MEDIA WATCH

The world according to I.F. Stone

GEORGE BAIN July 24 1989
MEDIA WATCH

The world according to I.F. Stone

GEORGE BAIN July 24 1989

The world according to I.F. Stone

MEDIA WATCH

GEORGE BAIN

There can’t have been many books written in the past 20 years on Washington journalism in which, if you riffle the index, you won’t come to the name: Stone, I. F. What is remarkable about this is that Izzy Stone, who died at 81 on June 18, was not some columnist syndicated to 300 newspapers across the United States and abroad or the head of the large Washington bureau of a national chain, nor was he—both sides would have choked at the suggestion—a network news anchor, with the careful hairdo and the authoritative voice, reading crisp superficialities confected for him by someone else.

Stone was a stubby man who wore glasses with lenses like binoculars and a hearing aid, and rarely did any of the things Washington correspondents are supposed to do, such as attend press briefings and cultivate “sources” in the White House and Congress. He published a paper that was known simply as I. F. Stone’s Weekly. It was mainly a one-man show—or a one-man, one-woman show, as his wife ran the business end—and later, when he began to ease off, it came out only every second week and was called I. F. Stone’s Bi-Weekly. Considering that it had subscribers across the country, it is fair to say that it was widely, but not densely, read. Certainly, it made no concessions to the mass market—no glaring headlines, no color graphics, no pictures and certainly no ads. (Neither the circulation nor Stone’s contrariant views commended the Weekly to large advertisers.)

But those who subscribed—about 5,300 when he began in 1953—read it with attention. Consequently, it had an effect out of proportion to its size. Other journalists, who themselves were more widely read, read it because Stone frequently came up with information new to them. Politicians read it for the same reason, but also because his arguments, whether they liked them or not, were forceful, expressed in painfully clear words, and might, some day, have to be answered. Top bureaucrats read it.

Diplomats read it, as did jurists—at least one. David Halberstam, whose book, The Powers That Be, was about Time magazine, CBS, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times— giants at the farthest point in the spectrum from Stone’s paper—noted that when the great Felix Frankfurter died, Stone remarked wryly, “There goes my only subscription on the Supreme Court.”

Halberstam in another reference, here talking about the Vietnam War, which he covered in the field and Stone trenchantly wrote about, mainly from Washington, said that particularly in the early stages, “The major [television] news shows accepted almost unquestioningly American goals and American statements and one did not often see I. F. Stone ... as an interrogator on the Simday news-maker question-and-answer programs.” No wonder. Stone had a way of applying tests of reason to goals, and of comparing one statement with another, that could leave the originals looking a lot less worthy of being unquestioned. What he did most for American journalism—and it is something eminently worth doing—was to bring forward the other side that is always present in every issue but tends to get left behind when everyone goes haring off after the day’s new

orthodoxy. Fresh lights he was able to shed often gave that other side intellectual respectability.

Murray Kempton, another great American journalist not of the present generation, called Stone a “guerrilla,” someone “opposed to a great force which has abolished every moment but its own”—that is, the force of the disembodied present, which recognizes neither causes nor consequences. It is a requirement of the guerrilla in such circumstances to have a memory, and, Kempton said, “Mr. Stone always remembers the official lie of last month which is contradicted by the official lie of today.” He did not at all suggest that an ability to detect the inconsistencies of official truth is all, but the essentiality of memory to the reporting of events in an understandable context does raise a point of journalistic practice which is neglected—and frequently misused when it isn’t.

Stone had great regard for “the record.” Stephen Hess in The Washington Reporters, published by the Brookings Institution, spoke of reporters who excel at documentary research—of whom he called Izzy Stone “a notable example.” Documentary research is tiresome, time-consuming and unglamorous, not at all to be compared with receiving a leak in a brown envelope. But the smallest difference between excelling in documentary research (or even trying it) and not is this: it is one thing to say that the utterer of what may or may not be an “official lie” is a liar; it is another to hunt down in the record and to publish what was said so that the reader can see the words that were spoken, in what context and when, and make up his or her mind about the truth. Stone preeminently was a reporter who went to the trouble to do that.

Tom Wicker of The New York Times, in his book On Press, called Stone “one of the most respected of American reporters.” He said: “Stone turned early to the microscopic perusal of the mountains of [public] documents that are stacked up ... . Hearings, reports, studies, regulations, legislative histories, surveys of all kinds—for years, in I. F. Stone’s Weekly, Izzy Stone printed what he had culled from them, damning facts and quotes, contradictions, disclosures of all sorts, conflicts, telling statistics.” Such stuff goes untouched by most reporters, not just in Washington.

It is hard to imagine how Stone managed to read what he did. Outside that perusal of documents, he managed to find time for books, magazines and an untold number of newspapers—which he tore apart as he read and stuffed possibly useful items into his pockets. A lot of them were useful, because another of his journalistic faculties was to be able to make associations, to relate an Item A to an Item B to reinforce a point he wanted to make. When he gave up the journal in 1971, in part because of failing eyesight, the circulation had reached an astonishing 70,000. He then settled down to study Greek, language and history, and just last year he published the scholarly work The Trial of Socrates to good reviews. That makes some retirement hobby for a muckraking journalist—but, then, Stone was some journalist.

What Izzy Stone did for American journalism was to bring forward the other side that is always present in every issue