The Altercation Book Club: Freedom of the Press (A Minority Opinion)


Last week in my Nation column, I wrote about Halperin/Harris's The Way to Win, a celebration of Beltway insiderdom. This week, Boehlert gives the book a whack.

I spent a week once in Lake Como with the late, great Johnny Apple and his gracious and charming wife, Betsy. He was everything everyone says he was, and how sad that journalism will have no room for the Apples of the future. Read Bud on the guy. You can't do better.

Berman on Alterman on Berman on McPherson on Stone:

Paul Berman replies to my critique of his review of Myra McPherson's biography of Izzy Stone, here. My piece was here. I'm going to let it go at that.

How about those ???!!!

The Altercation Book Club

From The Best of I.F. Stone, edited by Peter Osnos and Karl Weber:


November 14, 1955 by I.F. Stone

(Intro: Although this essay was written over fifty years ago, its picture of a conformist press, contentedly allowing itself to be "managed" by government spin doctors supplying news with an officially approved slant is all too recognizable. The contrast to I. F. Stone's variety of journalism is provided in the third paragraph from the end, where he remarks that "Washington is in many ways one of the easiest cities in the world to cover. The problem is the abundance of riches." What was -- and is -- in short supply is a cadre of journalists willing to do the kind of reportorial spadework Stone did and to follow the information fearlessly wherever it led them.)

The main obstacle to the creation of a well-informed public is its own indifference. In every country with a free press, thoughtful papers which conscientiously try to cover the news lag behind the circulation of those which peddle sex and sensationalism. This is as true in Paris and London as in New York; and if Moscow ever permits a free privately-owned press, Izvestia and Pravda will fall far behind any paper which prints the latest on that commissar's love nest.

The second obstacle is that most papers are owned by men who are not newspapermen themselves; publishing is a business, not a Jeffersonian passion, and the main object is as much advertising revenue as possible. Thus it happens that between the attitude of the publishers and that of the public, most papers in this country print little news. And this, except for local coverage, is mostly canned, syndicated, and quick-frozen.

The third obstacle is that this has always been and is now more than ever a conformist country; Main Street and Babbitt -- and de Tocqueville long before Sinclair Lewis -- held a faithful mirror to our true nature. It doesn't take much deviation from Rotary Club norms in the average American community to get oneself set down as queer, radical, and unreliable.

Against this background, it is easy to see why the average Washington correspondent is content to write what he is spoon-fed by the government's press officers. Especially since the press is largely Republican and this is a Republican Administration, there is little market for "exposing" the government. Why dig up a story which the desk back home will spike?

It was this astringent view of our profession and its circumstances which I found lacking in the newspapermen's testimony which opened the investigation launched here by a special House subcommittee on government "information." The most perceptive of the witnesses, and one of our very best reporters, James Reston of the New York Times, put his finger on the vital point when he said that worse than suppression was the "managing" of the news by government departments. But the news is "managed" because the reporters and their editors let themselves be managed.

The State Department is an outstanding offender. Very often, for example, newspaper readers get not so much what actually happened at the UN as the "slant" given out in the corridors afterward to the reporters by a State Department attaché.

The private dinner, the special briefing, are all devices for "managing" the news, as are the special organizations of privileged citizens gathered in by State and Defense Departments for those sessions at which highly confidential (and one-sided) information is ladled out to a flattered "elite."

As a reporter who began by covering small towns, where one really has to dig for the news, I can testify that Washington is in many ways one of the easiest cities in the world to cover. The problem is the abundance of riches. It is true that the Government, like every other government in the world, does its best to distort the news in its favor -- but that only makes the job more interesting.

Most of my colleagues agree with the Government and write the accepted thing because that is what they believe; they are indeed -- with honorable exceptions -- as suspicious of the non-conformist as any group in Kiwanis.

Though the first day's witnesses included the best and boldest of the regular press, no one mentioned the recent deportations of radical foreign language editors and of Cedric Belfrage of the Guardian. No one mentioned the Communist editors and reporters prosecuted -- for their ideas -- under the Smith Act. No one mentioned the way McCarthy "investigated" James Wechsler. Surely thoughtful men, as aroused as these were over the future of a free press, might have given a moment's consideration to the possible danger in such precedents. Did they feel it would be indiscreet to go beyond respectable limits? That such fundamental principles are best left for orations on Zenger and Lovejoy, both conveniently dead?

For more of Izzy's work, go here.


The new Library of America edition of Philip Roth's collected works was just published, containing Roth's funny baseball novel, The Great American Novel (1973), My Life as a Man (1974), and The Professor of Desire (1977), which I remember as being pretty dirty. It clocks in at a mere 912 pages and for some reason has a completely different spine than every other Library of America edition. Truth be told, I don't have much memory of Great American or Professor, but I've always felt that My Life was one of the great underrated novels that I've read in the past 30 years. It's a Peter Tarnopol novel, but it features what may be the first appearance of Nathan Zuckerman. And it does wonderful things, though without much self-discipline. I think that's an argument in its favor, though it feels like a very different writer than the Roth of today. Fortunately, I remember damn few of the details, so I get to read again, anew. So can you. More here.

Correspondence Corner:

Name: Abraham H. Foxman
National Director, Anti-Defamation League
Tony Judt's accusations about my forcing the Polish consulate in New York to cancel his appearance are unfounded and part of Judt's conspiratorial ideas about pro-Israel groups and "Jewish control" of U.S. foreign policy.

In no way did I urge or demand that the Polish consulate cancel the event. Indeed, Polish consular officials have publicly made clear that the decision to cancel the talk was theirs and theirs alone. I do not believe in stifling freedom of speech on this issue, or any other. Rather, I believe strongly that all views should be heard in our free society, and that the answer to extremist or offensive speech is to counter it -- just as vigorously -- with more speech.

Sadly, Mr. Judt is now using this incident to mount a campaign of disinformation, to tar his critics and to further his claim of a conspiracy to stifle anti-Israel activists from having their say. His arguments, however, lack credibility, given the many prominent public forums he has enjoyed over the years including, the op-ed page of the New York Times and many speaking engagements in New York City, most recently at Cooper Union, and elsewhere.

Name: J. DAlessandro
Hometown: Crestwood, NY
So anyone who houses Tony Judt will now be accounted to be giving aid and comfort to the anti-Semites, according to Abe Foxman?

I saw the Israel Lobby Debate at Cooper Union last week, and after a feisty exchange, most of the parties expressed satisfaction that it was still possible for us to enjoy the same free speech rights that the Israelis enjoy to discuss these issues.

Who knew?

Say what you will about errors in the Walt/Mearsheimer article, their criticism of the flagrant abuse of political power and influence, and the stifling of dissent, by extremist right wing Zionists, is, if anything, understated.

Could we have a second round at the Cooper Union, with Foxman on the panel this time?

Name: Lou Cabron
Hometown: Los Angeles, CA
"5 Nastiest Campaign Ads" gives a glimpse into the real campaigns in the battleground states which will determine control of the Senate.

Name: Jamie M. Forbes
Hometown: New York
I wouldn't be the first to tell you that Christopher Hitchens quotes Bob Bateman in the latest Hitch screed ... but just in case it's fallen through the cracks, here 'tis:

"Let me quote from an e-mail I received from Lt. Col. Robert Bateman, a serving infantry officer, strategist, and military historian who has recently returned from an uninterrupted year of service in Iraq..."

As the world churns.

Eric adds: The world awaits Ian Fisher's profile of Hitchens in next week's New Yorker ...

Name: Bri
Hometown: Richmond, RI
Hi Eric,

I have to disagree with you about The Move being Jeff Lynne's "earlier band." That band was really Roy Wood's band. Roy was the founding father and after he got tired of what he could do with that band, he, with the help of Jeff, converted it into ELO. Roy left ELO after their first album No Answer because of "artistic differences" with Jeff.

Roy then put out several solo disks as well as forming another band, Wizzard.

If you can find it, I highly recommend Roy's CD Boulders.

We've changed our commenting system to Disqus.
Instructions for signing up and claiming your comment history are located here.
Updated rules for commenting are here.