Andrew Conte’s Focus on Media: Jack Anderson relished muckraking
Sure, President Richard Nixon had his enemies list, but not even he thought of giving out awards in the 1970s to his least-favorite reporters. I only wish he had.
Even before graduating from college, I had the good fortune of landing a job with Jack Anderson’s “Washington Merry-Go-Round” column. With white hair, a round belly and braces holding up his pants, he joyfully touted his moniker as the “Mormon muckraker,” known equally for his devotions to religion and to rousting out government corruption. Staring as a World War II correspondent, he later joined investigative columnist Drew Pearson, taking over after Pearson died. Anderson never bowed to anyone nor shirked from exposing backroom dealing, righting a wrong or embarrassing a public official who abused taxpayer money.
The column reached 40 million Americans at its peak, appearing in hundreds of U.S. newspapers. The Washington Post ran it in the comics section, to which some disgruntled editor had banished it years earlier. Anderson loved that: More people read the funnies than the editorial page anyway.
My first summer with the column, Jack’s co-columnist Michael Binstein sent me and another young reporter, Ed Henry (now of Fox News), to Georgia to spy on House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who larded his district with pork-barrel earmarks while railing against wasteful spending. Hypocrisy columns practically wrote themselves. Later, Anderson assigned me to cover the U.S. House. I exposed military wives’ lavish spending, learned secrets from members and reported on hearings before they happened.
The column had seven reporters when I started. Typically, we did all the work, Anderson had the byline, and we felt thrilled to be named as his associates in the copy.
We loved knowing he would take on any Washington establishment. He famously had combed through FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s garbage, just to prove a point about government snooping. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein got most of the attention for Watergate stories, but Anderson broke many of them too. The Nixon White House became so annoyed that some of the president’s men plotted to kill Anderson by placing LSD dust on his steering wheel.
Mementos of Anderson’s adventures covered our Georgetown offices’ walls like a museum of muckraking: Cabinet secretaries’ scribbled notes, photos with foreign dignitaries, the Time cover with his face. Recognition of his 1972 Pulitzer Prize for uncovering secret government plotting in favor of Pakistan during the Indo-Pakistan War hung in a prominent place. As much as he cherished the accolades, he would have prized one above all the rest.
President Trump earlier this month handed out “Fake News” awards to what he called “the most corrupt and biased of the Mainstream Media” in a tweet. Although sneaky and manipulative, Nixon lacked the showmanship and audacity to call out the media so brazenly. Had he done so, that award would have sat at the center of Anderson’s trophy case.
Andrew Conte is the director of the Center for Media Innovation at Point Park University.