Not the President's Men: Frank Rich and I.F. Stone's Fight Against Propaganda
Back when Arnold Schwarzenegger was pushing some California ballot initiatives that even he didn't really give a damn about, the New York Times ran a story about how he promoted his political agenda the same way he always sold the latest Terminator. While the piece itself was old hat, Duh Gubna was in beaming good humor, delighted to share his tricks -- how he trained himself to appear "real" in public, always stayed on message and wasn't afraid to repeat the exact same phrases every time. "I come from the world of reps," he explained with the sinewy assurance one expects of the Austrian Oak. "Remember that. It is all reps."
Is it ever. Today's media politics is all about saying the same few things over and over until they come to seem inevitable, even if -- especially if -- they're not true. Naturally, such systematic lying is hardly new. Nor is the media's ingrained habit of regurgitating these lies as news, then getting huffy when Stephen Colbert points it out during your cozy banquet with liars. But in an age when manufactured myths flood the increasingly corporatized airwaves -- and the hardest-hitting newscaster, Keith Olbermann, made his name cracking wise on ESPN -- it seems ever harder to tell the public something real.
This struggle to do so lies at the heart of two very different new books. One was written by a comfortably situated liberal columnist, the New York Times's Frank Rich; the other, Myra MacPherson's biography of the radical investigative journalist I.F. Stone, tells the still-heartening tale of a self-described Jeffersonian Marxist whose own not inconsiderable taste for punditry ultimately required him to build his own soapbox. The two journalists embody different approaches to telling truth to power.
With The Greatest Story Ever Sold: The Decline and Fall of Truth From 9/11 to Katrina, Rich becomes the third Times columnist to turn disdain for the Bush presidency into a highly publicized book. Surely this must be the most progressive newspaper on the planet!
Now, it's tempting to view Rich with skepticism or envy. For starters, he works at the Times, a newspaper destined to outrage the right while leaving its natural, left-of-center audience bitterly disappointed at the timid sobriety of a liberalism that gets assertive only after the United States invades Iraq. Then, too, Rich inhabits the op-ed page, the Park Avenue of punditry. I don't know a journalist who wouldn't leap to claim one of those columns, with its high international profile, extraordinary access (almost every big shot will return your calls) and near papal sense of its importance. Even as you're churning out the most received of ideas, you can believe they're somehow newly minted just by virtue of their appearing in the Times. How else could David Brooks solemnly announce -- this decade, let alone this year -- that tattoos aren't really nonconformist?
Like so many of today's pundits, Rich did not start out as a political reporter, but unlike most, he didn't even have much of a political background, unless being a Beltway baby and Harvard grad count. He made his name as a drama critic, the Butcher of Broadway, and when his column first appeared, he took a lot of grief for actually bringing something fresh to American newspapers -- a recognition of the interplay between popular culture and public life, which is where so much of American politics actually happens. Rich wrote less about events than about the perception of events, the meta-media madness that fills our heads. Perhaps because his prose often exudes the earnest, leaden-joke complacency of one who channels (and is worshiped on) the Upper West Side, many people initially dismissed him as a flyweight. He was bad-mouthed by hard-core political types who foolishly thought analyzing pop culture is frivolous, and tweaked by arts critics who assumed that, naturally, they could do the job better. And some might have. Those early columns could be labored and tinny.
But over the years, Rich's political writing has sharpened. Unlike Dowd (does she ever leave her apartment or phone anybody outside the Times?), he isn't lazy. Reading his densely packed double-sized columns, you can see the man sweat. And since the beginning of the Bush years, his Sunday pieces have been some of the strongest things in the Times -- as strong as those by snappish Paul Krugman, who vaingloriously seems to think he's all alone out there in op-ed no man's land. Rich is not vacuously jokey like Dowd, not boringly honorable like Bob Herbert, not flatly self-promoting like Thomas Friedman or Nicholas Kristof (who has morphed into liberalism's Steve Irwin, protecting endangered Darfurians and Asian sex slaves while making sure the video camera celebrates his derring-do). In fact, back when Krugman and Friedman 4.0 (as we call him round my house) were still fighting for the soul of Maureen, a late arrival at the Bush Bashers' Ball, it was Rich who, each Sunday, captured the texture of what people were talking about. He lucidly dissected the Administration's latest lies, sideshows and photo-ops -- some of the very work I.F. Stone used to perform. Although Rich doesn't do passion, his column took on a real urgency.
Now comes The Greatest Story Ever Sold, and though it's a letdown, you can still see him sweating. To his credit, this is a proper book, not a lazy recycle bin for old columns, like Dowd's Bushworld or Krugman's The Great Unraveling. While it's partly cobbled together from earlier work, he clearly wants it to be more than just a collection of opinions (although his crushing verdict on the Bush Administration colors every line). No doubt thinking legacy, he wants it to have some gravitas, some heft.
On the book's second page, Rich alludes to Colbert's celebrated notion of "truthiness" -- in which emotional plausibility trumps demonstrable fact. This led me to think Rich might explore one of the most deliciously ironic twists of contemporary culture: After years of shrieking about postmodern relativism in the modern university, especially its literature departments, today's conservatives now embrace the same thing when it comes to politics. Talk about breaking the connection between signifiers and referents. With his disdain for "reality-based" behavior, Karl Rove makes Jacques Derrida seem as stodgy as Andy Rooney.
But rather than set off on such conceptual flights -- this is distinctly not a book of ideas -- Rich takes a steadfastly prosaic approach. Weaving together the whats and whens of previously reported stories, he painstakingly describes the Bush Administration's constant mangling of the truth between September 11, 2001, and "Heckuva job, Brownie," even offering a handy 78-page timeline compiled by his crack researcher Joel Topcik. At times this narrative is arresting, albeit in a perversely nostalgic way: I was happy to be reminded of such foul propaganda flourishes as the trumped-up Ramboism of Jessica Lynch or the mythologized friendly-fire death of Pat Tillman.
Still, as I know firsthand, such pop moments never burn brighter than in a column (where Rich handled them splendidly). Strung together in a book such events quickly feel stale, ephemeral; tweaking "Mission Accomplished" is a mission long since accomplished. Indeed, anyone likely to read this book can already recite the long list of Administration malfeasances like fans at a Neil Diamond concert singing along with "Sweet Caroline." For those of us who love hating Bush-spin, there's nothing here as juicy and new as Thomas Ricks's tale in his book Fiasco about that splendid Baghdad afternoon in the summer of 2003 when select prowar reporters, including the Rich Man's Orwell, listened to Paul Wolfowitz hail the Coalition's astounding progress -- as they sat safely ensconced in the Green Zone eating lamb off a banquet table lit by candelabras.
Oddly for a onetime reviewer, Rich gets so caught up in Bush's shock-and-awe showbiz that he doesn't spend enough time explaining why it worked -- why this particular spin spun so well. He can't tell us how the Administration came up with its precise PR moves, why Richard Clarke's gripping (and widely seen) TV appearances produced so little traction or what made the public buy into (if it did) the Swiftboating of John Kerry. Too often, detailed analysis is replaced by the sociological shorthand that, as I know from my own weakness for such generalizations, is the crystal meth of the culture-crit business. Is it really true to say that "during the 1990s boom, the citizenry had become addicted to instant gratification"? Is Rich describing himself here? (If so, I'd love to hear about it.) Is he talking about readers of those Times articles about $20,000 settees? Or is he referring to some supposed horde of ADD people out there bedazzled by Hummers and Ann Coulter's Girls Gone Wild conservatism?
Even the treatment of pop culture feels pro forma. I kept wanting Rich to cut loose, to riff on why, for instance, Tillman's story proved such an effective piece of demagogic mythology (literal brotherhood, ideas of masculinity, modern football as high-tech combat) or why this particular player (a guy who craved contact and thought in absolutes) would be the perfect gladiator for a so-called "war on terror." While it may be true that Philip Roth's The Plot Against America is "the best early take on the forty-third president," I wanted Rich to at least notice that the novel's villain, Charles Lindbergh, is the one who opposes fighting Fascism overseas but promises an isolationist homeland security. This is exactly the opposite of Bush, who, Rich provocatively but unconvincingly argues, was led by Rove into toppling Saddam as a way of winning the 2002 midterm elections. But once they'd won, why invade?
Like many other books appalled by media coverage of Bush, The Greatest Story Ever Sold rightly knocks Bob Woodward for prizing his sources so highly that he treats them with kid gloves. This makes it all the more disappointing that Rich, who doesn't depend on such sources, is himself so cautious about the paper of record's role in the decline and fall of truth. He slams Judith Miller for her lousy WMD-scare reporting, but heck, she's already been cut loose. I kept waiting for the necessary dissection of his stablemate Friedman, the country's most vaunted foreign policy columnist, whose liberal-hawk cheerleading provided Bush & Co. with invaluable ideological cover -- he helped them sell their story. True, Rich shows us the Times's public editor smacking the editors for giving Miller's stories front-page play while more nuanced, questioning articles were "interred on Page B10." But this book should be giving us Rich's inside analysis of exactly how that happened at the place where he's been working for the last quarter-century. Why didn't he go upstairs, do some reporting and give us something new? After all, he seems uniquely situated to provide such firsthand knowledge. He's one of the Gray Lady's fair-haired boys. It's not for nothing that The Greatest Story Ever Sold received a gaudy cover review in the Times Book Review.
Of course, merely to say this is to understand Rich's unwillingness to pounce on Friedman or anatomize why the Times covered Iraq so feebly when it made a real difference. He's pleasurably ensconced in a powerful institution that not only pays him handsomely but makes him a national figure. (Lest I appear to be on a high horse, let me add that I don't bite the hand that cuts my checks either, except in those happy cases when a sharp nip will let us all revel in our own integrity.) Unlike far too many of his colleagues, Rich is shrewd enough to know that if his work ran in, say, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and not the Times, he'd be no better known than... whoever the columnists are there. His power actually belongs to his spot on Pundit Park Avenue.
Nobody would ever say such a thing about I.F. Stone. This was a journalist who claimed his own power and then got others to see it -- even if it meant raising hackles. Not exactly crippled by self-consciousness, the prickly, independent Stone spent his life assailing powerful Tailgunners and J. Edgars who strove to ruin him, fighting with bosses he didn't like and bosses he did, pissing off friends and colleagues with criticisms and then playing dumb when they were wounded. Because he's now canonized as the left-wing hero "Izzy" Stone -- his greatness accepted by the mainstream, though denied by right-wing mouthbreathers -- it's easy to forget he spent years in the wilderness of an Eisenhower-era Washington where conformity was not just king but bling.
Stone's whole life was a peculiarly American story of self-creation -- Rocky for left-wing intellectuals. In her fine and useful new biography "All Governments Lie!": The Life and Times of Rebel Journalist I.F. Stone, veteran reporter Myra MacPherson traces in perhaps excessive detail the triumphant arc of the man she too often calls "Izzy."
Born Isadore Feinstein, the diminutive, unprepossessing son of immigrants -- "I look like a Jewish bullfrog," he once cracked -- Stone lived the kind of purpose-driven life most journalists (and ministers) can only dream of. Although he seemingly emerged from the womb reading Gibbon, he was too interested in the world ever to thrive in academe (although he was haunted by his rejection from Harvard). After dropping out of the University of Pennsylvania, he plunged into a full-time journalistic career that, during the 1930s and '40s, took him from the Philadelphia Record to the New York Post (where he became a feisty, and well-paid, editorialist) to The Nation to the progressive paper PM. Along the way, he changed his name to sound less Jewish -- for solid political reasons. He quit the National Press Club when it wouldn't serve his black guest, the dean of Howard Law School -- this in 1941. And he made a celebrated (and illegal) journey to the Middle East in the 1940s with the Zionist underground -- then infuriated American Jews two decades later by suggesting a binational solution in Israel/ Palestine.
This alone would make for a whopping rÃƒÂ©sumÃƒÂ©, yet in a sense it was merely preparation for his life's defining achievement. Inspired by the model of George Seldes's In Fact, he launched his own paper, I.F. Stone's Weekly, in January 1953, boasting such early subscribers as Bertrand Russell, Eleanor Roosevelt and Albert Einstein. (J. Edgar Hoover read it compulsively, in order to be outraged -- he downed Stone's words like Red Bull.) Even as Stone fought deafness and failing eyesight, his Weekly ran the most original and iconoclastic pieces on the Korean War, outstripped the likes of Edward R. Murrow in unmasking what he called the "McCarthy-Hoover Axis" and pounded Eisenhower and Kennedy for their feebleness on civil rights. During the heyday of the New Left (which he supported though it made him nervous), he was transformed from an iconoclast into an icon.
By the time Stone closed shop in December 1971, his maverick muckraking had also made him rich; and though he kept writing (even about ancient Greece), he began a victory lap that lasted nearly as long as the run of the Weekly. No ascetic, Stone took voluminous pleasure in being lionized; he adored being the one true embodiment of First Amendment freedom. (As with so many outsiders, he secretly craved the insiders' approval.) Although you couldn't blame him, there was something slightly nauseating about watching such a bold soul be appropriated for the greater glory of an American journalism renowned for being gutless. Mainstream media folks embraced "Izzy" as if he was somehow one of them, when his glory was that he'd spent years refusing to be.
Rather than rely on inside contacts -- whose favor must be curried, even at the cost of printing the truth -- Stone steered clear of the power loop. Instead, he scanned news articles for revealing lacunas and unspoken patterns; he pored over government documents ("Read them back to front," he taught his acolytes) in search of the one glittering revelation buried in all the bureaucratic lard. MacPherson pointedly puts Stone's career next to that of insider columnist Walter Lippmann, who for decades pulled more cultural weight than Rich, Friedman, Krugman and Dowd yoked together. Seduced by the journalist's deadliest illusion -- the belief that you can bend the ear of the powerful -- the fastidious Lippmann now seems less a titan than a cautionary tale, a second-string Raymond Aron still renowned for helping define the vanished American Century but irrelevant today -- a fascinating exhibit in Jurassic Park's media concourse. In contrast, Stone's style and methods (if not all his opinions) make him our contemporary.
MacPherson's biography shows just how central the historical crucible of the early 20th century was in forming Stone's flinty left-wing values -- values not much rarer in his era than Rich's sensible liberalism is now. What's rare is that Stone didn't lose them. Indeed, at times they could leave him blinkered, could cause him to make what he called "mistakes of the heart." Nowhere was this clearer than in his perception of the Soviet Union, and it's one of MacPherson's virtues that she's clear about the nature of his fellow-traveling.
Regrettably, she's forced to spend time defending Stone (yet again) against the scurrilous charge that he was on the Soviet payroll. He wasn't -- case closed -- and the only people who still say so are poisonous right-wing ideologues who haven't spent much time grousing about those anti-Castro reporters cashing government checks in Miami. MacPherson makes it clear that Stone's true failing was his tardiness in grasping the full monstrosity of actually existing Communism, especially Stalinism. The tiger eyes that could spot the threat to liberty in the footnotes of a Congressional report couldn't clearly see the meaning of show trials, slave labor and class-based mass murder. To fault him for this isn't redbaiting or Monday morning quarterbacking. If I'd been young in those days -- when choosing sides was a moral imperative -- I probably would have made the same errors. But good intentions aren't everything, and these were enormous errors. Faced with one of the most tyrannical political regimes of his lifetime, he got things so badly wrong that another man might have died questioning his own judgment.
But Stone was not a self-doubter. Nor does MacPherson pretend that he was always a joy to be around. Sure, he could brim with joie de vivre, doing "The Hustle" with his beloved wife, Esther, into their 60s. But he also bristled with the sheer cussedness that, experience suggests, is one of the main professional tools of the successful maverick journalist. He was a demanding (if doting) husband and an often difficult father -- the whole house hustled to his rhythms -- and he was not above arrogant self-righteousness. He didn't easily brook disagreement, and like many such men, he found plenty of fools not to suffer.
No matter. "Izzy" Stone was a brilliant journalist, and one of the happy benefits of reading "All Governments Lie!" was that it got me dipping back into pieces I hadn't read for years. While there's not a single duff entry in the essential new collection The Best of I.F. Stone, he doesn't need to be cherry-picked. Just open The Haunted Fifties at random and you'll discover something worthwhile on almost every page. Here he's tweaking theNew York Times for burying Hoover's shocking words of praise for Joe McCarthy's character. There he's pondering the dark notion that humanity may not deserve a future of satellites and sky platforms: "It might be better, after all, if space were left to a newer species, bred to live in peace and to take joy in diversity. Our first reactions, like all our past, show how unfit men are for the heavens. We would only stain red the Milky Way."
Reading all this, I realized that were he working today, Stone would be the greatest blogger who ever lived. Not only would the guy be indefatigable -- linking everything crucial -- he wouldn't be content with commenting on other people's work the way nearly all our bloggers do (yes, I know there are exceptions). He'd escape the meta-media hothouse by going out and reporting -- uncovering new facts that other people could link and comment on. And he'd tie all this together with a rich sense of how such facts fit in to the way people actually live, beyond ephemeral pop moments. "He had a genius for reading documents," Murray Kempton told MacPherson, "but he also had this great gift of historical imagination."
This imagination was fueled by passion, by a driving conviction, far less common these days, that what he did mattered -- profoundly. This wasn't sheer egotism, although that figured in. Stone sincerely believed that the whole world hinges on how we conduct our politics, and that belief meant that every uncovered lie, every article about Vietnam, every single edition of the Weekly belonged to the epic struggle to create a better world. And not just better in the dinky ways you often read about in DLC white papers or liberal blogs, where restoring a Democratic Congress often marks the far horizon.
A natural-born radical, not a gaga utopian or modest meliorist, Stone was a man of hope who never shied away from the biggest of pictures -- or the biggest of arguments. Back in the heyday of a liberalism that took pride in being tough and muscular, he was exposing the media's war machinery in terms that couldn't be more timely. When a 1961Life magazine headline claimed that 97 of 100 Americans could survive a nuclear war, he asked readers, "Just as Ivory Soap is sold as 99 percent pure, is thermonuclear war to be sold as 97 percent safe?"
Wouldn't you love to see what I.F. Stone would have written about the greatest story ever sold?