In search of the ‘I.F. Stones of today’ — the torchbearers of independent journalism

Following the world premiere of All Governments Lie, director Fred Peabody and Rolling Stones’ Matt Taibbi discuss I.F. Stone’s legacy, and the importance of going your own way.

By: /
29 September, 2016
Courtesy of TIFF

American journalist I. F. Stone may be an unfamiliar name: He never hosted a nightly newscast or held a post as an editor at a top newspaper. His methods were much less glamorous; Stone was known to scour through pages upon pages of government documents and official transcripts to uncover governments’ lies “from the horse’s mouth,” as he himself once described.

Stone was a special breed of journalist, a maverick outsider who existed on the fringes of the media landscape. In his own words, he was an anachronism. His writing, marked with wit and humour, had no place in traditional newspapers – so he created his own. I.F. Stone Weekly, a four-page newsletter crafted from his home office and distributed with the help of his wife, exposed inconsistencies in policy, political obscurantism, and cases in which the government infringed on the rights and civil liberties enshrined in the United States Constitution.

He was, as The Intercept‘s Dan Froomkin once called him, “the best blogger ever,” who happened to die in 1989 at the age of 81.

Fred Peabody’s latest documentary, All Governments Lie: Truth, Deception, and the Spirit of I.F. Stone, shares the same title as Myra MacPherson’s biography of Stone and pays homage to his legacy as an independent journalist, as well as to the contemporary journalists who are following in his wake. 

Peabody portrays a bleak image of the current media landscape in North America – one in which corporate media organizations fail the public by shoring up the establishment and unquestioningly touting official talking points. “Reporters tend to be absorbed by the bureaucracies they cover; they take on the habits, attitudes and even accents of the military or the diplomatic corps,” Stone wrote in 1963.

Journalists Glenn Greenwald, Jeremy Scahill, Amy Goodman and John Carlos Frey appear onscreen to offer scathing criticism of the current media landscape in the U.S. and remind viewers of the dangerous consequences when profit trumps public interest and journalists fail to hold those in power accountable.

All Governments Lie premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in early September. OpenCanada’s Krista Hessey sat down with Canadian director Fred Peabody and Rolling Stones’ Matt Taibbi, who is also featured in the film, to discuss corporate media’s collusion with the establishment, how independent journalists –  those working in environments free from corporate and/or government control or bias – are using new digital tools to rebel, and what those in the media today can learn from Stone’s skeptical eye and devotion to the truth.

Why did you decide to make this film now? What makes it so timely?

Fred Peabody: When I was 19, and a kind of would-be investigative journalist here in Toronto, a friend of mine told me about this thing called I.F Stone’s Weekly, a little four-page newsletter. He said, “Subscribe to this and you can find out the truth about what the U.S. is really doing in Vietnam.” 

“It’s got to be about the I.F. Stones of today who are carrying on his tradition of investigative, independent, adversarial journalism.”

So, back in 1968-’69, I subscribed to it and I loved it. It really inspired me; I could sense this guy was really telling the truth, and I [wasn’t] seeing that on network news, not even Canadian network news. I also liked the craft and humour in his writing. His report in 1968 on the Poor People’s March on Washington is a good example. [It had a] very witty headline: “The Rich March on Washington All the Time.” He was a great craftsman, a great writer. Humour is important and we talk about that in the film.

We wanted to do a film that captured the essence of I.F. Stone, or Izzy Stone as friends and subscribers called him, and part of that is his humour. So, for my third act in life, [I wanted] to get back to journalism. I started thinking about investigative journalism, the kind of journalism that “comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable.” I discovered a website, funded by the son of I.F Stone, Jeremy Stone, and I ended up exchanging emails with him and found out he was interested in getting a documentary made about his dad. 

Since I.F. Stone is dead [Peter Raymont, of White Pine Pictures, and I] realized we couldn’t just do a documentary with people talking about him…like in the old days. So I thought, it’s got to be about I.F. Stone and the I.F. Stones of today who are carrying on his tradition of investigative, independent, adversarial journalism with heart and soul and, in some cases, humour.

When did you first hear about I. F. Stone, Matt? What impression did his work have on you?

Matt Taibbi: I knew about him. I had some straight news jobs when I was very young. I was finding the process very constrictive so I wanted to break out on my own. I ended up doing pretty much what I.F Stone did and self-published my own newspaper in Russia for six years. 

I think I. F. Stone was operating under the principle that it’s better to struggle with all the problems of distribution and production and not making a lot of money, and be independent and be able to say and write whatever you want about any topic and develop your own voice, than try to work within a system that has a lot of obstacles built into [it]. My early career, like a lot of people in this movie, was really about trying to find a way to do this job without depending on big corporate money and all the things that went with that. That’s what he was all about and there weren’t that many people like him, but I think there are probably more now than in his age.

Can you describe when you realized that mainstream media operated in this sort of nihilistic, for-profit business model, as you say in the film?

MT: I know the moment that that happened with me. I was working for a newspaper in Moscow called The Moscow Times, which is a traditional expatriate newspaper but was heavily funded by ads from Big Six accounting firms and all that, so [articles] had to be very straight-laced. 

They sent me to cover the unveiling of a painting of Boris Yeltsin. I think it was called, ‘Yeltsin the Great Democrat.’ I went to the museum, and first of all, because it was Russian everybody was completely shit-faced before the event even started. There was a big thing on the wall with a tarp over it and by the time they got around to taking the tarp off there were people throwing up in the middle of the floor. And by then, the idea that Yeltsin was a democrat was already a joke among real Russians because he was assassinating journalists and all these things. So, they pull down this tarp and it looks like someone grafted Yeltsin’s nose onto Thomas Jefferson. It was totally ridiculous.

I went back and wrote up this piece that highlighted all the absurd aspects of what had happened. They told me that it was an inappropriate tone for a news piece because a news piece has to be serious. My point was that this scene was comic. If you’re telling me I can’t make this funny, then you’re lying. So I had this moment of clarity that a lot of media is designed to weed out sort of subversive thinking and I thought the only way to get around that was to self-publish.  

How do you think the film’s reception may differ in Canada versus the U.S.? And how are the media cultures of the two countries different?

FP: I think Canadians naturally have a tendency to be more skeptical of the U.S. government and U.S. institutions, including the mainstream media. [Showing this film at art cinemas] like Cinema Village in New York, where we’re going to run [it] for a week starting Nov. 4, you’re kind of preaching to the choir. There is a large progressive audience in the U.S., but others will come, [like] people who are interested in journalism or journalists themselves. I think this film will do well in the U.S. Look at all of the people who supported Bernie Sanders in the primary cycle.

MT: The whole question of media complicity is a big thing in America right now.

Amy Goodman said Democracy Now’s audience is growing. Do you both also sense that people are hungrier for independent media?

FP: Yeah, especially with people under 30.

MT: I think it is a double-edged sword. There are a bunch of different phenomena going on with attitudes towards the media. There’s a generation of people who have grown up now with the Internet, which is great at connecting like-minded people, [but] in terms of media, it is unparalleled in its efficiency at linking people to other people with the same point of view. 

So, you have a whole generation of people who have grown up surrounding themselves with news sources that basically tell them what they want to hear. This is good and bad because on one level they’re seeking out independent media sources that are straying from the three networks, but on the other hand, they’ve gotten used to being told that their opinions are right about everything.

What happens in an election season, and I think this is a very negative phenomenon, is that whenever [someone] sees a news report that doesn’t support the candidate they like or conversely, that says something positive about the other candidate, then they start saying, “The media is biased!” When actually, the opposite is true. The media is trying to look at things truthfully and there’s a moment in Fred’s film where [Turkish American commentator] Cenk [Uygur] talks about how you have to be willing to turn off your own audience if you’re going to be truthful. The problem with the modern model is that too many outlets are afraid to do that because they’re afraid to lose their demographics. So, as much as there is skepticism, there is also this expectation that you are going to give me what I want to hear.

FP: And I. F. Stone is a great example of the need to have independent journalists that truly are independent, that are not camp followers. In his case, he was progressive, but he was willing to lose subscribers and alienate the Left by going against the accepted wisdom.

Fred, you’re turning the camera inward to critique corporate media, after working for the CBC, ABC News, NBC and as a freelancer. Over the years, how have you witnessed these institutions change?

FP: When I started at 20/20 in 1988 it was possible to do some intelligent work. I did pieces which were shot on film, about serious topics. On a good night, 20/20 was giving 60 Minutes a run for their money. Both of those shows were much better in 1988. [Today]60 Minutes is okay sometimes, but 20/20 is unwatchable. It has become tabloid…It’s not what I would call a news magazine anymore. 

Anyway, I saw that change while I was there. I started there in 1988 and was there for seven years. Even after I left and started to do TV documentaries, that slide continued. It’s sad. On a good night, and I occasionally did pieces I was proud of, they would be seen by 20 million people. That’s not the audience they get now. I’m rambling here, but it’s become shit.

“It’s kind of like we’re in the Wild West. All the rules have been thrown out and none of us know where it is going to end up.”

MT: There was sort of a moment in history where things changed with the commercial media. The old understanding between the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the broadcast stations was, “We are going to allow you to use these airwaves. In return, you have an obligation to provide a public service.” And so, networks made their money doing sitcoms and whatever else, and [news] was a loss leader. They were going to do good work but make the money elsewhere.

In the ’80 and ’90s, these companies figured out they could make money doing this stuff if they changed the way they did business. They stopped doing the depressing stories about things that matter. There was a sea change where people who were in the business, who were used to doing things one way, now all of a sudden had to be doing cat-in-tree stories.

FP: And even if they hated that idea their executive producer, who would only get that job if he was total ratings [hawk], would be saying, “No we’re not doing that, we’re going to do this thing on Kim Kardashian.”

MT: Exactly. So the whole dynamic on who got promoted and what got on the air, everything changed really quickly in the late ’80s, early ’90s.

What is needed to revive the journalism industry right now, investigative journalism in particular?

MT: In terms of the quality of the work, I think we’re seeing a flowering right now of investigative journalism. The Internet has created this whole new world of people who are doing all kind of great work and getting audiences all on their own without the aid of powerful sponsors and things like that. The problem is, how do they get paid? That is the problem that nobody has conquered. The Internet essentially destroyed the funding base for traditional journalism. The Village Voice in the old days subsisted on wanted and hooker ads – all the things you go through Craigslist now for, for free. The short version is, there is more good reporting but there’s less of an answer about how we pay for it.

FP: I agree, it’s kind of like we’re in the Wild West. All the rules have been thrown out and none of us know where it is going to end up. I see hope in the fact that people under 30 get some of this. I’m optimistic that our film will reach people, members of the public, but also I really hope this reaches journalism students. I hope it gets shown in every journalism course in North America and in other countries. The outstanding thing about independent journalists and independent journalistic outlets is that they don’t have the money to buy big billboards in every city in Canada and the U.S., right? But the mainstream media is doing that, so it’s almost like you have to be an investigative journalist to find where the outstanding reporting is. That’s one of the things I wanted to do with this film. I hope it encourages journalism schools to teach more of this kind of journalism because I think most [schools] are doing it the old fashion way.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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