The I.F. Stone's Weekly Reader
I. F. Stone
Random House, $9.25
Reviewed by Ulli Diemer
In the land once nurtured on the myth of George Washington and the cherry tree, the truth is threatening to become "inoperative". And it's not only the Richard Nixons, the J. Edgar Hoovers, the military monomaniacs of the Pentagon and the ubiquitous bureaucracies that are responsible. Even the universities and the press have been doing their part to lay it low, in an assault using not merely little hatchets, but verbal chain saws, flame throwers, and bulldozers.
In such a climate, a reporter has the option of being a cynic, a drunk, or a radical.
I.F. Stone made his choice in 1921, when, as an idealistic fourteen-year-old, he founded his first newspaper. He's been at it ever since; this idealistic 66-year-old has done as much as any other individual in his lifetime to keep the truth "operative" in America.
Stone worked for a number of papers during his career until 1953, when, unable to find a satisfactory job elsewhere (this was at the height of McCarthyism, remember) he founded his own paper, the imaginatively titled I.F. Stone's Weekly .
By keeping costs to a minimum, he was able to stay in the black even in the initial years: for a small but growing number (5,300 in 1953, 20,0O0 in 1963, 70,000 in 1971), he was the most valuable and reliable source of news in the country.
The constraints of his situation, with no "contacts", no access to inner circles or privileged information, merely helped to keep him pursuing the type of journalism he practised so well. With a matchless instinct for the jugular, he specialized in sifting through the tons of government documents and torrents of official statements to find the contradictions, the real facts, the true importance of a situation. Against an officialdom that took its contempt for the ability of the people to remember yesterday's statements today straight from Orwell's Ministry of Truth in 1984 Stone pitted a memory like a steel trap. Along with it, there came a sense of what was historically important, and an intuition for what he calls `significant trivia'. And courage. Imagine, a man who dared call McCarthy at his height "low-blow Joe". And all of it supremely perceptive and analytical, well-written, witty, and drawing on a vast, eclectic store of knowledge.
The pressures of age forced Stone to convert the Weekly to a bi-weekly, and finally, in 1971, to shut it down altogether. He continues to write though as brilliantly as ever, it less frequently, in the pages of the New York Review of Books. And his articles have been gathered together into four collections so far: The Haunted Fifties; In a Time of Torment; Polemics and Prophecies, and now, the most recent with selections covering the entire span of the Weekly's lifetime, The I.F. Stone’s Weekly Reader .
The four volumes, or any one of them, are intellectual, aesthetic, and political delights.
One reason is the humour. Stone is serious, deeply serious, committed, and often appalled and angry at the truths he discovers. But he's aware that a ponderous, moralizing tone wins few converts; reading the articulate, urbane, and frequently witty Weekly was a reading pleasure, not a self-imposed penance dutifully performed. A selection of his headlines (so important in a paper) is a good foretaste of the rest:
. All Deliberate Speed - or How to Get Where You Don't Want to Go In 1,000 Years
. Nixon In the Footsteps of Popeye's Elder Statesman
. Lyndon Johnson Lets the Office Boy Declare War
. Suppose Not Negroes But Men of Property Were Being Beaten in Mississippi?
. The Deed Was Done Quickly, But It's Macbeth Who's Dead
. Why the Chinese Third Fleet is in Long Island Sound
. Nixon About to Abolish Hunger "For All Time" Again
. If Daddy Keeps at It. Luci, One Day You Won't Wake Up
. Lemay: Cave Man in a Jet Bomber
. If Only John F. Kennedy Were in Hans Christian Anderson
. Another Fact-Evading Mission
What that reflects is not simply a certain kind of cleverness, but a conception of communication quite different from, say, that of The Wall Street Journal, Peoples' Canada Daily News, or (dare we say it?) The Varsity.
Read Stone's collections of articles, and you're not merely getting old news rehashed, from a leftwing perspective; you're getting a profoundly valuable background in post-war history. He writes current history rather than simple news, and he's got an eye for detail, for facts, that the grand sweep of most history texts, with their attention to laws and treaties. tend to miss.
The major events and personalities of the age are vivisected in his pages:
John Foster Dulles: "Cold. Arrogant, and Ruthless"; Joe McCarthy: "our would-be Fuhrer"; JFK: "when the tinsel was stripped away, a conventional leader, no more than an enlightened conservative, cautious as an old man for all his youth, with a basic distrust of the people"; LBJ: "a man the whole world has begun to distrust"; Senator Fulbright: "a drowsy watchdog"; Nixon' "the evil of banality".
He was one of the very few to openly and continually defy McCarthy from the beginning; he exposes the lunacy and dangers of hysterical anticommunism and the Cold War; he documents white racism and the struggle against it; watches the hypocrisy of all the major powers during the Hungary events ("The Workers Rise Against the Workers' State"); covers Vietnam (the U.S. sees "the Vietnamese uprising simply as a communist plot, and communism as an occult conspiracy with magical powers whereby a handful of infiltrating agitators can 'infect' a whole population with Marxism-Leninism though these same natives can barely read the directions on a can of soup".) He drove home hard truths about the "third worlds" ("In the Name of Marx as Once in the Name of Jesus"); wrote critically yet sympathetically about both sides in the Middle East.
And he writes at greater length (as well as displaying greater depth) than the daily papers on the subjects he covers, the result is that despite his biases, he is "objective" in that he always bases his analysis solidly on the facts.
He's not perfect, of course. Two of his main faults: he thinks very much in the tradition of a Jeffersonian liberal reformer (his heroes are Milton and Kropotkini). As a result, he can occasionally be puzzlingly anachronistic or naive. But an uncannily shrewd eye for what's really reality makes slips of that kind infrequent or at least inconsequential. Another problem: even though he has a better eye than most for social conditions, for the everyday non-events that collectively determine so much of history, he still falls significantly short on this score. The rise of the assembly-line or automation, decline in church-going, changing tastes in entertainment, that kind of thing, that you won't find him saying much about.
Nevertheless, they ought to make I.F. Stone compulsory reading for everybody who aspires to do radical journalism.
Published in The Varsity, October 5, 1973
Note: All issues of I.F. Stone’s Weekly, as well as others writings by and about I.F. Stone, are now available online and can be read or downloaded in PDF form on the official I.F. Stone website ifstone.org.