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August 11, 2009

A Muckraker for All Seasons

Every vacation I try to plow through a few books. This year, however, a combination of sun and surf kept me to only one book.

And, what a book it was: American Radical: The Life and Times of I.F. Stone by D.D. Guttenplan, a nearly 600-page (including notes) biography of the iconoclastic journalist I.F. Stone.

IFStoneWow. Don't be daunted by the length of the tome, or its subject matter. It's neither wonky nor wistful. It offers a straightforward, facts-laced account of Stone's rather incredible life journey — born Isidor Feinstein in Philadelphia into a family of few means, and canonized at the time of his death as one of the great investigative journalists of all time. Where Guttenplan was unable to find direct quotes from letters written by Stone, he turned to contemporaries and colleagues who had kept their correspondence.
Stone was sought out by other media and top thinkers throughout the century, though some kept their relationship at a distance because of their concern that being associated with I.F. Stone meant admitting you were somehow a communist, or socialist, or worse.

Unlike many counterparts, Stone spoke his mind, stayed fast to his political beliefs (leftist but not dogmatic or aligned with any particular political movement or party), and broke some of the biggest stories of the century: war profiteering during World War II, the false attack in the Gulf of Tonkin, and many, many more. He was also a major critic of McCarthyism and of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, as well as an early opponent of the Vietnam War, of the nuclear arms race, of totalitarianism and suppression of free speech.

An American Jew, Stone was considered by many to have heretical views (in the 1950s and 1960s) toward Middle East peace. Stone believed in self-determination for both Jews and Palestinians, and argued in speeches for mutual recognition as a way to ensure a lasting peace.

Stone accumulated plenty of adjectives during his 50-year career: radical, muckraking journalist, Communist, Socialist, New Dealer, propagandist, investigative reporter, publisher, father, husband, war critic, book author, anti-nuke activist, Soviet spy, and many more. Not all of them were well-deserved, or accurate.

Guttenplan, a newspaperman himself, manages, in his wide-ranging biography, to keep a keen eye on Stone's ability to think for himself and not be swayed by a need to be popular, or befriend administrations and sources.

In fact, some of Stone's harshest critiques and exposés were often levied against people he agreed with politically. But, a story is a story — and lies and corruption can be found wherever you go.

He also believed newspapers should tell the truth and raise the level of discussion in society rather than just repeat what leaders had to say.

In fact, it was Stone who coined the phrase: "All governments are run by liars and nothing they say should be believed."

A timeless lesson.

If you're near Manchester, Vt., you can catch Guttenplan on his national book tour talking about Stone and his biography. Guttenplan will be at Northshire Books Wednesday at 7 p.m., at a special event to be taped for C-SPAN's BookTV program.

Thanks for the review. Sounds like a must-read for Izzy Stone admirers. One of the lessons I learned from him as a beginning policy analyst and community organizer was to always read a source document yourself. His view was that you can never believe what someone else tells you this report or that study says. You have to read the original yourself. He was famous in those days for reading virtually every report published by the DOD, Justice, etc. He was nearly blind and I distinctly remember a photo of him squinting at a Defense Dept report about two inches from his face, with his glasses perched on his forehead...He was a force of nature.

Whether it was the truth about the Renaissance project, or "studies" used to justify misguided legislation, by following Izzy's dictum to read the original materials I've learned more than I would have, if I'd just taken someone else's word for it.

I'm so glad he's being recognized with a solid biography. May he inspire another generation of journalists, muckrakers and just all-around rabble rousers to read the source documents for themselves...

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