Transcript: Speech to Park Center for Independent Media

In thanks for the 2020 Izzy Award

Thank you to the Park Center for Independent Media, to Ithaca College, to Director Rumi, and to my old acquaintances Professor Schack, and to Jeff Cohen. I want to commend also the idealism and entrepreneurial spirit of the other Izzy winners, to Lawrence Bartley at the News Inside and the Marshall Project, and the whole Centro de Periodisimo Investigativo.

I.F. Stone was a hero of mine. Earlier this year I made a big professional decision with him in mind, moving from a staff position at a legacy media outlet to a reader-supported newsletter at a site called Substack. In my announcement I noted journalism’s old model, in which reporters worked for big companies or wealthy patrons, who gave staff a cut of advertising and subscription revenue, had broken down:

The logical endgame is cutting out middle steps and having journalists work directly for readers. I think I.F. Stone, who did it with a printed newsletter, had the right idea.

In the months since that move, my subscription base has expanded and I now feel I reach more readers than ever before, following the example of Stone. He described himself as:

A wholly independent newspaperman, standing alone, without organization or party backing, beholden to no one but my good readers.

If you do this job long enough, journalism will eventually force you to choose between friends and principles. For this reason, the profession tends to favor a type of personality that doesn’t mind being alone.

In my late twenties, when I worked in Moscow, I met some of these people. I’d come to be friends with many of Russia’s newly-liberated journalists. The period after the collapse of the Soviet Union and before Vladimir Putin consolidated power saw an extraordinary flowering of journalists. These were truly great muckrakers, men and women who were not only brilliant gatherers of information and gorgeous writers in the Russian language, but people who risked their lives daily.

In the nineties and early 2000s, Russian journalists were forcibly institutionalized, had their legs and arms broken, were killed by exploding briefcase, shot. There was even one reporter-turned-politician I knew who supposedly was killed by poisoned telephone.

One, named Leonid Krutakov, was a short, muscular man with coke-bottle glasses and a quiet demeanor who was a born investigator.

Leonid was working at a time when all of the major media outlets were essentially owned by oligarchs. If you worked at Newspaper A, you wrote the news as Vladimir Gusinsky wanted it. At newspaper B, you printed Boris Berezovsky’s point of view. At a third, you carried water for Vladimir Vinogradov.

Leonid was famous in town for a while because he kept moving. Every time he got a new job, he would invariably find a story the publisher didn’t want printed, print it, and get himself axed. He was a little like the Chief White Halfoat character from Catch-22, who kept having to move as soon as he found a new bed, because oil kept being discovered underneath him. Except Leonid was contributing to his own absurd narrative. The joke was that he was trying to set a record for the fastest firing.

In the summer of 1997, he was working for Izvestia, at the time, aligned with the pro-Western wing of the Kremlin. He wrote a story called “Kreditui Ili…” (“Credit or…”) that showed one of the most prominent pro-Western Yeltsin officials had received a no-interest $3 million loan from a crooked bank.

The story got him fired as well as his editor. At another job that year, he wrote something his bosses didn’t like, and was fired and beaten in the courtyard before he even made it to his front door. Every time I saw him, he either had a band-aid on his head, or he was broke.

One night I asked, “Leonid, why do you keep picking these topics?” Pochemu?

Potomu, he said, shrugging. Meaning, “Because.”

Why? Because, that’s why! A perfect answer for why some of us do this job.

Why did I.F. Stone publish a newsletter out of his basement, when he could easily have had a comfortable life working for the Times or the Washington Post? Because money and fancy credentials aren’t worth much if you can’t say what you want.

Probably not since Stone’s time in the Red Scare have pressures on reporters to conform to political narratives been as great. Stone described how you control reporters:

Should a reporter resist the pressure, there are many ways to get rid of him. If his publisher is not particularly astute or independent, a little private talk, a hint that the reporter seems irresponsible—even a bit radical… will do the job of getting him replaced with someone more malleable…

What Stone understood is that there’s no shortage of truths to tell, so long as you’re telling them not for accolades or social approval or money, but just because. He wrote:

A reporter covering the whole capital on his own—particularly if he is his own employer—is immune from these pressures. Washington is full of news—if one story is denied him he can always get another…

A lesson from Stone’s career is that a single person speaking frankly can have more power than corporations like Warner Brothers or CBS, or billions in PR dollars controlled by organizations like the Pentagon. No amount of money will make a lie true, which is why these organizations never quite know what to do with independent voices like Stone’s — they always fear what they can’t buy.

Journalists are not only obligated to understand this power, but to use it, as aggressively and as often as possible. As William Blake said, “Always be willing to speak your mind, and a base man will avoid you.” There are a lot of people worth avoiding in this world, and doing this job well is one of the best ways of pulling it off. And the internet now offers a path for anyone to follow Stone’s example.