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I.F. Stone's lessons for Internet journalism

COMMENTARY | July 09, 2007

Bloggers are taking up where the great rebel journalist left off, but if the news industry is to thrive on the Internet, reporters and editors shouldn't be far behind. Dan Froomkin writes that news organizations would do better online by replacing their bored monotone with a passionate adherence to traditional journalistic values.

By Dan Froomkin

The best blogger ever died in 1989 at the age of 81.

That's the conclusion I reached reading Myra MacPherson's wonderful biography of the great rebel journalist, I.F. Stone. The title of her book, "All Governments Lie!," is both a fitting summary of Stone's core philosophy and the organizing principle of many of the finest political bloggers on the Internet.

Although Stone worked for decades vigorously tweaking authority as a daily journalist, editorial writer and essayist, it was in 1953 that he created the perfect outlet for his extraordinary mind, starting I.F. Stone's Weekly, easily the scrappiest and most influential four-page newsletter ever sent through the U.S. mail. When Stone shut it down in 1971, the Weekly had 70,000 subscribers.

In many ways, the Weekly was a blog before its time. In format, it was a combination of articles, essays and annotated excerpts from original documents and other people's reporting — just like a blog. In content, it was a far cry from the passionless prose that afflicts so much mainstream political reporting. Like so many of today's top bloggers, Stone built a community of loyal readers around his voice — an informed voice, full of outrage and born of an unconcealed devotion to decency and fair play, civil liberty, free speech, peace in the world, truth in government, and a humane society.

The newspapers of his era could have learned a lot from Stone, as MacPherson —herself an accomplished Washington journalist — so effectively chronicles. History repeatedly vindicated his courage, while condemning their timidity. Similarly, the newspapers of this era could learn a lot from Stone as they hunt desperately for a profitable future in the Internet age. Once again, they are being too timid. What bloggers have so effectively shown is that the Internet values voice and passion. Where newspapers can excel in this new era is in providing both—grounded in trusted information.

I believe that one big reason newspapers are faltering online, certainly relative to the abundance of value they represent, is that so much in them is written in a monotone. Even the most experienced beat reporters — who could write with authority and passion based on their deep knowledge and appreciation for the subject they cover—are encouraged to write in a way that subjugates not only their personality but their judgment.

MacPherson's book shows us a man who, by contrast, "rejected the idea of the reporter as a robot with no political passion or insight. 'Without forgoing accuracy and documentation,' Stone argued, reporters did not need to be 'neutral.' … 'A newspaperman ought to use his power on behalf of those who were getting the dirty end of the deal…. And when he has something to say, he ought not to be afraid to raise his voice above a decorous mumble, and to use forty-eight-point bold.'"

It's all about pixels now, not point-size, but Stone's counsel is more appropriate than ever. Why should journalists subjugate their passions — particularly for such nonpartisan and appropriately journalistic values as transparency, truth in government, fair play, and humane treatment? And yet this is precisely what has happened, as corporate-style values seem to have overwhelmed our newsrooms, making our voices too bland to excite our readers.

There were many ways in which Stone distinguished himself from his more conventional colleagues. He wasn't a slave to access. He adored burrowing into original documents. He didn't hesitate to call a lie a lie. And he was relentless. Those characteristics seem to be in short supply among today's media elite — as the trial of former vice presidential aide Scooter Libby (and its coverage) illustrated so clearly. Instead, it's the bloggers who have taken up Stone's mantle.

On the issue of access, MacPherson quotes longtime Washington reporter Marvin Kalb on Stone: "He didn't care what the 'senior officials' said on 'deep background,' because I think he assumed they were lying or misleading the press in any case." MacPherson quotes Stone himself: "You cannot get intimate with officials and maintain your independence." Whether they were "good guys" or "bad guys" was incidental to him. "They'll use you." For Stone, an interview was not an occasion to get spun, but an opportunity to confront an official with facts. He deplored "baby questions."

Some of Stone's biggest exposés came simply from reading. Legendary Washington Post reporter Walter Pincus told MacPherson: "Izzy really set the pattern for reading hearings. I still do it. It's the only way to report around Washington. He was constantly harping on that." Pincus enumerated the reasons why few reporters dig into documents: "One, they don't want to believe that someone would deliberately mislead them. Two, it takes a lot of work and time. Three, they don't want to be the object of opprobrium for writing critical pieces. People assume that you will be cut off. That's wrong. As long as you write critical pieces that are accurate, you gain respect. As long as they know that by not cooperating they're not going to stop you from writing anyway, many get the idea that it's better to cooperate. And by contacting them, they can't accuse you of not being fair."

Even as bloggers — and Jon Stewart — build huge audiences at least in part by enthusiastically calling bullshit on government lies, aggressively adversarial journalism seems to be frowned upon in many newsrooms.

"Izzy's point was that reporters were not stenographers," investigative reporter and author Scott Armstrong tells MacPherson. "Izzy was eternally disappointed that so many were not willing to find the public records and say, 'These two points have been said and it's wrong. Here's what the record shows' …. He looked at journalism as a political act. The reason you do it is to try to keep the political dialogue honest." Elizabeth Drew called Stone journalism's great "fog cutter." Explains MacPherson: "Cutting through the fog of manipulative, distorted and lying governmental prose was his true specialty."

And once Stone sunk his teeth into a story, he kept at it. That happens to also be one of the signature attributes of bloggers — in stark contrast to the daily amnesia that the daily paper often seems to bring with it. The Weekly became Stone's platform for relentlessly opposing McCarthyism, cold war-era attacks on civil liberties, racial segregation, and eventually the Vietnam War.

Though Stone went through periods of economic uncertainty, he ultimately found that it's good business to have a voice and a brain and a notebook — and, just like bloggers, an independent delivery mechanism. How much of a proto-blogger was he? Consider MacPherson's description of his original home office: "The Weekly office then consisted of the dining room table, third-floor hallway and two bedrooms, an enclosed downstairs porch where Esther kept the books and handled the mail, and the basement, where Stone later stashed his assistants."

Also like today's bloggers, Stone wrote using an informal style, and he acknowledged — sometimes with admiration, sometimes with scorn — the work of others. MacPherson writes: "His famous boxes became as well read as the bloopers at the end of New Yorker items. Bordered in dark type, these paragraphs captured errors or contradictory positions in governmental utterances and newspapers, topped with sardonic headlines that drew smiles …. The Nation publisher Victor Navasky aptly called Stone an 'investigative reader' …. His newsletter at times resembled a top-notch clipping service with additional commentary and edgy headlines, which explains why so many mainstream journalists found information in the Weekly that they couldn't find elsewhere….Stone's Weekly became a conduit for protest as he published what other newspapers were ignoring, such as verbatim testimonies at congressional hearings. The 1955 Senate testimony of NAACP Executive Secretary Roy Wilkins was headlined 'How Mississippi Whites Terrorize Negroes Who Dare Ask De-Segregation.' " During the Vietnam War, "Stone's inclusion of foreign accounts that did not sanitize war coverage gave his readers a tougher reality than other American publications."

That bloggers have taken up so many of Stone's tactics is a testament to their genius. That all of their voices still don't add up to one I.F. Stone's Weekly is a testament to his genius. And now the collective genius of the Internet age may elevate Stone's critique of conventional journalism to a financial imperative. The Internet has exposed a reality harshly at odds with the increasingly buttoned-down corporate newsrooms of the bottom-line driven media companies: Readers have an enormous appetite for voice and passion. It would be ironic if business values drove corporate media to Stone's way of doing journalism, but it would be a great thing for the industry and the country.

(Originally published in the Summer 2007 issue of Nieman Reports.)

Blogger/I.F. Stone fan
Posted by Chuck Dupree
08/06/2008, 03:57 AM

Of course it would be wonderful "if business values drove corporate media to Stone's way of doing journalism". Unfortunately that doesn't seem likely.

The problem is that Stone was honest and corporate media have a big problem with that. Dan Froomkin shows that Stone's style works today, both as journalism and as business. But corporations who own media outlets are not mainly expecting profit from them (these days, it used to be different); they're mainly expecting what I call propaganda and they call opinion-shaping.

Corporations in general realize that their existence is harmful to the country, and they long ago determined which side they're on. Now the question is how to manufacture consent for their continued rape of the planet and deterrence of democracy. So, for example, you won't see anything about the problems with nuclear power from NBC, or criticisms of dishonest debate moderation and lies about 9/11 from ABC. And so on.

Corporations have no morals, so truth is not a value to them. Profit is their only value, and lies are a much easier way of generating profit (witness Bill Gates).

As long as people continue to accept the garbage distributed by the major media, we'll continue to fight the Jeffersonian battle. "Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost." Corporations and freedom are oil and water.

Nowadays we have bloggers, few of whom actually do reporting, and reporters, few of whom are allowed to criticize government and nearly none to criticize corporations. We're shooting off to both sides of our target, and missing wildly. Something has to change.

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