This week on CounterSpin: Some of the current conversations about the future of journalism trade on some pretty rose-colored notions of journalism’s past. The reality is journalism has always been a very mixed bag, with just some reporters doing the challenging, talking truth to power work that later generations may imagine everyone was doing.
This week on the show we’re going to take a look back at a couple of critical institutions in the history of what we now think of as investigative journalism – the sort of hardhitting, independent reporting current discussion is focused on ‘saving’.
One of those institutions was actually a person—I.F. Stone. Stone wasn’t just among the greatest American investigative reporters, he was also an activist and a man of the left. Earlier this year, CounterSpin spoke with D.D. Guttenplan, author of the latest biography of the journalist, American Radical: the Life and Times of I.F. Stone. Because he challenged U.S. power, often just by reporting the contents of official documents, and because he was a leftist, Stone’s reputation has been under assault by vestigial McCarthyites who have been claiming for decades that he was a Soviet agent.
Guttenplan discussed those charges, and Stone’s actual ideas, in this interview about a man whose story, even after his death, has much to tell us about U.S. media and politics.
Also on the show: Ramparts magazine has also been important even to people who never read it. Originally a small literary magazine pitched to the “mature American Catholic,” Ramparts became a rollicking left-wing muckraking enterprise that exposed CIA misdeeds and Vietnam War lies and atrocities. Contributors to Ramparts resemble a who’s who of progressive journalism and the American left, including Angela Davis, Seymour Hersh and Robert Scheer to name a few. The story of Ramparts’ rise and fall, and its impact on U.S. journalism, is told in a new book, A Bomb in Every Issue: How the Short, Unruly Life of Ramparts Magazine Changed America. CounterSpin spoke with author Peter Richardson.
A little media history, this week on CounterSpin.
CounterSpin: In his new biography of I.F. Stone, American Radical: the Life and Times of I.F. Stone, author D. D. Guttenplan looks at the entire career of the great investigative reporter and scourge of official power, who seemed to play a role in nearly every major story of his time, with a portrait of the independent gadfly that the author says, still matters, even twenty years after his death.
D.D. Guttenplan is the London correspondent for the Nation magazine.Welcome back to CounterSpin D. D. Guttenplan!
D.D. Guttenplan: Pleasure to be here.
CS: Well, why to use your own words, does I.F. Stone still matter?
DG: Well, look at the world around you. There are newspapers that are struggling for survival, there are governments that don’t tell the whole truth, we’re still at war in Afghanistan, we’re still at war in Iraq, and I suppose, I called the book American Radical very deliberately to point out that what I.F. Stone did: his career was an example of being politically engaged through journalism. And also we live in an era when people on the left are abashed to call themselves radicals, where you have to beat somebody up to get them to admit that they’re a liberal half the time. And I.F. Stone never pretended to be a liberal. He was an unashamed radical, and in a way, the most important way in which he matters is he shows us, he reminds us what’s possible. He reminds us what the left can do, he reminds us what our country can do, he reminds us what our government can do if we keep on its back and we make sure it delivers on its promises.
CS: And he reminds us what journalism can do, too.
CS: Well, you write that, and this is touching on what you’ve just gone over, even with all that has been said of Stone, “it is not as clear as it should be that Stone was not merely, or even primarily a newspaperman. He was also a radical, an irritant to those in power.” You go on, but I want to ask, how did he challenge power?
DG: Well, he challenged power by using power’s own record against itself. I mean, one of the things that happened in Stone’s life that was a matter of bad luck at the time, but good luck for journalism and for the rest of us, is that in 1937 he began to go deaf. So up until that point, he had been a very ambitious, left-of-center, insider political journalist. He had very good friends in Washington, he had really good sources in the FDR White House and throughout the New Deal, he was, in a way, a journalist like many other journalists. But when he began to go deaf, he began to pay less attention to, in a way, what the government said and more what they did, he wouldn’t go to hearings because he couldn’t hear well enough. Instead he’d go the next day, and he’d look at the transcript, and he’d see things that nobody else caught because they were caught up in the rhetoric of the moment or because they were rushing to make a deadline. And by paying attention to documents, you know Stone famously said, “All governments lie, but the truth still slips out from time to time,” and what he was an expert at was using the truth. Let me give you a short example but it was one of his favorite examples, which was: in the ’50s Harold Stassen was Eisenhower’s negotiator with the Russians on a test ban treaty, and the Russians offered the United States to have monitoring stations every thousand kilometers throughout the USSR so that we would detect if they were having nuclear tests. And at the same time the U.S. started doing underground tests, and the Russians started doing underground tests, and Edward Teller, who was the father of the H-bomb said, “well that shows that we can’t have a treaty with the Russians because they’ll simply test underground and they’ll hide the results.” And they announced that the U.S. tests proved that nuclear tests couldn’t be detected for more than 200 miles, so it basically made Stassen look like a liar and it made the test ban treaty like a hopeless cause. But Stone dug out the fact that, first of all from a New York Times, what he called a shirt-tail, a little item after the main story, that stations in Tokyo and in Europe had picked up this American test that was only supposed to be detected from 200 miles. Then he went to the U.S. Geodetic Survey Department, and he got the government’s own seismologists to say “well we’re not sure about these Tokyo results, but we have American results that we know that we can trust as far as Fairbanks, Alaska,” which was 1700 miles away from the test site, so essentially what he did was he forced the government to admit that a test ban treaty was still possible and was still a realistic political goal.
CS: Well, in reading your book about Stone, one of the things that struck me was how often Stone came down on the right side of things, and not just from a progressive viewpoint. What does it say about Stone’s journalism that makes his judgment seem to hold up so well?
DG: Well, it is interesting how often when we read what he wrote 30, 40, 50 years ago, how prophetic it seems. In 1956, he covered the Suez war and he wrote that the road to peace for Israel must go through the Arab refugee camp and that Israel would always be able to win military victories but that those victories would never matter until it made peace with the Palestinians. I think the thing, though, is not so much to say that he was always right, because he was often wrong. He was in a sense very lenient on Stalinism in the early ’30s. You could argue that the did that because he was concerned about the Spanish Civil War but for whatever the reasons, he felt that he had given the Soviet Union too easy of a ride in the early ’30s. But what he did say is that a journalist has a choice: you can either be consistent or you can tell the truth. If you’re going to worry about what you said last week, and you see something that doesn’t fit, you’re going to have to throw out what doesn’t fit. On the other hand, if you’re reporting honestly what you see in front of you, then you’re going to change your mind and you have to be able to change your mind, you have to be able to recognize when your old model doesn’t fit. And he was always willing to be surprised by the facts.
CS: You mentioned the role of being a radical and a reporter. Doesn’t that role fly in the face of U.S. journalism notions of, or pretensions to, objectivity?
DG: Well, you know, it’s interesting because when you look at the press in the days of the founding fathers, you see that we had a very partisan press in the beginning and, in a way, a very engaged and contentious one. We have this 19th century idea that journalists are supposed to be cool, objective, and detached and Stone didn’t buy that at all. I mean, he basically thought that anybody who could be detached, for example, in the face of what was happening to Jews during the Nazi period in Germany, had to suppress their own humanity and he didn’t think that you were a better reporter for suppressing your own humanity. He did say that you needed to be honest about what your engagements were, what your political commitments were, and equally important, you needed to be open to evidence that went against your preconceptions.
CS: In your preface you tell how Stone was a regular on Meet the Press before the worst of the McCarthy era set in, and that after his effective blacklisting in the early ’50s, he never appeared again on that show, though he lived until 1989. Did Stone’s fight against the McCarthyism, which cost him very much, ultimately win him respect? And do you think the scarcity of forceful left commentators today suggests that perhaps we’re still living under some sort of McCarthy hangover?
DG: Well, I think we are still living in a hangover of a time—when the left takes power we try and advance our policy goals, when the right takes power, they advance their policy goals and they try to deprive us of any legitimacy. And I think we are still living in that kind of imbalance. The interesting thing about what I call Stone’s disappearance, because he was a regular on Meet the Press, both on TV and on the radio until 1949, and his last appearance on TV was debating a spokesman from the American Medical Association about national health program. Now, you know, that debate hasn’t moved on very much in 60 years and one of the reasons is because our side of that debate hasn’t been heard.
CS: Well, you suggest in the biography that one work that got Stone excluded from polite journalistic company was his book The Hidden History of the Korean War. What was the price he paid for writing that book?
DG: Now the Korean War book essentially arose because he was living in Paris and he just noticed that regardless of political orientation, the European press covered what America was doing in Korea with much more skepticism than any American reports. And so he kind of applied this kind of parallax phenomenon of seeing it from a different point of view and said, “well we said we were going into Korea to go back to the status quo before the war but when the American armies reached the 38th parallel they didn’t stop, they kept going, so there must be something else. We must have another agenda here and what might that agenda be?” And of course this was before Lyndon Johnson’s credibility gap, it was before George W. Bush declared mission accomplished, so the idea that the United States might conduct a war and wasn’t honest with American citizens about what it was doing, the idea that the government might lie to us about a war, was seen as shocking at the time.
CS: And in a sense, it makes him sort of the godfather of the modern genre of journalists opposing the government and speaking for the anti-war movement, too.
DG: You know, it’s an interesting thing to consider that when the Vietnam War opposition held the first moratorium in Washington, the first march on Washington against the war, Stone was the only journalist asked to speak. And I think that it was very much his isolation and his record during the 1950s that gave him credibility with the new generation of American radicals, and it meant that they trusted him and that they were willing to listen to him in a way that, you know, other people his age were not listened to and were not taken seriously. So he had credibility that he earned and paid for by essentially being made a pariah by the establishment.
CS: Well, speaking of McCarthyism and its hangover, at least since Stone’s death in 1989 the right has leveled accusations that he was, variously, a Soviet Agent or a paid KGB asset. You have been addressing these charges for years. Commentary magazine recently re-launched the charges, alleging categorical proof that Stone was a Soviet spy. What can you tell us about Stone’s career, his contact with Soviet officials, and the periodic charges from the right?
DG: Well I think the first thing to know about the periodic charges from the right is that Stone didn’t do anything in his relationship with Soviet officials or the Soviet Union that other American journalists didn’t do. Even if you look at the most recent book, Spies, which is where these charges come from, they say that Stone tried to avoid meeting with some official from TASS, which was a Soviet news agency, who was actually a KGB agent, but that Walter Lipmann met with this person many times. And yet they say that, of course, Walter Lipmann wasn’t a spy because they liked his politics, whereas when Stone met with the same person under the same circumstances, he’s seen as a spy. No serious person—even these people when you sort of put the point to them—maintains that Stone was a spy in the sense that you or I would use the word. In other words, that he had access to classified information and turned it over to a foreign government. What they do claim is that he acted in collaboration with the KGB during the 1930s, and I think there are several points to make about that. One is there’s no real evidence to back this up. What they rely on are KGB reports from the 1930s transcribed by somebody who no other person, no other scholar has access to these archives, nobody can see the documents, so we just have to take this guy’s word for it. And as it happens, I was in court in London five years ago when this guy, who’s the source of all this, lost a libel judgement. In other words, he couldn’t convince a jury of ordinary British people that he was a competent historian. But let’s say that his notes are accurate. Let’s say that Stone really did meet with somebody who he thought was a TASS correspondent or maybe even he knew was a KGB agent in 1936 and talk about William Randolph Hearst or talk about the best way to combat fascism; well, what does that prove? I mean, why not? You know in 1936, the Soviet Union was not viewed by most Americans as a hostile power. In fact, most American who had an opinion, you can look at the Gallup data on this, they supported, in terms of the Spanish Civil War, they supported the Spanish government, which was aided and armed by the Soviet Union. So you know, Stone would’ve, he thought that in the 1930s that opposing fascism was the most important cause of our time and probably of his life. His fear of fascism led him to change his name from Isidor Feinstein to I.F. Stone. He would’ve worked with anybody, he would’ve worked with the devil to oppose fascism and to oppose Nazism in the 1930s. What you have are a bunch of people who are sort of seeing the past through the standards of the far right in America in 2009 and you know it may suit them polemically, but it’s poor history to do it that way.
CS: Well, the notion that somehow Stone was something of a Manchurian Candidate, is strange, given that he seemed to have been fairly openly a friendly critic of Moscow until the Hitler Stalin pact in 1939, when he became a less friendly critic. What do you suppose is the usefulness, I think this gets to what you were talking about a minute ago, to the right of accusing Stone of being a Manchurian Candidate for the Soviet Union, still, going on twenty years after his death?
DG: Well, because the idea that you can be an honest journalist, that you can influence people’s views, that you can tell the truth, and you can be an unabashed radical is threatening to them. So they need to delegitimize him. If they can’t delegitimize his views, in other words, nowadays most people are in favor of national health coverage, most people are in favor of equal rights for black people, most people agree that the Vietnam War was a disastrous idea, so if you can’t delegitimize his view, you have to attack his associations. And if you grant the possibility that someone like Stone could be an independent radical, in other words someone who was not dancing to Moscow’s tune, if you grant the idea that American radicalism has a, and you know this is a major theme in my book, that there’s a tradition that goes back from, you know, the Shay Rebellion and Samuel Adams and forward to the CIO and, you know, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, if you grant that the people in that line and in that tradition are as much genuine American patriots as anybody else and that they formed this country’s history, then that’s dangerous to the right because it suggests that they can’t say “stop we can’t have anymore change; we have keep things the way they are.”
CS: Indeed, rather than being an ideologue, like many of his neo and paleo-con detractors, your book suggests that Stone was limber, an independent thinker, open—and you’ve touched on this already—open to changing his mind on learning new information…
DG: Well, you know, it’s interesting if you look at whatever period his critics allege he was too close to Moscow or he was too close to the American Communist Party, you can always find things he wrote during that period that were extremely critical. I mean, he wrote during the purge trials, he wrote, “the trials show either that Trotsky was a monster or that Stalin’s a monster.” During the ’50s when the first Polish workers rose in revolt in Poznan, Stone hailed their revolt, and he said you know “if socialism in the East is going to have any future, it’s going to be from movements like this, of workers rising up against the oppressive state.” So you know, he was very much someone who was prepared to be surprised by the evidence and prepared to be surprised by history.
CS: And prepared to change his mind.
DG: And prepared to change his mind.
CS: We’ve been speaking with D.D. Guttenplan, London correspondent for the Nation magazine, and the author of American Radical: The Life and Times of I.F. Stone, just out from Farrar, Strauss and Giroux.
Thanks again for joining us today on CounterSpin, D.D. Guttenplan!
DG: It’s great to be here. Thank you.
CounterSpin: Somehow, a small literary magazine originally pitched to the “mature American Catholic” turned out to be something else entirely; a rollicking, publicity-seeking left-wing muckraking enterprise that exposed CIA misdeeds and Vietnam War lies and atrocities. Contributors to Ramparts magazine resemble a who’s who of the American left and progressive journalism; Noam Chomsky, Seymour Hersh, Robert Scheer to name just a few.
The story of the rise and fall of Ramparts, and what it meant for American journalism, is told in a new book, A Bomb in Every Issue: How the Short, Unruly Life of Ramparts Magazine Changed America. We’re joined now by the author of the book, Peter Richardson.
Peter, welcome to CounterSpin.
Peter Richardson: Thank you, Peter.
CS: Well, there’s no shortage of historical inquiry, or nostalgia even, into the personalities and politics of the Bay Area of the 1960s. It seemed like plenty of folks have very fond memories of Ramparts and what it meant to their own political maturation, but the history of the magazine hadn’t been nailed down until you decided to do it. For those who didn’t come of age reading Ramparts, tell us why you thought this was an important story to tell.
PR: Well, the truth is that I didn’t come of age reading Ramparts. It was only when I began researching my last book on Carey McWilliams, editor of The Nation, that I started hearing about Ramparts. So for me it was a kind of a curiosity; how come I’ve never heard about this magazine if all these important people had contributed to it? So my interest in the story was quite personal. I just wanted to figure out as much as I could about the magazine, and then I discovered that it was incredibly successful and influential, if short lived. So to me it just looked like a project that I could take on and finish and that people my age and younger; I’m 50 years old; might be interested in. And as you point out, there is a reservoir of good will among the magazine’s readers and contributors, so in a way it was a kind of an easy book to put together because everyone was willing to talk about it.
CS: You do tell the story of the personalities there, which I think it’s sometimes were almost as powerful as the journalism they were producing. Warren Hinckle and Bob Scheer and kind of these clashes of egos maybe. Also the look of the magazine was something that’s striking as somebody who didn’t grow up reading this either. That look, the very professional look of Ramparts was part of what people at places like Time magazine found so disturbing because it looked professional and yet you opened it and it was so radical.
PR: Right, and that was why Warren Hinckle and others called it the nation’s first radical slick. They used all the high production values of the slick magazines of the day, including Time, which hated Ramparts, partly because it used many of its own mainstream methods to advance a very different kind of politics. But I’m really glad you mentioned the look because that was indispensable part of its success. And Dugald Stermer, who was you know the first really powerful art director at the magazine, made this contribution possible, and it often included a kind of whimsy even if the stories were very hard hitting. There was a kind of irreverence and a kind of irony in the way the covers would appear, for example. Even with very grave, sometimes lethal stories; whistleblower stories on Vietnam and Napalm and the CIA covert operations and so on. So it was this interesting combination of visual irreverence and also there was a lot of humor in the text as well in very hard hitting whistleblower stories.
CS: For people who didn’t grow up reading Ramparts, give us sort of the one minute description of where you would place their investigative journalism or their muckraking. What kind of stories came out of Ramparts that the mainstream media weren’t telling?
PR: A lot of it started with Vietnam. Robert Scheer returned from Vietnam and joined the magazine and his proposition could be boiled down to the simple fact that the mainstream media just simply wasn’t covering what was really going on in Vietnam at the time. He brought a lot of expertise to that subject. He had been a graduate student at the Center for Chinese Studies at Berkeley before he joined the magazine, and as I say, he had been on the ground there, so they did some big stories on Vietnam. One was actually a contribution from a special forces sergeant named Don Duncan who was a staunch anti-Communist, obviously Green Beret, Catholic; it was a Catholic magazine still at that time; who said you know the whole thing is a lie, I mean what’s going on in Vietnam in no way resembled what you’re being told.
So Vietnam was a big part of it. The CIA was another target for muckraking stories by Ramparts and I suppose it should be pointed out that really no other magazines were doing this kind of muckraking at the time, and once other news outlets, new organizations, even CBS news, the New York Times, Washington Post, once they saw that there was an appetite for this kind of work, they began to pick up their game. So Ramparts had this indirect effect on the media as well. Mainly, you know, other organizations thought, you know, maybe we should be doing this, maybe that’s part of our job. And that sort of diminished the need for smaller magazines like Ramparts who sort of constituted these savvier fringe players in the media ecology at that time.
CS: A victim of their own success. You did—the name of the book is A Bomb in Every Issue, that’s what Time magazine called Ramparts. Talk a little bit about that relationship between Ramparts and the mainstream media. I know in the book you made the argument that 60 Minutes, of all places, kind of picked up some of what Ramparts was doing many years later. But at the time what was the general media reaction to Ramparts’ stories?
PR: Well, Ramparts had a very, kind of, special connection with the New York Times and the New York Times picked up several of its stories, probably a half dozen of its stories over a ten-year period and put it on the front page. And that was very much part of Ramparts’ plan. They knew they couldn’t reach everybody they wanted to reach, so their notion was let’s do big stories that the other media, mainstream, big mainstream media outlets can’t ignore and then let them run it and get to their readers.
They had a slightly more entangled relationship with Time magazine who also ran a number of stories on Ramparts, but mostly to disparage the stories and discredit the magazine. And CBS news, I mean I don’t know if there’s a direct connection, but just chronologically, Ramparts won the George Polk award, very prestigious journalism award for what the committee called the revival of the muckraking tradition.
That was 1967, the next year CBS news started 60 Minutes magazine, which of course, did investigative reporting as well, but mixed in some lighter cultural fare. A couple of years later the New York Times did the Pentagon Papers story with Daniel Ellsberg, and you know some people I interviewed thought you know it’s hard to really pin it down, but they may not have taken that chance had not Ramparts been doing stories like this for five years with some success.
And of course Washington Post picked up the Watergate story a couple of years after that. Not from the experienced political reporters, but from the police reporters, the young guys who stumbled upon a big story, but they had the guts to run it. And, you know, prior of that period, the pre-Ramparts period, there were very few outlets doing this. The Nation, under Carey McWilliams was doing a lot of big stories but often lacking the kind of showmanship that Ramparts brought to its major stories.
CS: We’ve been speaking with Peter Richardson. He’s the author of the new book A Bomb in Every Issue: How the Short, Unruly Life of Ramparts Magazine Changed America. It’s available now from the New Press.
Peter Richardson thanks for joining us this week on CounterSpin.
PR: Thank you very much for having me.