Famed journalist and commentator I.F. Stone covered Washington with the fearless abandon of a blogger, but infused the exercise with the sort of ruthless reporting the Web too often lacks
A Note from Utne READER's Editors:Independent journalist I.F. Stone, who published the political newsletter I.F. Stone's Weekly from 1953 to 1971, was a predecessor and kindred spirit of today's political bloggers: He published frequently, worked outside the media establishment, shunned the pretense of objectivity in favor of clearly opinionated writing, and prided himself on scooping the big news-gathering operations. But Stone, who died in 1989, differed from most self-styled Web pundits by doggedly reporting and carefully crafting his essays, valuing insight over invective, and elevating the dialogue rather than reducing it to predictable partisan jousting.
'His sentences were often a lilting joy to read,' writes
Myra MacPherson in the new biography All Governments Lie: The
Life and Times of Rebel Journalist I.F. Stone (Scribner).
Another new book, The Best of I.F. Stone (PublicAffairs), collects
some of his finest essays, including the following. Though they
were written decades ago, Stone's takes on his profession and on
landmark U.S. events-the McCarthy hearings, school integration, and
campus protests against the Vietnam War-still resonate with
Prologue: A Word About Myself
This excerpt is from the introduction to The Haunted
Fifties, one of several now out-of-print collections of I.F.
I am, I suppose, an anachronism. In this age of corporation men, I am an independent capitalist, the owner of my own enterprise, subject to neither mortgager or broker, factor or patron. In an age when young men, setting out on a career of journalism, must find their niche in some huge newspaper or magazine combine, I am a wholly independent newspaperman, standing alone, without organizational or party backing, beholden to no one but my good readers. I am even one up on Benjamin Franklin-I do not accept advertising.
The pieces collected in this volume are from a four-page miniature journal of news and opinion, on which I have been a one man editorial staff, from proofreader to publisher. This independence, like all else, has its price-the audience. My newspaper reaches a relative handful, but the five thousand readers with whom I started have grown to more than twenty thousand in ten years. I have been in the black every one of those ten years and paid off the loans which helped me begin, without having had to appeal to my readers or to wealthy friends to keep going. I pay my bills promptly, like a solid bourgeois, though in the eyes of many in the cold-war Washington where I operate I am regarded, I am sure, as a dangerous and subversive fellow. . . .
I have been a newspaperman all my life. In the small town where I grew up, I published a paper at fourteen, worked for a country weekly and then as correspondent for a nearby city daily. I did this from my sophomore year in high school through college, until I quit in my junior year. I was a philosophy major and at one time thought of teaching philosophy, but the atmosphere of a college faculty repelled me. . . . I have done everything on a newspaper except run a linotype machine. . . .
My idea was to make the Weekly radical in viewpoint but
conservative in format. I picked a beautiful type face, Garamond,
for my main body type, and eschewed sensational headlines. I made
no claim to inside stuff-obviously a radical reporter in those days
had few pipelines into the government. I tried to give information
which could be documented so the reader could check it for himself.
I tried to dig the truth out of hearings, official transcripts and
government documents, and to be as accurate as possible. I also
sought to give the Weekly a personal flavor, to add humor, wit and
good writing to the Weekly report. I felt that if one were able
enough and had sufficient vision one could distill meaning, truth
and even beauty from the swiftly flowing debris of the week's news.
I sought in political reporting what Galsworthy in another context
called 'the significant trifle'-the bit of dialogue, the overlooked
fact, the buried observation which illuminated the realities
of the situation. . . .
In the worst days of the witch hunt and cold war, I felt like a guerilla warrior, swooping down in surprise attack on a stuffy bureaucracy where it least expected independent inquiry. . . .
I am happy that in my own small way I have been able to demonstrate that independence is possible, that a wholly free radical journalist can survive in our society. In the darkest days of McCarthy, when I often was made to feel a pariah, I was heartened by the thought that I was preserving and carrying forward the best in America's traditions, that in my humble way I stood in a line that reached back to Jefferson. . . .
Freedom of the Press: A Minority Opinion
Stone discusses the chilling effect of the McCarthy hearings on his peers.
November 14, 1955
The main obstacle to the creation of a well-informed public is its own indifference. In every country with a free press, thoughtful papers which conscientiously try to cover the news lag behind the circulation of those which peddle sex and sensationalism. This is as true in Paris and London as in New York; and if Moscow ever permits a free privately owned press, Izvestia and Pravda will fall far behind any paper which prints the latest on that commissar's love nest.
The second obstacle is that most papers are owned by men who are not newspapermen themselves; publishing is a business, not a Jeffersonian passion, and the main object is as much advertising revenue as possible. Thus it happens that between the attitude of the publishers and that of the public, most papers in this country print little news. And this, except for local coverage, is mostly canned, syndicated, and quick-frozen.
The third obstacle is that this has always been and is now more than ever a conformist country; Main Street and Babbitt-and de Tocqueville long before Sinclair Lewis-held a faithful mirror to our true nature. It doesn't take much deviation from Rotary Club norms in the average American community to get oneself set down as queer, radical, and unreliable.
Against this background, it is easy to see why the average Washington correspondent is content to write what he is spoon-fed by the government's press officers. Especially since the press is largely Republican and this is a Republican Administration, there is little market for 'exposing' the government. Why dig up a story which the desk back home will spike?
It was this astringent view of our profession and its circumstances which I found lacking in the newspapermen's testimony which opened the investigation launched here by a special House subcommittee on government 'information.' The most perceptive of the witnesses, and one of our very best reporters, James Reston of the New York Times, put his finger on the vital point when he said that worse than suppression was the 'managing' of the news by government departments. But the news is 'managed' because reporters and their editors let themselves be managed.
The State Department is an outstanding offender. Very often, for example, newspaper readers get not so much what actually happened at the UN as the 'slant' given out in the corridors afterward to the reporters by a State Department attach?.
The private dinner, the special briefing, are all devices for 'managing' the news, as are the special organizations of privileged citizens gathered in by State and Defense Departments for those sessions at which highly confidential (and one-sided) information is ladled out to a flattered 'elite.'
As a reporter who began by covering small towns, where one really has to dig for the news, I can testify that Washington is in many ways one of the easiest cities in the world to cover. The problem is the abundance of riches. It is true that the government, like every other government in the world, does its best to distort the news in its favor-but that only makes the job more interesting.
Most of my colleagues agree with the government and write the accepted thing because that is what they believe; they are indeed-with honorable exceptions-as suspicious of the non-conformist as any group in Kiwanis.
Though the first day's witnesses included the best and boldest of the regular press, no one mentioned the recent deportations of radical foreign language editors and of Cedric Belfrage of the Guardian. No one mentioned the Communist editors and reporters prosecuted-for their ideas-under the Smith Act. No one mentioned the way McCarthy 'investigated' James Wechsler. Surely thoughtful men, as aroused as these were over the future of a free press, might have given a moment's consideration to the possible danger in such precedents. Did they feel it would be indiscreet to go beyond respectable limits? That such fundamental principles are best left for orations on [journalists John Peter] Zenger and [Elijah Parish] Lovejoy, both conveniently dead?
The Beginnings of a Revolution
As the South stands on the verge of integration, Stone
scolds the moderate majority for failing to take on an extremist
September 16, 1957
What we are seeing in the South is something which resembles a revolution. The government is trying to bring about a deeply unpopular change. The moderates have been counseling peaceful resistance, and undermining respect for the agencies of government. The moment has now come when leadership passes to the extremists, who advocate force and violence. The street mobs have begun to take control.
The mobs are only a handful, and those who would resort to violence are still a minority. But that minority has so much power because its aims are the wishes of the majority-to block integration. The power of the mob may be measured by the silence of the South's normal leadership. Except for the mayor of Little Rock, no public figure has spoken up for obedience to law. No senator from the South, no governor, no member of Congress, no leader of the bar, has dared publicly utter a restraining word. This dead silence may prove to be the inner 'eye' of a hurricane.
It is whispered in Washington that unless something is done soon by the federal government the moderates will be destroyed politically. The southern senators only a few weeks ago looked like shrewd and skillful statesmen. Now they appear to be appeasers and quislings. How can they compete with a governor who calls out the National Guard to prevent integration? The niceties of senatorial footwork would look ludicrous if explained to a southern audience which has just seen action.
The best the moderates offered was a long, slow, delaying action. To the extremists this was only a gradual form of surrender. They have taken the offensive in the border states of Arkansas and Tennessee where integration had already begun. They can claim to be pushing integration back, instead of retreating slowly before it. The extremists have outbid the moderates.
The moderates prepared their own downfall. In the state legislatures, the moderates enacted nullification. In Congress all last spring during the civil rights debate, the moderates helped to intensify in the South a pathological state of mind: suspicion of the Supreme Court, distrust of all federal judges, a feeling that alien and esoteric forces were plotting against the South and its 'way of life.' The moderates, when a little integrity and courage might still have counted, pandered to the view that resistance to law was an almost sacred duty for white southerners, a pious obligation they owed their past. [Arkansas governor Orval] Faubus, the mobs, and the dynamiters are only acting out what the moderates taught them.
The mob itself is what mobs usually are, unstable fringe elements, eager for any occasion to vent long pent-up hatreds, hatred of their own ugly selves they spew outward on whatever their social conditioning makes the target. The South has more than the normal quota of such sick souls, as it has more than the normal quota of poverty, ignorance, and shiftlessness plus a frontier habit of violence. The average southern white is probably more afraid of the mob than the average southern Negro, since the former fears his own good instincts, which might betray him into 'nigger loving' opposition. The latter may regard the mob as an almost normal recurrence of white bestiality which one may avoid without loss of self-respect.
These human scarecrows and juvenile delinquents in the news photos and on the television screens might become a majority overnight. If they can provoke a race riot, if they can make the issue seem starkly North versus South, the United States could find itself in the gravest crisis since Fort Sumter. Every day's delay by the President, whose enormous personal prestige might be put to good use at this juncture, risks irreversible events.
Unfortunately we have a President who is nine-tenths figurehead. A figurehead must be manipulated. There seems to be no one around to tell him what to do, and so he turns up in the same picture pages, happily relaxing on the eighteenth green. 'Mr. Brownell also informed the President,' the New York Times reported almost tongue in cheek, 'that a Nashville school had been bombed. Mr. Hagerty said the President's reaction to this had been 'the same as anyone else's would be-he thought it was a terrible thing.' ' The gaping walls of the Hattie Cotton School are not as terrible as this gaping vacuum in the presidency.
If the situation were not so deadly serious, one would be tempted to satirize the contrast between the airlift swiftly unloading arms six thousand miles away in Jordan to meet an exaggerated crisis in Syria with the irresolution the government shows at home. The dangers of communism seem to arouse Washington much more quickly than those of racism, though the latter comes up in a form which is a fundamental challenge to law itself.
This is a time to see ourselves as others see us. The ugly hate-filled faces of the whites in Little Rock and Nashville, the bravery of the Negro children and their parents, the minister knocked down and beaten in Birmingham, the poor feeble-minded Negro emasculated by Klansmen just to prove their mettle, are giving the colored majority on this planet a picture of us it will be hard to eradicate. Whether here or in Algiers, the white race just doesn't seem as civilized as it claims to be.
In Defense of the Campus Rebels
Considering the Vietnam War protests, Stone criticizes
the methodology but praises the intention.
May 19, 1969
I hate to write on subjects about which I know no more than the conventional wisdom of the moment. One of these subjects is the campus revolt. My credentials as an expert are slim. I always loved learning and hated school. I wanted to go to Harvard, but I couldn't get in because I had graduated forty-ninth in a class of fifty-two from a small-town high school. I went to college at the University of Pennsylvania, which was obligated-this sounds like an echo of a familiar black demand today-to take graduates of high schools in neighboring communities no matter how ill-fitted. My boyhood idol was the saintly Anarchist Kropotkin. I looked down on college degrees and felt that a man should do only what was sincere and true and without thought of mundane advancement. This provided lofty reasons for not doing homework. I majored in philosophy with the vague thought of teaching it but though I revered two of my professors I disliked the smell of a college faculty. I dropped out in my third year to go back to newspaper work. Those were the twenties and I was a pre-depression radical. So I might be described I suppose as a premature New Leftist, though I never had the urge to burn anything down.
In microcosm, the Weekly and I have become typical of our society. The war [in Vietnam] and the military have taken up so much of our energies that we have neglected the blacks, the poor, and students. Seen from afar, the turmoil and the deepening division appear to be a familiar tragedy, like watching a friend drink himself to death. Everybody knows what needs to be done, but the will is lacking. We have to break the habit. There is no excuse for poverty in a society which can spend $80 billion a year on its war machine. If national security comes first, as the spokesmen for the Pentagon tell us, then we can only reply that the clearest danger to the national security lies in the rising revolt of our black population. Our own country is becoming a Vietnam. As if in retribution for the suffering we have imposed, we are confronted by the same choices: either to satisfy the aspirations of the oppressed or to try and crush them by force. The former would be costly, but the latter will be disastrous.
This is what the campus rebels are trying to tell us, in the only way which seems to get attention. I do not like much of what they are saying and doing. I do not like to hear opponents shouted down, much less beaten up. I do not like to hear any one group or class, including policemen, called pigs. I do not think four-letter words are arguments. I hate hate, intolerance, and violence. I see them as man's most ancient and enduring enemies and I hate to see them welling up on my side. But I feel about the rebels as Erasmus did about Luther. Erasmus helped inspire the Reformation but was repelled by the man who brought it to fruition. He saw that Luther was as intolerant and as dogmatic as the Church. 'From argument,' as Erasmus saw it, 'there would be a quick resort to the sword, and the whole world would be full of fury and madness.' Two centuries of religious wars without parallel for blood-lust were soon to prove how right were his misgivings. But [as scholar James A. Froude wrote] while Erasmus 'could not join Luther, he dared not oppose him, lest haply, as he confessed 'he might be fighting against the spirit of God.' ' I feel that the New Left and the black revolutionists, like Luther, are doing God's work, too, in refusing any longer to submit to evil, and challenging society to reform or crush them.
Lifelong dissent has more than acclimated me cheerfully to defeat. It has made me suspicious of victory. I feel uneasy at the very idea of a Movement. I see every insight degenerating into a dogma, and fresh thoughts freezing into lifeless party line. Those who set out nobly to be their brother's keeper sometimes end up by becoming his jailer. Every emancipation has in it the seeds of a new slavery, and every truth easily becomes a lie. But these perspectives, which seem so irrefutably clear from a pillar in the desert, are worthless to those enmeshed in the crowded struggle. They are no better than mystical nonsense to the humane student who has to face his draft board, the dissident soldier who is determined not to fight, the black who sees his people doomed by shackles stronger than slavery to racial humiliation and decay. The business of the moment is to end the war, to break the growing dominance of the military in our society, to liberate the blacks, the Mexican-American, the Puerto Rican, and the Indian from injustice. This is the business of our best youth. However confused and chaotic, their unwillingness to submit any longer is our one hope.
There is a wonderful story of a delegation which came here to see Franklin D. Roosevelt on some reform or other. When they were finished the President said, 'Okay, you've convinced me. Now go on out and bring pressure on me.' Every thoughtful official knows how hard it is to get anything done if someone isn't making it uncomfortable not to. Just imagine how helpless the better people in government would be if the rebels, black and white, suddenly fell silent. The war might smolder on forever, the ghettoes attract as little attention as a refuse dump. It is a painful business extricating ourselves from the stupidity of the Vietnamese war; we will only do so if it becomes more painful not to. It will be costly rebuilding the ghettoes, but if the black revolt goes on, it will be costlier not to. In the workings of a free society, the revolutionist provides the moderate with the clinching argument. And a little un-reason does wonders, like a condiment, in reinvigorating a discussion which has grown pointless and flat.
We ought to welcome the revolt as the one way to prod us into a better America. To meet it with cries of 'law and order' and 'conspiracy' would be to relapse into the sterile monologue which precedes all revolutions. Rather than change old habits, those in power always prefer to fall back on the theory that all would be well but for a few malevolent conspirators. It is painful to see academia disrupted, but under the surface were shams and horrors that needed cleansing. The disruption is worth the price of awakening us. The student rebels are proving right in the daring idea that they could revolutionize American society by attacking the universities as its soft underbelly. But I would also remind the students that the three evils they fight-war, racism, and bureaucracy-are universal. The Marxism-Leninism some of the rebels cling to has brought into power a bureaucracy more suffocating than any under capitalism; the students demonstrate everywhere on our side but are stifled on the other. War and imperialism have not been eliminated in the relations between Communist states. Black Africa, at least half-freed from the white man, is hardly a model of fraternity or freedom. Man's one real enemy is within himself. Burning America down is no way to Utopia. If battle is joined and our country polarized, as both the revolutionists and the repressionists wish, it is the better and not the worse side of America which will be destroyed. Someone said a man's character was his fate, and tragedy may be implicit in the character of our society and of its rebels. How make a whisper for patience heard amid the rising fury?
Excerpted from the book The Best of I.F. Stone, edited by Karl Weber, with an introduction by Peter Osnos. Copyright 2006. Reprinted by arrangement with PublicAffairs, a member of the Perseus Books Group; www.publicaffairsbooks.com.
Stone on the Vietnam War
Stone on Robert F. Kennedy and the Vietnam War
Stone on World War II
Stone on the civil rights movement's March on Washington
Stone on the Nazi persecution of Jews
Stone on the hydrogen bomb
Stone on Barry Goldwater and his followers
Stone on freedom of speech