The great independent journalist I.F. Stone has been dead for 19 years – and renowned political reporter Myra MacPherson worked on her I.F. Stone biography for 15 of them – but Myra’s sparkling “All Governments Lie: The Life and Times of Rebel Journalist I. F. Stone” (just out in paperback) couldn’t be more timely.
Let’s be blunt: Stone’s essential credo – that’s it up there, in the title of Myra’s book – is more relevant today than ever before.
And the collapse of the mainstream press during the Bush years – most particularly, but not exclusively, during the run-up to war in Iraq – makes Stone’s personal story an inspiration to those of us who hanker for a new era of accountability journalism. Stone was particularly critical of what Jane Hamsher and others call “access journalism” – and the inappropriate coziness between Washington reporters and their sources. As Stone famously said: “You’ve really got to wear a chastity belt in Washington to preserve your journalistic virginity. Once the secretary of state invites you to lunch and asks your opinion, you’re sunk.”
You can’t write about Stone today without indulging in a fair amount of media criticism. On the issue of access, for instance, Myra quotes in her book longtime Washington reporter Marvin Kalb, saying of Stone: "He didn’t care what the ‘senior officials’ said on ‘deep background,’ because I think he assumed they were lying or misleading the press in any case." Myra quotes Stone himself as saying: "You cannot get intimate with officials and maintain your independence." Whether they were "good guys" or "bad guys" was incidental to him. "They’ll use you." For Stone, an interview was not an occasion to get spun, but an opportunity to confront an official with facts. He deplored "baby questions."
And legendary Washington Post reporter Walter Pincus told Myra: "Izzy really set the pattern for reading hearings. I still do it. It’s the only way to report around Washington. He was constantly harping on that." Pincus enumerated the reasons why few reporters dig into documents: "One, they don’t want to believe that someone would deliberately mislead them. Two, it takes a lot of work and time. Three, they don’t want to be the object of opprobrium for writing critical pieces. People assume that you will be cut off. That’s wrong. As long as you write critical pieces that are accurate, you gain respect. As long as they know that by not cooperating they’re not going to stop you from writing anyway, many get the idea that it’s better to cooperate. And by contacting them, they can’t accuse you of not being fair."
Stone, with his signature bottle-thick glasses, nevertheless had an extraordinarily clear vision of the great moral battles of his time. His relentless reporting about – and opposition to – McCarthyism, cold war-era attacks on civil liberties, racial segregation, and the Vietnam War (just to name a few) were hugely daring at the time, and Stone was often virtually alone among his fellow journalists. But with the notable exception of his soft spot for Stalin – spectacularly ruptured after a visit to Russia in 1956 – history repeatedly vindicated his courage, while condemning the timidity of his peers.
It’s even been suggested by many (including me) that Stone was a blogger before his time. Although as Myra would point out, he was all about reporting first, and opinion second.
Myra’s book has been incredibly well-received by reviewers and award committees. It won the prestigious Ann M. Sperber award for Best Biography in 2007, was a finalist for the PEN USA Literary Award for Nonfiction, 2007, and was on the Boston Globe’s list of best nonfiction of 2006. Studs Terkel, the great chronicler of American lives, has said that reading it should be mandatory for all young journalists.
As for me, my name is Dan Froomkin, and I’ll be hosting your chat with Myra today. I write the White House Watch column for washingtonpost.com, and I’m also deputy editor of NiemanWatchdog.org, a Web site from the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard dedicated to encouraging accountability journalism.
I remember reading Myra’s lively and provocative political coverage in The Washington Post when I was a kid (this dates both of us). Then, back in July of last year, I was assigned to write a review of her book for Nieman Reports. I ended up writing a piece about I.F. Stone’s lessons for Internet journalism.
My point was that Stone’s writing in his famous Weekly “was a far cry from the passionless prose that afflicts so much mainstream political reporting. Like so many of today’s top bloggers, Stone built a community of loyal readers around his voice — an informed voice, full of outrage and born of an unconcealed devotion to decency and fair play, civil liberty, free speech, peace in the world, truth in government, and a humane society.”
And my conclusion was that “the newspapers of this era could learn a lot from Stone as they hunt desperately for a profitable future in the Internet age. Once again, they are being too timid. What bloggers have so effectively shown is that the Internet values voice and passion. Where newspapers can excel in this new era is in providing both – grounded in trusted information.”
I got in touch with Myra afterwards, to see if she might be interested in blogging for NiemanWatchdog.org. She was, and you can read her blog posts here. Now we’ve become friends.
And there’s a new ifstone.org Web site, launched by his son, Jeremy Stone.
So I’m really delighted to introduce Firedoglake readers to Myra, and to her incredibly timely book about the great rebel journalist, I.F. Stone.