I.F. Stone — or “Izzy,” as he preferred to be called — was a radical American journalist born in 1907. As a young man he was briefly a member of the Socialist Party. He went on to write for the New York Post and later The Nation. In the early 1950s U.S. senator Joseph McCarthy led a witch hunt against suspected communists, and Stone found himself blackballed from the newspaper business for his socialist associations. Soon after that, he started self-publishing I.F. Stone’s Weekly, a newsletter in which he often reported on how the U.S. government misled its citizens. (He accused the Soviets of doing the same.) After his death in 1989, In These Times eulogized Stone as “the prototypical muckraker who would sooner go to jail than hold back on a story or fudge the truth to accommodate someone in power.”
July 1963, Washington, D.C.
I am, I suppose, an anachronism. In this age of corporation men, I am an independent capitalist, the owner of my own enterprise, subject to neither mortgager or broker, factor or patron. In an age when young men, setting out on a career of journalism, must find their niche in some huge newspaper or magazine combine, I am a wholly independent newspaperman, standing alone, without organizational or party backing, beholden to no one but my good readers. I am even one up on Benjamin Franklin — I do not accept advertising. . . .
This independence, like all else, has its price — the audience. My newspaper reaches a relative handful, but the five thousand readers with whom I started have grown to more than twenty thousand in ten years. I have been in the black every one of those ten years and paid off the loans which helped me begin, without having had to appeal to my readers or to wealthy friends to keep going. I pay my bills promptly, like a solid bourgeois, though in the eyes of many in the Cold War Washington where I operate I am regarded, I am sure, as a dangerous and subversive fellow. . . .
I have been a newspaperman all my life. In the small town where I grew up, I published a paper at fourteen, worked for a country weekly, and then as correspondent for a nearby city daily. I did this from my sophomore year in high school through college, until I quit [school] in my junior year. I was a philosophy major and at one time thought of teaching philosophy, but the atmosphere of a college faculty repelled me. While going to college I was working ten hours afternoon and night doing combination rewrite and copy desk on The Philadelphia Inquirer, so I was already an experienced newspaperman making forty dollars a week — big pay in 1928. I have done everything on a newspaper except run a linotype machine.
I had become a radical in the 1920s while in my teens. I became a member of the Socialist Party . . . but soon drifted away from left-wing politics because of the sectarianism of the Left. Moreover, I felt that party affiliation was incompatible with independent journalism, and I wanted to be free to help the unjustly treated, to defend everyone’s civil liberty, and to work for social reform without concern for leftist infighting. . . .
[When I started the Weekly] I made no claim to inside stuff — a radical reporter in those days had few pipelines into the government. I tried to give information which could be documented so the reader could check it for himself. 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. I sought in political reporting what [novelist John] Galsworthy in another context called “the significant trifle” — the bit of dialogue, the overlooked fact, the buried observation which illuminated the realities of the situation. . . . I tried in every issue to provide fact and opinion not available elsewhere in the press.
In the worst days of the witch hunt and Cold War, I felt like a guerilla warrior, swooping down in surprise attack on a stuffy bureaucracy where it least expected independent inquiry. The reporter assigned to specific beats like the State Department or the Pentagon for a wire service or a big daily newspaper soon finds himself a captive. State and Pentagon have large press-relations forces whose job it is to herd the press and shape the news. There are many ways to punish a reporter who gets out of line; if a big story breaks at 3 AM, the press office may neglect to notify him while his rivals get the story. There are as many ways to flatter and take a reporter into camp — private off-the-record dinners with high officials, entertainment at the service clubs. Reporters tend to be absorbed by the bureaucracies they cover; they take on the habits, attitudes, and even accents of the military or the diplomatic corps. Should a reporter resist the pressure, there are many ways to get rid of him. If his publisher is not particularly astute or independent, a little private talk, a hint that the reporter seems irresponsible — even a bit radical — “sometimes one could even mistake him for a Marxist” — will do the job of getting him replaced with a more malleable man. . . .
No bureaucracy likes an independent newspaperman. Whether capitalist or communist, democratic or authoritarian, every regime does its best to color and control the flow of news in its favor. There is a difference here [in the U.S.] and I’m grateful for it. I could not operate in Moscow as I do in Washington. There is still freedom of fundamental dissent here, if only on the edges and in small publications. . . .
The fault I find with most American newspapers is not the absence of dissent. It is the absence of news. With a dozen or so honorable exceptions, most American newspapers carry very little news. Their main concern is advertising. The main interest of our society is merchandising. All the so-called communications industries are primarily concerned not with communications, but with selling. This is obvious on television and radio but it is only a little less obvious in the newspapers. Most owners of newspapers are businessmen, not newspapermen. The news is something which fills the spaces left over by the advertisers. The average publisher is not only hostile to dissenting opinion, he is suspicious of any opinion likely to antagonize any reader or consumer. The late Colonel McCormick, in his Chicago Tribune, ran a paper about as different as possible from mine in outlook. But I admired him. He stood for something, he was a newspaperman, he gave the Tribune personality and character. Most U.S. papers stand for nothing. They carry prefabricated news, prefabricated opinion, and prefabricated cartoons. . . . All this makes it easy for a one-man, four-page Washington paper to find news the others ignore, and of course opinion they would rarely express. . . .
I believe that no society is good and can be healthy without freedom for dissent and for creative independence. . . . I am happy that in my own small way I have been able to demonstrate that independence is possible, that a wholly free radical journalist can survive in our society. In the darkest days of McCarthy, when I often was made to feel a pariah, I was heartened by the thought that I was preserving and carrying forward the best in America’s traditions.
“Izzy” was originally published as the introduction to The Haunted Fifties: 1953–1963 (A Nonconformist History of Our Times) by I.F. Stone. Copyright © 1963 by I.F. Stone. Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown, & Co., part of the Hachette Book Group.