Political Junkies

From Talk Radio to Twitter, How Alternative Media Hooked Us on Politics and Broke Our Democracy


By Claire Bond Potter

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A wide-ranging history of seventy years of change in political media, and how it transformed — and fractured — American politics

With fake news on Facebook, trolls on Twitter, and viral outrage everywhere, it’s easy to believe that the internet changed politics entirely. In Political Junkies, historian Claire Bond Potter shows otherwise, revealing the roots of today’s dysfunction by situating online politics in a longer history of alternative political media.

From independent newsletters in the 1950s to talk radio in the 1970s to cable television in the 1980s, pioneers on the left and right developed alternative media outlets that made politics more popular, and ultimately, more partisan. When campaign operatives took up e-mail, blogging, and social media, they only supercharged these trends. At a time when political engagement has never been greater and trust has never been lower, Political Junkies is essential reading for understanding how we got here.




On November 2, 1952, the day before the Daily Compass, New York’s last left-wing, subscriber-supported newspaper, printed its farewell edition, editor Joe Barnes called each of his writers individually to tell them the bad news. A successor to the Star and PM, the Compass was part of a grand experiment in progressive publishing that had lasted only a dozen years. Underwritten by philanthropists like Marshall Field, Anita McCormick Blaine, and Corliss Lamont, these newspapers had been part of an alternative journalism experiment: producing news that was supported by readers and unbeholden to corporate advertisers. But even subsidized by progressive millionaires, with only 30,000 subscribers, the Daily Compass had struggled to meet its expenses from the beginning. Every time it broke even, as publisher Ted Thackrey told readers earlier that year, “the rising living costs of our employees, which are of course translated into higher wages, have forced us back into the red.”1

Alternative journalism in New York City seemed to be failing. Its financial problems were accelerated by declining popular, and government, tolerance for the Communist, socialist, and Popular Front politics that these papers promoted and that had flourished in New York before World War II. By 1952, two years after Senator Joseph McCarthy had waved a scrap of white paper at the Republican Women’s Club of Wheeling, West Virginia, to warn that the State Department was infiltrated by Reds, the purge of so-called radicals in broadcast and print media was well underway. This informal blacklist meant that the veteran journalists released by an unapologetically leftist paper like the Daily Compass would struggle to find another employer willing to take a chance on them. If an editor dared to hire one, it was likely that a pair of FBI agents would show up to explain why the decision should be reversed. One of the men fired by Barnes that day, Isidor Feinstein Stone, probably knew when he hung up the phone that this would be his fate: he was already under government surveillance. Known to his readers as “I. F. Stone” and to friends as Izzy, he had been a popular editorial and opinion writer at the New York Post and the Nation before working for Barnes at the Daily Compass.2

Despite their accommodation to anti-Communism, and even their willingness to fire accomplished, progressive writers, editors and publishers remained under intense pressure to report news that hewed to McCarthy’s conservative populist reality. One tactic the senator from Wisconsin used to harass the press was to intimidate individual reporters from papers that opposed the government’s hunt for subversives. At his rallies around the country, the pugnacious senator regularly depicted journalists from prestigious newspapers as enemies of the American people. One regular ritual at these raucous events was to ask a reporter to rise and show the audience “what a reporter from a communist paper looks like.” This would prompt the crowd to turn and rain a chorus of boos on the entire press section. As one blacklisted journalist remembered, the range of tactics used to root out subversion and principled opposition took its toll: with a few exceptions, by 1952, the mainstream media had become conformist and largely uncritical in its approach to political reporting.3

Urban journalism was also becoming financially vulnerable. Advertising dollars, like newspaper readers, were migrating to the suburbs. When office workers boarded morning trains for New York City from their freshly built, ice cream–colored tract houses in Long Island and New Jersey, they were more likely to have one of the new, local papers touting President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s moderate Republican politics, with ads from stores in the local shopping mall, tucked under an arm. The loss of these readers, and the advertising revenue they brought with them, was compounded by a new competitor to legacy newspapers: television. Occupying pride of place in living rooms everywhere, for fifteen minutes every evening, TVs delivered digestible bites of national news, summarizing top newspaper stories, to nearly every home. By 1960, the number of major dailies feeding New York’s appetite for news was trimmed to ten; two major strikes would cut that number to four a decade later. Newspapers were dying.4

Yet, if advertising dollars were the Achilles’ heel of the mainstream press, could refusing corporate advertising still be a model for financing alternative media? Izzy Stone, a reporter’s reporter, thought it could, particularly if labor and production costs were low and the product was good. Infuriating to some, beloved by others, rumpled, pudgy Izzy, prematurely deaf and wearing Coke-bottle-thick glasses, was a ball of energy. Unable to compete for attention in, or report accurately from, a press conference because of his disabilities, Stone’s specialty was crafting stories from public, government documents that other journalists had no time to find or digest, a form of reporting that also freed him from cultivating entangling alliances with politicians and their staffs. Some of Stone’s best qualities as a journalist were infuriating to employers. He insisted on writing the story he wanted to write, regardless of what editors, publishers, and advertisers thought. He was so bullheaded that even Freda Kirchwey at the Nation, a left-wing weekly news and opinion magazine almost a century old, had fired him for good in 1947 after he disappeared for several weeks. It turned out he had gone undercover on a Mediterranean freighter for a story about Holocaust survivors being illegally smuggled to Palestine.5

After beating the bushes for work, Stone took a step over the cliff: he decided to found and self-finance his own newsletter. Combining his savings with a $3,500 check from the Daily Compass, he launched I. F. Stone’s Weekly, a four-page publication without advertisers whose editorial independence would be supported by reader subscriptions. Unlike the Daily Compass, Stone would have only two employees: himself and his wife, Esther. The idea had worked at least once before. In 1940, disgusted with newspaper publishers’ subservience to politicians and advertising’s “dirty dollars,” veteran journalist George Seldes launched the four-page alternative paper In Fact: An Antidote for Falsehood in the Daily Press. A reader-supported newsletter, it went out of business in 1950, boasting 176,000 subscribers at its peak. Seldes researched and wrote most of the stories himself; other features came from journalists whose work had been spiked by their own editors (and by advertisers). Part investigative reporter, part newspaper watchdog, in 1941, Seldes became the first journalist to report on a pathbreaking scientific study about the dangers of cigarette smoking.6

As he began to plan the Weekly’s first issues, Stone knew three things. He knew that he had to make a living; that he needed an outlet for his writing; and that inspiring conversations about politics was an urgent national task, particularly in the midst of McCarthy’s war on the media. Stone had start-up money: his severance from the Daily Compass. He had an office: the Washington townhouse where he and his wife, Esther (now his production manager), lived. He had a delivery service: a third-class license from the United States Postal Service. He had potential subscribers: lists borrowed and begged from prior employers and at least one union. And most of all, Stone had readers, admirers acquired through a lifetime of writing for the progressive press. On November 25, 1952, a small, paid advertisement appeared on the front page of the New York Times. “Former Compass Readers Attention,” the headline read, announcing a four-page, advertising-free newsletter that would arrive in subscribers’ mailboxes on January 27. “Exciting, exclusive reporting from Washington and independent, hard-hitting commentary,” it read. “Send $5 for one yr. sub.”7

Incredibly, the envelopes began to arrive in the Stones’ mailbox. As Esther opened them one by one, coupons, checks, and five-dollar bills piled up on the dining room table. I. F. Stone’s Weekly, the little newsletter that would bring an audience of left-wing political junkies together and inspire a new generation of journalists, was born.

I. F. Stone’s Weekly, as its founder surely knew, followed on a centuries-long tradition of American political dissent that began before the American Revolution. In the eighteenth century, pamphlets and broadsheets were the principal media alternative to the official proclamations handed down by the King of England and his colonial governors.8 Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the newsletter—in its self-conscious ambition to compel an existing audience motivated by ideas, its capacity to urge its community of readers to raise their own voices and take collective action, and its use of public mail—was quintessentially democratic in its design. It was particularly suited to the two decades after World War II, years during which social minorities who lacked the economic or political clout to make themselves heard in the mainstream press were organizing for rights. Produced on typewriters for small audiences, or on mimeograph machines for larger ones, African American civil rights activists and organizations reported to sympathetic Northern audiences about the fight against segregation and racial violence; pseudonymous lesbian and gay activists sought to dispel public myths about their sexuality; and pacifists warned about the dangers of global nuclear proliferation.9

As alternative media, newsletters were cheap and often claimed to counter misinformation spread by, or absent from, mainstream media sources. They were written in a personal voice by a trusted source, could be obtained anywhere the United States Postal Service delivered, and were often passed hand-to-hand by readers. The same year that the Weekly launched, the homophile organization One, Inc. inaugurated its own newsletter. The group eventually won a landmark free speech case in 1958 when the Supreme Court ruled that it was not inherently obscene to write about, or use the mail to distribute, information concerning homosexuality. The decision shielded other homophile newsletters as well, including the Mattachine Review, founded in 1955 to promote the civil and social rights of gay men; and the Ladder, a lesbian newsletter founded in 1956. All of these publications, the beginnings of lesbian and gay political media, were supported by volunteer labor, subscriptions, and classified ads taken out by readers hoping to join a community and share ideas.10

Although the stigma of homosexuality was different from the political blacklisting that inspired the Weekly, homophile publications took on a similar task: disseminating facts about homosexuality to counter misinformation circulated by the political, legal, and scientific establishment.11 These newsletters were written by self-appointed experts: homosexuals themselves, and a few medical professionals who believed that same-sex desire was a variation on human sexuality. Homophile publications established a privileged, trusting, and personal relationship to their audience by promising them truth. “We earnestly hope that the MATTACHINE REVIEW will go a long way toward giving readers the true facts of the Mattachine Society,” the first issue promised in 1955 on its front page. “The truth—good or bad—will be the policy of the REVIEW in helping to make everyone cognizant of the facts.”12

Where did Izzy Stone and his newsletter fit in this emerging world of dissident and marginalized voices? In the words of one contemporary, Stone was the “quintessential outsider who spent his life with his face pressed up against the window.” Perhaps: the child of immigrants, Stone regretted his lack of formal education. His exile from newspapers in 1952 was, he later admitted, isolating. But in other ways, Stone was very much a product of the pre-1950s mainstream journalism milieu, a place where hustle mattered as much as brains and a reporter was more likely to start as a copy boy and move up the ranks than to attend college. Born in 1907, in Haddonfield, New Jersey, Stone began his writing career as a teenager, first as a stringer at the Haddonfield Public Press and then at the Camden, New Jersey, Evening Courier. By the time he graduated from high school in 1924, Stone was already a self-identified radical and smitten by newspapers. In his first year at the University of Pennsylvania, he went straight to work for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Within two years he had married, dropped out of college, and plunged into journalism full-time. By 1939, as Europe was going to war, Stone was an editorial writer at the progressive New York Post. Ineligible for the draft because of his age and disabilities, he climbed the career ladder rapidly, sometimes holding several jobs simultaneously. After World War II, Stone became the Washington correspondent for the Nation, while writing daily columns first for PM, then the Star, and finally, the Daily Compass.13

After founding I. F. Stone’s Weekly, Stone would never work for anyone else again except, as he would say, his readers. Although he badly missed the camaraderie of a newsroom, the horizontal connection between reporter and subscriber was perfect for the freethinking Stone. Unmediated by an editor, a corporate style guide, or an advertiser’s garish demand for attention, his stories went straight to the reader. “A personal word is in order,” Stone wrote on page three of the debut issue, published on January 17, 1953. “I feel as if I am going to work for the best people in the U.S.A.” He would choose a few stories to research deeply each week, and he had faith that even at a time when conformity seemed to be the rule, good investigative journalism had a small but vital audience among Americans devoted to politics. There remained “a substratum of good sense and good will in this country,” he wrote, “that there are still people willing to listen to an opposing point of view, if fairly, accurately, and soberly presented.”14

This kind of personal connection, and a confidence in the subscriber’s desire for the whole story, rather than the mainstream media’s selective editorial choices, would come to characterize the alternative media sensibility. So did good storytelling. Stone’s political insights, drawn from Capitol Hill rumors, government documents, and lengthy congressional transcripts, were dense with facts and woven into compelling narratives. Working on one or two stories at a time, Stone had a nose for government documents and read them with scholarly precision. While other journalists scrambled to meet daily deadlines, be recognized at press conferences, and get answers from busy politicians and their aides, Stone spent days deciphering official reports, economic data, and the Congressional Record. Producing one main feature and two or three smaller items every week, he often returned to the same issues, reporting a story more deeply over time, following up, and approaching it from different angles.15

Stone adapted investigative journalism and opinion writing into something both familiar and different. Designed for lay readers who were unsatisfied with the stilted, objective voice of mainstream journalism, the Weekly’s rich four pages also soon appealed to Stone’s colleagues in newsrooms around the country.16 Beginning with a clear articulation of the mainstream media or government perspective on a given issue, Stone would then dismantle that story, not by asking politicians to respond or clarify what they had already obscured, but by bringing documented facts to the table about what had actually been said and done. Stone’s writing had a relaxed but authoritative tone, offering a road map to how political decision-making occurred, as well as to sources that any persistent and knowledgeable citizen could obtain from the government. Well aware that independent journalism was too often associated with amateurism, or with gossip columnists and other syndicators whose work was based on planted tips, unconfirmed gossip, and paid informants, Stone emphasized that his independence freed him to share facts with his audience that politicians, advertisers, and editorial boards would prefer they not know. “By now you should have some idea of the kind of newspaper I am going to put out,” Stone wrote in a text box on page three of the second edition. “Not the ‘lowdown,’ sensational even if untrue, but a sober analysis of facts too often left out or buried on the back pages of commercial newspapers.”17

Stone had placed a bet on Cold War America: that a small, dedicated readership of freedom-loving citizens could support a newsletter that offered the unvarnished truth and would question authority.18 He was correct. The first wave of subscribers to keep the Weekly, and the Stone family, afloat included former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and Nobel Laureate Albert Einstein. Movie star Marilyn Monroe bought a subscription for every member of Congress. Even J. Edgar Hoover, the Red-baiting director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation whose agents regularly reported on Izzy’s mostly meaningless encounters with others, read I. F. Stone’s Weekly surreptitiously, obtaining it through subscriptions taken out by others. By the fifth issue, a buoyant Stone could report that “People seem[ed] to like” his new enterprise, not just in the United States, but abroad. English pacifist Bertrand Russell was an early supporter, and by late spring, Stone announced that he had subscribers in all fifty states and a dozen countries, including Japan, Poland, and Hungary. Over the next two decades, while the Weekly never equaled George Seldes’s numbers, adherents rose steadily. When Stone ceased publication in 1971, he had a respectable 73,000 subscribers, more than enough to support what he called “the old-fashioned poppa-momma grocery store.” The staff never grew larger than five, including Esther, Izzy, and at least one college graduate starting out in journalism who wanted to grow up to be some version of Izzy Stone.19

An aspect of I. F. Stone’s Weekly that would come to first differentiate alternative from mainstream media, and then represent a distinctive contribution to commercial journalism more generally, was its pace and its transparency. Stone deliberately slowed the news cycle down, guiding readers through the intellectual process by which a policy paper, a piece of legislation, or a set of documents became a story. In-depth features were complemented by vividly written short pieces that conveyed the excitement of politics and the fun of producing the news. Exchanges on the floor of the House and Senate, or snapshots of life in the heart of the federal government, allowed readers to intuit the nuances of politics, its daily events and decision-making. Some of these sketches also conveyed humorous insights into the Weekly’s own operations. “Our research assistant” (probably Esther) “had occasion to go to the Senate last week to page a Senator off the floor,” Stone related in one issue. Looking at her card, the page (“cute, she says”) asked was that the I. F. Stone, who used to write for the Compass? “‘Gee, he’s a terrific writer,’ said the page, and was off before our girl could do more than flutter her eye-lashes [sic] at him.”20 This otherwise unimportant little story, probably written to fill an empty inch or two, was a funny interlude: but it reminded readers that only Izzy Stone could bring them straight to the heart of government.

This interlude, and others like it, alerted readers that what the Weekly lacked in staff and resources, it made up for in the star power of a reporter who may have been kicked to the curb by the mainstream media, but was well known, and well connected, in the Capitol. If Stone could not compete effectively with the comprehensive national and global news coverage that commercial newspapers could provide, a leaner paper with a high focus on a few stories could do a better investigative job than larger papers, particularly when the reporter had good sources.21 Stone was broadly known and admired in Washington and, as one biographer put it, “shamelessly and happily hustled himself and his product” there. By putting his name in the newsletter’s title, he and the Weekly became a single authority, a branding technique that numerous bloggers and alternative internet journalists like Matt Drudge, Arianna Huffington, Taegan Goddard, and Andrew Breitbart would later imitate.22

The ripple effect from I. F. Stone’s Weekly was almost immediate. At a moment when newspapers and newsmagazines were still clinging to objectivity, the newsletter adopted an unabashedly partisan stance. Critiques generated on the left, Stone established, were a legitimate place from which to question authority. Thus, the Weekly led the way for other alternative media experiments that rebelled against political conformity. Radicals, conservatives, liberals, and countercultural movements also began to publish and broadcast their own news, relying on devoted subscribers that they cultivated through mailing lists, newspaper coupons, radio appearances, and content tuned to readers who were passionate about politics. One of these publications, founded in 1954 by a group of left-wing New York writers and scholars, named itself Dissent, and its purpose “to dissent from the bleak atmosphere of conformism that pervades the political and intellectual life of the United States.” Dissent’s politics “would be radical,” its tradition “the tradition of democratic socialism,” founders Irving Howe, Lewis Coser, Henry Pachter, Norman Mailer, and Meyer Schapiro declared. Mailer, a popular and iconoclastic novelist, would also, along with psychologist Ed Fancher and others, found a new alternative newspaper to cover New York’s downtown political and cultural scene. On October 26, 1955, the Village Voice, a seven-page “weekly newspaper designed to be read,” published its first issue for 5 cents. It did take advertising from downtown movie theaters and cheap furniture stores—along with a back section devoted to classified ads, apartments for rent, and thinly veiled sex work—that supported its left-wing local and national political news coverage for the next sixty years.23

In this way, I. F. Stone’s Weekly helped to launch postwar alternative media in the United States and pave the way for the New Left newsletters and pamphlets that would flourish in the 1960s.24 One important innovation was to take a proactive stance toward the issues of the day, writing stories about topics that politicians and government officials preferred to downplay or obscure. Setting the news agenda, Stone could take on grand political questions, working on them for as many issues as he liked and publishing in readable, well-researched bites. For example, in 1958, Stone promised to devote himself for the “next five years to the fight for peace,” which he believed was “the most important cause of the contemporary era.” Using publicly available documents, he reported on the military’s nuclear program, not just exposing the cover stories purveyed about the extent and consequences of testing, but also explaining how the government lied. In a series of reports on the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, Stone noted that statements by this committee were a prime example of the “art of public misinformation,” since they “create[d] a false impression by the facts they omitted.”25

Stone did not work entirely alone. Like Seldes, he was adept at locating public reports, but he was also steered to them by a network of old Washington friends. He received stories and tips from mainstream journalists who knew they wouldn’t get them into print at their own publications. But being self-employed gave Stone a protected platform from which to develop a sustained and consistent critique of the political and media establishment. Both politicians and mainstream journalists, he implied, were untrustworthy because each was invested in propping up the other’s credibility. Stone was also able to create a new political space on the left that was critical of Soviet-style Communism and articulated American democracy as a radical place from which to critique the Red Scare. “The very fact that I can speak and write as I do,” despite McCarthyism, Stone declared in 1953, was proof that the Constitution was strong.26

By the 1960s, the civil rights and antiwar movements were making ever more radical demands on the political establishment. Simultaneously, Stone’s insistence that analysis and fact-finding were necessary to social change spoke to a new generation of political journalists who wanted to cover those movements and who chafed under their editors’ insistence on regurgitating government briefings. The neutral stance imposed on them, many reporters believed, kept necessary information promoted by radical activists, including facts that contradicted, or added complexity to, the official story, out of the newspaper. By the 1960s, younger journalists looked to I. F. Stone’s Weekly as a model for resistance. As the Weekly demonstrated, investigative journalism could change politics by intentionally including the reporter’s expertise, authority, and political commitments as part of a story that exposed government lies.27

There is no better example of this younger generation than Seymour “Sy” Hersh. Introduced to Stone’s work by his mother-in-law in 1964, Hersh was restless and bored with his job writing for the Associated Press. He was, in his own words, “wowed” by the quality of Stone’s work—its depth, its bold take on the foreign policy quagmire developing in Vietnam, the lies being told by the administration, and the mainstream press’s failure to question those lies. “There was no mystery to how Stone did it,” Hersh recalled. “He outworked every journalist in Washington.” The two became friends in 1966. As Hersh himself became more outspoken about his opposition to the war, Stone’s friendship sustained him, but also helped him understand how the journalism establishment marginalized those who broke the tacit compact not to embarrass the government. “If you supported the war you were objective,” Hersh remembered; “if you were against it you were a lefty—like I. F. Stone—and not trustworthy.” Hersh soon got his chance to become untrustworthy. In the fall of 1969, a military whistleblower called columnist Geoffrey Cowan at the Village Voice to report that the military had covered up a massacre at a village called My Lai. Cowan passed it on to Hersh, who was freelancing in Washington. The resulting story, about 109 civilians murdered in cold blood at the orders of United States military officers, was syndicated to 33 newspapers and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1970.28

Journalists like Hersh were emboldened by Stone’s insistence that official documents, produced by the people’s representatives, should be available for public conversations that exposed government wrongdoing. As domestic resistance to the war in Vietnam escalated, they argued with editors and publishers that mainstream newspapers had an obligation to investigate and expose a violent conflict framed as a defense of democracy. In 1971, reporter Neil Sheehan persuaded his editors at the New York Times


  • "Potter's brisk and well informed account suggests that alternative media, by refocusing on truth seeking and informed debate, can help solve many of the threats to American democracy that it has produced. Newshounds on both the right and the left will be encouraged"—Publishers Weekly
  • "I'm a political junkie, and if you're reading this, you probably are too. Which means you're going to want to grab Claire Potter's new book and dive in. This vivid, lively narrative shows us how the rise of political populism and the emergence of alternative media have gone hand in hand. Spotlighting the operatives you haven't heard of, the innovations you didn't know about, and the stories you haven't heard, Potter reveals the history that happened when we were looking the other way. The gatekeepers have fallen, the barbarians are inside the city, and Political Junkies -- with insight, fresh detail, and delicious wit -- makes sense of how it all happened."—David Greenberg, author of Republic of Spin: An Inside History of the American Presidency
  • "Do you follow political news obsessively? Do you tweet about it even more obsessively still, compulsively dismissing and disbelieving all information that doesn't fit your ideological lens? You might be a political junkie! You're not alone. In this incisive, clear-headed book, Claire Potter diagnoses the condition ailing so many of us, and persuasively argues that it's bad for democracy. Political Junkies is wise, open-minded, and bracing."—Liza Featherstone, author of Divining Desire: Focus Groups and the Culture of Consultation
  • "In her lively new book, Claire Potter tackles a topic too many historians ignore -- the central role media play in shaping our political lives. From the political newsletters of the 1950s to cables news in the 1980s to the social-media revolution of the 2000s, Potter maps the ways alternative media remade our politics, broke our democracy, and gave birth to a new kind of American: the political junkie."—Nicole Hemmer, author of Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politic
  • "To understand 21st-century populism, we need to know the media that helped to create it. Claire Potter's Political Junkies tells that story -- sometimes glorious, sometimes dismal, but always fascinating and well worth the read."—Beverly Gage, author of The Day Wall Street Exploded: A Story of America in Its First Age of Terror

On Sale
Jul 7, 2020
Page Count
368 pages
Basic Books

Claire Bond Potter

About the Author

Claire Bond Potter is a political historian at the New School for Social Research. She is executive editor of Public Seminar and was the author of the popular blog Tenured Radical from 2006 through 2015. She lives in New York City.

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