To Tell the Truth

By Scott McLemee,
a columnist for Inside Higher Ed, an online journal of academic life
Tuesday, October 10, 2006


The Life and Times of Rebel Journalist I.F. Stone

By Myra MacPherson

Scribner. 564 pp. $35

No fresh campaign of slander against I.F. Stone has been launched in quite some time. A worrisome situation: It suggests that his influence has waned, that the danger of his example has been safely contained. Following his death in 1989, Stone was, for a while, lauded as the conscience of his profession by journalists who once might have crossed the street to avoid him. Posthumously, they were suddenly on a first-name basis with "Izzy," whose four-page weekly newsletter regularly scooped correspondents wielding far more access and harvesting greater prestige.

Stone turned the close reading of government documents into a form of investigative reporting -- and did so as a tough-minded and independent left-winger who was something of a fanatic in his enthusiasm for the Bill of Rights. Such a legend must be covered with mud as often as possible, lest he become a role model. And so, by the early 1990s, members of the conservative media elite were pleased to circulate tidbits insinuating that Stone had met with a KGB operative as late as 1968, according to the Columbia Journalism Review. By that point (so the tale went), the journalist announced he would not take any more of the Kremlin's money.

Myra MacPherson's "All Governments Lie" is the first biography of Stone to appear since this "revelation." It turns out that the agent was actually part of the Soviet delegation in Washington; he later told reporters that his rendezvous with the journalist was part of that time-honored form of mutual intelligence-gathering known as "going to lunch." Stone was disgusted by the recent invasion of Czechoslovakia and would not let the Soviet pick up the check.

So much for Izzy Stone as a communist asset. The story was debunked by D.D. Guttenplan in the Nation in 1992, but it's good to have the facts between hard covers. MacPherson, the author of "Long Time Passing" and a former Washington Post journalist, also takes a much closer look at Stone's massive FBI file than did the authors of two earlier biographies. The unrelenting surveillance by J. Edgar Hoover yielded some 5,000 pages -- a detailed chronicle of the life of a bookish and monogamous man.

And one who, for all his illusions about the "progressive" Soviet Union, seems to have regarded the American communists as something out of a comic opera. To this day, the Web site for the conservative watchdog group Accuracy in Media cites an FBI informant from the 1930s who claimed that Stone was a member. MacPherson's examination of the record shows that, to the contrary, Hoover's agents despaired of ever establishing such a connection.

During the period of the Hitler-Stalin Pact, the American communists allied themselves with the isolationists against the Lend-Lease Act, while Stone wrote in favor of it. He cheered Yugoslavia's Tito in his break with Stalin. And he endorsed Henry Wallace's Progressive Party presidential campaign in 1948, despite misgivings about the company this meant keeping. "I wouldn't want my sister to marry a Communist," he wrote, "and force me to maldigest my Sunday morning bagel arguing dialectics with a sectarian brother-in-law." But at least supporting Wallace didn't make him "quite as big a dupe" as those who thought a vote for Harry S. Truman would bring "peace, housing and better prices."

Unfortunately, MacPherson is a little too focused on Stone as a political independent and never quite situates him as part of the milieu of pro-Soviet but non-communist liberals who sometimes developed complex systems of moral bookkeeping to preserve their illusions. MacPherson repeatedly uses Walter Lippman (the patrician columnist who embodied the conventional wisdom of the American political center) as a contrast to Stone's more plebian and combative brand of left-liberalism. But it would have made at least as much sense to compare Stone to Max Lerner, another well-known pundit of the day: Both saw the Soviet model as a distant inspiration with relatively little practical application to local circumstances; both found ways to deal with the cognitive dissonance this created; both eventually changed their minds -- recognizing the Soviet system as a police state long after this was obvious to anyone not committed to avoiding the evidence -- without then becoming neoconservatives. A detailed comparison might have yielded a portrait of Stone that made him seem less like a man swimming against the current than someone swept up in the same currents as other intellectuals of his day.

MacPherson is tireless and engaging in making her claim for Stone as a sui generis muckraker -- able to find between the lines of a congressional report, for example, evidence suggesting that "the Pentagon was vastly underestimating" the proportion of the Viet Cong arsenal that consisted of weapons captured from the U.S. military. But she is at times far too present-minded in spinning her narrative. References abound to the failures of the news media since Sept. 11, 2001. Within a few years, the book will be a period piece. It might have been better to let the reader draw the obvious lesson of the story: that one somewhat quirky watchdog can be preferable to a whole kennel of lapdogs.

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