One of the most important journalists of the 20th century, I.F. Stone (Izzy), almost never interviewed a politician, never attended a door stop and never covered an organised media event.
Neither was he a pundit pontificating on events, the facts about which he had collected at a dinner party.
This month marks the 20th anniversary of his death in 1989; a time when a third Stone biography is being published; and, a time when there is yet another mini-storm about media manipulation by an Australian government.
Last week’s Media Watch featured complaints by TV broadcasters about how the Rudd Government was manipulating the media and how “news” was being shaped for the TV cameras in a controlled manner.
For a few days there was a mild controversy about the program, but what was surprising was how little attention was paid to journalists’ own roles in media manipulation and the extent to which they, their practices and modern media structures make it possible. I did one interview with the ABC suggesting that the problem was caused as much by journalists as by politicians and Business Spectator looked at the insularity of political reporters and their distance from real life.
The controversy quickly subsided. There was even almost no comment on the irony of TV being the medium raising the concern. Much debate about the evolution of the PR State, packaged news and spin confuses cause and effect and doesn’t raise questions such as: did TV’s demand for pictures and action force politicians to start fashioning 30-second, and then 15-second and then 10-second grabs? Or did politicians just exploit the new medium.
I.F. Stone was controversial. He never pretended to be impartial supporting FDR and the New Deal; opposing the Vietnam War; supporting progressive causes. He was even accused of being a KBG agent although on the evidence it seems unlikely. Having once been accused by ONA’s Andrew Campbell of being a KGB “agent of influence” for questioning, while working for a State ALP Leader, US support for the mad mullahs fighting the Russians in Afghanistan both the concept and the political judgment of intelligence officials has always seemed dodgy to me.
But what is most relevant about I.F.Stone to today’s political reporting are his questions about what is news, where do you find it, and how do you keep your distance from your sources?
Stone was contemptuous of the notion that news was created by what politicians said. Reporting speeches, media conferences, door stops — all the day to day realities of modern political journalism — would have struck him as ridiculous. His starting position was that all governments lie, so what they say is not relevant.
The 1988 Bush-Dukakis election campaign, the year before Stone died, was probably the first in which the campaigns, the spin, the TV ads became the main focus for the reporters covering the election. Now it is surprising if campaign policy analysis extends beyond a quick survey of winners and losers from any policy and how it will affect the opinion polls. Disagreements and debates are characterised by the media not as the lifeblood of democracy, but as undisciplined deviations from “the message.”
Stone argued that real news could be found in government’s own publications, statistics and reports. He trawled reports, submissions to Congressional hearings, official statistics — all the nitty gritty of what shows how society is working. And when he found facts, he didn’t report them within the context of how they would play in question time and the permanent campaign, but in the context of what they meant.
He would have loved FOI legislation and, no doubt, would have used it more forensically than News Limited’s fearless probing into what wines were in the Reserve Bank’s board room and whether the Governor flew first or second class when he represented Australia overseas.
Interestingly some of Australia’s very best journalists, such as The Age’s Tim Colebatch, were influenced by the I.F. Stone approach and both at the start of his career in Melbourne, and again in Washington, he put the principles into practice to create important stories. Whether some of them would get a run in the media today is another question of course.
Stone also warned against getting too close to power. He said: “Reporters tend to absorbed by the bureaucracies they cover, they take on the habits, attitudes and language of the military or the diplomatic corps.”
Today political reporters cover politics within the same framework as the apparatchiks who serve as political advisors. They mix with them, trade favours with them, eat and drink with them and create a mutual conventional wisdom which is insulated from many of the realities of life, society and the economy. Thinking back over the past 20 years it is striking how often the gallery’s conventional wisdom about election results has just been dead wrong; how rare it is for reporters, with a few noticeable exceptions like Brian Toohey, to challenge the conventional wisdom on any subject; and, how easy it is to predict precisely what various journalists are going to say about a specific issue.
Of course Stone produced a weekly news magazine (circulation 70,000) and didn’t live in a 24 hour news cycle with instant global communications. He didn’t have to report to proprietors concerned about profit, advancing their world view and packaging media as infotainment.
But his principles still seem valid. More reporting on facts and issues and less turgid speculation about what might happen, followed by breathless speculation about why it happened. More investigation of statistics, reports, evidence and what they mean rather than whether someone is moving for a leadership spill. Leadership speculation is always a favourite pre-occupation of political reporters because it is easy, formulaic and a substitute for reporting which would take more time and effort.
So — what would Stone do in Canberra today? He’d probably move out of Parliament House recognising that it was a convenient place to report politics in business as usual terms but not conducive to reflection and analysis.
He’d scorn all pre-packaged stories and nonsense about who said what and what it meant for question time. He wouldn’t deign to attend artificial “news events” unless it was to describe them for what they were.
He would be horrified by the sheer ahistoricism of political reporters and their inability to analyse events and facts in comparative, global or historical contexts. For him the current debate about debt would not be about how it will play in the electorate but about how Australian debt compares with that in other countries, what it’s being used for and how effective the spending is?
And he would relentlessly read and study. Not what his competitors in the gallery were writing and saying but what was buried in the mountains of government documentation which reveal just what lies government are telling.
There are three Stone biographies. I.F. Stone, a portrait, by Andrew Patner (1988); Izzy; a biography of I.F. Stone, by Robert C. Cottrell; All governments life: the Life and Times of I.F. Stone, by Myra MacPherson (2006); and, published in the US this week American Radical: the life and times of I.F. Stone by D.D. Guttenplan.
But perhaps the best reading is a collection of I.F. Stone’s own work such as The Best of I.F. Stone’s Weekly (Penguin, 1973) edited by Neil Middleton. It is this work which persuaded his US journalism peers to rank him 16th in the list of the 100 most important stories in the US media during the 20th century.
Incidentally, given the KGB angle, first place in the list went to John Hersey’s 1946 Hiroshima, a great work but a bit late with the story compared to Wilfred Burchett’s 1945 account for the Beaverbrook’s Daily Express.
Noel Turnbull is an adjunct professor in Communications at RMIT University