The Truth Seeker
All Governments Lie! (The Life and Times of Rebel Journalist I.F. Stone)
by Myra MacPherson
(New York: Scribner. $35)
Some of us will remember looking forward each week to a four page news sheet that often revealed contradictions in official pronouncements, or insights into what was really happening in Washington or elsewhere. It was called I.F. Stone's Weekly, and it was influential far beyond its eventual 70,000 subscribers.
Stone, known to his friends as "Izzy" began his newspaper career at the age of fourteen pretty much the way he ended it, with a self-published broadsheet he called The Progress. That was in the small town of Haddonfield, New Jersey, where he grew up, but his interests were world-wide. He endorsed Woodrow Wilson's peace plan, and supported Gandhi's struggle to free India from colonialism.
He went on to write for the Camden Courier, Philadelphia Record, PM., the New York Post (when it was still a newspaper), The Nation, and The Compass. After he gave up the Weekly for health reasons, he was a regular contributor to The New York Review of Books.
Stone was always an engaged journalist, as much analyst as reporter. His sympathies were left wing and though he never joined the Communist Party, he was for a while a self-described fellow-traveler. A trip to the Soviet Union and revelations about Stalin's show trials changed that, though J.Edgar Hoover was not convinced and remained one of Stone's most ardent readers. It is a tribute to the (potential) power of the press that Hoover was more afraid of Stone than the free-wheeling, free-thinking Stone was of the FBI. When Hoover ordered agents to follow Stone around, hoping to catch him associating with subversives, he advised his sleuths that "in view of Stone's profession and his frequent castigations of the Bureau, it is felt that extreme caution is needed." (p. 289)
Stone did not cozy up to any administration, nor did he care about press conferences. He did most of his sleuthing by closely examining official papers and revealing contradictions and obscure facts that often discomfited people in power. "Once the secretary of state invites you to lunch and asks your opinion," he once said, "you're sunk."
He wasn't always right. His most embarrassing mistake was asserting that North Korea was not the aggressor in the Korean War, a mistake he amplified in his book The Hidden History of the Korean War.
While most of his work was the result of analysis, he did do some first-hand reporting, most notably when he had himself smuggled into British Mandate Palestine in 1946, sending dispatches to PM and then recounting the experience in his book Underground to Palestine. His sympathy for Israel, however, did not keep him from also sympathizing with the plight of the Palestinians. It was what moved him to define tragedy as a conflict between right and right.
What most characterized I.F. Stone was a passion for the truth. Even pious dishonesty was beyond him. Asked to speak at a memorial for Walter Lippmann, Stone blurted out: "He was on the wrong side of Sacco and Vanzetti!" His last great enterprise, after failing eyesight and ill health caused him to give up the Weekly, was an investigation into the life and ideas of Socrates whom he considered arrogant because of his disdain for the common man. Typically, he would not trust translations of Plato's Socratic dialogues. Instead, he learned classical Greek so he could go right to the source. He published The Trial of Socrates in 1988, a year before he died.
Two principles guided him. One was uttered by British publisher, Lord Northcliff, who said: "News is something someone wants to suppress. Everything else is advertising." The other was Stone's own admonition: "All governments lie."
MacPherson's biography covers Stone's rather ordinary private life as well as his tumultuous public one. It is a lively read and a lesson for the pandering journalists of our own day who were so eager for access to power that they uncritically relayed the administration's lines about why we had to invade Iraq. This book reminds us why Jefferson said that if he had to choose between government and the press he would choose the press.
(Please include your name so that we may publish your remarks.)
Articles may be quoted or republished in full with attribution
to the author and harvardsquarecommentary.org.