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Annals of the Press

by Jacob Brackman

Oct 15, 2018 | Media, Politics

Keith Jenkins

Jacob Brackman was a 21-year-old features editor on The Harvard Crimson when, in 1965, he wrote this vivid profile of Izzy Stone, the ingenious and curmudgeonly proprietor of I.F. Stone’s Weekly. Corporate media was ascendant even in those early years, and Stone’s independence, fearlessness, and legendary work ethic earned him a unique standing at a time of incipient homogenization of news and culture.

In speech-making attire, a three-piece serge suit with wider lapels, I.F. Stone looks rather like an old Jewish tailor from the Bronx, uncomfortably slicked up for his grandson’s bar mitzvah. But when he begins to talk, eyes twinkling with more than a little demonic mischief behind perfectly round, steel-rimmed bifocals, the alte zeda image evaporates.

For one thing, Stone talks dirty (not vulgar dirty, witty-engaging dirty). But mainly, as one shaggy-haired iconoclast admitted to me after Stone’s last Cambridge talk, “He comes on incredibly hip.” Always advertised as something of a curiosity piece, a radical from the Twenties or Thirties now overripe on the bough, Izzy unabashedly foils his detractors five times out of six. Socialist platitudes or peacenik clichés simply aren’t his style.

“Let’s not get all tangled up in these simplistic notions,” he jibes at a young liberal who tried to win his allegiance to some left-wing slogan. “What ‘neo-fascists’ are you talking about?” he jabs. “Don’t put me in boxes. It’s a complicated universe.”

“Achhh. I’ve known Izzy for 30 years,” a disenchanted fellow traveler whispered to me. “The guy follows Moscow’s party line right down to the commas.” Phooey. Stone has as much disdain for Communists as he has for Democrats or Republicans. He’s about as eager as a local ladies auxiliary for the violent overthrow of the government.

The fact is, Stone has had such a long, painful look at the bowels of democracy that he’s really almost sympathetic to officials caught in the snare of political power. He sees them imprisoned in their roles—whether in Washington, Moscow, or Peking—and, participating in government by concealment, scared to death to talk. “A flaming radical couldn’t be happy in government unless he planned to burn himself on the steps of the Treasury.”

Stone’s quick to tell you that he’s been a self-styled radical since he read Jack London in 1922. Not too long thereafter he joined the Socialist Party; he became a member of the Socialist executive committee in New Jersey before he was old enough to vote. (He’d have liked to come to Harvard, but graduated 49th in a class of 50.)

He became a newspaperman as a 14-year-old sophomore in high school. Except for a brief disappearance in 1946 when he journeyed illegally from Poland to Palestine disguised as a Jewish immigrant (and on the way sat in on a Nuremberg trial), he’s been a journalist ever since. In one year he worked on four different papers without losing a day’s pay.

After a generation of working for other people’s publications, Stone decided he’d been “carrying on a soliloquy inside a telephone booth.” He tired of researching news that city editors wouldn’t print. He yearned for a job that wouldn’t ask him to soften his view, to be a promoter or a salesman: a job in which he would be totally responsible for all his misdeeds. He longed to be a guerilla warrior. But offering a “good left opposition” inside the New Deal was a thing of the remote past: by the Haunted Fifties, America’s left had shrunk like a fried bacon strip. America had become a dinosaur with huge tail and tiny head. Our natural hostility to “the others,” says he, ballooned into a drive to “kill the bastards and coexist with ourselves.”

Stone started his weekly in 1952, not a good year for independent reporting. It had a little piggy bank launching—$7,000 and a mailing list of 5,500 “elderly radicals”—but mushroomed as the blather of the McCarthy years subsided and people grew less frightened. Today it boasts 22,000 readers—not an eye-popping figure, but Stone has no illusions about reaching a wide audience.

“If you just weren’t so scathing, Izzy, if you only tempered your stuff a little. If you stopped always making your subscribers so damn mad. . . . ” But Stone isn’t interested. He considers getting your readers mad at you part of the secret of good journalism. He has no advertisers to offend and doesn’t worry about his proponents to the right. Instead, he sees himself supplying ammunition to men who feel a lot like he does, veering to the hotter subjects—the stories “safe” liberals file away—picking up the pieces on the edges, ones that don’t fit into the Establishment jigsaw. In short, Mr. Stone is under no compulsion to compromise in tone or expression. He calls ’em like he sees ’em.

To the unhappiness of some, he sees ’em starkly. And in an age when news vending is corporate business and journalists must learn to play the sycophant, Stone’s bald outrage at the frauds of government and men seems pretty strong stuff. (I remember the raised eyebrows last year as Izzy declined to equivocate on questions from a Kirkland forum: “Jimmy Hoffa? He’s a lousy crook. Belongs in jail. . . . Dean Rusk? The kind of guy you grow at Harvard—a sophisticated, educated, cultivated, big bag of nothing.”) A subscriber’s salvation is that the unfair, bullheaded way Stone maligns his heroes is more than compensated for by the way he knocks the living daylights out of his villains.

Stone’s criticism may be destructive but it rests on a massive bedrock of documentation. (How he ploughs through so much dull stuff each week is beyond me.) Because he feels the government information bureaus are at best advertising, at worst brainwashing agencies whose purpose is to manipulate an unsuspecting public, he must go beyond them. Because he feels that administrators are disingenuous, practiced in the arts of falsification, he never contents himself with their ready answers. “They’ve got journalistic maidenheads hanging in their offices. They like to ladle out the news. They can give the impressions of a denial without the reality. But the more you make a liar talk, the more he’s gonna slip up.” And so he digs.

What strikes one most forcefully about Mr. Stone is that he is a truly happy man. “What made you start your paper?” a student asks. “There was no alternative. I was in despair,” he replies, a big wide grin spread across his face. Only a happy heretic knows that kind of despair. Even bemoaning our policy in Cuba or Vietnam, his most concerned expressions are always dissolving into smiles.

So here, aspiring journalists, is Izzy Stone, at an age when most men look back ruefully on the years behind, on the social debts unpaid, on the causes not espoused; here he is working like a crazy man at what he loves to do, thumbing his nose at the government, yet making a nice living, beholden to no one, feeling quite subversive and generally all smiles—for himself and for man’s future on this planet. He loves to call himself the only capitalist entrepreneur left in the news business.

In other words, what is astonishing about Stone is not so much his candor, his independence, his boldness, his industry, but the simple, happy fact of his survival, his self-made “success” in a field nearly strangled by deception and cowardice. May he continue to crusade somewhere between Galahad and William Randolph Hearst, at least until this country spawns another old-style rebel. May he continue if only because, for us young newspapermen deciding what giant publication we’ll sell out to, his raucous one-man band makes sweet, sweet music.

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