I.F. Stone's 100th birthday comes at what feels like a real low point in terms of the iconoclastic, independent journalism with which Stone is so unmistakably identified.
So it's particularly appropriate that the observations of Stone's birthday aren't just fond looks back at the rebel journalist's storied career; they have a strong focus on strengthening and encouraging independent journalism going forward.
There's a birthday party and panel discussion next week at NYU (you're all invited); a new ifstone.org Web site about Stone launched by his son, Jeremy Stone (come visit); and -- most significantly -- a new I.F. Stone Medal established by the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University and its Watchdog Project, where I am deputy editor.
The I.F. Stone Medal will be presented annually to a journalist whose watchdog work captures the spirit of independence, integrity, courage and indefatigability that characterized I.F. Stone's Weekly. The medal ceremony will be more than just a party: Each year, the winner will talk about his or her own work, after which a distinguished panel will try to identify some practical lessons from the award winner's experience.
Stone believed that strong dissenting voices are crucial to keeping the United States true to its democratic ideals. As Bob Giles, curator of the Nieman Foundation, writes in his announcement of the new medal: "It is this spirit of independent thinking that challenges punditry and conventional wisdom that we wish to honor. The press, as an independent bedrock of our democracy, and the freedom of journalists to stand alone and apart from mainstream ideas and political currents are under great stress. Today, Izzy Stone serves as a model of the resolute, provocative journalist who worked against injustice and inequity, and loathed pomposity and false posturing, often at personal cost."
Our industry right now is suffering from a grave lack of independence, manifested in self-censorship and timidity. The pressures are clear. The increasing corporate ownership of newspaper and television stations has literally undermined our independence and in too many newsrooms is making us more responsive to our stockholders than to our readers. It threatens to make our newsrooms faceless and interchangeable, and to make journalism the voice of the powerful. There's also the rise of television punditry, which rewards glibness and balance over sincerity and authoritative analysis. And there's the fearful triangulation and what Jay Rosen so aptly calls misguided contrarianism that seems to have replaced independence and speaking truth to power as the guiding principles of political reportage.
I.F. Stone is rightfully a hero to those of us who value independent journalism. Most significantly to me, Stone never squelched his voice -- an informed voice, full of outrage and born of an unconcealed devotion to fair play, civil rights, civil liberty, free speech, truth in government, and peace on earth. These are the same nonpartisan, humanist values that have fueled our discipline's best work throughout history.
And as it happens, our industry is ripe for a revival in which we proudly express our journalistic passions. As I've written elsewhere - for instance, in a book review of Myra MacPherson's excellent I.F. Stone biography, "All Governments Lie!" and in a Watchdog Blog post on calling bullshit - the Internet and Jon Stewart are providing us with a daily lesson in how deeply the public values passionate truth-telling.
So the occasion of I.F. Stone's 100th birthday provides the perfect opportunity for us to focus on the need for journalists to be independent from inappropriate economic, political and personal pressures -- and for us to celebrate those who live by the principles Stone embodied.