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I.F. Stone: Iconic Muckracker

Myra MacPherson wrote a new book “All Governments Lie: The Life and Times of Rebel Journalist I.F. Stone.

BY Steve Weinberg

In 1953, a talented but obscure journalist named I.F. Stone decided to start a newsletter allowing him to report and comment about politics, war and peace. At age 45, Stone had no reason to believe that the four-page newsletter, I.F. Stone’s Weekly, would succeed financially or in any other way. Yet Stone kept the newsletter afloat for two decades and is remembered today, 17 years after his death, as an iconoclastic muckraker.

In a remarkable book, Myra MacPherson reveals the real I.F. Stone. Born Isador Feinstein in 1907, he changed his name at age 20 to avoid anti-Semitism in his professional life. (Most people who knew him referred to him as just Izzy.)

“All Governments Lie”: The Life and Times of Rebel Journalist I.F. Stone explores all sides of this storied reporter. Professionally, Stone is absolutely worthy of admiration. In his personal life, the evidence is more mixed–few icons are paragons of virtue 24/7. Although he obviously loved both his children and his saintly wife Esther, he frequently treated them both with impatience and condescension.

Still, the reasons to admire the private Stone far outnumber the reasons to dislike him, including his fearlessness when exposing abuses of government authority, the erudition combined with relentless curiosity that led him to believe he could master any subject matter and his exhaustive research that served as a model for lesser journalists. He used those qualities to demonstrate the immorality and dishonesty of the Vietnam War, to stand up for racial equality and to write relentlessly about those in power who persecuted the innocent.

Lots of biographers, myself included, find the more they come to know their subjects, the less they are able to muster admiration. Not MacPherson, a long-time journalist, who notes that “Today, Izzy’s remarkable immediacy leaps off the pages. Not only is he a sheer joy to read, his views take on vital importance, sounding as if he had written them this morning, illuminating the tumultuous first five years of the twenty-first century.” She cites this quote from Stone as one example: “There was an increased reliance at home and abroad on suppression by force and an increasingly arrogant determination to ‘go it alone’ in the world.”

“This was not written when George W. Bush ignored the United Nations, colleagues, international treaties and advice of allies and started a war,” MacPherson comments, “but by Stone during Cold War escalation.”

MacPherson’s book is remarkable for its hybrid nature. It is a biography, sure, meant both as an examination of his life and as a document to defend Stone from what MacPherson calls “posthumous lies perpetuated by today’s right-wing media.” But it offers an unusually rich context that provides, in MacPherson’s words, “a historical treatise on the press” and “Stone’s running commentary on twentieth-century America.”

Stone got his start as a newspaper reporter and editorialist in the ’20s, a teenaged prodigy. MacPherson quotes Stone at age 14, observing debates about evolution at the Scopes Monkey Trial in Tennessee: “There still seem to be many worthy gentlemen … who wish to anchor the world in a sea of narrow minds (including their own) and hold it there, lest it move forward. … They are utterly out of place in this age of rationalism.”

MacPherson explores the factors leading to Stone’s indifference to being branded a troublemaking outcast, including his frail build, impaired eyesight and homely looks, as well as his good fortune in finding a patron who helped launch his journalism career at age 13. That unconcern yielded powerful enemies: Stone’s FBI file was at least 5,000 pages thick, in part because the journalist never stopped opening the curtain on J. Edgar Hoover, who he considered a “glorified Dick Tracy” and a “sacred cow” within government. While undeniably true, few journalists dared to publish such characterizations while Hoover lived.

But Stone never wanted the role of insider journalist. MacPherson opens the book with this Stone quotation: “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.” Throughout the book, MacPherson invokes journalist Walter Lippmann, the ultimate insider, as a foil for Stone. Like Stone, Lippmann was a talented and intelligent writer. But Lippmann–like so many of his journalist brethren–needed his vanity fed by the powerful, and thus sometimes concealed information that should have been revealed.

Stone’s gutsy, relentless reporting played a role in ending Senator Joseph McCarthy’s reign of anti-Communist terror by providing ammunition to mainstream journalists that they never would have dug up on their own. Information he uncovered about Richard Nixon’s paranoid tendencies revealed that he was making crucial decisions based on something other than logic. Stone influenced investigative reporting as it is practiced today by never kowtowing to those in government and by closely reading documents other journalists thought boring or irrelevant.

The skepticism about government that emerged during the Vietnam War enshrined Stone as a journalistic icon. His reporting received so much justifiable attention that the newsletter began to make money. The charm of MacPherson’s subject and book is hinted at in this passage: “A toiler outside the system, Stone was never one to take a vow of poverty and reveled in buying his wife a mink coat, joking that he had become a war profiteer. His irredeemable optimism made it all sound simple, but he worked long and furiously, relying on his own digging so that by the time he approached an official he was ready to confront him with facts.”

Stone once admonished his fellow muckrakers, “If you want to know about governments, all you have to know is two words, ‘governments lie.’” Exposing official lies was Stone’s greatest legacy, but there was an important flip side to his skepticism. Stone, as MacPherson writes, “never stopped praising the American freedoms that allowed him to speak and to think as he did. That is why he fought so hard against those who were bent on tarnishing them.”

Steve Weinberg is an investigative reporter in Columbia, Mo. His latest book is Taking on the Trust: The Epic Battle of Ida Tarbell and John D. Rockefeller.

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