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I.F. Stone: How I Got That Story

I.F. Stone: How I Got That Story

by Andrew Patner

Have I told you how I got my best scoop? It turned out to be a real coup. I’ll give you some idea of how I worked and the methods I used to try to cut through all the bullshit that’s out there.

They had the first underground nuclear test in 1957. It really all came out of the screwball mind of Dr. Edward Teller–he’s a real Strangelove, maybe the real Strangelove–while Harold Stassen was trying to work out a test ban treaty with the Russians. Stassen tried very, very hard as Eisenhower’s chief disarmament negotiator–he’s a real unsung hero–to get something, but Teller was making the test ban seem unilateral, like some sort of giveaway. As we got close to an agreement, Teller starts to say, "How can we enforce it? Suppose they go underground? Suppose they go out into space? Suppose they go to the dark side of the moon? We’ll never be able to detect them." And he’s got the whole crowd at Lawrence Livermore backing him up on this. They actually got the whole underground test mess going just to try to prove this. They really got us into this terrible miasma.

So, in the fall of 1957 they had the first test, out in Nevada. Well, of course I wasn’t there, but the next morning in the Times, Gladwin Hill’s dispatch from the proving grounds said the results seemed to confirm the forecast and the expectations of the experts, that it would not be detectable more than two hundred miles away. But the city edition of the Times, which I got at home, had a "shirttail." You know what a "shirttail" is? When a paper picks up some information from the wires, related to a larger story, the desk editors will run it as little paragraphs following the paper’s own story. They hang down at the end like a shirttail. Well the city edition had a "shirttail" from Toronto saying the test had been detected there. When I saw that, I went downtown and got the late city, and there were more little shirttails, from Rome and from Tokyo, saying they detected it. I didn’t have the kind of resources you’d need to cable those places and check out what was happening, but the discrepancy really piqued my curiosity, so I put it away in the basement with my back numbers of the Times. I had a real reference library in the basement. You’ll see from this how important it was to have those clips.

The next spring, Stassen testified before Hubert Humphrey’s Senate Subcommittee on Disarmament that he had got the Russians to agree to listening posts across the Soviet Union every thousand kilometers. A kilometer’s about five-eighths of a mile, so he was talking every 620 miles! It would have meant the first lifting of the Iron Curtain. It really looked like a breakthrough for a comprehensive test ban.

That was on a Tuesday. On Thursday the Atomic Energy Commission [AEC] issued its first official report on that first Nevada test. The AEC was just the worst agency. They were mendacious. They started out right off the bat by telling us that fallout was good for you, and it was all downhill from there. The report was tagged for Monday publication and it said the first test had not been detected more than two hundred miles away. Well they didn’t use his name, but they were trying to cut poor Stassen’s throat, make a liar out of him, and dash the agreement. When I saw the report, I went down in the cellar and dug out the shirttails and called the AEC press office–they had some nice fellas there–and I said, "How can you guys say this couldn’t be detected when the Times had reports the next morning that the shots had been recorded on seismographs in Toronto, Rome, and even Tokyo?" "Izzy," they said, "we don’t know the answer, we’ll see what we can find out and call you back."

I wasn’t going to just wait for the call. I’d never been on a seismology story before. I figured I’d better get me a seismologist. I made some calls around town–you see, a scoop isn’t a matter of luck, you work, you dig, you make calls, and you grab the discrepancy, the loose thread, and you pull. And you have to have been paying attention in the first place. That’s not luck. So my calls led to the Department of Commerce. Their Coast and Geodetic Survey had a seismology branch. I jumped in my car and drove downtown. They were so tickled, they hadn’t seen a reporter since Noah hit Mount Ararat, or at least since San Francisco. They showed me their equipment–rather complicated, how to read it, and so forth–and I asked the seismology man if he believed these overseas reports and he said, "Not really." But then he said, "But there are twenty-five of our stations"–American stations–"and they picked it up." Well, their stations may just as well have been overseas–I mean, Fairbanks, Alaska, was 2,600 miles away from the test site! And so I said, "Mind if I jot these down?" and he said go right ahead. But then he wanted to know why I was so interested. I told him that the AEC was going to issue this denial and they looked at each other and just clammed up on me. They were scared. They might have been seismologists but they were still bureaucrats. It didn’t matter, I had what I needed and I went home. I had just walked in the door, when the AEC press man called, "Izzy, we heard you were sniffing around at Coast and Geodetic. It’s too late for us to get Nevada on the teletype, but we’ll call you tomorrow. Maybe there’s a mistake."

Sure enough, they called Friday and gave me a correction. But they didn’t correct their release! I had tipped off my friend Dick Dudman of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch–that was a very good paper for some time–and he got them to correct it for him too. But every other paper went with the AEC lie, making Stassen out to be the fool. Then, three weeks later, Senator Clinton Anderson, the New Mexico Democrat, had a special hearing of his Joint Atomic Committee and asked the AEC chairman, Admiral Lewis Strauss, –Wasn’t it a story by I.F. Stone that caught you on this?" And Strauss admitted that it was. It was my great moment. But it should show you something of how I worked. The truth slips out from time to time, and enough of it slips out that there’s a piece there for any reporter who takes the time.

From I.F. Stone: A Portrait. Copyright 1988 by Andrew Patner. Reprinted by permission of Pantheon Books.

Originally published in the April 1988 issue of Boston Review

Copyright Boston Review, 1993–2005. All rights reserved. Please do not reproduce without permission.

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