I.F. STONE: 'All Governments Lie!'

Teaching students these strategies to deal with problems that come up with friends can help create a more peaceable classroom.

To the Teacher:

As newspapers struggle to survive and investigative reporting becomes too costly to finance, now is a good moment to introduce students to the life and work of I. F. Stone, journalistic inquirer, examiner of government documents other reporters did not want to wade through, and scrutinizer of official narratives and official behavior and misbehavior. Stone demonstrated that real democracy requires journalists who know how to ask the right questions and probe official obfuscations and lies.

The first student reading below provides an overview of Stone's career, the second an introduction to his civil rights movement reporting, the third his detailed examination of the FBI's indifference to civil rights in I. F. Stone's Weekly. Discussion questions and suggested inquiry and citizenship activities follow.

Student Reading 1: 

The rebel journalist

"You've really got to wear a chastity belt in Washington to preserve your journalistic virginity. Once the secretary of state invites you to lunch and asks your opinion, you're sunk." 

—I. F. Stone (quoted by Myra MacPherson in her biography, All Governments Lie! The Life and Times of Rebel Journalist I. F. Stone)

"All governments lie" is probably I. F. Stone's best-known statement and helps to explain why he became an inquirer and investigative reporter. He did not seek out interviews or enjoy dinners with the famous, attend press conferences or depend upon press releases. Instead, to search for the truth about what was really going on, he burrowed into boring, lengthy government documents and reports other reporters ignored.

He avoided the dangers he described in "A Word About Myself" written in 1963: "The reporter assigned to specific beats like the State Department or the Pentagon for a wire service or a big daily newspaper soon finds himself a captive. State and Pentagon have large press relations forces whose job it is to herd the press and shape the news.

"There are many ways to punish a reporter who gets out of line; if a big story breaks at 3 a.m., the press office may neglect to notify him while his rivals get the story. There are as many ways to flatter and take a reporter into camp-private off-the-record dinners with high officials, entertainment at the service clubs. 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." (www.ifstone.org)

On another occasion he wrote, "I made no claims to inside stuff. I tried to give information which could be documented, so the reader could check it for himself."

Stone's career

Isidore Feinstein was born in Philadelphia of Russian-Jewish immigrant parents in 1907. As a high school student, he started his own newspaper, The Progressive. He was hardly a star pupil: He graduated 49th among 52 students. But he went on to the University of Pennsylvania, and as a student also worked for the Philadelphia Inquirer. He then dropped out of college to take a full-time job with that newspaper. He added "Stone" to his name about this time, as was not uncommon for Jews wanting to avoid anti-Semitism during this period.

He held other newspaper jobs in Philadelphia and nearby Camden, NJ, wrote for the New York Post for a half dozen years, became an assistant editor, then Washington editor for The Nation, followed by reporting for PM and the Daily Compass. He was "Izzy" to friends and became well-known, but gained his real fame during 1953-1971. During these 18 years, with the assistance of his wife Esther, he wrote, edited and published I.F. Stone's Weekly from their home in Washington, D.C. The newspaper had gained a circulation of 70,000 readers by the time he published the last issue. In retirement, Stone studied ancient Greek and published The Trial of Socrates about another inquirer.

Stone's subjects were controversial: war profiteering, FBI spying, loyalty oaths, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In the early 1950s, at the beginning of the Cold War, Stone examined Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin, who was charging everyday Americans, artists, political leaders and even the widely admired former general Secretary of State George C. Marshall with having "Communist sympathies." At a time when McCarthy had the support of many Americans and was feared by many others, Stone was relentless in revealing the maliciousness and absurdity of his charges and "anti-Communist mania." Stone, whose own politics were left-wing, was himself visited by agents of the State Department's security division in 1951 and told to turn in his passport. He did not, and was not penalized.

In the 1960s Stone's major subjects were the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement. He was perhaps the only journalist to examine, raise questions about and challenge President Lyndon Johnson's deceptive interpretation of the Tonkin Gulf incident, which many believe misled the U.S. into the Vietnam war. Stone also regularly discussed the struggle for equality and scrutinized official action and inaction on the civil rights movement.

This spring, twenty years after Stone's death in 1989, the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College presented the first annual "Izzy" awards to Amy Goodman, executive producer and co-host of "Democracy Now!" a daily TV and radio news program, and Glenn Greenwald, a constitutional lawyer who became a journalist after 9/11 and now writes a blog, "Unclaimed Territory" for www.Salon.com. As guests on PBS's "Bill Moyers Journal," Goodman and Greenwald spoke about I.F. Stone and the vital importance for democracy of reporter independence:

Goodman: "The media is broken right now...You have reporters embedded in the front lines of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. What about being embedded in Iraqi hospitals and Afghan communities? In the peace movement around the world?"

Greenwald: "If you only speak to a very narrow slice of people, if you spend most of your time in Washington only speaking to political elites in both parties, or corporate executives and lobbyists, you have a very distorted picture of what public opinion is.
(www.pbs.org/moyers/journal, 4/3/09)

For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. Consider the opening quote. What do you think Stone means by "journalistic virginity"? Why would the luncheon he refers to mean that a journalist would be "sunk"?

3. Why did he view a journalist assigned to cover the State Department or the Pentagon as a likely "captive"?

4. What was Stone's journalistic method and why?

5. Do you think that "all governments lie"? If so, what makes you think so? If not, why not? How do you suppose that Stone reached this conclusion?

6. What do you think Goodman meant by "The media is broken right now"? Do you know of any evidence to prove her right or wrong? If you don't, how might you find some?

7. Why aren't reporters "embedded in Iraqi hospitals and Afghan communities" and "in the peace movement around the world"? Should they be? Why or why not?

8. Would Stone have agreed with Greenwald? Why or why not?

Student Reading 2:

I. F. Stone on the civil rights movement

Getting a seat on a bus. Being served in a restaurant. Attending a school. Voting in an election. White Americans took these things for granted. But in the United States, especially in Southern states, white people routinely violated African-Americans their civil right to a bus seat or service at a lunch counter. They denied the civil right of an African-American child to attend a school whites attended or the right of an African-American adult to attend a state university whites attended. And they denied, with a variety of legal gimmicks and illegal behavior, African-Americans' civil right to vote.

After World War II ended, strict enforcement of segregation began to crumble and it became harder for whites to deny blacks their civil rights.

On July 26, 1948, President Harry Truman signed Executive Order 9981, which states, "It is hereby declared to be the policy of the President that there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion or national origin."

On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court reversed an 1896 decision that declared constitutional "separate but equal" facilities for blacks and whites. It now declared that "separate educational facilities are inherently unequal." In a 9-0 vote, the Court paved the way for a civil rights movement attack on all forms of segregation.

Stone hailed the Court decision as a victory for democracy, but knew that "At the best, Jim Crow [segregation] will not be ended overnight." (I.F. Stone's Weekly, May 24, 1954) White supporters of segregation resorted to violence, including hosing by the police, beatings, and the jailing and murder of civil rights activists, both black and white.

Little Rock: the KKK, the FBI & the President

For two years, Little Rock, Arkansas, prepared for the end of school segregation. In early September 1957 the first black students were to be admitted to Little Rock's Central High School. Angry segregationists said "never!". Governor Orval Faubus ordered the Arkansas National Guard to support the segregationists. The students, the "Little Rock Nine," as they came to be known, were turned back on September 4 in a stand-off that continued for three weeks.

In the September 16, 1957, issue of his Weekly, Stone pointed out that "The power of the mob may be measured by the silence of the South's normal leadership. Except for the Mayor of Little Rock, no public figure has spoken up for obedience to law. No Senator from the South, no Governor, no member of Congress, no leader of the bar, has dared publicly utter a restraining word." Meanwhile, Stone said, President Eisenhower seemed more interested in playing golf than in enforcing the rule of law.

Many politicians, including presidents, found it politically easier to avoid the wrath of segregationists. Not until September 25, 1957, did Eisenhower act--by ordering the 101st Airborne division and a federalized Arkansas National Guard to Little Rock to protect the students. It speaks volumes about those times in the South that the students needed this level of protection to begin their studies at Central High School.

In his May 29, 1961, issue, Stone reported excerpts from an Alabama citizens' report about the extent to which the Alabama police had been infiltrated by members of the Ku Klux Klan. The report had been ignored by the FBI, which, wrote Stone, was more interested in "treating the sit-ins as a Communist plot in a way which can only encourage the racial paranoia endemic in the South."

On May 27, 1963, Stone observed that President John Kennedy, during his visit to the South, had delivered three speeches "without once uttering the word 'Negro' or mentioning Birmingham." (The term "Negro" had not yet been replaced by "black" and "African-American.") Yet just a few weeks earlier, civil rights protests in segregated Birmingham had led to the jailing of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Stone did not simply cover news other reporters and media outlets tended to ignore. He inquired into what was happening and why. He wrote about the behavior of American leaders, who hailed "the rule of law" and "justice for all" in their speeches but frequently turned their backs when it came to racist attacks on African-Americans. Stone also provided critical information about the actions of powerful federal officials like FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover, who was feared and avoided by most mainstream journalists because of his wrath and vindictiveness.

For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. What explanation can you offer for the silence of public officials about obedience to the law at Little Rock?

3. Why do you suppose that KKK members were able to infiltrate the Alabama police?

4. Why do you suppose the FBI ignored the Alabama citizens' report?

5. What is Stone's observation about Kennedy's speeches in the South? How do you explain the president's behavior? 


Student Reading 3:

I. F. Stone on J. Edgar Hoover

In 1924, J. Edgar Hoover became the director of the Bureau of Investigation (BOI). But Hoover did not become famous and widely admired until the early 1930s. During those years Hoover concentrated on stopping a rash of highly-publicized bank robberies, mostly in the Midwest. In 1933, Bureau agents captured Machine Gun Kelly, who spent the rest of his 21 years in prison. The following year, the most notorious holdup man of them all, John Dillinger, died outside a Chicago movie theater in a hail of Bureau bullets.

Hoover was now famous, and in 1935 he helped to transform the BOI into the Federal Bureau of Investigation. For the next 37 years, until his death in 1972, he was its director. According to Wikipedia: "He used the FBI to harass political dissenters and activists, to amass secret files on political leaders, and to use illegal methods to collect evidence. It is because of Hoover's long and controversial reign that FBI directors are now limited to 10- year terms." (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/J._Edgar_Hoover)

There is substantial evidence for Wikipedia's summary of Hoover's career. For his own influence and protection, Hoover amassed secret files on both Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, among others. And Hoover did use "illegal methods to collect evidence" on Martin Luther King Jr., such as phone taps. Hoover saw King as a subversive.

On August 28, 1963, days after civil rights activists marched on Washington D.C. and heard Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech, a white supremacist bomb exploded, murdering four young girls attending Sunday School at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.

In the light of such events, I.F. Stone's Weekly (www.ifstone.org) examined the behavior of FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover and his agents:

October 14, 1963

Nearly ten years after the school desegregation decision only 8 percent of the Negro pupils in the South attend schools with white children...In the Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina counties, the number of Negroes registered is actually less than it was six years ago.

More demonstrations mean more clashes with the police. The police in the South, insofar as the Negro is concerned, are not upholders of law but the main instrument of a police state designed to maintain whites as the master class. This is evident from the listing of suits pending; many are against Sheriffs and other police officials for the beating, intimidation and baseless arrest of voter registration drive workers.

Too Fraternal With The Cops

This is the most overt form of civil rights violation by law enforcement officials. But the FBI has long been notoriously reluctant to impair its fraternal relations with local and state police officials by a too vigorous inquiry into civil rights infractions. In past years, the figures given by Mr. Hoover in (his annual report during congressional hearings) have tended reassuringly to show the police and their friends in Congress how few complaints ever reach the stage of prosecution, much less conviction. In recent years, as the civil rights struggle became politically potent, fewer figures have been supplied lest this furnish ammunition to Mr. Hoover's critics. Even the number of complaints is no longer given.

Thus last year Mr. Hoover provided a table showing that the number of "bombing or racial matters" had risen to 4,077 in the fiscal year 1961, or 37% above 1960, while "civil rights" cases were up 29% to 2,903. But no figures were given to show in how many cases arrests were made or convictions obtained. Even the number of complaints were not given in this year's hearings....

The anti-bombing provisions of the 1960 Act were intended to bring the FBI into the picture at once in racial bombings but the FBI has shown little enthusiasm for getting into these as into civil rights cases. Every year, in the [House] appropriations hearings, Mr. Hoover presents a chart [to show] the amount of stolen property recovered and the number of fugitives arrested through the tips of confidential informants.

But Mr. Hoover has yet to report tips leading to arrests in the mounting toll of murders and bombings in the civil rights struggle. The day after the Birmingham church bombing in which four little girls were killed, Joseph L. Rauh, Jr., of Americans for Democratic Action, sent President Kennedy a telegram in which he said the increasing number of such outrages made more shocking "the failure or reluctance of the FBI to infiltrate right wing subversive elements." This was not the first time the Administration was asked to step up surveillance of racist and rightist organizations....

In the annual budget hearings, Mr. Hoover boasts a network of informers in liberal and Leftist organizations. A minuscule Communist Party is his excuse for surveillance over a wide spectrum of opinion...[Among the organizations, according to Hoover's presentation to the House Appropriations Committee, are] organizations in the peace, youth, political, trade union, Negro, disarmament, and nuclear testing fields. This list indicates how far the FBI reaches into respectable organizations with legitimate purposes, many of them shared by the Kennedy Administration. Notice that Negro organizations are included among those over which the FBI keeps watch...

It is clear that the FBI watches the Negroes closely. It is not at all clear that they watch anti-Negro organizations. Mr. Hoover dwells at length each year on internal security, but the menace is always on the Left. In this year's hearings, Mr. Hoover took time out to dwell on the insidious dangers behind the Communist campaign for peaceful co-existence. But he never seems to see any danger in the paranoid racist propaganda that has created a sickness in the South which may erupt into the worst menace to internal security since the Civil War...

In this year's hearings, [Hoover] said he had only 95 telephone wiretaps in operation, and that these "are utilized only in cases where the internal security of the country is involved, or where kidnapping or extortion may bring about the jeopardy of a human life." We are as opposed to wire-tapping as we are to political espionage, right or left. But it is Mr. Hoover who makes and applies the rules. We wonder how many, if any, of those wiretaps are used to protect internal security or human life against well known hate groups which breed the madness that ends in these bombings. It is time a group of representative citizens asked the President to set up a Commission to investigate the role of the FBI in the civil rights struggle. It is serious when the Federal agency on which Negroes must depend for investigation of civil rights cases, is so indifferent to them.

Note: One of the four KKK members responsible for the Birmingham bombing was not prosecuted and convicted until 1978 and died in prison in 1985. Though the FBI had evidence against three other men, Hoover withheld it from prosecutors. Not until 2000, almost 30 years after Hoover's death, did the FBI reveal that evidence. And not until 2002 were two of the men convicted. One of them is now dead, the other still imprisoned. The fourth man died in 1994 without being charged.

After some inquiry, Stone was also able to report in the October 24, 1963, issue of the Weeklythat "the FBI had 10 Negroes among its 6,030 special agents and 3 Negroes in another category." Since a recent report, Stone reported, "the FBI had hired 5 more Negroes as special agents. This still leaves the FBI almost 99¾% lily-white, or neck-and neck with Ivory Soap."

For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. What evidence does Stone offer for his criticism of the FBI's "indifference to civil rights?

3. Keep in mind that the FBI is and was charged with maintenance of the rule of law and that on the fundamentals of civil rights, those in that movement were supporting the rule of law. How do you explain Hoover's and overall FBI behavior on civil rights? How do you explain the failure of top U.S. government leaders to demand that the FBI enforce the rule of law?

For inquiry and citizenship

A. Gulf of Tonkin

Stone scrutinized the Tonkin Gulf origins of the Vietnam War. Students might want to study the parallels between this issue and the "weapons of mass destruction" origins of the Iraq war almost 40 years later. Ask students to examine President Lyndon Johnson's August 4, 1964, speech to the nation, calling upon Congress to respond to North Vietnam's "unprovoked attack" on U.S. ships and compare it with President Bush's October 7, 2002, speech in Cincinnati and report on March 19, 2003, telling Congress why the U.S. must war on Iraq.

On each occasion, a U.S. president misinformed the nation and the Congress about a foreign threat.

In the high school section of TeachableMoment, are materials on President Johnson's interpretation of the Tonkin Gulf incident and President Bush's rationale for war on Iraq. See "Presidential Election 2004: Five Presidents' Calls for War" and "Vietnam, Iraq & 'A City Upon a Hill" for information on the Tonkin Gulf issue. See also I.F. Stone's Weekly for August 24, 1964. This and all issues are downloadable at: http://www.ifstone.org/weekly_searchable.php. For information on the rationale for the Iraq War, see "Was the U.S. Misled into the War on Iraq?" "Truth and the Iraq War in Documents," and "American Misperceptions About the War in Iraq." 

1. Divide the class into two groups. One will study Johnson's speech, the other Bush's speech and/or report. These are available online, though they might be reproduced and distributed for student study. After reading the speeches, ask students to draft three good questions to guide a productive inquiry. A "good question" in this context is one, which if answered well, would promote insight into a president's behavior. To help students learn to formulate "good questions," you might do some preliminary work with students. See "Thinking Is Questioning" in the high school section of www.teachablemoment.org, which details methods for helping students learn the art of asking questions.

2. Organize each of the two groups into smaller groups of three or four students. Ask each group to hear and discuss draft questions and then to select what the group regards as its three best questions. Then each group will submit these questions to the teacher.

3. Conduct another session on question-asking, using a selection of those questions for analysis by members of each larger group. Conclude with agreement from each on the three questions it will investigate.

4. Organize the class for this investigation, perhaps to include smaller group and/or individual investigation.

5. Ask students to share and discuss their reports with the whole class.

Given President Obama's stated desire to look toward the future rather than the past, there may not be an official examination of what the Bush administration did and said to lead the U.S. into war in Iraq; it is even less likely that members of that administration will be held accountable for what happened. Similarly , there was never an official examination or accountability for the actions and words that led to the war on Vietnam.

See "Teaching Social Responsibility" in the high school section of www.teachablemoment.org for other teaching suggestions.

B. Hoover & the FBI

Stone had sharp criticisms of J. Edgar Hoover. Ask students to write three of the best questions they can think of for an inquiry into some aspect or aspects of Hoover's career as director of the FBI.

Discuss these questions with students and approve them before students begin their inquiry.


This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to:lmcclure@morningsidecenter.org.