Sidney Hook, the Marxist philosopher-turned-neoconservative who once mistakenly listed I.F. Stone among those who had defended the Moscow purge trials, wrote a book called The Hero in History. In it he distinguished between eventful men (like the Dutch boy who put his finger in the dike), people who happened to be in the right place at the right time–and event-making men, the ones who make things happen.
To me, I.F. Stone, né Isadore Feinstein, known to his friends as Izzy, was an event-making man. He was event-making not because Izzy and his little newsletter, I.F. Stone’s Weekly (later biweekly), were right about McCarthyism, right about the war in Vietnam (he was one of the first to raise questions about the authenticity of the Gulf of Tonkin incident), right about the Democrats’ repeated failure to live up to their own principles, right about what he called, long before the US invasion of Iraq, the “Pax Americana.” Writing in The Nation (which he served as Washington editor in the 1940s), he was prophetic about the Holocaust, which in 1942 he called “a murder of a people” “so appalling…that men would shudder at its horrors for centuries to come.” He was even, by the way, prescient about the meltdown of the Soviet Union. In 1984, seven years before it happened, he told Andrew Patner, the young Chicago journalist who had the wit to debrief Izzy on tape, that “all these dictatorships look so goddamned powerful. [But I think] one day they [will] just collapse. They’re rigid, and rigid structures crack.”
It’s the way he was right, the way he lived his life, the way he did his journalism that magnified his influence, made him something of a role model for the most idealistic of the next generation. This college dropout who couldn’t see without his Coke-bottle glasses, and who couldn’t hear without his hearing aid (which he turned on and off strategically), was something of a pariah among his peers in 1953, the nadir of McCarthyism, when he founded I.F. Stone’s Weekly. His name was on a Senate Internal Security Subcommittee list of the eighty-two “most active and typical sponsors of Communist-front organizations” (which in Izzy’s case meant mainly popular front, antifascist organizations or civil liberties groups upholding the Bill of Rights against those who would undermine it in the name of combating a phantom domestic Red Menace).
When Izzy founded the weekly, with the help of a $3,000 loan from a friend and a 5,300-name subscription list inherited from the defunct PM and its successor progressive papers, also defunct, he was unemployed and some thought unemployable, including by The Nation. (Freda Kirchwey, The Nation‘s editor, who had fired him as Washington editor when he didn’t notify her that he had signed on with PM to become the first journalist to travel with the Jewish underground to the Holy Land, was reluctant to re-employ him.)
But in short order, although he never attended presidential press conferences, cultivated no highly placed inside sources and declined to attend off-the-record briefings, time and again he scooped the most powerful press corps in the world.
His method: To scour and devour public documents, bury himself in The Congressional Record, study obscure Congressional committee hearings, debates and reports, all the time prospecting for news nuggets (which would appear as boxed paragraphs in his paper), contradictions in the official line, examples of bureaucratic and political mendacity, documentation of incursions on civil rights and liberties. He lived in the public domain. It was his habitat of necessity, because use of government sources to document his findings was also a stratagem. Who would have believed this cantankerous-if-whimsical Marxist without all the documentation?