Celebrating a Media Maverick

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
relevance.

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.
Stone’s writings.

July 1963

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
few.

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

  • ‘Under the supposed benevolence of our policy one soon detects
    a deep animosity to the Vietnamese and a vast arrogance. We assume
    the right to remold them, whether they choose to be remolded or
    not.’
  • ‘The simple fact that occupying armies, whether allied or
    enemy, always become unpopular hardly ever figures in official
    calculation.’

Stone on Robert F. Kennedy and the Vietnam
War

  • ‘Honor requires the soldier to kill or be killed, whatever his
    scruples. But it is not regarded as dishonorable for the politician
    to swallow his misgivings and allow the young to go out to die
    without protest.’

Stone on World War II

  • ‘Some of the causes of this war went deeper than any enemy men
    or movements.
    . . . Some of these causes lie in our own minds and hearts as well
    as in those of our defeated enemies.’
  • ‘I wish it were possible to throw on some gigantic screen for
    all to see some fraction of the suffering, the treachery, the
    sacrifice, and the courage of the past decade. For how are we in
    America to fulfill our responsibility to the dead and to the
    future, to our less fortunate allies and to our children’s
    children, if we do not feel a little of this so deeply in our bones
    that we will be unswervingly determined that it shall never happen
    again?’

Stone on the civil rights movement’s March on
Washington

  • ‘They carried upon them a story more plainly writ than any
    banner. These were, literally, the downtrodden and the treadmarks
    of oppression were visible upon their faces. They sang, ‘We shall
    not be moved.’ But those who saw them-and what life had done to
    them-were moved.’

Stone on the Nazi persecution of Jews

  • ‘The essence of tragedy is not the doing of evil by evil men
    but the doing of evil by good men, out of weakness, indecision,
    sloth, inability to act in accordance with what they know to be
    right.’

Stone on the hydrogen bomb

  • ‘Why should these matters be cloaked in secrecy, the decisions
    on them made without popular discussion? The lack of real debate
    has allowed a thick deposit of dubious ideological fallout to
    contaminate the public mind. A whole series of doubtful
    propositions have been rubbed in by official statement and their
    echoes in a well-coordinated press.’

Stone on Barry Goldwater and his followers

  • ‘The frontier virtues they claim to embody are as synthetic as
    the frontier they inhabit. . . . In their favorite campaign photos,
    on that horse and under that ten-gallon Stetson, looking into the
    setting sun, is no cowboy or even rancher but a Phoenix
    storekeeper. The Western trade he caters to, in business as in
    politics, is dude ranch.’

Stone on freedom of speech

  • ‘No society is good in which men fear to think-much less
    speak-freely.’
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