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The legacy of I.F. Stone, independent non-neutral journalist, "proto-blogger"

On Wednesday, I attended a panel discussion on the legacy of muckraking, self-publishing journalist I.F. Stone, on the 100th anniversary of his birth. (Image from I.F. Stone official site. Here's some Stone audio, part of an interview with biographer Myra McPherson.)

The panel--two biographers, two former colleagues, plus an academic--summarized the lessons from Stone's career: Think for yourself. Get your facts right. Base opinion and analysis on reporting. Read original documents. Don't accept the spin from those in power. Don't be flattered by access to the powerful.

The Voice's Tom Robbins summed it up:
While all but forgotten today, Stone was an inspiration to radicals in the 1960s, and to such current muckrakers as Seymour Hersh. There was also some suggestion at the event... that Stone just might have been the first blogger, even though he died in 1989, long before thousands of erstwhile cyber-detectives took to their keyboards.

There are clear similarities in method and approach.

By poring over the Congressional Record and scrutinizing government documents that the rest of the press largely passed over, Stone regularly scooped the major dailies and newsmagazines.


A "proto-blogger"

Dan Froomkin, the deputy editor of the Nieman Watchdog Project (and a journalism colleague of mine in college), last year described Stone as a "proto-blogger":
There were many ways in which Stone distinguished himself from his more conventional colleagues. He wasn't a slave to access. He adored burrowing into original documents. He didn't hesitate to call a lie a lie. And he was relentless. Those characteristics seem to be in short supply among today's media elite — as the trial of former vice presidential aide Scooter Libby (and its coverage) illustrated so clearly. Instead, it's the bloggers who have taken up Stone's mantle.


As the links above that I inserted indicate, I find some identification.

The neuter in neutrality

In his PressThink blog, NYU journalism academic Jay Rosen suggested that a non-neutral stance, coupled with professionalism, can produce valuable work:
Josh Marshall’s TPM Media operation is a new media newsroom that does political reporting in the same space as the big providers. Marshall believes in accountability journalism, sticking with stories, digging into public records for information, getting to the bottom of things, verifying what you think you know, correcting the record when you get it wrong.

TPM marries these traditional virtues to open expressions of outrage, incredulity marking certain political figures as ridiculous or beyond the pale, and the informed display of political conviction. These make it obvious to any reader of Talking Points Memo that Marshall is a liberal Democrat skeptical of the Bush agenda, though not a dogmatic one. His is the transparency route to trust and success in political journalism. A key crossing point came last month when Marshall and company won a George K. Polk Award for excellence in reporting on the legal system.

The way Marshall figures it, the important thing is to show integrity— not to be a neuter, politically. Having good facts that hold up is a bigger advantage than claiming to reflect all sides equally well.


Rosen concluded:
Reporters with depth of knowledge are capable of challenging government and getting beyond the he said, she said style of tepid truthtelling. But the media corporation shifts its people around a lot. They switch towns, beats, assignments so often that it’s impossible for most reporters to build up any independent base of authority. They can’t challenge spin because they don’t know enough. So they become transmitters. Neutrality valorizes a loss of footing and self-respect.

This is bad news for the press if you care about having a strong one, capable of challenging the line of the day. But fine for the media, which finds it far cheaper to farm out “context” and “analysis” to ex-government officials. They came by their knowledge at another sector’s expense.


And that's part of the problem with Atlantic Yards.

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