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I.F. Stone’s radical idea

SF Public Press
 — May 26 2011 - 1:00pm

In January of 1953, writing in the first edition of I.F. Stone’s Weekly, the Washington investigative journalist Isadore Feinstein — universally known as I.F. Stone — declared: “This weekly represents an attempt to keep alive through a difficult period the kind of independent radical journalism represented in various ways by PM, the New York Star and the Daily Compass,” three esteemed publications that for financial reasons had recently shut down. “This new enterprise,” he wrote, “embodies the hope that by beginning on a rock-bottom basis it will prove possible to survive and expand. The bald economics of daily newspaper publishing is enough to make the stoutest heart quail.”

Stone’s heart was firm; the pamphlet’s popularity preceded its publication with 5,000 subscriptions sold even before the first copy hit the mail. And for the next 19 years, week after week, Stone delivered audiences across North America and around the world a four-page newspaper pumped with meticulously documented research and witty analyses on the thorniest political subjects of his time, from McCarthyism to Vietnam. Nobody, it is safe to say, has rivaled his effort since.
As we turn our gaze now to the fragmented complexity of our new media landscape — one where uncovering and producing, not to mention absorbing, substantive news appears at time to be a thing of the past — it could be useful to look back at the foundation that Stone through his muckraking work provided. And to realize that 50 years ago this spring, the “news cycle” in the Weekly had some eerie parallels to our own today.
In February of 1961, for example, Stone cited a special Atomic Energy Commission study following a nuclear reactor explosion in Idaho that killed three, raising fears about use of the new lethal energy (“The bodies were so ‘hot’ with radioactivity they had to be handled with the utmost precautions.”). That same month he reported on Wisconsin Gov. Gaylord Nelson’s stand in favor of calls for the abolition of the House Un-American Activities Committee, which blacklisted suspected Communists (a contemporary progressive backlash in Wisconsin springs to mind). He also exposed America’s waste of hundreds of millions of dollars training incompetent and corrupt police officers in Laos, which is tempting to compare with the profligate military spending occurring in Afghanistan.
In March of that year, Stone condemned the UN’s dirty connections to the January assassination of Patrice Lumumba, independent Congo’s first legally elected prime minister. And the following month he railed against the Kennedy administration’s bull-headed policies toward Cuba in the lead-up to the disastrous Bay of Pigs Invasion (“The Deed Was Done Quickly, But It’s Macbeth Who’s Dead” screamed his April 24 headline).
Reading I.F. Stone’s Weekly wasn’t about glancing at bytes of news the way we do today. It was about investigating, evaluating and thinking about the information that created that news. And as we look at the perplexing speed of changes to news coverage over the last decade, we must ask: What would Stone make of our new media today? His tireless and scrutinizing commentary in some ways made Stone the original blogger. But would he have found our daily digestion of a million news fragments comprehensible, or even worth blogging about? Would he call what we write and read “the news”?
Perhaps the closest comparison to an I.F. Stone these days is Julian Assange, whose Wikileaks site has exposed global corruption, misinformation, scandal and back-room truths on an unprecedented scale. Assange, however, comes off as strangely quiet in terms of what he thinks about the data, contradictions and controversy his team helped unearth. And perhaps it’s necessarily so, for perhaps there is no longer a place in today’s media landscape for an I.F. Stone to exist.
Journalists today are in a desperate scramble to locate the successful model of future journalism. It could take the form of a government- or foundation-subsidized press. Or it may morph into an all-powerful Apple/Murdoch/Yahoo conglomerate. No one knows. What the San Francisco Public Press and others are now trying to forge is a public-interest, citizen-centered journalism, free from advertising and for the public good. And in that sense we are inheritors of the “radical” journalism vision that I.F. Stone strived to create.
New media, it seems, must now turn back and learn from older, tested methods of making important news make sense. American journalists failed, where they shouldn’t have, in preventing the U.S. from going to war in Iraq eight years ago this spring. And they are continuing to fail, where evidence in the form of science is piled high around them, to intelligently advance America’s thinking on renewable energy development, the most obvious hope for economic growth and political progress in our time.
In the last issue of the Weekly, published in December of 1971, Stone, 64, articulated his lifelong passion as a newsman: “To give a little comfort to the oppressed, to write the truth exactly as I saw it, to make no compromises other than those of quality imposed by my own inadequacies. I wanted a paper which would be sober in statement and as accurate as I could make it, [one with] readability, humor and grace … with substance, but as light as a soufflé. I dreamed of taking the flotsam of the week’s news and making it sing.”
“Politically,” he wrote in closing, “I believe there cannot be a good society without freedom of criticism. I think every man is his own Pygmalion, and spends his life fashioning himself. And in fashioning himself, for good or ill, he fashions the human race and its future.”
No minor ambition for a reporter whose work, indeed, survived and expanded. And it is the job of today’s journalists to apply those same ambitions to the new media landscape which we have inherited, and which we are actively creating. Radical journalism is still possible. We only need the courage to rediscover it.

A shorter version of this story appeared as part of the Public Press’ spring print edition media package of stories.