In his five decades as a muckraking Washington columnist, the late Jack Anderson broke scores of big stories about political scandals, Capitol Hill perfidy, the machinations of American foreign policy, and the abuse of power by the White House, the CIA, the FBI, the Pentagon, and corporations. But he accomplished these deeds with unscrupulous methods, as documented in Mark Feldstein’s superb new book Poisoning the Press: Richard Nixon, Jack Anderson, and the Rise of Washington’s Scandal Culture and short-formed in Howard Kurtz’s Washington Post feature about the book last week. (See disclosure below.)
Anderson observed some ethical limits in gathering material for his nationally syndicated “Washington Merry-Go-Round” column. He appears never to have employed physical force or physical coercion in pursuit of a story. He appears never to have framed anyone with a crime. But beyond those basic constraints, he did whatever he thought he could get away with. If dishonesty produced a great story, that was justification enough for him.
Anderson’s moral instructor—Drew Pearson—was one of the skuzziest journalists to ever write a story. Pearson started the “Washington Merry-Go-Round” column in 1932 and hired Anderson in 1947, who inherited it after Pearson died in 1969. The list of ethical transgressions by Anderson assembled in Poisoning the Press almost runs off the page. His office manager reportedly once donned a disguise as a cleaning lady to steal incriminating documents from a dishonest senator. The same office manager, Feldstein writes, took lovers who “doubled as sources, from high-level elected officials and military officers to prominent newsmen and lobbyists.” Anderson assigned legman Les Whitten to spy on FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and his aide and friend—and rumored lover—Clyde Tolson to gather intelligence on their private life. In 1958, Anderson and a private investigator were caught with bugging equipment in the Washington Sheraton-Carlton Hotel while recording a businessman who had bribed the president’s chief of staff. To get out of that jam, Anderson paid a witness in the case more than $1,000, according to an FBI informant.
In 1969, Anderson placed an undercover intern in the office of Speaker of the House John McCormack. During the Nixon administration, he arranged through a middleman the purchase of land from one of his greatest sources ever. Anderson later conceded that the purchase was a “payoff.” In 1970, Anderson helped Richard Nixon, of all people, smear political rival George Wallace. He accepted confidential IRS data about Wallace from a Nixon confidant and used them to publish a damaging story about Wallace’s financial affairs, all the while claiming that Nixon had had nothing to do with the leak. He took payoffs from a lobbyist, for whom he did favors. He blackmailed Senate Majority Whip Robert Byrd into opposing President Nixon’s nominee to head the FBI—and then provided Byrd with questions to ask the nominee in confirmation hearings.
Anderson’s ethical compass pointed wherever he wanted it to, and in this regard he behaved more like a spy than a reporter during his long career. A spy does not mince ethics as he steals secrets, cracks safes, breaks into offices, taps phones and hacks computers, recruits and pays operatives in the field, and blackmails his foes. He lies frequently and brazenly. He swaps information with sources and does favors for them. He sleeps soundly, as I’m sure Anderson did, because he believes his side is in the right.
The spy-investigative journalist parallel was not lost on Anderson. In an unpublished manuscript unearthed by Feldstein, Anderson writes:
[D]eceit is a constant companion in the quest for secret information about high officials, whether that questing is done by intelligence operatives to inform governments or by newspapermen to inform the public.
Anderson had no bosses, no legal counsels telling him what he could and couldn’t do. And until Seymour Hersh arrived on the scene in 1969, he pretty much owned investigative journalism. In running his operation like a spymaster—or a counterspymaster—Anderson didn’t so much ferret out secrets as much he penetrated the state to recruit agents of influence who would give him information. Then, like intelligence analysts at Langley, Anderson and his team had to make sense of the information and write up reports for their clients. In Langley’s case, the president has always been the client. In Anderson’s case, the clients were the newspapers that subscribed to his column and by extension the reading public.
Anderson’s natural disdain for authority—specifically the authority of the U.S. government, which he regarded as corrupt and craven—makes him an embryonic version of WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange. While Anderson always proclaimed his patriotism when publishing the nation’s secrets, the furtive Assange—who even looks like an evil spy in a James Bond movie—makes no such pitches. His fealty is to the truth or to humanity or to the planet, and he’s become an even bigger spy than Anderson was. He goes underground, he encrypts everything, and even more than Anderson, he has to worry about being shipped fake documents that will destroy his credibility. Both Anderson and Assange have acted as though their judgment about what should remain a state secret and what should be public was superior to the government’s. And in most of the instances described in Feldstein’s book, I think Anderson’s judgment was superior, even if his ends-justified-the-means practices make me cringe.
Other reporters have made like spies—or corrupt private investigators—and pretended that the usual rules or laws didn’t apply to them when they were on the hunt for information. Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, for instance, write candidly of their own ethical compromises in All the President’s Men. Bernstein asks a telephone company source for a list of calls made by one of his subjects, acknowledging in the book that it’s an outrageous request. He also asks a credit-card employee to provide information about the credit-card transactions of another. In both cases, the employees delivered. But Woodward and Bernstein seem like altar boys compared with Anderson and the rascals Tom Goldstein writes about in his 1985 book, The News at Any Cost: How Journalists Compromise Their Ethics To Shape the News.
My interpretation of Anderson as a spy grows out of the lengths that the Nixon administration, CIA, the FBI, and the Justice Department went to to stop his “spying” by spying on him. The Nixon White House even plotted to kill him at one point, which is the most extreme way to deal with a spy. In one comic spy vs. spy episode, Feldstein recounts how the CIA defied its own charter to put Anderson and his family under surveillance at home, at his church, and elsewhere to determine who had given Anderson classified material. To throw off the spooks, Anderson gave his children a counterintelligence assignment, dispatching them to photograph and otherwise harass the stakeout artists. Anderson also ridiculed the spooks in his column.
“Spies are, after all, very like journalists in their methods—but merely less reliable,” as U.K. journalist David Leigh once put it. Both journalists and spies recruit sources, collect and annotate information, verify it, interpret it, write it up in reports, and disseminate it. There the similarity ends. Journalists are supposed to stay on this side of the law, this side of libel and invasion of privacy, and this side of turpitude. Jack Anderson, who died in 2005 and considered himself some sort of sovereign, deliberately ignored those lines, which taints but still does not erase his contribution to investigative journalism.
Disclosure: Feldstein is a good friend. I first read most of Poisoning the Press in manuscript form and offered my suggestions, few as they were. Does that make me a miscreant? Send your views to firstname.lastname@example.org. Spy on my Twitter feed. (E-mail may be quoted by name in “The Fray,” Slate’s readers’ forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)
Track my errors: This hand-built RSS feed will ring every time Slate runs a “Press Box” correction. For e-mail notification of errors in this specific column, type the word Andersonin the subject head of an e-mail message, and send it to email@example.com.