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Wednesday, November 08, 2006

I.F. Stone(1907-89):Freedom of the Press: A Minority Opinion

From Candide's Notebooks/March 17, 2006

Between conformism, McCarthyism and the cultural bald spot that were the Eisenhower years, the mental climate of the 1950s was not healthy. The press reflected it—not because it was healthier, but because it was more choir than critic. Sounds familiar? The great I.F. Stone, America ’s first blogger, wrote this column about the media in November 1955. Curiously, when he refers to Washington ’s power structure “managing” the news, he cites James Reston, the late New York Times reporter, editor and, columnist, decrying the practice. But Reston was one of the worst offenders of news-management. His shoulders were rubbed raw over the length of his long career from hobnobbing with politicos and currying favor with presidents like a courtesan in Louis XIV’s court. His likes are now a Washington epidemic, with Fox News as an institutional incarnation of news management. Substitute spin for slant, and Stone’s piece could have been written yesterday by digby or Media Matters. --Pierre Tristam

The main obstacle to the creation of a well-informed public is its own indifference. In every country with a free press, thoughtful papers which conscientiously try to cover the news lag behind the circulation of those which peddle sex and sensationalism. This is as true in Paris and London as in New York; and if Moscow ever permits a free privately-owned press, Izvestia and Pravda will fall far behind any paper which prints the latest on that commissar’s love nest.

The second obstacle is that most papers are owned by men who are not newspapermen themselves; publishing is a business, not a Jeffersonian passion, and the main object is as much advertising revenue as possible. Thus it happens that between the attitude of the publishers and that of the public, most papers in this country print little news. And this, except for local coverage, is mostly canned, syndicated, and quick-frozen.

The third obstacle is that this has always been and is now more than ever a conformist country; Main Street and Babbitt—and de Tocqueville long before Sinclair Lewis—held a faithful mirror to our true nature. It doesn’t take much deviation from Rotary Club norms in the average American community to get oneself set down as queer, radical, and unreliable.

Against this background, it is easy to see why the average Washington correspondent is content to write what he is spoon-fed by the government’s press officers. Especially since the press is largely Republican and this is a Republican Administration, there is little market for “exposing” the government. Why dig up a story which the desk back home will spike?

It was this astringent view of our profession and its circumstances which I found lacking in the newspapermen’s testimony which opened the investigation launched here by a special House subcommittee on government “information.” The most perceptive of the witnesses, and one of our very best reporters, James Reston of the New York Times, put his finger on the vital point when he said that worse than suppression was the “managing” of the news by government departments. But the news is “managed” because the reporters and their editors let themselves be managed.

The State Department is an outstanding offender. Very often, for example, newspaper readers get not so much what actually happened at the UN as the “slant” given out in the corridors afterward to the reporters by a State Department attaché.

The private dinner, the special briefing, are all devices for “managing” the news, as are the special organizations of privileged citizens gathered in by State and Defense Departments for those sessions at which highly confidential ( and one-sided) information is ladled out to a flattered “elite.”

As a reporter who began by covering small towns, where one really has to dig for the news, I can testify that Washington is in many ways one of the easiest cities in the world to cover. The problem is the abundance of riches. It is true that the Government, like every other government in the world, does its best to distort the news in its favor—but that only makes the job more interesting.

Most of my colleagues agree with the Government and write the accepted thing because that is what they believe; they are indeed—with honorable exceptions—as suspicious of the non-conformist as any group in Kiwanis.

Though the first day’s witnesses included the best and boldest of the regular press, no one mentioned the recent deportations of radical foreign language editors and of Cedric Belfrage of the Guardian. No one mentioned the Communist editors and reporters prose- cuted—for their ideas-under the Smith Act. No one mentioned the way McCarthy “investigated” James Wechsler. Surely thoughtful men, as aroused as these were over the future of a free press, might have given a moment’s consideration to the possible danger in such precedents. Did they feel it would be indiscreet to go beyond respectable limits? That such fundamental principles are best left for orations on Zenger and Lovejoy, both conveniently dead?

I.F. Stone, NOVEMBER 14, 1955

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