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I.F. Stone on free speech, independence, and government power

July 27, 2012

During the 1970s, the City University of New York broadcast Day at Night, wherein James Day interviewed various individuals influential in politics or culture. In 1974, he interviewed I.F. Stone and they discussed Stone’s views on free speech, journalistic independence, tolerance, his motivations for starting his Weekly Reader, and his beginnings in journalism. Some notable quotations follow the video.

“The only way to be free is not to have power.”

“People don’t realize that, down in the bowels of the government, are a lot of devoted and hardworking people. But people are led to do evil, in spite of themselves, by the nature of the institutions in which they’re trapped.”

“I once had to talk to a group of visiting foreign journalists, and I said ‘the first thing to remember: When you talk to government officials here, don’t believe anything they say.’ Don’t take seriously anything they say.”

“Most of what you hear is the rationalization of bureaucratic inertia…”

“…You have to excuse it, you rationalize it, further its own purposes, and these institutions, which are supposed to be a means, become an end in themselves.”

“I wanted a radical paper in a conservative format. I wanted dignified typography. I didn’t want screaming, sensational headlines. I didn’t want exaggeration. I didn’t want to pretend I had inside information when I didn’t. I wanted it to be sober and factual, as accurate as I could make it. Reasoned — not hysterical — so that people on the other side would have to take it seriously. Persuasive. And I tried to prove what I was saying from the horse’s mouth, as it were; using the government’s own documents and government reports and transcripts and press conferences and speeches, and analyzing them the way a historian would. Putting them in perspective so that a man on a college campus who took it and showed it to a conservative colleague wouldn’t just brush it off; he’d have to take it seriously.”

“I wanted to defend what I considered basic American principles. That is, the right of freedom of speech and free political activity. And that meant defending, first, the Trotskyites, then the communists. I disagree with liberals who were only ready to defend people if it could be proven that they were practically illiterate and couldn’t possibly be Marxists and they weren’t really communists. I felt that, unless it was freedom for everybody, it would be whittled away for everybody.”

“The basic premise for a free society is that none of us can be sure of the truth, and none of us can ever be sure of the whole truth, and, therefore, it’s worth listening to others. And, unless you’re willing to have people tell lies or half lies, you shut off truth. There’s no way of policing it. There has to be freedom. There’s no halfway house.”

“I think there’s a lot of things wrong in Russia, and the Soviet system … You’re going to have to mesh together the Jeffersonian idea and the socialist idea.”

“On maintaining independence: I always felt that it was dangerous to get too close to people in power, and that, when you are working on a really good story, the people to trust, the people to go to, were those people down in the bowels of the bureaucracy who were dealing with that specific subject.”

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