I.F. Stone’s legacy: A fulcrum for journalistic independence?

journalism / Article

Allan MacDonell is an expert on I.F. Stone. Knight Foundation funded “The Legacy of I.F. Stone: Part One,” a film about the late investigative journalist, which is being released this week, along with a companion video.

The I.F. Stone Medal for Journalistic Independence, awarded annually by Harvard University, says on its rim: “From Pariah to Gadfly to Institution to Fulcrum for Journalistic Independence.”

These two companion videos aim to use I.F. Stone’s distinguished career to embolden and encourage journalists to speak up and to guard their independence jealously. A commitment to free speech and journalistic integrity was the guiding light of Stone’s career.

A pariah during the McCarthy era and considered a gadfly by mainstream media outlets of his time, the fiercely self-reliant journalist earned a grudging respect and an unparalleled legacy through his self-published I.F. Stone Weekly. Started in 1953 with a few thousand initial readers, Stone’s newssheet grew into a profitable and influential circulation of 70,000 by the time it closed when he retired in 1971.

In his retirement, at age 64, Stone taught himself ancient Greek so he could research the fate of Socrates through the original source material. Stone’s best-selling “The Trial of Socrates” denounced the Athenians for sentencing Socrates to death for expressing views that were critical of and unpopular with society at large.

When Stone died in 1989, newspapers of record throughout the world praised his work and its impact in an extraordinary outpouring of editorials, columns and op-eds. All three major broadcast network news anchors eulogized Stone in prime-time TV obits.

Ten years after Stone’s death, a 1999 poll to determine the 100 greatest journalistic achievements of the 20th Century ranked the I.F. Stone Weekly among the century’s top two works in print journalism.

Stone has been the subject of two deeply researched, laudatory, well-reviewed biographies—“All Governments Lie” by Myra MacPherson and “American Radical” by Don Guttenplan. The books have helped to keep alive Stone’s passion for holding government accountable.

The ancient Greeks believed that one man could move the earth if that man had a strong enough fulcrum and a long-enough lever. Stone’s career, as presented in these videos, poses this question: Can Stone’s courage, conviction and applied journalistic ideals be a fulcrum for journalistic independence in the Internet age? 

Already, Ithaca College annually presents an “Izzy” Award to one or two journalists who embody Stone’s qualities of incorruptible diligence. Can the videos, if shown to journalists during their schooling, or in their media positions, inspire them to take a difficult stand, to speak out to power and to expose the truth as they uncover it?

Can citizens at large, seeing these videos, be inspired to pay more attention to, and support, independent media? Perhaps news consumers might invite their local newspapers to include more independent columns, pay less heed to the demands of advertisers and provide more courageous editorials. Perhaps public interest groups with goals that require journalistic independence might use these videos to gather their faithful together to formulate campaigns for a free and vital press.

Stone once said, “If something goes wrong in the United States, a free press can uncover it and the problem can be solved. But if something goes wrong with the free press, the country will go straight to hell.”  

Many observers argue that, indeed, something has gone wrong with America’s free press. These videos, and a forthcoming feature-length documentary about Stone being prepared by White Pine Pictures, are a rallying cry for a principle that is critical to the future of democracy in the United States: journalistic independence. 

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