Jun 19 2009

D.D. Guttenplan on I.F. Stone


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This week on CounterSpin: I.F. Stone was not only among the greatest American investigative reporters, he was also an activist and man of the left, according to D.D. Guttenplan, who has just published the latest biography of the journalist. Because he challenged U.S. power, often simply by reporting on 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 Stone was a Soviet agent. According to Guttenplan, Stone was never an unbending ideologue but a progressive who was quick to change his mind when new information intervened. A singular man, whose story, even after his death, has much to tell us about U.S. media and politics. Today on CounterSpin, we’ll hear a special extended interview with D.D. Guttenplan, author of American Radical: the Life and Times of I.F. Stone.


American Radical: the Life and Times of I.F. Stone


That’s coming up. But first, as usual, we’ll take a look back at the week’s press.

Washington Post columnist David Broder has made a career of pushing a certain type of safe corporate centrism, earning himself the honorary title of the Dean of the D.C. Press Corps. The formula is simple. With few exceptions, Broder takes the issue of day, and argues that Democrats should move to the right on it.

So it is that Broder’s position on health care reform is that Barack Obama should reject his party’s support for a “public option” government plan that would compete against private insurance companies.

Why should Obama do this? Well, according to Broder, the appealing thing is that some lawmakers—mostly Republicans, though he mentions Democratic Senator Ron Wyden and Utah Republican Bob Bennett—are against setting up a public plan. Hence, advocating one isn’t very “bipartisan.” And therefore, there is virtue in tossing the public option overboard:

The time may come—either before or after the House votes on its bill—when Obama may have to demonstrate his flexibility on the issue of a government-run option. Wyden and Bennett are potential allies if he removes what Bennett calls “the rock” blocking a bipartisan bill. And the president couldn’t wish for better partners.

This is virtually the same thing Broder always advises: “flexibility,” meaning giving up on something Democrats support. And what they would give up is an idea that seemingly has widespread public support, as does a single-payer plan. But the David Broders of the world can’t be bothered with that. What’s important to Broder is what has always been important: for Democrats to be more like Republicans, or at least tailor policy to their liking. The columns really write themselves.

—Economist Dean Baker once again takes on the Washington Post on his Beat the Press blog. This time flogging “Fox on 15th Street,” his nickname for the Post, for “departing from normal news practice” with what Baker calls another “editorial” on the front page on June 14, complaining about Obama’s deficits. It’s not just that it’s frankly “incredible that at a time when close to 15 million people are out of work that the Washington Post can obsess day after day about the deficit.” It’s also the lengths to which the paper will go to beat that drum, even when, as in this case, there really is nothing to report. Baker points out that the article’s subheadline, “Concern Mounts in White House as 2010 Elections Loom,” tries to justify the subject; but, he asks, “Who is concerned? The story doesn’t tell us. Who says that they are concerned? The story doesn’t tell us.” Such mere details are no match for the paper’s agenda: “after all, there were protesters in Wisconsin calling President Obama a socialist. That’s enough for a front-page news story in the Washington Post. Needless to say, the Washington Post has no problem ignoring completely far larger protests that don’t agree with its editorial agenda, much less putting them on the front page.”

Baker also notes another front-pager from the same day that helps make very clear where the paper’s priorities lie: that would be the story celebrating how the bad economy means, no kidding, “a deluge of available nannies as parents losing their jobs or downsizing turn to cheaper child-care options, including staying at home.” “Nannies No Longer Rule the Roost; Parents Regain Economic Power to Be Picky in Hiring Help” was the headline for that cheerful A1 piece.

—For a discussion of James von Brunn, the racist, anti-Semite accused of killing a black guard at the Holocaust Museum, Fox‘s Glenn Beck interviewed, among others, Harry Binswanger, a bizarre Ayn Randian relic who, among other things, described von Brunn as “anti-negro.” Binswanger also explained that von Brunn was a leftist, because, racism is a leftist thing:

Well, this von Brunn’s culture is a tribe of racist anti-Jewish, anti-negro, anti-immigrant—everything, and therefore, he’s the phenomenon of the left, because racism is a form of collectivism. The right wing is individualist, believes in individual rights, freedom, the dignity of each individual life. But it’s the left wing—you know, Hitler was national socialism, right?

Beck was all over that, asking Binswanger to expand on his last point: “How did it happen that—you look at people who are Nazis and you say that those are right-wing? It doesn’t make any sense whatsoever.”

It was all a conspiracy hatched back in the ’30s in Germany by Nazi leftists and their Communist leftists comrades, explained Beck’s crackpot guest:

“There was the deal made between the Communists and Nazis in Germany in the ’30s where they each agreed to define themselves as the opposite of the other.”

“Okay,” one may ask—one who actually knows something about Nazi era—”why, if the Nazis were leftists, were they hell-bent on exterminating all aspects of the left: Communists, trade unionists and other left wing organizations affiliated with the left coalition of the time, the Popular Front?”

It’s just that one may not ask this on the Glenn Beck show.

—One of the reasons some people think media sexism is largely a thing of the past is that they only look for certain kinds, like demeaning treatment of women politicians. Not that that can’t be found, but that overlooks the garden variety bias that can frankly permeate other kinds of coverage. Take for instance the Los Angeles Times, who as part of their coverage of a Comic-Con convention in San Diego, published a “guide for girls” about the event. As noted by blogger Charlie Jane Anders, the feature starts out by assuring readers that, contrary to what you might think, the series of science fiction panels and events “is not just for nerdy guys anymore. And it’s not all just about the influx of squealing Twilight girls, either.” Yes, gee, in 2009, it is true that girls, too, are interested in this entire genre of entertainment, and no, their interest isn’t limited to squealing. But the piece goes on to emphasize which male stars will be at the convention for girls to admire, noting for example that “Women will be rushing the stage, offering to do star Jake Gyllenhaal’s laundry on those washboard abs that he acquired for the film Prince of Persia, since he spends much of it fighting, shirtless or both.” Okay, we get it. Or as Anders sums up: “So girls, don’t be intimidated by Comic-Con—you can do Jake Gyllenhaal’s laundry!” Silly? Sure. Also insulting. Ah, dumb stereotypes—how can we miss them if they won’t go away?

—And finally, we’d heard that the New York Times had taken a punishing stance with Boston Globe workers, demanding deep cuts in wages and benefits (for workers, though not for management) and showing an unwillingness to negotiate. But for anyone who needed convincing, the Boston Herald on June 11th reported that former General Electric CEO Jack Welch had evidently referred to the Times Company‘s treatment of its workers as “brutish”. Welch of course is an icon in the field of unblinking, massive layoffs and rhetorical disparagement of workers and their contribution. His business book advised managers, “Downsize before it’s too late!” His interest in the owners’ agenda went so far that he commanded then-NBC News chief Larry Grossman not to use the expression “Black Monday” for the 1987 stock market crash because it might depress the market and cost him money. Well let’s just say if Neutron Jack calls your labor practices “brutish,” that’s saying something.


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. He just happens to be in town today, and he joins us in the studio. 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.

DG: Absolutely.

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, for his uncanny ability to seize on and publicize the most inconvenient truths and for his vociferous objection to the existing order.” 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. 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, and 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, so 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 record, 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 was what he did was he forced the government to admit that a test ban treaty was still possible and was 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. He wrote about the Holocaust in real time, at a time when, as FAIR has shown and others, U.S. outlets like the New York Times were really burying the story. On Vietnam, he immediately went after the Gulf of Tonkin lies, among many other things. He was an early and forceful voice for civil rights, a critic of Stalinism who, after witnessing workers rising up against the Communist government in Hungary in 1956, predicted that the same would happen one day in Moscow. 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 was 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. Well, 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, when you look at the federalists and the anti-federalists, when you look at Benjamin Franklin, who was a hero figure for Stone, who, like Franklin, spent a lot of his life in Philadelphia, 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 in 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’re still living in that kind of imbalance. So yes, they try and deprive us of any legitimacy and in a sense 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 programs. 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, and why was Stone’s writing about that war seen as out of bounds?

DG: Well, in a sense, what happened with The Hidden History of the Korean War, is that Stone had been a very prominent and very successful voice of the New Deal in journalism and then Franklin Roosevelt died. Truman came in and American policy began fairly quickly to shift towards what became known as the bipartisan consensus, in other words, a sort of centrist view that Republicans and Democrats agreed on that was presided over by a revolving cast of Wall Street lawyers. For the Republicans, John Foster Dulles and for the Democrats, Dean Acheson. And Stone opposed that. He felt that the kind of wartime alliance with the Soviet Union, even if it wasn’t sustainable in peace, was still something that we ought to have paid more attention to, and that we shouldn’t have rushed so quickly into the Cold War. And that left him very much outside of an emerging consensus. Again, at a time when the right was using spy cases and McCarthyism to suggest that the left were not only wrong in their policy views but also illegitimate, unpatriotic, and traitors. And so that climate of fear and his being a lone dissenter in that, cost him a great deal. 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 him 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. I think part of what’s going on is, well, first of all, 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. And I think 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 can be an independent radical, in other words someone 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 the Shay Rebellion and Samuel Adams and forward to the CIO and 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, you suggest that Stone was a limber and independent thinker, open—and you 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 “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.