A giant tree just fell in the tangled
forest of American journalism, and few seemed to hear. For me,
the silence was deafening.
Jack Anderson, once the nation's
most feared investigative columnist-a man so threatening to the
corridors of power that Watergate burglar G. Gordon Liddy plotted
his murder and the FBI's J. Edgar Hoover decried him as "lower
than the regurgitated filth of vultures" - died peacefully
on December 17 at his Virginia home. At 83, the famous muckraker
succumbed to the ravages of Parkinson's Disease. But his immortality
is keenly felt in today's culture of complicity between journalists
and the politicians and bureaucrats they are mandated to hold
accountable. His legacy could not be more timely in this era
of blurred lines and cozy relationships, as the embarrassing
indiscretions of the New York Times' Judith Miller and icon Bob
Woodward expose a breakdown in the vital checks and balances
between a free press and the government.
Though it seems like a distant memory,
there was a time when investigative journalism was considered
among the most honorable of professions. I had the great fortune
to work for Jack Anderson during those glory days, at the tail
end of the Pentagon Papers, Watergate, and My Lai, when I and
a handful of young Anderson minions passionately believed that
independent journalism could bring a corrupt regime to its knees.
At the helm of this assortment of idealistic tenderfoot reporters-fresh
from New Mexico and Vermont, Montana and Pennsylvania, New York
and Washington-was the larger-than-life Utah Mormon who had risen
to power with the legendary Drew Pearson. Founder in 1932 of
the Washington Merry-Go-Round column, Pearson was revered and
feared in the nation's capital. Advocating U.S. involvement in
fighting European fascism, fervently supporting the creation
of the United Nations, and challenging Sen. Joseph McCarthy long
before his peers joined the bandwagon, Pearson was a media celebrity
through the '40s, '50s, and '60s. He hired Anderson in 1947,
and upon Pearson's death in 1969 Anderson inherited the column.
When I came on board in 1979, the
column was at its peak. I and a small cadre of twenty-somethings
wrote columns that would appear daily in a thousand newspapers
read by forty million Americans, stories that appeared five-days-a-week
on Mutual Broadcast Radio, three segments a week for ABC's Good
Morning America, and a monthly piece for Parade Magazine. Twice
a week, the mailman delivered a hundred-pound duffel bag filled
with thousands and thousands of letters from readers, reporting
scandals in their communities, imploring Anderson to expose the
corruption. While our job description included culling these
letters in search of tips and leads, it was a mostly futile foraging.
For we all knew that the big stories would come from Anderson's
own vast network of sources in the legislative, judicial, and
executive branches of government. It was heady stuff to pick
up the phone and call a U.S. senator and have him take your call.
"I think Jack believed it was in the highest tradition of
constitutional democracy, in both a mischievous way and high-minded
League-of-Women's Voters kind of way, to have kids not old enough
to legally drink demanding answers from senators and Cabinet
secretaries," former Anderson reporter Murray Waas recently
wrote in the Village Voice. "He had nine kids at home and
innumerable of us wayward ones at the office."
Jack Anderson recognized the fragility
of democracy and passionately believed its survival depended
on an independent and lively Fourth Estate - a term dating back
to Thomas Carlyle in the nineteenth century referring to the
press in "its explicit capacity of advocacy and in its implicit
ability to frame political issues," as one encyclopedia
defines it. Anderson was the embodiment of the old adage that
a reporter's job was to comfort the afflicted and afflict the
comfortable, and, with great courage, audacity, and humor, he
did it with gusto. He especially disdained the hack reporters
and publishers who spewed mainline dogma under the guise of "news"
and whom he viewed as pamphleteers of government propaganda.
"Jack was contemptuous of these fake devotees of the First
Amendment who cared more about what their country club pals thought
of them than about helping poor blacks, the mentally ill, dirt
scrabble native Americans, abused crazy prisoners, tormented
wives, diseased children, and the hopeless, helpless rest,"
wrote his longtime associate, Les Whitten, who once shared the
byline with Anderson. A devout Mormon, Anderson saw his career
as a divine calling. He loved Jesus, his family, and the U.S.
constitution. As for Jesus, wrote Whitten, "the one he loved
was the one who read from the scroll of Isaiah in the synagogue.
It said that the Lord 'has anointed me to bring good news to
the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free.'
And in one way or another everyone we brought aboard felt the
But alas, like all great mortals,
Jack Anderson had feet of clay. He entered into business partnerships
with nefarious characters, squandered an empire that by all rights
belonged to the public trust, protected sources who were manipulating
him, allowed his ego to dictate his judgment, and abandoned those
who were most devoted to him.
The first story of mine that he
"killed" was about the organized crime connections
of Frank Sinatra. While those connections have since become the
subject of many books and magazine articles, at the time I wrote
my column Sinatra's relationship with the "mob" had
never before been published. He allowed me to think my reporting
was flawed, that the story was not important. It would be years
later before I learned that Anderson and Sinatra were co-owners
of a Nevada company, which precluded Anderson from exposing his
As a 24-year-old, wide-eyed naif
for whom Jack Anderson was almost godlike, I was devastated.
But over the past 25 years hence as an investigative reporter
and non-fiction author, who learned at the knee of the greatest,
I have come to appreciate the compromises one must sometimes
make, the divided loyalties that are inevitable when one chooses
a life of truth-telling. For the truth is never easy, and it
is never black and white. Jack Anderson understood the nuances
of truth, the shades of gray, and he did the best he could in
the circumstances in which he found himself. What more can we
ask of our American heroes?
SALLY DENTON'S BOOKS
AMERICAN MASSACRE : THE TRAGEDY AT MOUNTAIN
FAITH AND BETRAYAL : A PIONEER WOMAN'S PASSAGE
IN THE AMERICAN WEST
THE BLUEGRASS CONSPIRACY: AN INSIDE STORY
OF POWER, GREED, DRUGS AND MURDER
THE MONEY AND THE POWER: THE MAKING OF LAS
VEGAS AND ITS HOLD ON AMERICA [With Roger Morris]