Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1641
Izzy Feinstein grew up admiring the muckrakers of the early twentieth century, and then he himself became one of the best of them. Quotations from him are often as applicable now as they were when he uttered them. He is now better known as I. F. Stone, the name he and his family legally adopted late in 1937 when Izzy was thirty years old and fascism looked like the face of the future. There was Adolf Hitler’s spread through Europe and the Stalin-Hitler pact, German Bundists in America, and the Spanish Civil War. Izzy told his brother Lou that opposing fascism was of extreme importance “and that there was a tendency, when you had a writer by the name of Feinstein, to discount whatever he wrote because he was Jewish.” Although he had written articles for various magazines and political journals, the public had little reason to notice the name change.
Paying attention to what Stone had to say helped twentieth century readers gain a greater perspective of how their world was changing. Myra MacPherson, herself a long-time reporter of the Washington scene, is one such person. Her admiration for Stone is clear throughout “All Governments Lie!”: The Life and Times of Rebel Journalist I. F. Stone as is her general agreement with his political leanings.
At thirty, Izzy had already spent nearly half of his life as a chief editorial writer for major metropolitan newspapers. At the early age of fourteen he had already been a publisher, with his four-page The Progress discussing not high school issues, but world affairs. Later he told friends, “I started as a publisher and worked my way down.”
When Izzy was sixteen, publisher J. David Stern of the Philadelphia Record hired him as a local correspondent. Soon he was writing editorials for the Record. In 1931 he became the youngest chief editorial writer of a major American newspaper. In 1933 when Stern bought The New York Post, he brought Izzy along. This was well before the era of newspaper consolidation, and the Post was one of sixteen papers in New York Cityall with conservative editorial bents. Stern and Feinstein turned the Post into the first liberal voice in New York City.
In 1940 another liberal voice emerged when Ralph Ingersoll created the PM tabloid, and Stone was welcomed there. More than ten thousand reporters applied to write for PM. One of the lucky two hundred hired, Stone exposed the profiteering of United States oil companies selling oil to Hitler’s Germany in 1941 and other corporate dealings with the Axis. He railed at Secretary of State Cordell Hull for supporting the Vichy government of Nazi-occupied France. After Stone wrote about the Civil Service Commission “victimizing” suspected liberals in the government, the commission revised its regulations to protect them.
PM did not survive the nation’s turn to the right after World War II, and Stone signed on with the new Daily Compass, which MacPherson calls “the last fling in New York leftist newspapers.” That paper did not last long either. When it folded in 1952, Stone started I. F. Stone’s Weekly. He produced it for nineteen years, when ill health caused him to shut it down. He continued to write, however, until his death in 1989.
For any investigative journalist, Stone was an inspiration and a model to be learned from. He was, as MacPherson calls him, a “human fact-finding machine.” Early in the New Deal of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, he taught himself constitutional law so he could read and understand Supreme Court decisions. Invited to a dinner with three famous legal scholars, he “boned up for that dinner as if I was boning up for an examination” and proceeded to astonish the lawyers with his knowledge. When he was nearly seventy, he learned to read ancient Greek so he could experience Homer, Sappho, and Plato in the original language. He then went on to write a successful book, The Trial of Socrates (1988).
Even as a child, he loved reading classic literature. He read André Gide, Honoré de Balzac, and Gustave Flaubert. He devoured Edward Gibbon’s six-volume The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-1788). When imperious department store heiress Jill Lit Stern came into Feinstein’s Dry Goods Emporium, young Izzy was entranced by a book instead of tending the store. Miffed at his indifference to serving her, she asked, “What are you reading?” His withering reply was “Spinoza.” Subsequent conversation made him her protégé and lifelong friend and got him introduced to her publisher husband.
All this scholarship ability paid off not just in knowledge, but in methodology. He could read documents that other journalists had skimmed and find juicy tidbits worthy of exposing to the world. Aside from being a tireless researcher, he had the knack of getting past perceived wisdom to take a fresh look at information sources that others would pass by as old hat or common knowledge.
MacPherson notes that although Stone was an opinion columnist, he insisted on backing everything up with facts. Journalists should not be mere stenographers, he felt; they need to report the news behind official statements. When an official says something important, that is news; if he is lying, that is also news.
He also insisted on remaining aloof from the official sources that some journalists prefer to fawn over. “You cannot get intimate with officials and maintain your independence,” he told fellow columnist and Stone biographer Andrew Patner, “They’ll use you.”
One disappointment in this book is the unprofessional index. It is incomplete and, in places, difficult to use. Some insignificant mentions are indexed, while some important concepts are not; for instance, the American Socialist Party was started just a few years before Stone’s birth, and its charismatic leader Eugene Debs was one of young Izzy’s heroes. When Izzy was twelve Debs was sentenced to ten years in prison just for making an antiwar speech, and this helped to rouse Izzy’s radical spirit. That sentencing is also the focus of MacPherson’s discussion of how the United States government acted to stifle free speech and socialist dissent, with complete disregard for the Constitution. The index contains no listing under “Socialist Party” although it does have a string of eight undifferentiated references under “American Socialist Party.” This discussion is buried in a string of eighteen undifferentiated references under “free speech.” Numerous index entries combine a few subentries with long strings of undifferentiated references; for instance, “Cold War” has twenty-two of the latter and three subentries.
As a sort of subplot, MacPherson frequently contrasts Stone with famed Washington columnist and fellow Jew Walter Lippmann because these two men took such different approaches to journalism. Lippmann prided himself on being friends with presidents and kings. When he visited Paris, his mail was forwarded in care of French military leader and statesman Charles de Gaulle. Although he advised younger colleagues to remain detached, he was “more engaged with more presidents from [Woodrow] Wilson to Lyndon Johnson than anybody in the press!” according to New York Times journalist James (Scotty) Reston.
Far from being a darling of the governmental elite, Stone was the victim of smear campaigns and was the subject of a huge Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) file. He was one of few journalists who dared to ridicule FBI director J. Edgar Hoover at the height of his power, calling him a “glorified Dick Tracy.” He knew that Hoover would retaliate, and indeed the FBI bugged his telephone, picked through his garbage, and noted the cigars he bought and the letters he wrote to his hearing-aid company. MacPherson tried for years to obtain the FBI file on Stone, and eventually received about five thousand pages of them. Even then much information was redacted or simply missing from the files.
The National Press Club once blackballed Stone after he invited an African American man to lunch there in 1941, during the Jim Crow era. Only in 1981 did a younger generation of National Press Club members honor him. Lippmann, though, was proudly a member of the Cosmos Club, which refused membership to women and African Americans and had tacit quotas for Jews. Lippmann also supported various right-wing causes, such as the 1938 Southern filibuster against a federal antilynching bill. In 1957, however, he praised President Dwight D. Eisenhower for sending federal troops to desegregate schools during the violent times in 1957 in Little Rock, Arkansas.
Lippmann, regarded by some as the United States’ most influential journalist, showed no concern in the early 1930’s as Hitler climbed to power. Hitler was “Europe’s problem,” he wrote. Stone, meanwhile, read Hitler’s Mein Kampf (1925-1926) and predicted in the Philadelphia Record that “the shifty-eyed little Austrian paperhanger” would become chancellor of the Reich. In 1933 Stone predicted that ignoring the Hitler menace would result in war. Not until 1938 did Lippmann take up that problem, recommending a solution to the “overpopulation” problem in Europe: shipping all the Jews to Africa. He called Hitler statesmanlike and civilized.
Later, the Record (with Stone as chief editor) carried another insensitive Lippmann column with a disclaimer that referred to him as “one of America’s foremost publicists” and one whose ideas “often disagree with” Record policies. Even as World War II went on and the death camps became known, Lippmann wrote nothing about them. While Stone frantically urged relaxation of United States immigration policies to admit more Jewish refugees, Lippmann opposed the quota change.
MacPherson says that the two men symbolized a schism among Jews of the time, with Lippmann and Stone coming “from opposite sides of the ghetto.” The one wore expensive suits to Harvard and cultivated a “disinterested, elevated, and cool style.” The other “was red-hot, passionate, and spoke for the masses.” There was never any shortening or nickname for “Walter,” but everyone from Einstein to elevator operators called Isador “Izzy.”
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 50
Booklist 103, no. 2 (September 15, 2006): 8.
The Boston Globe, October 15, 2006, p. E6.
Columbia Journalism Review 45, no. 3 (September/October, 2006): 59-61.
Kirkus Reviews 74, no. 13 (July 1, 2006): 667.
Library Journal 131, no. 12 (July 1, 2006): 88.
Los Angeles Times, October 18, 2006, p. E1.
Mother Jones 31, no. 5 (September/October, 2006): 100.
The Nation 283, no. 8 (September 18, 2006): 15.
The New York Times Book Review 156 (October 15, 2006): 6, 25.
Publishers Weekly 253, no. 23 (June 5, 2006): 48.
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