press. At various times, Herbert has taught journalism at Brooklyn College and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Describing any suggestion “that there’s a liberal bias in media” as “silly,” Herbert contends that “overwhelmingly, media in the United States—television, newspapers, and that sort of thing—the bias shifts towards the right. It’s a center-right media in this country.”
Herbert views capitalism as an economic system that conducts a “war against workers.” When the famed Marxist historian Howard Zinn died in 2010, Herbert wrote a column eulogizing him as “a treasure,” “an inspiration,” and “an unbelievably decent man who felt obliged to challenge injustice and unfairness wherever he found it.”
In Herbert’s estimation, America is an irremediably racist nation wherein many “toxic layers of bigotry … have accumulated over several long centuries.” In the aftermath of a highly publicized August 9, 2014 incident where a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri had shot and killed an 18-year-old black male named Michael Brown, Herbert complained that a “stark, in-your-face, never-ending, frequently murderous” brand of white racism was “embedded in the very foundation of America” and was the source of an ever-growing black rage. Moreover, he lamented that black people were also “angry and bitterly frustrated” about such things as “voter suppression”; “the way so many [blacks] were targeted and victimized by predators in the housing and finance industries”; “the disproportionate suffering that African-Americans endured in the subsequent housing meltdown and the recession”; and “the myriad hateful ways that blacks are treated throughout the criminal justice system.”
Herbert steadfastly opposes capital punishment, in large part because he believes it is applied in a racist manner that discriminates against African Americans. “The death penalty in the United States,” he claims, “has never been anything but an abomination — a grotesque, uncivilized, overwhelmingly racist affront to the very idea of justice.” Further, Herbert asserts that “police and prosecutorial misconduct have been rampant”; “juries have systematically been shaped — rigged — to heighten the chances of conviction”; and “prosecutors and judges in death penalty cases have been overwhelmingly white and male and their behavior has often — not always, but shockingly often — been unfair, bigoted and cruel.”
Herbert long advocated a death-sentence commutation for Mumia Abu-Jamal, a Marxist icon and former Black Panther who in 1981 murdered a Philadelphia police officer in front of several eyewitnesses. In 2009 Herbert likewise argued that Troy Davis, a black Georgia man who was on death row for the 1989 murder of a police officer in front of seven eyewitnesses, should be spared the death penalty because his guilt was “seriously in question.” “It’s bad enough that we still execute people in the United States,” wrote Herbert. “It’s absolutely chilling that we’re willing to do it when we’re not even sure we’ve got the right person in our clutches.”
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