Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Shame On You, Barry Gewen

It slipped into view but will not soon be forgotten -- Barry Gewen's offensive and uncalled-for attack today on the reputation of one of the great journalists of the 20th century, I.F. Stone, using no less inflammatory a device than Adolph Hitler as his weapon.

Gewen, an editor at the Times Book Review, took Harvard University to task on the Times's "Paper Cuts" blog for naming a journalism award after Stone. Casting aside Stone's legendary reputation as a muckraking journalist who fought the Vietnam War and McCarthyism with equal fervor, Gewen disqualifies Stone for one reason: his argument that Stone failed to attack the fascist rule of Soviet leader Josef Stalin until three years after his death, in 1956.

To hear Gewen tell it, that negates the enormous achievements of Stone's career. But when you think about it, Gewen's single-minded thinking is itself a McCarthyist tactic -- holding patriots like Stone wrongly accountable for their belief in the ideals of a political movement that failed them.

Gewen's argument ignores the landmark contributions of "I.F. Stone's Weekly," his self-published journal that made its mark by being the first to investigate, and challenge, Lyndon Johnson's use of the Gulf of Tonkin incident to incite the war in Vietnam. It bypasses Stone's extensive use of government documents (he famously read the Congressional Record every day) to uncover wrongdoing and fraud. It denies Stone's enormous influence over an entire generation of young journalists -- including a former intern, Carl Bernstein, who went on to bring down a president for the Washington Post.

But most important, it allows readers of the Times to think that the newspaper condones the summary judgement of a man's career by one decision made early and in error. Likening Stone's support of Stalin to Martin Heidegger's Nazi leanings does a gross injustice to Stone and to the Times itself.

Here is how Gewen uses the Hitler-Heidegger connection to launch his specious argument against Stone:

Like millions of others, I have long been troubled by the philosopher Martin Heidegger’s political associations: he was an enthusiastic supporter of Hitler and, for a while at least, a member of the Nazi Party. Shelves of books have tried to work through the connection between his thought and his politics, and though I personally don’t have any easy answers, what I do know is that as much as I value his ideas, I would never praise him for his “spirit of independence, integrity, courage and indefatigability,” or be happy to see a major educational institution name an award in philosophy after him. These thoughts came to me when I learned that the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University has recently established an I. F. Stone Medal for Journalistic Independence.

Heidegger, a German philosopher, joined the Nazi Party in the 1930s and supported Hitler through the entirety of World War II, making public speeches on his behalf. As the rector, and later, member of the faculty at the University of Freiberg, his endorsement of National Socialism was definitive and influential. (It's worth noting that Stone was actively opposed to Hitler's rise in the 1930s.)

People who drag Hitler and the Nazi movement into their arguments never deserve to win -- it's dropping a live grenade into a civilized debate. And to liken a Nazi like Heidegger to am idealistic left-wing American journalist (and make no mistake, Gewen wants you to think of them in the same breath) is a narrow-minded and mistaken attack unworthy of the Times.

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