What Would Izzy Say?

I.F. Stone?s 50-year-old critique of the media is still as relevant as ever today.

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Article created by the The Century Foundation.

With so much focus on news of the day and the changing ways it is being disseminated, there is something bracing about stretching back 50 years and finding that much of what was on my old friend and boss I. F. Stone’s mind is still topical. I have just finished an advance galley of Myra MacPherson’s superb biography of Stone, who she calls a “rebel journalist,” to be published by Scribner in September and, at the same time, a collection of the best of Stone that PublicAffairs will be printing. On both matters of news content and its distribution, what Izzy had to say then helps us understand what is happening now. Here are two examples:

All Governments Lie is the title of MacPherson’s book. The rest of his quote is, “but disaster lies in wait for countries whose officials smoke the same hashish they give out.” Stone’s writing of the 1950s was about subjects that remain very pertinent these days: race, nuclear weapons, and the Middle East, among others. But this notion that governments can’t be trusted to tell their citizens the truth is especially relevant to what has turned out to be the defining issue of the Bush administration: the war in Iraq and its relationship to global terrorism.

At a meeting the other day, a senior American official (outside the political chain of command, but who under the ground rules cannot be further identified) was asked what U.S. troops were prepared for when they marched into Iraq. Weapons of mass destruction, the official replied, to the extent that each soldier was wearing full protective garb. Once they had dealt with that threat, he said, the forces would make their way to Baghdad for the inevitable overthrow of Saddam Hussein. Was there any discussion of the Fedayeen and other elements in an insurgency that might erupt in the aftermath, the questioner asked? There was not, said the official, adding that this had been a failure of intelligence, the consequences of which are a war which, as of now, has no military solution in sight.

Compare that candor (behind a cloak of anonymity) to the administration’s public statements about the war in Iraq. In his inimitable way, Stone would surely parse official assertions about the progress of the war with actual facts on the ground, as he did during the Vietnam era, to show that the government was either knowingly lying to the public or at least consuming its own hashish.

Turning to the news business, the editor of the Stone collection, Karl Weber, begins with a piece titled “A Word About Myself,” written in July 1963 for another book. “With a dozen or so honorable exceptions,” Stone wrote, “most American newspapers carry very little news. Their main concern is advertising. The main interest of our society is merchandising. All the so-called communications industries are primarily concerned not with communications but with selling . . . most owners . . . are businessmen, not newspapermen.” Allowing for the gender neutrality of today’s language, Izzy’s observation is still, of course, correct. And yet, there is one self-description that does allow for optimism about change:

“I am a wholly independent newspaperman,” Stone wrote, “standing alone, without organizational or party backing, beholden to no one but my good readers.” His clear implication was that he was practically unique in that regard. “No bureaucracy likes an independent newspaperman,“ he went on, “whether capitalist or communist, democratic or authoritarian, every regime does its best to color and control the flow of news in its favor.” My guess is that Izzy would have loved the Internet with its ease of entry for anyone with a point of view. It has been said before, but worth underscoring, I. F. Stone’s Weekly was a forerunner of today’s blogs, just as it was a descendent of Tom Paine’s pamphlets. Journalism is still dominated by business behemoths, but gadflies abound and this would have made Stone very happy.

As for circulation, in the middle 1950s, the Weekly had a circulation of 5,000 (at an annual subscription cost of $5). By the time Stone suspended publication in the early 1970s, it had risen to about 70,000, which made it, in its own way, highly profitable. Izzy always said that the low cost of second-class mail for printed publications was essential to his being able to launch his enterprise. The Internet would have saved him the cost of paper and postage, but he would have been stumped by the fact that readers expect to get their news on the Web for free. As for Izzy’s availability today, I typed in I. F. Stone’s Weekly on Google and came up with 27,700,000 items. Even if 2/3 of them are about other Stones and other Weeklies, that is an astonishing amount of attention for a newsletter that has been gone for more than 35 years. That is good news.

Afterword: Valerie Plame, the former covert CIA employee whose name was made public by columnist Robert Novak in an effort to discredit her husband, Ambassdor Joseph Wilson, has just received a book contract said to be worth $2.5 million. This caps her rise to fame and fortune, including a star turn behind sunglasses in Vanity Fair and appearances along with her husband at one gala after another. Meanwhile, reporter Judy Miller (a friend of Izzy’s, by the way) went to jail in the aftermath for refusing to give up a source and Lewis Libby, of Vice President Cheney’s staff, is under indictment for allegedly lying to a grand jury. Given that Plame was a mid-career, mid-level operative, revelation has turned out to be a bonanza for her. I can’t help feeling that the whole affair has become so tangled up with money and aggrandizement that the principle has gotten lost. That happens a lot these days.

What would Izzy say?


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