Mormon Media Observer: New biography paints picture of Mormonism's most famous journalist as flawed

Published: Monday, Dec. 27 2010 5:30 a.m. MST

Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein may have become the most famous of Richard Nixon’s journalistic antagonists, but it was only Jack Anderson for whom a murder plot was concocted inside the White House.

There is little doubt that the most consequential Mormon journalist of the last century, if not of all time, was Anderson, the investigative reporter. During a career in Washington that spanned a half century, Anderson’s Washington Merry-Go-Round column – which he inherited from his mentor Drew Pearson – broke many important stories that kept him near the center of power for much of that time.

Now, an important new biography by University of Maryland professor Mark Feldstein provides new insight into the remarkable career of Anderson, including the aborted plot to kill him.

"Poisoning the Press" is a fair-minded portrayal that shines light into the remarkable exploits of Anderson and his decades-long conflict with Nixon by relying on newly studied portions of the Nixon tapes and archives, and on Anderson’s own extensive files.

What emerges in the portrait is a story of a reporter who not only showed remarkable courage and doggedness, but one who sometimes cut corners in his professional life.

As one of the many young reporters who interned with Anderson over the years, I knew firsthand the cachet and power the Anderson name had in Washington, even in the late 1980s, long after much of his influence had waned. Phone calls got returned, and documents were provided promptly when I asked for them.

While I only talked with Anderson a few times during that short stay in Washington, he was clearly larger than life. I have always been grateful for the opportunity he gave me. But, in truth, I was saddened at much of what I read in this new biography.

Feldstein says that during the time Anderson worked for Drew Pearson, Pearson paid him poorly and, with nine children to feed, Anderson began to take money from sources he was supposed to cover. Feldstein says that journalism’s ethics were less clear at the time – other reporters of the time took money from sources — but “Anderson’s graft clearly undercut the moral high ground he claimed for his muckraking mission.”

Feldstein says that the most notorious of those who gave Anderson money was Irving Davidson, “a mobbed up arms broker and lobbyist who peddled influence (and prostitutes) to his shady friends” that included several notorious figures.

Feldstein does not allege that Anderson was unfaithful to his wife, but he does say that Anderson wrote many favorable things about Davidson’s clients. Davidson even kept a file with all of the positive articles.

Next, Feldstein notes, the media gleefully reported that former Vice President Spiro Agnew regularly received mundane graft of meat and produce from a grocery store chain in Washington. Agnew, Feldstein reports, bitterly said that the next stop on the grocery store’s route was Jack Anderson.

Anderson himself was caught bugging a hotel in the 1950s.

Perhaps most intriguing was Anderson’s relationship with a fellow Mormon and source, Charles Radford, who leaked to Anderson the documents that led to Anderson’s Pulitzer Prize.

Anderson bought a piece of property from Radford without seeing the property and hid involvement by using a friend as an intermediary, Feldstein says. This transaction may have been enough for federal prosecutors to prosecute Anderson for bribing a source, he argues. Feldstein quotes Anderson as saying a few months before his death that the transaction really was a payoff.

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