Poisoning The Press: Richard Nixon, Jack Anderson, and the Rise of Washington Scandal Culture | By Mark Feldstein | Farrar, Straus and Giroux | 480 pages, $30
Jack Anderson had a scoop. An attorney for one of Richard Nixon’s fundraisers tipped him off that the president had spent a cash contribution from Howard Hughes on home improvements and a set of diamond earrings for the First Lady. One problem: the lawyer was a longtime source. If Anderson reported the story in his nationally syndicated “Washington Merry-Go-Round,” a mix of political gossip and investigative reporting that ran in more than a thousand newspapers, his source would be badly burned.
So he worked creatively, as he so often did, playing outside the bounds of what was considered acceptable journalism by the mainstream media (which had yet to be defined by that term because it had little more than Anderson to be defined against). Anderson fed his intelligence to the Senate Watergate Committee, which was able to confirm it and report back to him. But before he could publish, Bob Woodward scooped him.
Here was an historical irony. Anderson and his mentor, Drew Pearson, had been doing the media’s legwork on Nixon for more than two decades. Yet Woodward and his colleague Carl Bernstein would be mythologized as the gumshoes who brought down a president, launching three decades of mainstream media dedication to “investigative reporting” and sending Jack Anderson down the memory hole.
The contemporary scandal culture that resulted may seem to have little connection to the original muckraking of the Progressive Era. But it was Anderson and Pearson who kept the tradition glowing, if faintly at times, until Watergate sparked the mob that has carried it forward to today. Mark Feldstein’s essential new book, Poisoning The Press: Richard Nixon, Jack Anderson, and the Rise of Washington Scandal Culture, ties the whole package together. The author artfully tells the tale of how two ambitious men drove each other to the brink of madness (and occasionally beyond) in a lifelong battle that changed the country, the presidency, and the media, and left both men bloodied and beaten.
Feldstein has chosen two figures with a rich store of public documents and records to help recreate the story, but he also had access to a trove of Anderson’s personal papers, including an unpublished manuscript. In 2006, he fought a high-profile battle with the FBI, which tried to seize Anderson’s papers following his death. The FBI’s loss is our gain. Students and practitioners of journalism can learn much from Feldstein’s portrayal of Anderson, whose unmatched success in breaking story after story is as inspirational as his downward slide is cautionary.
“They were imperfect tribunes,” writes Feldstein of Anderson and Pearson. “But almost single-handedly, they kept muckraking alive when it was needed most, until a new generation could extend and improve on it.”
Reading the history of Anderson’s relentless pursuit of Nixon, one can sympathize with the urge for, if not blood, some way to counter the never-ending scoops that the reporter dished up. Part of Anderson’s power lay in his column’s syndication. With so many outlets, no politician could succeed in begging an editor to suppress a column. But the Washington establishment, as well as his fellow journalists, could do one better: they often ignored him. Anderson got little respect from his colleagues, who regularly failed to follow up on his reporting, deeming it trashy, unreliable, purple or partisan. Yet it was validated time and again. When Anderson was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, Feldstein reports, trustees at Columbia University expressed their “deep reservation,” complaining that “if you crib documents and then put them in the paper, that’s just not good journalism.” The Washington Post ran Anderson’s column on the funny pages.
It was there, adjacent to “Dennis the Menace,” that Washington readers were informed in real time that the administration had sent a nuclear fleet to the Indian Ocean, bringing the world to the brink of an atomic confrontation; that the president was planning to bomb Hanoi and mine its harbor; that ITT had paid $400,000 to the Republican National Convention in explicit exchange for approved mergers; that the same company and the CIA were plotting to overthrow Salvador Allende; that the U.S. Army was making undisclosed raids into Cambodia. The Post’s comic page readers, in other words, were treated not to the first draft of history, but to a sneak preview, if they cared to glance over. “He has more people around this government than, I guess, anybody has ever had,” Feldstein records Attorney General John Mitchell marveling to Nixon.