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The Old Man and the Kid

Legendary journalist I.F. Stone is roaming his supermarket snagging odds and ends. Andrew Patner, 52 years younger, gallops after him waving a tape recorder. Stone's passion is a continuing amazement; for as he shops, Stone, who's almost 80 and legally blind, chatters away about a poem a Greek named Callimachus wrote in the third century BC.

"I'll tell you what the original says. The original is far superior to the translation. I'll give you the Greek so you can hear the Greek a little bit. It says Eipe tis, ["Shoppers, please note: the aisle scales are provided for your use, but they do not always give exact weights."] 'Someone told me' ["That's right, this scale is only for estimates."] Heracleite, 'Heraclitus,' teon moron, 'of your fate, of what happened to you.' Es de me dakry egagen, 'it drew a tear from me.' That's the first line. ["Register number six will now open."] Looking for some small apples. Let's go back here . . . Emnesthen d' hossakis amphoteroi, 'I remembered how often you and I,' helion en lesche, 'the sun in his bed,' katedysamen--'how often we had put the sun to sleep in his bed.'"

"I would love to be able to read the Chinese poets," Stone tells Patner outside. "It must be very, very hard, Chinese."

The other day, Andrew Patner talked to us about his nifty new book on I.F. Stone. "Our father used to take us down to the library all the time," he remembered. "And up in the top floor reading room were these huge tables with what now would be called homeless people. They all had black coats and thick white beards with food in them and a bag of bread and they sat there all day and read.

"And once your book gets in there--! One of the reasons I wrote this book was the complaint that Stone's not in the libraries. I said I'll write this book and this book will get in the library and as long as that spine's there somebody will pull that book down and read it and they'll say, gee I want to know about this paper.

"And then they'll go over to the microfilm desk and read the Weekly. And then they'll bemoan the fact that there's nothing like it now."

When we put down Andrew Patner's I.F. Stone: A Portrait, we had this thought: it is very easy to write about the world as you're discovering it.

Patner got on with Stone, though not because of Patner's interest in the 60s, the heyday of I.F. Stone's Weekly. "Stone created the New Left," Patner told us. "He created the idea of using what could be called tools of analysis . . . of having a fact-based movement."

But Stone had moved on. He'd since taught himself ancient Greek, and Patner found him rooting around in Periclean Athens (his new book, The Trial of Socrates, came out just before Patner's). To Stone's delight, "the Greeks were something I both knew about and cared about," Patner explained.

"We were a good fit," reflected Patner. "He has the same kinds of interests that I have, and they're interests that in one person can be in tension with each other--I mean, like, should newspapermen be activists? Do you need to be a writer to be a newspaperman? Should a writer, quote, lower him- or herself to write about daily events? And isn't a scholar kind of a loner and aren't those other people kind of more social . . . ?

"I guess we're both people you can call kind of gregarious loners."

An editor at Chicago magazine even before he finished college, Patner is now a law student at the U. of C. on his way to becoming he's not sure what.

"I'm still trying to figure that out. Obviously I went to law school for some reason. I think partially because I found it frustrating not being able to step in. You see something bad and you write an article; that takes you x far, and maybe it influences a lot of people." But that's not enough. "I guess I'm looking for some kind of fusion . . . appealing to people's heads and hearts, and also getting justice for people."

Patner once worked in radio and enjoyed it, but the printed word is the medium he reveres. "Because it lasts," he said. "You can go back to it. There's something about prose on the page. That's what was so exciting for me with this book. They did such a beautiful job with it--the typography. It seems to have a little more importance than it does in typescript.

"And that's what Stone tried to do with the Weekly: give it a format that looked very official."

When his daughter Celia was ten, I.F. Stone gave her some poems by Robinson Jeffers. "To be a great poet is the greatest thing in the world," he told her.

"I think that if Stone could have, he'd have been a poet," said Andrew Patner. "But as Hemingway said, you go where your talents lie."

Broadcast News

"For a writer in television, in many ways the weakest tools you have to work with are words," Leonard Aronson was explaining. "What you do, you write on the wind. What you do is there and disappears. Spatially. But it does have an existence for a certain period of time. And you have to learn to write for time."

Until Chicago Today folded in 1974, Leonard Aronson was a newspaperman. He moved on to Channel Five and last autumn joined Channel 11, which next Wednesday airs his first documentary there, Chicago's Children: America's Future, a study of public education. Aronson is an old friend. He made us breakfast and sat at his kitchen table and talked. His wife Anne Keegan of the Tribune was away in Vietnam, covering some American men who'd gone back there to claim their children.

"Well, 'MAQ gave me a stopwatch--which is a basic tool--and I brought it home and I was watching the news. I was just curious how much time they gave to different stories. And at the end of the news a movie came on, Papillon. So for the hell of it I started my stopwatch and 20 or 22 minutes into it I glanced at my stopwatch and I realized I was totally sucked into this film and there had not been a word uttered. And it really hit me over the head that this was the power of television.

"My writer friends would say, oh man, how can you call yourself a writer on television, that's so superficial! Everybody's wearing pomade and big pompadours and it's all style. And that bothered me--I'd gone down in their estimation because I was writing for television.

"Finally I came to terms with it. If I only have three sentences to say something, it's just a different type of writing. And if I put a piece together without any words, it doesn't mean I'm not a communicator.

"Nobody looks down on painters who don't use words. Or composers. Nobody thinks of Beethoven as less of a man because he wasn't verbal. These are all just different ways to communicate. This is in defense of the television writer, in a sense."

The lament we hear from television, we told Aronson, isn't the inability to write so much as the inability to really report. Aronson looked back on his years at Channel Five. He shifted from news to the programming department there, as a producer of You Magazine, went back to news, and left.

"The people in news looked down on programming. The people in news think you're close to power, you deal with all the celebrities, you feel you are somebody, as Jesse might say. The fact of the matter is, I learned more and did better journalism when I worked on the magazine show. I did one story a week that got on the air. And I had seven or eight minutes to give to a story. And I really felt for the first time I was able to develop relationships with the people I was reporting about, rather than just feeling I was exploiting them like you do in news, when you rush in and gather some stuff and rush out.

"I looked at Anne, the way she's developed doing stories and the friendships she's made. The people she writes about who end up being our friends, people we know and have brought into our lives. I admired that in her.

"And they canceled the program and I went back into the newsroom. And it's dissatisfying, especially if you've drunk from the Pierian spring. So as soon as I realized that I wasn't going to do what I wanted to do I said let me out of here! God help me find a way out! And it took me over a year to get this job at Channel 11. But I'm doing now exactly what I proposed doing to Channel Five four years ago.

"One of the ways I felt about news was that this is no business for a grown-up. How many times can you run out and do the same thing? In this documentary . . . I say if learning is a lifelong thing, then any good [educational] system is one that gives everybody in it the opportunity to continue to learn. And a guy says he knows some people who have been teaching for 20 years and some people who have been teaching one year 20 times. I think that applies to every business and every organization. What happens is a lot of burnout and a lot of demoralization and a lot of cynicism and a lot of self-abuse in journalism because people are living that same year over and over again.

"And the irony is that they may get fired 15 years from now anyway and have pissed away their life thinking they were building something."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.

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