My KPFA - A Historical Footnote



. . . to live in

interesting times


D.D. Guttenplan's definitive new biography,

American Radical: The Life and Times of I. F. Stone,

brings to mind the parallels between his idiosyncratic

career and KPFA's uniquely uncensored and

unabridged radio journalism.



In the early 1960s, I. F. Stone and KPFA had much in common. Don Guttenplan writes: 

Cast out from the corridors of power. . . he became, in Victor Navasky’s phrase, an “investigative reader”, prospecting through the public record for the nuggets of awkward fact that all governments hide, not locked away in secret archives but in plain sight. 

"Investigative reader" — a seminal phrase that takes us back to the traditions of classical scholarship, in pursuit of which Izzy would spend his final years. In similar fashion, the KPFA newsroom in those days was occupied by the News Director and one or two volunteers, poring over the latest New York Times together with well-thumbed stacks of official documents and highbrow periodicals. In the background, the teletype chattered away with the AP newspaper wire service – not the radio wire, which was minimal.


The daily evening news slot was followed by a roster of commentators who provided fifteen-minute analyses, some of which were recorded in the studio and others sent in on five-inch tape reels. I remember several of the latter coming from I. F. Stone, none of which seem to have survived. What a loss!


And so his first appearance on KPFA that anyone remembers is his hour-long slot in the 1963 Vietnam Day Teach-In on the UC Berkeley campus [right]. While Izzy was deftly scuttling the Washington Ship of Fools, I was back in the studio, keeping the telephone line feed on the air and doing the air-check. If I or the tape recorder had malfunctioned that day, one of the great I. F. Stone documents would have been lost forever. You can listen to it here.       



Guttenplan goes to great lengths to strip away the cozy elder statesman image with which the establishment media attempted to sanitize Stone in his later years. An ardent supporter of the new State of Israel, he nevertheless had from the beginning an active sympathy with the Palestinian Arabs who were displaced to make it possible. Not for him the glib myth of “a land without a people”. In 1956 he wrote from Jerusalem: 

The Jews are at a crossroads in our history as a people. One way leads towards greater militarization and chauvinism, greater fear and hatred of the Arab. . . . We dare not treat the Arab as human dirt swept out of the land without dirtying ourselves.

"It is time," Stone insisted, "we American Jews balked [at] the tail-wag-the-dog tactics of drift and hard-line Israeli politics." Today as much as ever, such sentiments would, in the eyes of the “Israel Lobby”, consign him to the "self-hating" ghetto. (In quoting them with implied approval, Guttenplan risks placing himself in the same category.) Nevertheless, I. F. Stone, possessing as he did a profoundly open mind and a subtle intellect, insisted on maintaining at the same time his identification with his own people and with the displaced Palestinians. Similarly, when asked how he could express such strong sympathy for the slave owner Thomas Jefferson, he replied, “Because history is a tragedy, not a melodrama”. Carve it on the wall!



This Hellenic dichotomy was to occupy the final years of Stone's creative life and would take him deeper inside the minds of Socrates and his Athenian contemporaries than many a complacent classical scholar had been able or willing to penetrate. The latter were often so enamored of Socrates’ unflappable One-Upmanship that they chose to ignore the profoundly anti-democratic content of his arguments, and they did not take kindly to Izzy's storming their ivory towers.


Stone was painfully aware of the lofty detachment that comes so easily to the intellectual who places himself above the society to which he regards himself as morally and intellectually superior. Between them, Stone and Guttenplan sum it up beautifully: 

For the ancient Athenians, “participation in ‘politics’ – managing the city – was a right, a duty, and an education. But all the Socratics, from Antisthenes to Plato, preached withdrawal from it.” Stone saw this withdrawal from politics, in his own time as in ancient Athens, as inimical to the survival of democracy. “The negative dialectic of Socrates – if the city had taken it seriously – would have made equity and democracy impossible. His identification of virtue with unattainable knowledge stripped common men of hope and denied their capacity to govern themselves.” Allegory, political archaeology, historical muckraking, and personal mythology – The Trial of Socrates is all these things. But above all it is a plea for engagement. [emphasis mine] 

As accelerating consumption, compulsive gambling, unchecked soil depletion and ultimate energy exhaustion bring civilization crashing down about our ears, the cacophony of our Socratic word games would make Nero’s legendary fiddle-scraping sound sweetly melodic.



In a life as immersed in Washington’s dirty secrets as was Izzy's, there were bound to be events and ramifications that even Don Guttenplan’s twenty years of burrowing couldn’t dig up. In a long conversation in 1993, Chris Koch, himself a prize-winning investigative journalist and media producer, told me of Stone’s sudden and unexplained volte face over one of the biggest muck-raking exposés of the middle 1960s. He's worth quoting at length; you can listen to him here:

It was pretty obvious to all of us that the [Senate Internal Security Sub-Committee hearings on Communist subversion of Pacifica Radio] came about as a result of an interview that Richard Ellman and myself did with a defector from the FBI, Special Agent Jack Levine. I walked into WBAI one morning and Dick Ellman came into my office—I was then acting station manager—and said, I'd like you to meet Special Agent Jack Levine, Federal Bureau of Investigation. I thought, Oh God, here it comes, because we always expected to be  invaded by the government in one way or another. He said, in kind of a high voice, "No,  former special agent." It turned out that Jack had left the FBI and wanted to tell his story. He had gone to every newspaper and magazine in New York City, maybe America – he had gone to an incredible list. No one would touch Jack Levine with a ten-foot pole. Finally Carey McWilliams at  The Nation did a short piece on Levine in which he asserted that one out of every seven members of the American Communist Party was an FBI informer or plant. Carey picked that up and ran it, but Jack had much more to say than  that. Carey suggested that he come down and talk to us at Pacifica.


Richard Ellman and I interviewed Levine for I think three or four hours. We took the interview and we cut it down to an hour and a half, as I remember. Basically, the stuff that was most interesting, other than the Communist Party infiltration assertion, were things about Hoover's personal style that at that point were revelations that were not believed, such as the fact that FBI agents carried two handkerchiefs, one to wipe their hands with [because Hoover was suspicious of men with sweaty palms]. . . . I don't think we got into his possible relationships with men, it didn't even get into the interview, but it was personal stuff. Anyway, by today's standards it would not be considered that broad an attack, but in the 1950s [compared with the Anthony Summers biography] it was very tame stuff. But no one had ever attacked J. Edgar Hoover of the FBI before—ever, in any way.


As soon as we had edited it down, we took the interview to a number of Washington attorneys, among them Ephram London, who was at that point one of the leading civil liberties attorneys in the country. We said, do you think we ought to run this, because we were feeling very nervous, and he said, you would be doing a disservice not to run  this material. So we printed a transcript up, distributed it widely, and the calls began to come in. It was unbelievable.  I remember the Associated Press reporter who called and said, “Listen Mr. Koch, you've got to meet me down at this bar.” We met at a dark bar, someplace down on Lexington or Third Avenue. He was a typical hard drinking, heavy smoking reporter. He said,”Listen, I know you kids think you're doing a great thing here, but I want to tell you your life will be ruined if you go ahead with this broadcast, you've got to cancel this broadcast.”


Eleanor "Bunny" Bruce, who was our folio editor, who had close contacts with the AFL/CIO, got a call from their education director in Washington saying, “Bunny, when that program goes on the air, don't be in the station because it's going to be attacked.” There were 20, 30, 40, 50 calls a day, warning us against doing this broadcast. I was acting station manager and had done the interviews, so it was very nerve-wracking stuff for me.


This next is a completely unknown story—largely unknown—and I later confronted I.F. Stone about this story and he claimed to have no recollection whatsoever, but there were people there [i.e. witnesses in the office] . I.F. Stone called me at first and said, “This is a fabulous interview, I'm going to devote my whole next issue of  I.F. Stone's Weekly to it, I love it!” This was the one ray of light in what was otherwise a whole series of warnings not to go ahead with this. . . .


So Jerry [Shore] came to be with us for the broadcast and we were sitting in my office as acting station manager and I.F. Stone called and he said, “I want to speak with Mr. Koch.”


I said, “Izzy, what's going on?”


He said, “Mr. Koch, I want to say that I've re-read the transcript carefully and I want to publicly disassociate myself from it, I'm not going to devote any space in I.F. Stone's Weekly to it.”


I said, “Izzy, we're in a private phone conversation, what do you mean you want to publicly disassociate yourself?”


“Well,” he said, “that's it,” and he hung up. I went white. I was just ashen. I suddenly thought, am I totally wrong? I must have totally screwed up. Jerry could see—he said, “Let's get out of here.” This was an hour or two before the broadcast. We went out and had a martini at the bar next door—a couple of drinks to calm down—I was really nervous. "But," we said, “we know we've got it right,” and we went ahead with the broadcast. And very shortly thereafter we were subpoenaed by the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee. No one really doubted that it wasn't really vindictiveness on Hoover's part.  

What’s the explanation? Did someone or something put the fear of God into the ardent atheist? We’ll probably never know. Several years ago I gave Chris’s email address to Don, who wrote to him to find out more. He never got a reply. In June 2009 over dinner in Paris (my first reunion with Chris since the above conversation), I asked him why he hadn’t responded to Don’s enquiry and was told that the e-mail never reached him. What a shame! If two of the best investigative journalists I’ve ever known had blended their potent mixtures, the spontaneous combustion might still be blazing!



In 1988, a year before he died, I. F. Stone was engaged in a two-hour public conversation in New York sponsored by the New School and The Nation. Recorded by WBAI and subsequently broadcast by Pacifica’s other stations, it was sent to me on cassette by the late Ned Paynter, my dear friend who can be heard elsewhere on this website. The event, a fitting tribute to a glorious life, can be heard here and then here.  




Budding young muckrakers who have read Barbara Ehrenreich's commencement address to the 2008 journalism graduating class at UC Berkeley will know that I. F. Stone’s rocky road to self-publication may be the only one now open to them. In these internet blogging days, that’s not so difficult or expensive as it used to be, but there are millions already out there trying to outshout each other.


Izzy’s epic narrative is fortunate to have in Don Guttenplan a surviving scholar/journalist who has traveled the same road. Having himself experienced the obstacles that lie in the path of truth-telling, he is able to capture vividly the exitement, the frustration and the ultimate satisfaction of picking the locks on doors that our rulers intend to remain firmly shut. If you're over fifty, this biography will be an extraordinary recreation of some of recent history's worst and best moments; if you're under thirty and want to tell it like it is, it will show you what you're up against.


©2009 John Whiting