Marilyn's top hack

Observations on free press

The late I F Stone used to greet his audiences by welcoming the greybeards and FBI agents. If this great American journalist had dropped by at a celebration of his centenary at New York University early last month, that introduction would have been right on the mark. While the auditorium of about a hundred was full, most people did indeed have grey hair. And, given the reach of the Patriot Act, maybe there was a G-Man in the audience.

Izzy Stone was a radical writer and muckraker, and pursued government lies with painstaking zeal. Subscribers to his weekly newsletter included Albert Einstein. At one time, Marilyn Monroe bought subscriptions for the entire US Congress.

Recently there has been a revival of interest in his work. A biography by the Nation's London correspondent, D D Guttenplan - American Radical: the Life and Times of I F Stone - is nearing publication. The award-winning biography All Governments Lie! The Life and Times of Rebel Journalist I F Stone by Myra MacPherson of the Washington Post comes out in paperback this month. And PublicAffairs Books has issued a compilation of Stone's best journalism. Meanwhile, an "I F Stone Medal for Journalistic Independence" is being issued by Harvard University's Nieman Foundation.

Stone would be tickled by the attention. He used to exasperate those who believed that politics was the art of the possible or of compromise. You could not compromise with facts, Stone maintained. Critics described him as being sympathetic to communism, and many shunned him during the McCarthy years.

Recalling that era, he told MacPherson: "I used to walk across the lawn at the Capitol and I would think, 'Screw you, you sons of bitches. I may be just a goddamn Jew Red to you, but I'm keeping Jefferson alive.'"

Stone was not starry-eyed about the Soviet Union, and wrote: "There are great risks in a free society, but the risks of dictatorship are even greater . . . The only thing that made it [Soviet communism] look good was the absence of a free press and a solid wall around it."

Stone would have been in his journalistic element in the lead-up to the decision to invade Iraq in 2003. Mainstream reporting lacked sustained scepticism of government claims - the kind of questioning Stone would have led, so that truth doesn't get buried. As Robert Kaiser, associate editor at the Washington Post, says: "Izzy was right when he used to complain that in the Post you never know where you can find the front-page story." While most in the media cheer-led the war, Izzy would have left no stone unturned. If the state fails, the press will tell the truth; if the press fails, we are in hell, Stone used to say. "Izzy was paid by his readers," points out Peter Osnos, Stone's assistant before becoming a distinguished correspondent and editor at the Washington Post.

All governments lie, Stone wrote, and memorably added: "But disaster lies in wait for countries whose officials smoke the same hashish they give out."

This article first appeared in the 07 April 2008 issue of the New Statesman, British jihad