"Every government is run by liars and nothing they say should be believed."
-- I.F. Stone
As hypothetical questions go, I.F. Stone biographer Myra MacPherson was asked a no-brainer at the National Society of Newspaper Columnists convention in Boston over the weekend.
If Izzy were alive today, would the supremely skeptical investigative reporter who wore his iconoclasm like a noose around his own neck have exposed the Bush administration's monitoring of international banking transactions?
Ms. MacPherson, a former Washington Post reporter and author of the upcoming "All Governments Lie: The Life and Times of Rebel Journalist I.F. Stone," didn't equivocate for a second: "Yes," she said with firmness that defied the conventional wisdom of politicians luxuriating in the dark waters of these censorious times.
Two days earlier, the do-nothing House of Representatives passed a nonbinding "Sense of the Congress" resolution designed to browbeat the media into resuming the supine position it perfected in the run-up to the Iraq war.
House Majority Leader John A. Boehner of Ohio engaged in another exercise in empty symbolism:
"For newspapers -- The New York Times specifically and others who followed their lead -- to have disclosed the existence of the program, I think jeopardizes the safety of the American people," Mr. Boehner said.
Not to be outdone, Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts offered up a milder version of a "bad media" resolution, which, like all Democratic initiatives these days, collapsed under the weight of its own wimpiness.
While most Democrats remained outspoken in their opposition to any resolution with the stated intention of intimidating the media, you can't help but sense they're a party on the verge of being rolled again.
When Comedy Central's Stephen Colbert cracked wise at the White House Correspondents Dinner that reporters should continue taking the administration's dictation regarding the war, an indignant Washington press corps took umbrage, insisting Mr. Colbert was rude and unfunny.
But as usual, it took a satirist far removed from D.C.'s daily banalities to intuit the truth. In his ironical way, Mr. Colbert articulated what would become the openly stated policy of the Republican-controlled Congress a few months later: identify as treasonous any news outlet that dares to tell the American people the truth about how the war on terror has gone terribly awry.
If this Congress, addicted to flag symbolism and gay marriage bans but allergic to actual work, had its way, we wouldn't know about the rendition of suspected terrorists to so-called "black sites" in Europe, warrantless domestic wiretapping or prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay.
The furious calls for investigating news organizations and prosecuting reporters are fueled by a transparently false outrage that exploits the soft and amorphous patriotism of ordinary citizens.
After years of being encouraged to view the news media as just another arm of the vast corporate entertainment complex that rules our lives, it's difficult to think of the Fourth Estate as having a profound role to play in a properly functioning democracy.
With the exception of The Times and a handful of other papers, much of the media is silly and irrelevant. Politicians sense this and have decided to take advantage of it.
Bloggers and documentarians will eventually fill the vacuum if newspapers abandon their historic role out of fear.
A generation ago, Izzy Stone exposed President Lyndon Johnson as a liar for orchestrating the Gulf of Tonkin resolution that gave the United States a pretext for expanding the Vietnam War.
While the rest of the Washington press corps happily lapped up the Johnson administration's lies, Izzy worked tirelessly to acquire the documents that vindicated stories that seemed shocking at the time.
As journalists, we have a responsibility to rail against the erosion of press freedoms.
Izzy once said, "You may just think I am a red Jew son-of-a-bitch, but I'm keeping Thomas Jefferson alive." Amen to that.
© 2006 PG Publishing Co., Inc.