Civic Minds and I.F. Stone
Yesterday evening I attended a program entitled "Civic Minds: Civic Renewal" co-sponsored by the Citizens League and the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs. Two Humphrey Institute Policy Fellows shared findings from a 2006-02007 project that investigated good citizenship in Minnesota, and Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, also on the panel, gave his views about public engagement in Minnesota.
The ensuing discussion covered a wide range of topics, but one that particularly struck me was the role of community radio stations and newspapers and the Internet for telling true stories about matters of civic importance, at a time when the major news media are seen as increasingly irrelevant and in the control of moneyed interests.
Which led me to think about I.F Stone, whose Wikipedia biography characterizes him as "an iconoclastic American investigative journalist." The Wikipedia article links to a fine article, "I.F. Stone" by Victor Navasky, The Nation July 21, 2003, which summarizes Stone's work and personality in engaging detail. Of particular relevance to our topic is Navasky's description of Stone's working method:
... although he never attended presidential press conferences, cultivated no highly placed inside sources and declined to attend off-the-record briefings, time and again he scooped the most powerful press corps in the world.
His method: To scour and devour public documents, bury himself in The Congressional Record, study obscure Congressional committee hearings, debates and reports, all the time prospecting for news nuggets (which would appear as boxed paragraphs in his paper), contradictions in the official line, examples of bureaucratic and political mendacity, documentation of incursions on civil rights and liberties. He lived in the public domain. It was his habitat of necessity, because use of government sources to document his findings was also a stratagem. Who would have believed this cantankerous-if-whimsical Marxist without all the documentation?
Navasky quotes the journalist Andrew Kopkind about the impact of I.F. Stone's Weekly:
it "organized the consciousness of its readers somewhat in the way a community action group organizes a neighborhood: for awareness, understanding, action." In other words, it mobilized and nourished a community of resistance.
Given the amazing access the Web affords to public documents, position papers, and the like, the information gathering of an I.F. Stone would now be considerably easier, as would be the dissemination of his analysis. His extraordinary intelligence, memory, insight, and determination would be harder to duplicate. But not impossible, particularly if done by a collaborative of committed people. I guess what I'm describing as blogging with depth, persistence, and objectivity: evidence-based but also with a point of view. Without it, it's hard to see how we'll get the honest information and informed democratic perspective we need to maintain a meaningful citizenship.