Izzy Stone: Progressive American Journalist
Journalist Bill Moyers comments that “One of the great reporters on the twentieth century, I.F. Stone, told journalism students never to forget that ‘All governments lie.’” He expanded his dictum later to accuse all corporations and concentrations of power of constant deceit. For seven decades, Izzy Stone exposed the mendacity of American politics and the failure of the media to call out the lies.
I.F. Stone’s Early Career
Isidor Feinstein Stone was born to his Russian Jewish immigrant parents in Philadelphia in 1907.
He placed 49th among the 52 students graduating from his high school. Nevertheless, he went to the University of Pennsylvania and dropped out.
Stone’s lack of academic achievements belies the fact that he had a brilliant mind and he was soon on the staff of The Philadelphia Inquirer. But, the Inquirer was a conservative paper, so Stone moved to The Philadelphia Record whose political leanings were more in line with his own.
During the Great Depression, he was active in left-wing American politics. He wasn’t a Communist, but some of the groups he joined flirted with Communism. This was something that would come back to bite him later
In 1937, an editor advised him to change his byline so that it didn’t sound so Jewish; from then on he wrote under the name I.F. Stone. He never felt comfortable accepting the need to hide his identity, especially as his parents had left Russia to escape from anti-Semitism.
Stone continued writing for many liberal newspapers and magazines. However, it was when he started up his own publication, I.F. Stone’s Weekly, that he secured his place among the greats of American journalism.
I.F. Stone’s Weekly
The Communist scare of the early 1950s led to Stone being blacklisted by mainstream media. Taking his inspiration from George Seldes and his newsletter In Fact, Stone started up his own publication in January 1953. He called it his “four-page miniature journal of news and opinion.”
His main focus was on American foreign policy and the way the government justified its intrigues and actions. He also turned his attention on the way in which the media failed to call politicians to account.
He was beholden to no one; he wrote “I am a wholly independent newspaperman, standing alone, without organizational or party backing, beholden to no one but my good readers.” He never accepted advertising in his newsletter.
He described his approach to publishing his newsletter: “I tried to dig the truth out of hearings, official transcripts, and government documents, and to be as accurate as possible. I also sought to give the Weekly a personal flavor to add humor, wit, and good writing to the Weekly report. 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.”
Playwright Arthur Miller said that “In the fifties, to find his Weekly in the mail was to feel a breath of hope for mankind.”
With a paid circulation of 70,000, I.F. Stone’s Weekly became an immensely influential publication in Washington and elsewhere.
Digging for Truth
Izzy Stone never attended government press conferences nor did he spend time on Capital Hill interviewing Congressmen. In his view, talking to politicians was a waste of time because they routinely lie.
He understood that elected leaders put in a lot of effort cultivating journalists saying “Once the Secretary of State invites you to lunch and asks your opinion, you’re sunk.”
The politician/journalist relationship is and should be adversarial; sharing a drink or being on a first name basis creates a bond that makes it difficult for reporters to remain objective.
So, Izzy Stone did his reporting by spending hours and hours pouring over documents in the public domain. He once said that reporters on Capitol Hill knew a lot more than he did, but most of what they knew was untrue.
Political science professor Peter Dreier comments that “Reporters and editors admired Stone’s ability to unearth facts, connect the dots, ferret out the truth, and uncover patterns of lying, cover-ups, and hypocrisy by politicians and government officials regarding civil rights, civil liberties, nuclear weapons, the Cold War, Cuba, foreign policy, and war.”
The New York Times notes that Stone “became something of a legend during the Vietnam War because, week after week, he succeeded in revealing that America’s policy was disastrous; the justifications, mendacious; and the press, deluded.”
Izzy Stone and the Vietnam War
I.F. Stone took many effective swipes at the witch hunts of Senator Joseph McCarthy and campaigned tirelessly in favour of the civil rights movement. But, he was at the height of his influence by revealing that, no matter the triumphant spin coming out of the Pentagon and the White House, the United States was engaged in a war it could not win in Vietnam.
In August 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson went on national television to accuse the North Vietnamese of launching unprovoked attacks on U.S. Navy vessels in the Gulf of Tonkin. The president used the incident as a lever to get Congress to pass the Gulf of Tonkin resolution giving him extraordinary powers, which he used to dramatically increase the U.S. war effort.
Through his dogged research, Stone was able to show that in the skirmish it was the U.S. that fired first. There was no premeditated or pre-planned attack on behalf of the North Vietnamese as alleged by U.S. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara. Stone wrote that “The rhetoric made it sound like a new Pearl Harbour.” And, it was all lies.
The Population and Development Review has estimated that between 1965 and 1975, 882,000 Vietnamese, soldiers and civilians, died in the war. During the same period, almost 57,000 U.S. military personnel were killed in Vietnam.
In a memorial to Stone on his death in 1989, The New York Times wrote, “Mr. Stone came equipped with a superb nose for fakery. He was thus able to challenge at the outset all sorts of official hokum-such as the puffed-up battle used to justify the famous Tonkin Gulf resolution.”
- Early subscribers to I.F. Stone’s Weekly were Eleanor Roosevelt, Albert Einstein, and Bertrand Russell.
- Marilyn Monroe bought a subscription to I.F. Stone’s Weekly for every member of the U.S. Congress.
- Izzy Stone read ten newspapers every day.
- Harvard University’s Nieman Foundation awards the I.F. Stone Medal for Journalistic Independence each year “to a journalist whose work captures the spirit of independence, integrity, courage, and indefatigability that characterized I.F. Stone’s Weekly.
- In 1971, a heart condition forced Izzy Stone to end publication of his newsletter. In retirement, he learned Ancient Greek and wrote his most famous book, The Trial of Socrates. He died in 1989 at the age of 81.
- “The Watchdog.” Paul Berman, New York Times, October 1, 2006.
- The Website of I.F. Stone.
- “In Praise of I.F. ‘Izzy’ Stone.” Peter Dreier, Common Dreams, June 18, 2019.
- “The Life and Work of I.F. Stone.” NPR, September 5, 2006.
- “All We Really Know Is that We fired the First Shots.” I.F. Stone, I.F. Stone’s Weekly, March 4, 1968.
© 2020 Rupert Taylor