The Descent of the Left Press: From IF Stone to The Nation

Just about fifty years ago when I was becoming politicized around the war in Vietnam, I began searching desperately for information and analysis that could explain why this senseless war was taking place. After taking out a subscription to I.F. Stone’s Weekly that an old friend had recommended, the scales began to fall from my eyes. Isidor Feinstein Stone, who died at the age of 81 in 1989, began publishing his newsweekly in 1953 during the depths of the cold war and witch-hunt. Actually, the cold war had recently become hot in Korea and Stone had the courage to write antiwar articles that conceivably could have landed him in prison.

A year later, I let my subscription to Stone’s weekly lapse since I had joined the Trotskyist movement, whose newspaper The Militant brooked no competition. When you joined a group like the Socialist Workers Party, you felt like you were a chorus member in “West Side Story”:

When you’re a Jet,
You’re a Jet all the way
From your first cigarette
To your last dyin’ day.

You’re never alone,
You’re never disconnected!
You’re home with your own:
When company’s expected,
You’re well protected!

As it happened, I eventually felt so disconnected that I severed my ties in 1978 and began a two or three-year process getting my bearings. Part of that involved looking for leftist analysis that did not bear a sectarian stamp (I.F. Stone had stopped publishing in 1971). That led to a subscription to The Nation magazine that I found essential to my deprogramming. When a new issue arrived in my mailbox, the first page I always turned to contained Alexander Cockburn’s “Beat the Devil”. With the wars in Central America heating up, his blistering attacks on Ronald Reagan were as valuable to me as Stone’s on Vietnam.

As I became more deeply involved with Central America solidarity, it seemed to make sense to contribute to The Nation as a sustainer. Over a two or three-year period, I must have sent in over $500 but found my enthusiasm waning after Bill Clinton became president in 1993. Three years after his election, I cancelled my subscription having grown tired of how The Nation tailed after him, just as they are doing today with his wife and presumptive next president.

As iconic periodicals, the two are the subjects of documentaries I looked at this week. Directed by Fred Peabody, “All Governments Lie” is a tribute to Stone and to the men and women who follow in his footsteps (ostensibly) and that opens tomorrow at the Cinema Village in NY and the Laemmle Music Hall in LA. It is a survey of leftist electronic and print publications with which most CounterPunch readers are probably familiar, ranging from Democracy Now to TomDispatch. For some reason, the one publication that is arguably more rooted in the I.F. Stone tradition than any other is omitted: CounterPunch.

Hot Type: 150 Years of The Nation was made in 2015 and can now be seen on iTunes for a mere $4.99. Directed by Barbara Kopple, who has come a long way since her first film “Harlan County USA”, has essentially made the kind of film that big corporations commission as a public relations outreach—something like Bill Gates would have paid Ric Burns to make. If your idea of film entertainment is listening to Katrina vanden Heuvel, Eric Alterman, Rachel Maddow and Rick Perlstein telling you how great the magazine is for 93 minutes, it is just what you asked for. I suffered through it because I think that the left has to contend with The Nation baring its fangs on behalf of a Hillary Clinton vote. It helped me to understand how such a reactionary politician can be endorsed by a magazine that has such an exaggerated view of its progressive credentials by seeing its principal personalities preen in front of Kopple’s camera. To call them lacking in self-awareness would be the understatement of the year.

According to his Linked In page, Director Fred Peabody has worked for ABC News, PBS, The History Channel, VH-1, TLC, A&E, and NBC News. This suggests why he might not have been completely qualified to do justice to the ultimate outsider even though his respect for I.F. Stone is obvious.

It is entirely possible that he has not probed deeply enough into the contradictory character of the alternative news outlets he views as continuing in the I.F. Stone tradition but those who have spent time in the trenches of Internet media might quibble with some of his choices. A good chunk of his film is devoted to Glenn Greenwald’s Intercept. Greenwald, just like every other reporter interviewed in the film, calls Stone a major influence. He, along with co-editor Jeremy Scahill, are lionized in the film as courageous exemplars of fearless reporting.

The Intercept is the flagship of eBay billionaire Pierre Omidyar who supposedly was ready to pour $250 million into a media empire that included Intercept. Any resemblance between that and I.F. Stone’s Weekly is purely coincidental. Stone had a staff of one, perhaps two if you included his wife who helped him mail it out. He banged out articles on a typewriter and then brought the copy to a print shop just as I did when I was putting out the NY Nicaragua Network Newsletter in the 1980s. I suppose that this is the way that CounterPunch got started as well. (The idea of what Ken Silverstein, Alexander Cockburn, Jeff St. Clair could have done with one million dollars, let alone 250 is enough to make your head spin.

Another Stone devotee who gets ample coverage in the film is Matt Taibbi, who writes for the Rolling Stone, a magazine that would hardly be regarded as risking an FBI raid unless writing articles decrying Donald Trump has become a Smith Act violation. Although I enjoy Matt Taibbi’s writing style—how should I put this—there’s really not much substance to his articles. Yes, vampire squid and all that but what does this have to do with putting the deeper rot of the American capitalist system under the spotlight? With all due respect to Fred Peabody who meant well in paying tribute to I.F. Stone, Rolling Stone is not exactly a bloodied but unbowed radical voice. It is basically a lifestyle magazine that aspires to be the college freshmen’s Esquire. I understand why Taibbi’s journalism, which some pundit in the film describes as a blend of Hunter Thompson and I.F. Stone, would make a smart acquisition for Jann Wenner but probably no more so than a Mick Jagger interview.

Reaching the bottom of the barrel is Michael Moore, who states that there is a direct line between him and I.F. Stone notwithstanding this millionaire’s deep embedding within the Democratic Party and his most recent slavering over Hillary Clinton in the feckless documentary “Michael Moore in TrumpLand”. Although my digestive system could not tolerate sitting through his latest film, I take the New Yorker review at its word: “He refers to the chapter ‘My Forbidden Love for Hillary’ from his 1996 book Downsize This! and describes the White House dinner to which he was invited as a result—in particular, dwelling on the frank and surprisingly specific enthusiasm that Bill Clinton expressed for Moore’s work and the even greater show of enthusiasm with which Hillary followed it.”

By contrast, as Peabody points out, Stone was proud of his outsider status. He never became credentialed for admission to a White House press conference. Stone once described his modus operandi:

I made no claims to “inside stuff”. I tried to give information which could be documented, so [that] the reader could check it for himself . . . Reporters tend to be absorbed by the bureaucracies they cover; they take on the habits, attitudes, and even accents of the military or the diplomatic corps. Should a reporter resist the pressure, there are many ways to get rid of him . . . But a reporter covering the whole capital on his own — particularly if he is his own employer — is immune from these [political] pressures.

Fortunately, it is no longer necessary to rely on the deep pockets of a Pierre Omidyar or a Jann Wenner to get the word out. With the Internet, a website like TomDispatch reaches far more readers than I.F. Stone as editor Tom Engelhardt reveals. He, along with the crew of Democracy Now who get the attention they deserve in Peabody’s film, are far more representative of the leading edge journalism that Stone symbolizes.

I can recommend Peabody’s film but mostly on the basis of helping you to wrestle down and bring to submission the problem of alternative media that becomes most acute in the case of Barbara Kopple’s documentary on The Nation.

In many ways, Kopple’s documentary is a home movie after the fashion of “Wild Man Blues”, her documentary that traipsed after Woody Allen and Soon Yi from one five-star hotel to the other.

In Hot Type: 150 Years of The Nation, you can watch editors John Nichols and Betsy Reed cavorting with their young children or senior editors speaking to a new batch of interns willing to work for the magazine at McDonald’s wages. In keeping with her gauzy focus, Kopple does not mention the challenge these exploited young people mounted to their employer three years ago. Not long after an article appeared in The Nation calling for greater diversity in America’s press rooms and better treatment of interns, the interns wrote a letter that the magazine to its credit published:

With Farai Chideya’s “Let’s Diversify Journalism” [June 3, 2013], The Nation joined a growing chorus of media insiders denouncing the industry standard of unwaged intern labor, which in effect excludes people of color and the working class. We, the Nation Institute’s Spring 2013 interns, presented our concerns to the magazine’s editors and fundraisers about the Nation interns’ marginal pay. The Nation and the Institute verbally committed to work with us to change the terms of the internship.

Our five months as fact-checkers were an invaluable learning experience, nurturing us intellectually, professionally and socially. Yet to participate in the program, an intern must work full time for a $150 weekly stipend, an impossible prospect for many who are underrepresented in today’s media. As Chideya explains, the unwaged intern pipeline populates the industry with a homogeneous staff that “often produces a damaging false consensus” by excluding people of color and the working class.

The best thing about Kopple’s documentary is the attention it gives to Amy Wilentz’s reporting in Haiti that is the sort of thing that convinced me to resubscribe to The Nation this year. The truth is that you need a well-funded infrastructure to pay for the kind of reporting that she, Jeremy Scahill and others have done under the auspices of the Nation Institute. Like the New York Times, the old-fashioned print media is the only platform that can support the kind of investigative reporting their work epitomizes. About three years ago, I posted a Harpers article about Marxism on my blog, only to be instructed to take it down by one of their junior editors. Since I have subscribed to Harpers for 35 years now, I gladly removed it since I understood that they rely on newsstand sales and subscriptions to pay for first-rate reporting. Plus, Harpers and The Nation have the best damned British-style crossword puzzles by far.

One thing caught my eye as I was watching Kopple’s film. During a conversation between vanden Heuvel and D.D. Guttenplan, he states that The Nation really wasn’t the magazine we have grown to love until it became a voice of the New Deal. In fact, for the first fifty years it was linked to the Republican Party that despite supporting abolition was in favor of a classical liberal economics that made it hostile to workers struggles in the USA and abroad.

That was not the worst of it, however,

As the 1870s began, editor E.L Godkin openly broke with the Republican Radicals, assailed carpetbaggers, and called for the restoration of white power in the South. In an 1874 editorial he advised The Nation’s readers that he found the average intelligence of blacks “so low that they are slightly above the level of animals.” He longed for the return of southern conservatives to power in 1877 eagerly, writing Harvard professor Charles Eliot Norton and fellow adversary of democratic rule that “I do not see . . . . the negro is ever to be worked into a system of government for which you and I would have much respect.”

Furthermore, The Nation did not exactly become enlightened after becoming FDR’s mouthpiece. It had a poor grasp of imperialism, no doubt a function of its identification with the Roosevelt agenda that sought to promote American interests across the globe.

In 1955, their views on Indochina and I.F. Stone’s couldn’t be further apart. On June 25th, Sam Jaffe, their “roving correspondent” in Southeast Asia, filed a report on “Dilemma in Saigon: Which Way Democracy” that is filled with the kinds of self-flattering illusions satirized in Graham Greene’s The Quiet American with its fulsome praise for the dictator Ngo Dinh Diem:

In Saigon there is one man with a solution. But he admits it must be put into effect quickly or all will be lost. I am not permitted to give his name, but he is an American official who works around the clock attempting to whip the Diem government into shape. He has a deep belief in America and its great past, which, he reminds you, was the result of its success in throwing off colonial rule. He also has a deep belief in the Asians. He feels strongly that our Asian foreign policy should not be to support any one group or government but the will of the Asian peoples.

He speaks of concrete plans now under way in Vietnam for the reconstruction of the country. These include the resettling of over 800,000 refugees. Land will be granted them and money given them to build new homes—if needed, more money can be obtained through a low-interest loan. He speaks with enthusiasm, of the work being done by TRIM, the American Training Relations and Instructions Mission under the able command of Lieutenant General John W. O’Daniel, in helping the Vietnamese build and maintain a strong military force. He hopes for much from the teams of Americans under USMO, the United States Operations Mission, who go into the Vietnamese countryside to ascertain the wants of the people. Their reports are filled with the need for schools, bridges, communications, hospitals, sanitation, and the many other necessities of life that might stem the tide of communism.

Following up on this imperialist bilge, there’s a January 5, 1957 editorial titled “The Statue Is Not For Bombing” in which they scolded nationalist protestors for desecrating a monument to British accomplishments in the region:

The Egyptian mob that dynamited an eighty-foot statue of Ferdinand de Lesseps that marked the entrance to the harbor at Port Said might have been better advised to build a new and loftier monument to this imaginative adventurer. Had it not been for de Lesseps, and the backers of his daring project, the future of the Egyptian people might be less bright than it is today. The bright promise of this future can be lost, if the Egyptians and their dictator, Colonel Nasser, fail to exhibit the wisdom, self-restraint and good sense that alone can preserve the fruits of a victory which, they did not win for themselves. Victories that have been won unassisted usually command a, price that has a sobering effect on the victors; those that come cheaply often have the opposite effect. If Colonel Nasser pushes his luck too hard, too fast and too far, he will forfeit the gains the Egyptians have registered to date.

Colonel Blimp couldn’t have put it better.

Louis Proyect blogs at Louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.