The modern journalist, so goes the rant that my colleague Ken Silverstein has perfected, is usually more than a bit too comfortable in his own skin. He frequently understands that the formula for success lies in sucking up to power, cultivating cozy relationships with persons of influence, and using his print or broadcast space to do their bidding—often with the outward appearance of news reporting. There are many very fine journalists in the world. And there are also many shameless sycophants who have the outward appearance and trappings of journalists but who don’t really merit the name.
And then there are my heroes, the unrelenting gadflies. Those committed to afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted. The muckrakers. This small but hearty battalion are the models for the modern blogger—they reflect the best that a blogger can be. Asking the unnerving question that “polite society” is afraid to ask. Revealing the deeply buried facts that the public has a right to know, but the conventions of politesse and one-hand-washes-the-other keep buried deep in the grass. Actually reading through a mountain of papers and noting the curious things in them that don’t quite add up. But mostly asking questions that powerful people really don’t want to be asked.
Bloggers should not replace journalists, but they may well be able to call journalists on bamboozlement, sloppiness and insufficient skepticism in the face of authority.
History gives us a number of figures who seem to fit less into the role of the conventional journalist and more in the modern idea of the blogger. Take Johann Gottfried Seume, who went to America to fight for King George as a German mercenary, and returned as an apostle of the American Revolution, determined to export its values to Europe. Or Ludwig Börne, Émile Zola, Ida Tarbell, William Hazlitt and more recently, I.F. Stone. I first stumbled across Stone when I was in high school and fell in love with his writing. He was feisty, independent and extremely stubborn. He seemed to be utterly tireless. And he had an amazing analytic capacity, the patience to wade through mountains of documents and to note the one paragraph here or the fact there that was suspiciously out of place and suggested something very important, actually. Stone is such an unlikely hero. He graduated 49th in a high school class of 52 (and was proud of it!), dropped out of Penn, and seems to have been taken up in an endless string of causes. But civil rights was his first passion, and ending the Vietnam War was his second. And in the midst of all of this, he maintained a passion for the classics. His book, The Trial of Socrates, is a classic in its own right, filled with penetrating reasoning which defies the conventional wisdom—and which just might be right (though I think it is more I.F. Stone than Socrates who values death as an act of defiance against society).
No society would want to be steered by an I.F. Stone, of course. But what a much drearier place America would have been in the sixties and early seventies without him.
In the Nieman Watchdog over at Harvard University, the Washington Post’s Dan Froomkin has a terrific column taking a look at I.F. Stone, Stone’s Weekly and his legacy.
In many ways, the Weekly was a blog before its time. In format, it was a combination of articles, essays and annotated excerpts from original documents and other people’s reporting — just like a blog. In content, it was a far cry from the passionless prose that afflicts so much mainstream political reporting. Like so many of today’s top bloggers, Stone built a community of loyal readers around his voice — an informed voice, full of outrage and born of an unconcealed devotion to decency and fair play, civil liberty, free speech, peace in the world, truth in government, and a humane society…
The newspapers of his era could have learned a lot from Stone, as MacPherson —herself an accomplished Washington journalist — so effectively chronicles. History repeatedly vindicated his courage, while condemning their timidity. Similarly, the newspapers of this era could learn a lot from Stone as they hunt desperately for a profitable future in the Internet age. Once again, they are being too timid. What bloggers have so effectively shown is that the Internet values voice and passion. Where newspapers can excel in this new era is in providing both—grounded in trusted information.
There were many ways in which Stone distinguished himself from his more conventional colleagues. He wasn’t a slave to access. He adored burrowing into original documents. He didn’t hesitate to call a lie a lie. And he was relentless. Those characteristics seem to be in short supply among today’s media elite — as the trial of former vice presidential aide Scooter Libby (and its coverage) illustrated so clearly. Instead, it’s the bloggers who have taken up Stone’s mantle.
Some of Stone’s biggest exposés came simply from reading. Legendary Washington Post reporter Walter Pincus told MacPherson: “Izzy really set the pattern for reading hearings. I still do it. It’s the only way to report around Washington. He was constantly harping on that.” Pincus enumerated the reasons why few reporters dig into documents: “One, they don’t want to believe that someone would deliberately mislead them. Two, it takes a lot of work and time. Three, they don’t want to be the object of opprobrium for writing critical pieces. People assume that you will be cut off. That’s wrong. As long as you write critical pieces that are accurate, you gain respect. As long as they know that by not cooperating they’re not going to stop you from writing anyway, many get the idea that it’s better to cooperate. And by contacting them, they can’t accuse you of not being fair.” Even as bloggers — and Jon Stewart — build huge audiences at least in part by enthusiastically calling bullshit on government lies, aggressively adversarial journalism seems to be frowned upon in many newsrooms.
I watched President Bush’s news conference yesterday twice and came away with a sinking feeling. Our country is mired in bullshit. It’s dutifully noted and passed on by the media, who never take the time to observe that it’s bullshit. And too many journalists share the infamous view of the New York Times’s Elisabeth Bumiller, that you can’t challenge the statement of a person in authority. What we really, desperately need, is a whole squadron of I.F. Stones to shake things up a bit and give us a more contrarian perspective on truth and reality. In the meantime we have in the memory of I.F. Stone an important beacon.