The Life and Work of I.F. Stone I.F. Stone was an icon of investigative reporting, covering subjects from the New Deal to Hitler's Germany, the birth of Israel and the Vietnam War. Biographer Myra MacPherson remembers a great journalist.

The Life and Work of I.F. Stone

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. And here are the headlines from some of the other stories we're following here today at NPR News.

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Today, the life and times of a rebel journalist. I.F. Stone was one of the most revered and most investigated investigative journalists of the 20th century. For more than 60 years he covered the world with a voice that was ruthless in its devotion to the facts and unrelenting in its outrage at abuses of power.

Here's I.F. Stone in 1987 speaking with NPR's Alex Chadwick about the Iran-Contra affair.

(Soundbite of interview)

Mr. I.F. STONE (Journalist): This thing was run like a conspiracy. In a conspiracy you're careful to protect the headman so he can always say he didn't know about it. I think that when you have a CIA and a big network of secret agencies at a president's disposal, there's no way of having real control of a secret network.

I'm not saying that all the people in there are no good or anything like that. Some are very patriotic and admirable men. But it is a kind of occupation that attracts screwballs, paranoids, double-dealers and nuts. And they're operating abroad in secret with unlimited funds. There's no way to control what they're doing.

CONAN: Izzy - everybody called him Izzy - Izzy chalked up many important stories in a career that latest over 60 years. More often than not, they were the product of painstaking research in public documents. He was the first with correct news about U.S. underground atomic testing. He was among the first journalist to question the Gulf of Tonkin incident that prompted massive U.S. intervention in Vietnam.

Izzy Stone died in 1989. Now there's a new biography of his life and work. If you knew Izzy Stone, or if you have questions about his life and his work, give us a call. Our number: 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. You can also send us questions by e-mail. The address is talk@NPR.org.

Joining us here in Studio 3A is Myra McPherson. She's the author of the newly-published book, All Governments Lie: The Life and Times of Rebel Journalist I.F. Stone, and thanks very much for joining us today.

Ms. MYRA MCPHERSON (Author, All Governments Lie: The Life and Times of Rebel Journalist I.F. Stone): Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: Imagine that you were speaking to a room of aspiring journalists. What do they need to know about Izzy Stone?

Ms. MCPHERSON: Oh, that's a very difficult question, but - on one level. But there's just so many things. As you noted with the little clip that you had of his voice, he was absolutely brilliant but he was also able to tell things in a very amusing, personal, funny way. He could be a standup comic for Jon Stewart.

The line of my book, all governments lie, is taken from another part, which is the bottom, underlying part. Is but danger lies in wait for countries who officials smoke the same hashish they give out. And I think right now he'd be looking at a lot of problems going on in this administration and the hashish that has been smoked.

And I have about five major points for why a journalist should care about Izzy. One is that he constantly said: read the documents, look at the documents. He found things that were right in front of everybody's face. He was not one of the first, he was the first to break the Gulf of Tonkin story open - wide open - two weeks after that happened in 1964.

In the 50s, he had such a historical background that he was warning against a land war in Asia. He also said to never go to the official sources, and he said never to get their flattery so intensely that you think they're telling you something that you really need.

And he said you really have to wear your chastity belt to keep your journalistic virginity when you're in Washington, because they will just simply tell you stuff - I mean the whole concept that a young journalist should know is that it is the government's role to manipulate the news the way they want to. And it is their role to go behind that.

Not to defame anybody, not to do anything scandalous. It's really important to find out the truth. That's what you're there for, that's what you're supposed to be doing, and that's what Izzy preached constantly.

CONAN: In a way you contrast him throughout the book with a man who is a better-known journalist in his day.

Ms. McPHERSON: Far better.

CONAN: Than I.F. Stone, and that's Walter Lippmann, but a man who did - he had a lot of influence at the time, but he also did, you know, dine with the powerful.

Ms. McPHERSON: He was, in fact, so much a part of kings and presidents that when he went to Paris at one point, his forwarding address was in care of Charles de Gaulle.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. McPHERSON: So you have - the reason I twinned them is that they are two exact and perfect examples of different forms of journalism. One is the insider approach, which we all know all too unfortunately in Washington can happen to journalists to the stage that they believe. I mean, Lippmann said that Nixon was going to end the war, and somebody said why, and he said because he told me. This happens with weapons of mass destruction - the stories, I mean Izzy would've been all over that if he'd been around today.

I think it's fascinating because both play a role, but as Izzy always said, establishment journalists know things I don't know, but a lot of what they know isn't true. And I think that the most salient point about the differences in them was that Izzy was 23 years old in 1933, a very young but major editorial writer. And he warned the world of Hitler and said that he was on a rampage that would lead to war, and Lippmann wrote nothing about the Holocaust. He even wrote flattering pieces about Hitler. The two of them are fascinating in the book because they're both Jews, but one came from immigrant roots, which was Izzy, and I think learned a degree of skepticism because everything was so anti-Semitic, and Walter Lippmann was taking clothes by the trunk-full to Harvard and passing. You know, so I think they are two important people out of the 20th-century journalism. And that's why I twinned them.

CONAN: You mentioned he was Jewish. His name was Isador Feinstein.

Ms. McPHERSON: Yes.

CONAN: Why did he change his name to I.F. Stone?

Ms. McPHERSON: In 1937, he had just had a third child, and he said he felt that it would be - the fascism - people have to understand how rampant fascism was in the United States. That's another thing. I really do a historical analysis of his life in a way that people can understand, and he felt that if he had a very obvious Jewish name, it would go against what he was writing about Hitler and the Holocaust and also could be dangerous for his son. But he told me years later that he always felt troubled by it, that he had changed.

But of course journalism in those days, you know, William Paley, the head of CBS, tried to hide his Jewishness constantly. And somebody wanted him to put money in Fiddler on the Roof, and he said well, he thought it was a good play, but it wasn't it too Jewish? So there was this constant sense that - and then J. Edgar Hoover had a 5,000 file - page - on Izzy, and in those files he kept repeating over and over a lot of anti-Semitism including, you know, that his name was really Feinstein. And so the Secretary of State got in a tussle with Izzy - Cordell Hull - and said you go by other names, too, don't you? And then it became a cause celebre in Washington.

So I think it was a reason that he felt he needed to make at the time.

CONAN: We think of Izzy Stone…

Ms. McPHERSON: But he always said, every time, that who he was, and he had a great line about being an immigrant's son. He said I always wistfully look at people who can really sing Land Where My Fathers Died without feeling awkward.

CONAN: As you mentioned, we think of his as this tireless, dogged researcher in a messy office in Washington, D.C., yet he was in the field as a younger reporter.

Ms. McPHERSON: Absolutely.

CONAN: Tell us about - he wrote a fascinating book about Palestine and the establishment of the Jewish state.

Ms. McPHERSON: Oh, that was brilliant, and it's so lyrical. I quote him a lot in the book because I just love his writing, but this was one of the most lyrical things. He was the first reporter in the world to go on an illegal ship with Holocaust…

CONAN: …survivors.

Ms. McPHERSON: …survivors, and wrote this story…

CONAN: They were running the blockade into what would become the state of Israel.

Ms. McPHERSON: I'm trying. Yes. You're explaining it better than I am. Yes, the British blockade. And it was totally illegal. And he went with all these people, told fabulous stories, showed what the war had done to people, got there, and of course he had a knack for angering everybody on all sides. He immediately wrote that he thought there should be a bi-national state, and because everybody loved this - he was writing this for PM Magazine…

CONAN: A leftist New York daily.

Ms. McPHERSON: …that is now, of course defunct. But he upped the circulation 250,000 people because people were reading these day-by-day bulletins from him that he turned into the book. But the most important thing is that he was going to be rich for the first time in his life because a lot of Jewish groups were going to put some money behind the book and promote it. They said all you have to do is take this idea that you're for a bi-national state. And he said he wouldn't do it, and he said that was the end of the lunch and the end of my book. But it's a brilliant book.

CONAN: Let's take some calls for Myra McPherson now. If you'd like to join us, our number is 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. Our e-mail address is talk@npr.org. Of course, we're discussing the life and work of the great I.F. Stone. Let's begin with Sara(ph). Sara's calling us from Denver.

SARA (Caller): Hi. I just had a brief comment to make. Izzy was - well, two brief comments. Izzy was a very dear friend of my family's, and the first thing I wanted to say was he was about the meanest charades player I ever knew.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. McPHERSON: Yeah.

SARA: He was phenomenal.

Ms. McPHERSON: Well, he had - I'm sorry, go ahead.

SARA: No, the thing I wanted to mention was the fact that the best example of Izzy's refusal to believe what you get told, is that I believe - wasn't he in his 80s when he wrote his book on the trial of Socrates?

Ms. McPHERSON: Yes, well, when it published, yes.

SARA: Right, and what I was told at least by - was that he refused to read secondary sources, so he actually taught himself Greek.

Ms. McPHERSON: No, it's not quite true. He did read a lot of secondary sources, but he also taught himself Greek. And as he said when he was looking through the Library of Congress and reading everything, and he'd read about a famous author who had learned Greek at age 4, and he said I'm glad I was not armed because if I had a gun I would've shot myself.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. McPHERSON: But he really did yes, learn it all. And of course all his family and friends said that he - I knew him, too - but he had this absolutely frightful accent. He would just demolish these beautiful poems, but he would insist on doing it in the Greek and then in the English. And you're so right, he had such a verve for life. He was a great - he disco-danced all the time. You know, Izzy was going deaf at the age of 37.

SARA: Right.

Ms. McPHERSON: So that was one of the reasons that informed his necessity to go and read, because he couldn't trust his hearing all the time. And he loved to listen to rock music - dance to it because he could hear it through his feet.

CONAN: Ah, that makes sense.

Ms. McPHERSON: And he was the oldest guy on the floor with Esther, his wife, dancing in a place called Dance Your Ass Off in San Francisco during the 70s.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. McPHERSON: So you know, he was just a…

SARA: I remember listening to Tom Lehrer with him, and he absolutely loved it.

Ms. McPHERSON: Oh yeah. He would've loved John Stewart. I have to tell you, I think he would've loved it.

CONAN: Sara, thanks very much for the call, appreciate it.

CONAN: We're talking about I.F. Stone, you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's talk with Michael, Michael calling us from Brattleboro in Vermont.

MICHAEL (Caller): Yes, hello, good afternoon.

CONAN: Hi, Michael.

MICHAEL: First of all, I want to say to Myra McPherson, who interviewed me for a long time passing, that after reading that book, I had an appreciation (unintelligible)…

Ms. McPHERSON: Oh, thank you very much. Nice plug. I did not plan this.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MICHAEL: Well, nor did - I was driving along in my car. My comment, having read a lot of I.F. Stone and also having walked on the march to the Pentagon, was that I just recently worked assisting in a journalistic frontline work, and I know that despite their passionate journalism, that they work very hard to keep their opinions, their attitudes, let's say, out of their work, and Izzy did not. I think, the question is, would your feeling be that in today's journalistic world he would be viewed more as an editorialist, an op-ed writer, rather than a journalist? Would his…?

Ms. McPHERSON: Well, he wore so many hats. He was an editorialist, and he was an opinion columnist, and there was certainly no sin in saying what you believed in a column, but he also insisted on totally backing up things with facts. And he always used to say opinion didn't bother him - the presence of opinion didn't bother him so much as the lack of news, and he felt that if you could - you were not supposed to be just be a stenographer.

You are not - and also, I have a very strong feeling about what I call faux objectivity. And that is something that mainstream journalists fall back on all the time - which is, if somebody says there are weapons of mass destruction, you have to print it. Lippmann said this about McCarthy, but people at the time like Richard Rovere, another famed journalist, said yes, but - if he says something, you have to print it, that's news, but it's also news that he is lying. And Izzy really marshaled the facts to go along with his opinions. Now one area where he fell down on that, and he admits it, and he wrote an incredibly long confessional, was that he gave too much slack to leftist regimes. But then when he turned around he became very hard-hitting on them.

And Joe Rowe(ph), a famous civil-rights lawyer, said that he felt that Izzy's great independent strength when he started The Weekly, which is 1951, 1952 -actually January, 1953 - was that he had been burned before, and he would never just follow with his heart again.

But Izzy's mistakes were always one of idealism. He felt that with the atom bomb around, that there was no way that we could do anything short of mutual destruction than to have co-existence peacefully with other people.

But by and large, I am astounded when I go back and read him - and have used him - how incredibly his facts were marshaled to point - his point of view. And I think that's what journalism should be doing today and not just writing what some official says.

He also went into the bowels of the government and got whistle-blowers down there who broke incredible stories. He was the first in America to point out that American businesses were still doing business with the Nazis - our American cartels - before the war, during the war, and after. And he got that through documentation that was given to him.

CONAN: Michael, thanks very much for the call, appreciate it.

MICHAEL: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. You can see one of I.F. Stone's columns if you'd like, at our Web site. It's part of a new collection of his works, and we'd like to thank our guest, Myra McPherson, for coming in to Studio 3A today. Appreciate the time.

Ms. McPHERSON: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Myra McPherson is the author most recently of All Governments Lie: The Life and Times of Rebel Journalist I.F. Stone, and she joined us here today in Studio 3A. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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