23 October 2008

Journalism Moments: Remembering I. F. Stone

Earlier this month, John Walcott, the Washington bureau chief for a U.S. newspaper chain (McClatchy Newspapers), was awarded the first I.F. Stone Medal for Journalistic Independence for his reporters’ coverage of the period leading to the start of the Iraq war.

Walcott’s reporters produced dozens of stories that, virtually alone among news organizations, challenged Bush administration claims about the threat posed by Baghdad.

The award is administered by the prestigious Nieman Foundation at Harvard University but probably not many people outside the journalism world in the U.S. know who I. F. Stone was. He was an independent American investigative journalist best known for his newsletter, I.F. Stone’s Weekly, launched in 1953 and published through 1971. (He died in 1989 at the age of 81.)

As the New York Times noted in its obituary of Stone, “the primary grist for his profitable, 19-year newsletter was documents rather than people. He read at least 10 newspapers a day and ferreted out contradictions and inconsistencies in the voluminous records of official Washington, using them to oppose McCarthyism, racism, the nuclear arms race, American military involvement in Vietnam and other issues he regarded as stains on democracy.”

Walcott, in his acceptance speech for the award, made several comments that we think bear noting here --- none more important that his statement that being skeptical was “at the heart of who I.F. Stone was, what his legacy to us is and what's been missing in American journalism in recent years, not just in the coverage of the Bush administration's case for war in Iraq” but also, in Walcott’s view, in coverage of the latest Wall Street crisis.

Some other key Walcott observations:

“Why, in a nutshell, was our reporting (about the Iraq war) different from so much other reporting? One important reason was that we sought out the dissidents, and we listened to them, instead of serving as stenographers to high-ranking officials and Iraqi exiles. I'm afraid that much the same thing may have happened on Wall Street. Power and money and celebrity, in other words, can blind you. Somehow, the idea has taken hold in Washington journalism that the value of a source is directly proportional to his or her rank, when in my experience the relationship is more often inverse.

“That brings up a larger point, and one that I think is another part of what went wrong back in 2002, and what may have gone wrong on Wall Street. Instead of being members of the Fourth Estate, too many Washington reporters have been itching to move up an estate or two, to become part of the Establishment or share in the good times. I.F. Stone, on the other hand, knew well that reporters, by definition, are outsiders.”

Walcott, by the way, served as moderator during a panel discussion in September at VOA headquarters on the “New Media vs. the New Censorship”. The event, sponsored by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), focused on the challenges posed by the increasingly sophisticated efforts of authoritarian regimes to suppress and manipulate news online.

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