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

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

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.

And federal agents were looking for something. It was Anderson and Pearson’s writing on Nixon’s campaign funds that nearly got Nixon kicked off Eisenhower’s ticket in 1952. It was Anderson’s reporting on a large “loan” that required no repayment that Nixon got from Howard Hughes that had a role in Nixon’s defeat in 1960. Anderson and Pearson also learned of Nixon’s psychiatric care during the 1968 election.

In short, long before he became president, Nixon had reason to hate Anderson. Feldstein recounts numerous White House conversations about Anderson. Ultimately, Nixon sent the CIA to spy on Anderson among other remarkable actions of dubious legality.

Feldstein describes discussions where Nixon operatives talked at length of putting poison pills into Anderson’s medicine cabinet and of meeting with a “CIA doctor” to discuss which poisons they might use. They discussed lacing Anderson’s car with LSD so that he would have a traffic accident. Finally, they settled on a mugging in high-crime downtown Washington as the way to kill him.

But the scandal that precipitated the conversation blew over, and it became prudent to move on to other things. Nixon’s men dutifully did. Feldstein acknowledges that not everyone believes the plot existed, but two members of the conspiracy have said that it did.

So, in light of this new biography, what can we make of the Mormon reporter who regularly told people Mormonism believes the Constitution was divinely inspired and who believed he was working in a sacred service of that document?

Anderson didn’t always have the luxury of using computers and Freedom of Information Act requests to tell his stories the way current reporters do. He faced hundreds of ethical dilemmas and clearly made large mistakes along the way.

Author Feldstein found Anderson’s work flawed enough that he seemed to think it ironic that at Anderson’s funeral they sang the old Mormon hymn “Do what is right, let the consequence follow. Battle for freedom in spirit and right.”

Of Anderson’s relationship with Davidson, Feldstein asked, “How could Anderson justify such a blatant conflict of interest? After all, he relentlessly exposed the same kind of corruption when it involved Richard Nixon and other public officials.”

He added that Anderson, the “moralistic Mormon,” persuaded himself that he was too incorruptible to let it influence his reporting.

Whatever conclusions one draws about Jack Anderson's individual career, Feldstein's point provides a warning to all would-be journalists who happen to be Mormon.