The fearless journalism of I.F. Stone
By Tapani Lausti
Myra MacPherson, All Governments Lie: The Life and Times of Rebel Journalist I.F. Stone. A Lisa Drew Book/Scribner 2006.
All governments lie. Governments of big countries need even bigger lies, one might add. To pursue big interests around the world requires efficient propaganda in order to convince people at home and abroad that everything is done to spread democracy, not to promote self-interest, whatever the consequences..
Journalists are supposed to be able to reveal the lies. I.F. Stone's career is an excellent guide. Myra MacPherson's biography is of great help (as is the other recent biography written by D.D. Guttenplan, reviewed here.)
The United States' propaganda machine with an acquiescent media have usually functioned quite well in keeping domestic opposition sufficiently weak to be unable to rock the boat. There have been occasional journalistic heroic episodes. I.F. Stone was always there during those moments, sometimes with other journalists, sometimes almost alone. He never gave up. His energy was breathtaking. When masses of people did rise against their government's war policies, Stone became their hero. He put everything into an historical context.
Still today, over 20 years after his death, Stone has his detractors who worry about too much ínterest in truthful reporting. His fans, on the other hand, try to keep the flame burning. Their hope is that young journalists would get interested in his amazing career. Reading Stone's texts and the biographies are better guides to journalism than a couple of years of media studies.
The outstanding characteristic of Stone's journalism was fearless independence. MacPherson relates how he warned young journalists of getting too cosy with powerful people. They would find themselves at dinner parties listening to half-baked nonsense and would be soon nodding in agreement. And after a while, they realize that they don't want to irritate these people. After all, they seem quite nice.
When Joe McCarthy had large numbers of Americans in fear of their careers for possibly being labelled un-American if not a Communist, Stone was there with his fearless writing exposing MacCarthy as a charlatan.
There were delicious moments in his career. I like the short description of a lunch just after the publication of the Pentagon Papers. Who were among the people sitting around the table in addition to Stone? Why, Daniel Ellsberg, the leaker of the Papers, plus Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn.
I.F. Stone was not a radical in the sense that some anarchists or left socialists of today would recognize. He was rather a Jeffersonian democrat or left liberal (but who also believed that the future lay in non-Stalinist socialism) who attacked politicians who he thought had betrayed the best American ideals. He never denied that the US was a uniquely free country. He also agreed that information was easy to get. He just proved that sometimes you had to work hard to find the truth behind all the lies.
There were times when people were afraid of being seen with Stone. Very few people would talk to him. Later all this changed and he quite enjoyed his eventual fame. Yet, there was a humble side to his professionalism. He confessed to a constant feeling of inadequacy. He talked about “the perpetual gap between what one would have liked to get down on paper and what finally did get itself written and printed…” (p. 225) Stone also cracked jokes about the ridiculous side of journalism: “Correspondents obtain much of their mysteriously authoritative inside information by interviewing each other at the crowded bars.” (p. 230) And more seriously: “The process of brain-washing the public starts with off-the-record briefings for newspapermen…” (p. 396)
Stone once summarized what he was fighting for: civil liberty, free speech, peace in the world, truth in government, and a humane society. (p. 246) He was talking at the time of the Cold War, which, he felt, made a mockery of these values.
His most inveterate reader was the FBI boss Edgar J. Hoover who had a pathological hatred of Stone. One FBI official gave a possible reason: “Hoover disliked him because he was a man of great imagination, where Hoover was stolid and disapproving of such freethinkers.” (p. 288) Stone's criticism of dangerous foreign policies and suppression of dissent at home mae Hoover apoplectic.
During the Vietnam war Stone again excelled. I.F. Stone's Weekly was read by peace movements around the world. The well-known investigative reporter Seymour Hersh once said that “it was just Bernard [Fall] and Izzy [Stone]” who were writing correctly about Vietnam early on. (p. 399) Later the Pentagon Papers verified what Stone had been writing all along. MacPherson comments: “As Stone tried so hard to tell Americans at the time, Vietnam should always stand as the tragic consequence of the arrogance of power in both the media and the government.” (p. 411) In Stone's own words: “There can be no generation of peace until we somehow curb the militarism and imperialism which gave us Vietnam and will create new Vietnams.” (p. 428)
Sadly, this change of political and media culture has not happened. During the recent Iraq war Daniel Ellsberg said: “Nobody has learned anything from the Pentagon Papers, Vietnam, Izzy, or anything.” (p. 455)