The Washington journalist Myra MacPherson has written a worshipful book about the radical leftist journalist I.F. Stone. A dozen years ago Stone’s reputation was rocked when a retired KGB officer seemed to finger Stone as a paid agent of the Soviet Union. MacPherson evidently went to great pains to disprove this charge, and in her book she triumphantly claims to have done so. But, as Paul Berman explains in a fascinating review of her book (and a new collection of Stone’s writing), MacPherson “seems not to notice that in her ardor to rescue Stone from his enemies, she has yanked the rope a little too firmly and has accidentally hanged the man.”
MacPherson informs us that Kalugin, having specified that Stone was never on the Soviet payroll, described Stone as a “fellow traveler” — meaning a friendly supporter of the Soviet cause, though not a disciplined member of any Communist organization. Kalugin explained (in words no admirer of I. F. Stone will want to read) that Stone “began his cooperation with the Soviet intelligence long before me, based entirely on his view of the world.” Stone was “willing to perform tasks.” He would “find out what the views of someone in the government were or some senator on such and such an issue.”
MacPherson beams a benign light on those remarks. She observes that, first, there is a world of difference between merely cooperating with the K.G.B. and actively serving as an espionage agent; and, second, any proper journalist would leap at the opportunity to chat with well-connected functionaries of a foreign power; and, third, many a Washington big shot has conducted back-channel conversations with foreign governments. And so forth, one exculpatory point after another, each of which seems reasonable enough, except that, when you add them up, the sundry points seem to have missed the point. Stone, after all, has been extolled as a god, or, at least, an inspiring model for the journalists of today, and while it is good to distinguish between cooperation and espionage, and excellent to learn that Stone sought out acquaintances in many a dark corner, something about his willingness “to perform tasks” as part of his longtime “cooperation with Soviet intelligence” is bound to make us wonder, What on earth was that about?
So Stone didn’t work for the totalitarian government in Moscow. He merely “performed tasks” for the Soviet Union for free, out of conviction. I confess that in the past, I have described Stone as a paid agent. That wasn’t true. What he was, though, was every bit as despicable.