Remembering what one of last century’s most courageous Jewish journalists taught us.
By Peter Dreier
In this era of Donald Trump—with its widespread corruption and abuse of power—the world of journalism could use the voice of I.F. Stone, one of America’s greatest muckraking reporters, who died 30 years ago today at 81 on June 18, 1989. From the 1930s through the early 1970s, Stone was an indefatigable researcher and an uncompromising critic of political oligarchy, crony capitalism, racism, and American militarism. He challenged mainstream journalism’s conservative “he said/she said” approach to reporting and, in doing so, inspired several generations of investigative journalists to follow his example.
He was born Isidor Feinstein in 1907. His father, who ran a dry goods store, had immigrated to Philadelphia to escape anti-Semitic persecution in Russia. But the family found that racism and bigotry was deeply ingrained in the United States, too. One of his most formative experiences was witnessing a group of African Americans picketing the local movie theater at the 1915 opening of D. W. Griffith’s film The Birth of a Nation, which glorified the Ku Klux Klan.
He began his journalism career began at age fourteen, when he published his own neighborhood newspaper, Progress. Though a lackluster high school student in Haddonfield, New Jersey—graduating forty-ninth out of a class of fifty-two, and more interested in his budding reporting career than his class work—he was an avid reader and became radicalized as a teenager.
While studying at the University of Pennsylvania, he worked part-time at the Philadelphia Inquirer, earning $40 a week—a good wage in 1928. He dropped out in his junior year, began working at the paper full-time, and was a journalist for the rest of his life. With newspaper work, he said, he never “felt compelled to compromise with my conscience.” In 1937 he changed his last name to Stone to keep readers who were too prejudiced to get past his Jewish-sounding byline, but among friends and colleagues, he was always called Izzy.
After several short stints at papers in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, he worked as an editorial writer from 1932 to 1939 for the Philadelphia Record and the New York Post. In 1937, he wrote a series of editorials for the New York Post attacking the U.S. Supreme Court for knocking down key components of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal program as unconstitutional. In one he wrote, “Those safe, conservative majorities brought on the Civil War. Those safe, conservative majorities have stood in the path of almost every major piece of social legislation enacted by the elected representatives of the American people. To suit their ends, those safe, conservative justices have twisted the Constitution itself beyond recognition.” Later that year he published his first book, The Court Disposes, in which he observed, “The Court can scent communism several centuries downwind, in a federal income tax or a minimum wage for chambermaids.”
A few years later, the Post, concerned that Stone’s left-wing editorials were costing the paper advertising dollars, forced him from the editorial department to the newsroom but gave him nothing to do. He soon resigned.
Stone and his wife, Esther, moved to Washington, DC, which became their permanent home. He covered the nation’s capital initially as a freelancer for The Nation, then for PM (a leftist New York daily that lasted from 1940 to 1948 and whose staff included cartoonist Theodor Geisel, “Dr. Seuss”), the New York Star, the liberal New York Post, and the radical Compass. When the Compass folded in 1952, Stone was forty-five and had a family to support. But he was a pariah in the midst of the McCarthy era and could not find work.
Without a job, he began I. F. Stone’s Weekly in 1953 and continued its publication through 1971. He never accepted advertisements for what he called his “four-page miniature journal of news and opinion,” designed with a simple lay-out and without photographs.
As a publisher, Stone became “an independent capitalist, the owner of my own enterprise, subject to neither mortgager nor broker, factor nor patron.” To get started, he used the mailing lists of the Compass and other publications, along with $3,500 he had received in severance pay and a $3,000 interest-free loan from a friend. He quickly had 5,000 subscribers, which had swelled to 70,000 by the 1960s. Charter subscribers included Albert Einstein, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Bertrand Russell. “In the fifties, to find his Weekly in the mail was to feel a breath of hope for mankind,” playwright Arthur Miller recalled.
Stone researched, wrote, and edited the newsletter himself, helped only by his wife and an occasional student assistant. From the start, its influence was much greater than the size of its readership, because other journalists, politicians, and activists read it dutifully and picked up on his leads.
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.
Stone got his stories not by cozying up to the powerful, parroting official press releases, or currying access to high-level policymakers, but by methodical tracking, following like a bloodhound the paper trail of hearings, transcripts, government documents, newspapers (he read ten a day), and foreign-language publications. In part, his methodology was developed out of necessity. He had very poor vision and hearing, making it difficult for him to cover press conferences and speeches. He did all this, of course, long before the Internet, on-line newspaper archives, or personal computers.
He published original, critical articles about the Korean War, Senator Joe McCarthy, and FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, who despised Stone and read the Weeklycompulsively. In 1953 Stone revealed that Pepsi-Cola had signed a $20,000 note for McCarthy when his bank account was overextended and that, at the same time, Pepsi was lobbying McCarthy’s subcommittee to decontrol sugar.
He was unblushingly patriotic and believed, especially during the dark days of McCarthyism, that he was carrying out the Founders’ desire for a truly free press. “I may be just a Red Jew son-of-a-bitch to them, but I’m keeping Thomas Jefferson alive,” Stone said.
He wrote articles filled with his outrage over racial injustice, such as the murder trial of the killers of fourteen-year-old African American Emmett Till, who had been killed in Mississippi in 1955 after reportedly flirting with a white woman. “Basically all of us whites, North and South, acquiesce in white supremacy, and benefit from the pool of cheap labor,” he wrote.
In 1941 he resigned from the National Press Club when it refused service to him and his African American guest, William Hastie, a former federal judge. When Stone tried to join again in 1956, after the club was integrated, he was blackballed.
During the nuclear test ban debate in 1957, Stone pieced together a story that reporters for major newspapers missed. To undermine support for a test ban, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) argued that there was no way to detect nuclear testing from a great distance and thus that there would be no way to verify the agreement. Stone found a government seismologist who told him that an underground Nevada test had been detected from as much as 2,600 miles away. The AEC was forced to claim it had made an “inadvertent” error. “No agency in Washington has a worse record than the AEC for these little ‘errors,’” Stone wrote. Stone published the story in his tiny Weekly, and it was picked up by other reporters and politicians.
Stone used this method to investigate many issues, from military spending to worker uprisings in Hungary, free speech infringement, and American arrogance abroad. In 1964 he was the first American journalist to challenge President Lyndon B. Johnson’s account of the Gulf of Tonkin incident, which LBJ used to justify going to war in Vietnam. Throughout the 1960s Stone exposed the government’s lies about the Vietnam War with thorough documentation, providing ammunition for the antiwar movement.
In one stirring piece, written in 1965, he compared events in Selma, Alabama, and Saigon: “If the federal government handled Negro aspiration as it handles the revolt in South Vietnam, we would be sending ‘counter-insurgency’ teams from Fort Bragg into the South to kill civil rights agitators. We would be burning out with napalm the Negro neighborhoods in which we suspected that CORE or SNCC workers were hiding.”
In 1967, with the war intensifying, he condemned the U.S. military’s practice of destroying whole villages to get a handful of guerrillas. “Imagine 30,000 Chinese troops uprooting Iowa villagers to save them from Republicanism and you get some idea of how likely this is to win—as our sentimental generals say—the hearts of the people.”
Stone wrote thirteen books, including Underground to Palestine (1946), This Is Israel(1948), The Hidden History of the Korean War (1952), and The Killings at Kent State: How Murder Went Unpunished (1971).
In declining health, Stone began publishing the newsletter on a biweekly basis in 1967 and gave it up entirely in 1971. He then taught himself Greek and wrote a nonfiction mystery-thriller, The Trial of Socrates, published in 1988. The book, a New York Timesbest seller for nine weeks, explored why ancient Greece, a civilization known for its embrace of free speech, would execute Socrates for what he thought and said.
Controversy hounded Stone even after he died. In 1992 the right-wing magazine Human Events charged that he had been a Soviet spy, based on newly released documents. Stone’s FBI file, released in 1994, contained 2,000 pages. According to his biographer D. D. Guttenplan, “The FBI didn’t find a single piece of evidence to suggest that I. F. Stone was anything other than he seemed—an unrepentant radical who concentrated his fire on his own government’s failings.”
During his career, Stone won the George Polk Award, the A.J. Liebling Award, and other honors from the ACLU, the Newspaper Guild, Columbia University, the National Press Club, and the Sidney Hillman Foundation. In 2008, Harvard University’s Neiman Foundation for Journalism created the annual I.F. Stone Medal for Journalistic Independence and Ithaca College’s Park School of Communications established the Izzy Award for “special achievement in independent media.”