Film review: All Governments Lie: Truth, Deception, and the Spirit of I.F. Stone (2016)

I recently watched this documentary that takes the first part of its title from the credo of legendary investigative journalist I. F. (“Izzy”) Stone (1907-1989) that every journalist should take to heart. Stone said that all governments lie all the time. He said that while governments sometimes told the truth, the burden was on them to prove that to you. The documentary discusses how following that belief made Stone one of the most influential journalists of his time and the inspiration for some of the best journalists who came after him. Although he started out working for newspapers and magazines, he is best remembered for the period from 1953 to 1971 during which he published his own newsletter I. F. Stone’s Weekly out of his home, with his wife as his business manager. The newsletter was considered a must-read by fellow journalists and by anyone interested in serious news. Marilyn Monroe (who in real life was not at all like the ditzy blonde of her film image) reportedly bought subscriptions for every member of Congress.

How did Stone break major story after story? He did not cultivate confidential sources because he did not trust them. He never attended press conferences. He never believed official statements of government officials but instead went after the actual government reports. He reveled in the world of public domain. He would scour the Congressional Record and the records of committee meetings. He said that officials can say anything in their public and private statements but the people who actually write official government documents had to be much more circumspect. He would find the most interesting bits buried late in the text or in footnotes.

“I made no claims to ‘inside stuff’. I tried to give information which could be documented, so [that] the reader could check it for himself … 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. Should a reporter resist the pressure, there are many ways to get rid of him. … But a reporter covering the whole capital on his own — particularly if he is his own employer — is immune from these [political] pressures.”

He also said that you would find interesting news in the major newspapers but often it was buried in the inside pages or at the end of a long story, while the front pages would usually consist of reciting what government officials said. This was likely because major news outlets often self-censored, partly out of fear of offending their sources and having them not talk to them anymore, and partly as a result of the enculturation filtering process that enables them to rise in their profession But in order to maintain their self-image as objective journalists, they would sometimes insert the information unobtrusively.

An annual I. F. Stone Medal for Journalistic Independence has recently been created. The film looks not only at how Stone worked but at those current journalists like Jeremy Scahill who were inspired by Stone and try to follow his lead and have won the award.

Here’s the trailer.

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