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Journalism's Courageous, Cantankerous Hero

H.G. Wells was wrong. A good biographer doesn't have to be a "conscientious enemy" of his subject. Take American Radical, D.D. Guttenplan's valentine to the iconic investigative reporter I.F. Stone. A compelling account of an anti-establishment journalist who became a Washington insider, the book also provides a lively examination of the American Left, from the Roaring '20s to the misadventure in Vietnam.

Stone is all but unknown these days to anyone under 60. A reporter and columnist at the New York Post and The Nation in the 1930s and '40s, he covered sit-down strikes, the rise of the Nazis and the civil rights movement.

He came into his own in the 1950s, Guttenplan demonstrates, as founder and "sole practitioner" of I.F. Stone's Weekly. Published on a shoestring, the paper reflected Stone's view that "government is run by liars, and nothing they say should be believed."

A near-deaf man who knew how to listen, Stone tried to get his "stuff from the horse's mouth, or the other end at any rate." And he perfected the art of looking "for the nuggets of awkward fact" — like data on nuclear fallout — that democratic governments hid in plain sight.

Stone was often prescient. In 1959, he anticipated Richard Nixon's "opening to China" by more than a decade. Since Democrats, as Stone wrote, didn't want to be seen as "soft on communism," the then-vice president held "the key to peace." Stone declared the war in Vietnam all but lost as early as 1963, and a year later speculated that the attack on the U.S.S. Maddox that precipitated the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution might well have been provoked by the United States.

Guttenplan recognizes that Stone's claim to the title "first blogger" has become "a cyber-space cliche." But, he adds perceptively, banishment from the corridors of power after the anti-communist hysteria of the 1950s saved Stone — and his subscribers — from mere punditry. I.F. Stone's Weekly became legendary for grounding opinion in hard and trustworthy information.

Well-researched and gracefully written, An American Radical gets inside the head and heart of a courageous and cantankerous reporter with a "street-wise, lapel grabbing" signature style. With newspapers on life support these days, Guttenplan's paean to investigative journalism and one of its boldest practitioners is sure to make some of his readers nostalgic for a return to the Stone Age.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Glenn C. Altschuler