Notes From the Margins…

I.F. Stone, court scribes and pseudo-journalism

  • March 13, 2012
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I’m currently reading a collection of pieces by the outstanding radical journalist I.F. Stone (1907-1989), which rather amazingly,  you can download for free here.   Stone was a socialist and a fiercely independent journalist who was most famous for I.F. Stone’s Weekly, a newsletter which he wrote, produced and edited himself for 17 years.

Based in Washington, Stone had a close-up view of the U.S. political establishment, and he was a harsh and unrelenting critic of governmental lies, deceptions and abuses of power, and a lucid observer of the political pathologies resulting from America’s transformation into a ‘national security state’ during the Cold War.

The Best of I.F. Stone is well worth reading in full or dipping into, not only because  Stone an elegant, erudite and witty writer, but also because he was a journalist, whose independence of mind put many of his fellow-professionals to shame, and whose observations  about his profession are also highly relevant to the court scribes of our own era.

In an essay written in 1963 entitled About Myself, Stone once summed up his philosophy behind the Weekly in the following terms:

I felt that if one were able enough and had sufficient vision one could distill meaning, truth and even beauty from the swiftly flowing debris of the week’s news.   I sought in political reporting what Galsworthy in another context called ‘the insignificant trifle’ – the bit of dialogue, the overlooked fact, the buried conversation which illuminated the reality of the situation.

Stone frequently broke investigative scoops that other journalists missed – or preferred not to touch – despite the fact that his sources were generally in the public domain.  He prided himself on his independence and believed that it gave him a very different vantage-point to the more co-opted journalists who were also based in Washington, regardless of the fact that

I made no claim to inside stuff – obviously a radical reporter in those days had few pipelines into the government.   I tried to give information which could be documented so the reader could check it for himself.   I tried to dig the truth out of hearings, official transcripts and government documents, and to be as accurate as possible.

Stone compared his role as ‘a guerilla warrior, swooping down in surprise attack on a stuffy bureaucracy’ to journalists who worked for privately owned agencies and papers, in terms that are not exactly unfamiliar to our own times:

The reporter assigned to specific beats like the State Department of the Pentagon for a wire service of a big daily newspaper soon finds himself a captive.  State and Pentagon have large press relations forces whose job it is to herd the press and shape the news. There are many ways to punish a reporter who gets out of line; if a big story breaks at 3 a.m, the press office may neglect to notify him while his rivals get the story.  There are as many ways to flatter and take a reporter into camp – private-off-the-record dinners with high officials, entertainment at the service clubs.

Stone would undoubtedly have appreciated the Internet and the new powers it has given to ‘citizen-journalists’ who are not beholden to their corporate owners or employers.  But he would probably not have been surprised by elite government insiders like Nick Robinson or Andrew Marr; by the likes of Alastair Campbell or Andy Coulson; by ‘hackgate’ or the Leveson Inquiry’s revelations about police ‘terror briefings’  to  News International.

Stone would undoubtedly have recognized – and been appalled by – the Pentagon’s attempt to manipulate and control public opinion through ‘information operations’ on the Internet, through embedded war reporting and the granting of privileged access to on-message correspondents, or by planting  sock-puppet military analysts in the mainstream media.

But if Stone was  an astute observer of the ways in which governments manipulate and seek to manage the flow of information, he was also extremely critical of the reporters and editors who ‘let themselves be managed,‘ and whose attitude towards their government were often strikingly conformist as a consequence.

In this sense he would also find that very little has changed since the days when mainstream American newspapers – unlike Stone himself – failed to challenge McCarthyism.   Today, too many journalists are little more than stenographers for power, and too many  uncritically echo official lines and transmit messages delivered from on high or frame their reporting in accordance with the requirements of governments.

The result is a nominally ‘free’ media that – despite its global reach – is often as strikingly obedient and susceptible to manipulation as the newspapers and wire agencies of Stone’s era.

And in these conformist times, Stone  is an inspirational example of that rare phenomenon: a real journalist who acted according to his principles rather than his career prospects and refused to allow himself to be managed.






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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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