Academic journal article Journalism History

Jackals, Vultures, Scavengers, and Scoundrels

Academic journal article Journalism History

Jackals, Vultures, Scavengers, and Scoundrels

Article excerpt

May 11, 1971, nationally syndicated columnist Jack Anderson unleashed an attack on the venerable FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, charging that Hoover had collected more than $250,000 in royalties from the three books ghostwritten for him by Bureau public relations officials. "This is an offense if it had been committed by some other government official, that the FBI might have been asked to investigate," Anderson wrote. "For the money rightfully should have gone to the taxpayers who paid the salaries of the FBI researchers and writers."1 In addition, Anderson charged, Hoover had sold the rights to one of his ghostwritten books for $50,000 in 1964 and in exchange, Warner Brothers was allowed to produce a prime-time television series based on Bureau cases.2

Hoover received a copy of the Anderson column taped to a memorandum forwarded upward in the Bureau hierarchy by FBI public relations official Thomas E. Bishop. Clearly infuriated, Hoover, who clung to his job until he died about a year later, added a handwritten comment to the document: "This is the greatest conglomeration of vicious lies that this jackal has ever put forth."3 Three days later, when Bishop forwarded a memorandum confirming that most of Anderson's charges were true, Hoover added a comment to that memo as well: "Anderson and his scavengers are to get nothing."4 Such handwritten notes were referred to by FBI agents in the Washington, D.C., headquarters as "blue gems," both because the director was the only Bureau official allowed to use blue ink so that his comments would stand out and because their contents were often quite colorful.5

For the agents charged with interpreting them, particularly those in the public relations-oriented Crime Records (later Crime Research) Section, Hoover's blue gems were also extraordinarily consequential. Within the strictly hierarchical bureaucracy of the FBI, Hoover's blue gems were far more than simply witty exclamations from the boss. Hoover's handwritten comments were statements of organizational policy and ideology, direct orders, and expressions of the all-powerful director's frustrations. Officials in the Washington, D.C., headquarters of the FBI, referred to internally as the Seat of Government, were rarely given personal access to the director to discuss organizational concerns. Hoover and his associate director and companion Clyde Tolson rode to work together most mornings, took a private elevator up to their offices in the Department of Justice Building, and kept strictly constrained schedules that typically included a handful of daily ceremonial visits and photo opportunities but few substantive meetings with headquarters managers.6 On the day the Anderson column reached his desk, for example, Hoover's entire daily schedule consisted of two brief telephone calls, a morning call with an unidentified "Dr. Wolf" and a call with an assistant attorney general in the afternoon.7 In fact, during the entire month of May 1971, Hoover had not a single face-to-face meeting with members of his headquarters staff.8

Instead of face-to-face meetings or even substantive telephone conversations, one of the primary ways Hoover managed his sprawling and complex organization, and particularly its relationships with journalists and opinion leaders, was via memorandum, most often expressing himself through handwritten notes. Memoranda worked their way up the headquarters hierarchy to Tolson, then to Hoover, and back down with their handwritten comments added. Headquarters FBI officials who worked in close proximity to (if not personal contact with) Hoover and thus were under tremendous pressure to perform, were left to interpret the director's sometimes cryptic blue gems in an attempt to decipher his proclamations and enact his orders. The topics of blue gems varied as widely as the content of the memoranda that reached the director's desk. One of the areas where Hoover was most active and explicit in his handwritten orders, though, was FBI public relations. …

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