Poisoning the Press: Richard Nixon, Jack Anderson, and the Rise of Washington's Scandal Culture. Mark Feldstein. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010. 462 pp. $30 hbk.
This book richly deserved AEJMC's 2011 Frank Luther Mott/Kappa Tau Alpha Research Award for 2010's best book on journalism and mass communication based on original research published. It is a modern Greek tragedy, the forces of evil and goodness battling each other to the death, with evil ultimately winning. It's a page-turner, reading more like a novel than the carefully researched work of history that it is.
(Full disclosure: Feldstein is now a professor at the University of Maryland, but as a professor emeritus there myself, I have not met him. I should also note that as a young journalist in Washington, I regarded Jack Anderson and Drew Pearson as heroes-the only real investigative reporters in town; Anderson later did guest lecturing in my classes. I was also a victim of an abusive investigation by the Nixon FBI. So I'm not exactly objective about the two main characters in this book.)
That said, as I was reading, it seemed to me that Feldstein was too even handed in dealing with Anderson (once a near saint in my estimation) and Nixon (the devil incarnate). But by the end of the book, the poisoning of the press in the title makes sense.
Nixon did approve a plot to assassinate Anderson (and poison was the weapon of choice), and he would have loved to eliminate investigative journalists altogether. Feldstein makes it clear that Anderson's last twenty years were bizarre, and he became poisoned with money. But I don't think it was Anderson who poisoned the press, and, in the account of the Mott award, stoked "the toxic sensationalism that contaminates contemporary media discourse." By the mid-1980s, Anderson was no longer influential in journalism circles (where he was often mocked), and did not inspire the media's growing obsession with profits.
But in the 1960s and early 1970s, Anderson landed one great scoop after another, beating the large newspapers at their game. In 1972, he won the Pulitzer Prize in national reporting for his exposé of the Nixon administration's tilt toward Pakistan. He also did groundbreaking reporting on the Watergate break-in and burglary, though he was upstaged by Woodward and Bernstein, who got the glory and the Pulitzer.
While Anderson's reporting often led the way on important Washington stories in the sixties and seventies, he was cramped by his format. More than a thousand newspapers carried his "Washington Merry-Go-Round" at its peak, but the column was limited to 750 words, and he was unable to give his work the in-depth and extensive coverage available in the large news hole of the Washington Post, the New York Times, and other newspapers.
His critics complained constantly about the ethics of his news gathering. He didn't hesitate to pay sources for crucial information. He encouraged whistle-blowers to break the law to provide him with classified documents. The so-called "Anderson Papers," based on a large cache of classified material leaked to him by a fellow Mormon and Navy yeoman who had typed many of the documents, exposing the Pakistan affair, were in some quarters considered as important as the "Pentagon Papers. …