It’s a truism that once an accusation is leveled, it’s impossible to erase entirely from the public memory. This is doubly true when it comes to the deceased, and doubly dangerous in our political world, in which debate is driven by cable news networks that show little interest in quaint questions involving what’s actually true. The only apparent standard is what’s actionable–or what’s going to piss off the network brass. Given the fact that most casual news consumers cannot be expected to sift through competing claims of evidence and the like, the media’s disregard for traditional standards of verification is one of the right wing’s most potent weapons.
Take as a case in point the accusations that have floated around for more than a decade against the late left-wing journalist (and Washington editor of this magazine) I.F. “Izzy” Stone. In her new biography, All Governments Lie!, journalist Myra MacPherson compares two sets of KGB memos by a Russian secret agent code-named “Sergei,” written in the summer and autumn of 1944, as the American and Russian armies were racing each other toward Berlin. One set described a series of conversations with a journalist code-named “I.” It contained all manner of detailed discussion about US strategy and speculations about how it would affect the USSR. Tempted as one might be to imagine that “I” stood for “I.F.,” alas, it stood for “Imperialism,” and the FBI concluded that it was none other than that well-known commie spy Walter Lippmann. Next, MacPherson examines a second set of memos by Sergei–a k a TASS reporter Vladimir Pravdin–in which he tries and eventually succeeds in lunching with a journalist code-named “Blin/Pancake.” The FBI decided in 1952 that the latter “appears” to be Stone.
The brouhaha around Stone’s alleged activities as a Soviet spy arose in 1992 and was based almost entirely on a misstatement by a former Soviet agent named Oleg Kalugin, terming Stone “an agent,” which was then reported in an extremely confused fashion by the London Independent. My colleague Don Guttenplan and I spoke, separately, to Kalugin afterward and clarified the fact that Stone was not “an agent” but rather a journalist who, like Lippmann–and any number of journalists–met with the local TASS reporter and swapped opinions. No classified information was ever broached. No money was ever passed. Izzy would not even let the guy pay for lunch. As MacPherson writes, “First, Stone never had access to classified secrets to barter. Second, journalists naturally sought information about Russia from a TASS correspondent, Pravdin’s official role. And as files reveal, Lippmann told far more than Stone ever did in meetings with Pravdin.” Despite continuous FBI surveillance of Stone’s daily activities and a dogged desire by J. Edgar Hoover to nail him for something, not a single shred of evidence ever emerged to support any spy allegations against him.
Stone died in 1989 at age 81, but the smear never has. The leaders of this campaign have been the professionally paranoid red-hunter Herbert Romerstein, the comically misnamed “Accuracy in Media,” wind-up shrieking doll Ann Coulter and, most tellingly, Robert Novak. The last is, of course, both a respected member of the Washington journalistic establishment and, as everyone who has followed the Joe Wilson/Valerie Plame case is well aware, a man who will give away national security secrets to America’s enemies when it suits his own ideological purposes.
Novak has been peddling the phony Stone story for more than a decade now. When I appeared on CNN’s Crossfire with him fourteen years ago, he raised it in order to smear my work and my reputation (Stone was my friend and journalistic mentor during his last decade). Following the show, I wrote a letter to then-CNN president Tom Johnson asking for the record to be corrected but received no response. I’ve tried a few more times to force the issue with Novak, but he has run away from every appearance. And the slander continues. When John Edwards spoke of Stone’s Trial of Socrates during the 2004 presidential campaign, Novak fulminated on CNN that this was an outrage, as “Stone received secret payments from the Kremlin.” Again, CNN did not bother with a rebuttal, much less a correction.
Since we now know that Novak is willing to blow the cover of a CIA agent and potentially endanger the lives and operations of those she was involved with, the smear campaign against Stone is thick with irony. This is, after all, exactly the crime of which Communist spies–both real and alleged–were accused. But not even Novak’s undeniable guilt in the matter has affected his status as an insider in good standing.
A few voices–mostly on the liberal margins–called on CNN and the Washington Post to fire or at least rebuke Novak. Both refused, with CNN allowing him to decamp to Fox only after he lost his cool, saying “Bullshit” on the air and storming off. Speaking of bullshit, this is the same Robert Novak CNN star anchor Wolf Blitzer praised as “one of the best reporters in the business” after Novak’s Wilson/Plame role was revealed.
One could say much the same about Ann Coulter, who has been exposed as a fabulist and fabricator so many times she deserves to have a wing named after her in the Liars and Lunatics’ Hall of Fame (as soon as one is built). She somehow claims that Stone’s career as “a paid Soviet agent” is not only “overwhelmingly documented” but also “confirmed” in “declassified Soviet cables.” For such pathetic performances, she is praised by MSNBC’s Chris Matthews as “brilliant” and invited to lie without challenge as frequently as she likes on his show. Remember, this is not Fox–it’s CNN and MSNBC.
It may be true, as Stone said, that “all governments lie,” but democracy cannot function if journalists do too. This is why the success of liars like Novak and Coulter at the center of our political culture is a greater danger to America than a truck full of terrorists bent on doing us harm.