Muckraker: ‘All Governments Lie’ salutes the crusading spirit of journalist I.F. Stone

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Independent journalist I.F. Stone coined the advisory “All Governments Lie” as a warning to a society fixated on ratings-driven, government-fed commercial media. Things have only deteriorated in the 27 years since Stone passed away; Americans looking for true investigative journalism are few and far between, and true investigative outlets are even rarer. Yet they do exist, and journalist Fred Peabody has sought them out.

In All Governments Lie; Truth, Deception, and the Spirit of I.F. Stone, Peabody visits Amy Goodman and Nermeen Shaikh in their offices at Democracy Now!, an independent news organization offering perspectives rarely heard on corporate-sponsored media. Peabody follows Matt Taibbi, dubbed the new I.F. Stone by many, as Taibbi interviews Trump supporters at a primary rally. Peabody speaks with Michael Moore, Noam Chomsky, Stone biographer Myra MacPherson, and a host of cultural critics about the dangers of relying on the government to provide information critical to our ability to assess it. On government manipulation of the media, Stone said, “You’ve really got to wear a chastity belt in Washington to preserve your journalistic virginity. Once the Secretary of State invites you to lunch and asks your opinion, you’re sunk.”

Director Talk: To what extent is your film based on Myra MacPherson’s book, also called All Governments Lie, about I.F. Stone?

Fred Peabody: I subscribed to I.F. Stone’s Weekly many years ago, when I was 19 years old and a would-be investigative journalist. It was recommended by a friend who told me this was the only place I’d find the truth about the U.S. government’s policies in Vietnam, and that this Stone guy was a good writer and also a really good investigative journalist. I found the Weekly completely different from the news I was getting in Toronto from the Canadian mainstream media, or even from The New York Times, which I used to read, or from CBS News, which I also used to watch. It inspired me. About three and a half years ago, I started thinking about I.F. Stone and Googled him. I’d gotten out of touch with his work since 1969, 1970, but I discovered a website called ifstone.org, which is run by I.F. Stone’s son, Jeremy.

DT: Who’s in your film.

FP: Yes, talking about his father’s advice to him regarding the importance of a free and functioning investigative independent press. I started to exchange e-mails with Jeremy Stone and found out he was interested in making a documentary. He also said that I should talk with Myra MacPherson, who had published an excellent biography of Jeremy’s father called All Governments Lie—which is a quote of I.F. Stone’s, probably his most famous one. I read the book, which is a great source about I.F. Stone’s life and the times he lived in, and we decided that we wanted to work with Myra. We optioned her book, but the film is an entirely different animal. It’s not a biography of I.F. Stone, as Myra’s book is. I wouldn’t say the film is based on her book, but Myra was interviewed in the film and was an important consultant, and her book was a rich source of research not only about I.F. Stone but about what he stood for and his values.

DT: You’re a journalist yourself. After interviewing Amy Goodman, Matt Taibbi, and all the others, what do you think is the primary motivation for doing this kind of journalism—a search for the truth, or a desire to fix things?

FP: I think both, but most importantly the latter. The desire to make a difference, caring about humanity and about society…a lot of it just has to do with thinking and caring. As Chris Hedges says near the end of our film, “I.F. Stone cared.” That’s probably the most eloquent statement you could make about I.F. Stone. If you had to boil it down to one word after his name, “I.F. Stone cared” is a great sentence.

DT: According to the film, Democracy Now reports of U.S. helicopter attacks in Iraq in 2007 were ignored until WikiLeaks released classified military video in 2010. What is the function of an organization like WikiLeaks, as opposed to an investigative outlet like Democracy Now?

FP: It’s apples and oranges, but I think WikiLeaks is kind of the granddaddy of a new way of exposing government lies. They’re the first that I’m aware of that provided a relatively safe venue for whistleblowers to bring classified documents in some cases, and secrets in others, but secrets that are brought to light for the reason of exposing injustice or wrongdoing or corruption or whatever the motivations might be. So WikiLeaks has just provided a platform. I don’t really consider them journalists, because by their own admission they don’t touch a thing. They don’t even attempt to vet the documents before they release them, which has brought them under criticism by people—including Edward Snowden, who did not choose to go the route of “Let’s just dump it all out there and if it exposes some people and puts their lives at risk, so be it.” As far as I know, that seems to be the policy of [Julian] Assange and WikiLeaks. I favor the Snowden approach, which is you have to be a human being about this and you can’t just say, “These documents expose this person who’s working on an undercover basis and blows their cover, but so what?” So what if they get killed is what you’re really saying. I don’t think that’s an acceptable human position, so I don’t agree with WikiLeaks or Assange in that case.

There are many different ways that whistleblowers can present the information they want to blow the whistle on, because now, thanks to WikiLeaks getting the ball rolling, there are safe and secure ways of communicating with certain investigative journalists who have different encryption methods. For instance, almost all of the journalists at the Intercept have a PGP code, a free software encryption thing. There’s something else called TOR, which other people use. Now all journalists realize the importance of doing that so people can approach them with encrypted communication. All of that has come on the heels of WikiLeaks and Snowden, who basically had to teach Glenn Greenwald how to communicate through this encrypted method. I think WikiLeaks will probably still continue to be a place where whistleblowers can go, but there are many other places they can go as well.

DT: Do you think WikiLeaks is being manipulated in this election?

FP: Your guess is as good as mine. I would like to think that they’re not. It depends what you mean by manipulated. I would like to think that if someone presented them with interesting hacked e-mails, no matter what political persuasion those hacked e-mails would embarrass, WikiLeaks would be even-handed about publishing or releasing them in a responsible way. So I don’t know if they’re being manipulated or they’re just getting what they’re getting from whoever. They probably don’t really know. I believe the way their system works, they don’t know who exactly they’re getting it from, but I’m not sure about that either. I think they’re a conduit, and I think what they get is what they put out.

DT: I was very taken by a segment in your film in which Nermeen Shaikh, a producer from Democracy Now, interviews refugees in the Calais refugee camp. All of these refugees came from countries that had been bombed by the U.S.; Nermeen was asking them about their views of what was going on and what they thought should be done. It seemed to me like a very direct route to the heart of a very complex problem.

FP: It wasn’t just Nermeen; she was there with Amy Goodman, the founding executive producer and host of Democracy Now. It was a fifteen-minute segment, which you’re certainly not going to see on CNN or PBS, unfortunately. It showed the importance of going to places the mainstream news media are not going to and hearing voices of dissent, at least within the U.S. context. They are voices that are critical of the United States government’s policies, and unfortunately those voices and that analysis is not often presented at places like CNN or CBS News at all.

DT: I.F. Stone was not accredited to attend White House briefings. In your film, Noam Chomsky said that the greatest contribution to I.F. Stone’s career was being excluded from events like that. To what extent does being an outsider help in this work, but to what extent does being an outsider hinder this kind of work?

FP: The problem is that if you’re an outsider, the Secretary of State is not going to invite you to lunch. That’s sort of using hyperbole, but you’re not going to get chummy with the White House press secretary. You’re not going to get invited to Joe Biden’s parties. They call them supersoaker parties for journalists, where they have these battles with high-powered water pistols and Joe Biden invites members of the media, like Chuck Todd from NBC and God knows who else. If you’re an outsider like I.F. Stone or Jeremy Cahill, (1) you’re not going to get invited to the supersoaker party, and (2) you wouldn’t go to the supersoaker party at Joe Biden’s place even if you were invited because you don’t want to get chummy with government sources.

Certain parts of the mainstream corporate media, including The New York Times, want to be invited to lunch at the White House with key government leaders because they believe that’s going to get them inside information. What it’s really getting them is inside spin, instead of what I.F. Stone did, which was to go to the documents, find things that prove the lie from the government’s own documents, from Senate hearing transcripts and obscure subcommittees. The information is out there, as many people say in the film. The information is there, and sometimes it’s hiding in plain sight.

DT: Buried on page 17.

FP: Right.

DT: In the film, Matt Taibbi was at a Trump rally in New Hampshire before Trump won the Republican nomination. Taibbi was talking to one of Trump’s supporters, who admired the way Trump manipulates the media. It’s a very funny segment, but in a strange way, it made me think of the Nixon/Kennedy debates.

FP: Kennedy was pretty, and the camera loved him. He just happened to be a person whose demeanor worked on television, in part because he was low-key, he was relaxed, some would say he was also damn good-looking. People who heard the debate on radio thought that Nixon won the debate, because none of those factors mattered on radio. All that mattered was the intelligence of the things people were saying or the content or the extent to which they were actually answering the questions. On matters of policy and content and even just verbally, Nixon allegedly won the debate if you listened on radio, but he wasn’t as good-looking as Jack Kennedy.

John Carlos Frey has done many great investigative stories, primarily about injustice against undocumented immigrants, in many cases at the hands of U.S. government agencies. He’s funded primarily by The Nation Institute, which is a nonprofit arm of The Nation magazine. Frey does stories that are not being covered in the mainstream media, all on spec. He can usually get his stuff on channels like Univision, but he wants to get these stories out to the wider American public, so he tries to get them on a major network, whether it’s CBS or NBC. Or even PBS, he pitches there as well. He says, “The first thing they ask me is, ‘Who’s pretty?’ ‘Do they speak English?’” These networks have a very superficial approach, which is purely ratings-based. That’s unfortunately the way mass media works. This idea of “Who’s pretty?”—in Kennedy’s case, he just looked damn good on TV.

DT: In the film, Ralph Nader points out that big media are businesses that respond to investors, the stock market and advertisers. Was there a time when that wasn’t true?

FP: I don’t put myself out there as the world’s leading expert on this, especially about American media, since I grew up in Canada, but I think newspapers have always basically existed on advertising. By and large, what commercial television networks are all about is advertising. The exceptions would be institutions like the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and the British Broadcasting Corporation, which tended to have a different kind of journalism. I think a better journalism.

I had the good fortune to basically grow up at the CBC. I certainly learned my craft at the CBC in Toronto, where the values were different. When I moved down to the States and began working for American networks and programs like “20/20” and“Dateline,” it was almost a rude awakening. They were very different from “The Fifth Estate,” which is the major investigative magazine at the CBC, in that they were more ratings-driven. Were they always like that? In terms of television networks and major newspapers, I think the answer would be yeah. Advertising has always been what they existed on. Circulation numbers in newspapers were important, but advertising dollars were driven by those circulation numbers.

DT: Why were CBC and BBC different? If you followed the money, where did it come from?

FP: The CBC used to say they were taxpayer-funded. They’re not government-controlled; they’re largely funded by tax dollars, as I believe is the case with the BBC. That’s the situation in most developed Western countries: There is a taxpayer-funded network, a public network, so to speak, that usually provides an alternative viewpoint from the mainstream commercial media in those countries.

PBS kind of started as that, but if you look at who’s funding them now, it’s gigantic corporations. They call them underwriters, but you might as well say they’re sponsors. In one notable case, a documentary that was critical of the Koch brothers was quashed by PBS. At the end of a film called Citizen Koch, there’s a clip of Steven Colbert saying on “The Colbert Report” that the Koch brothers documentary was supposed to be seen on PBS but it got killed because they didn’t want to upset major funders like the Koch brothers. Then he says, “I guess that means that if you donate twenty-five dollars to PBS, you get the tote bag, and if you donate five million dollars, you get PBS’ nutsack.” A lot of people, even people who would identify as progressives, some of them of a certain age, will say, “Oh, you’re right, the mainstream media are terrible. I never watch CBS or even CNN. That’s why I watch PBS and I read The New York Times.” Well, guess what?

DT: Amy Goodman says that news stories about drugs shouldn’t be sponsored by pharmaceutical companies, and that news stories about oil spills shouldn’t be sponsored by Exxon. But should stories about the election be presented by networks, most of which have some political affiliation?

FP: To me, there are no shoulds. There just is what is, and we have to accept or take a hard look at what is and decide if we like it, or if we think it’s bullshit or not. I think it’s bullshit. I’ve read from credible sources that the parent company of CNN, whoever they are, are a major donor to Hillary Clinton’s campaign. I think people need to be more aware of that fact. People should know that. There should be a disclaimer at the beginning of every CNN newscast—not that they have newscasts anymore. If you tune in to CNN lately, it’s just Anderson Cooper or some other CNN host sitting at a desk between two people who support Trump and two people who support Clinton and they’re all yelling at each other. It’s like watching professional wrestling. Sink wrestling. At least let’s get things back to the level of Olympic wrestling.

DT: This wasn’t in the film, but Amy Goodman was recently arrested for trespassing after she exposed the use of pepper spray and attack dogs against protesters at the North Dakota pipeline. Can you talk about the dangers that independent adversarial journalists like Amy Goodman face?

FP: Amy and Nermeen came to the Toronto Film Festival for our premiere of All Governments Lie. After a panel discussion with Matt Taibbi and Jeff Cohen, who runs the Independent Media Center at Ithaca College, we were all going to meet for a drink at a nearby establishment. I asked, “Where’s Amy?” and someone said, “She had to rush home because she thought she might have problems getting back at the border.” They had just issued an arrest warrant for her for having the audacity to film attack dogs—not security dogs—with blood dripping from one of the dogs’ nose because it had been allowed... not allowed, encouraged... to bite Native American protesters who were basically making a peaceful protest against a pipeline that was going to go through their ancient burial ground. That video of the dog with blood dripping from its mouth and nose, which was obscenely disgusting to see, became an image that every single major network ran on their news because they recognize when something is sensational and it becomes a grabby news story, yet it would not even exist without Amy; the fact of Amy’s being there led to that video being presented to a much wider audience, through everybody from CNN to CBS News. She is the one who recognized that as a story that should be covered. Nobody in the mainstream did, and they wouldn’t have covered it if it hadn’t been for the sensational images of blood dripping from the dog’s mouth. So again it’s ratings-driven. But they didn’t send any news crews there. Maybe they have since, but God knows what President Trump might do. Let’s hope that never happens. Perhaps arrest warrants will be issued for all journalists in the country.

DT: Is there anything you want to add?

FP: I hope our film encourages people on both sides of the journalistic equation—the people providing the journalism, the journalists themselves, and the public, the consumers of journalism. I hope it inspires a new attitude to the kind of journalism that is most worthwhile and the kind of journalism we need more of and the kind of journalism we need less of—i.e., the corporate mainstream media mentality and more of the independent investigative adversarial approach that is so well exemplified by the legendary I.F. Stone. I hope this film changes perceptions, raises interest in the I.F. Stone brand of journalism and the people who are practicing it today. Even more importantly, I hope it plants seeds among young people to want to become the next I.F. Stone or the next Amy Goodman.

All Governments Lie runs Nov. 4-10 at Cinema Village in New York City and Laemmle Music Hall 3 in Beverly Hills, CA. The author thanks Elisha Gustafson of David Magdael & Associates for arranging this interview. This article is published here courtesy of Director Talk. Copyright © Director Talk 2016