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Jack Anderson was one of the most well-known pioneers of American investigative journalism and is best known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning syndicated column Washington Merry-Go-Round.” Anderson belonged to the tradition of muckraking” journalists who exposed scan dal, particularly in the arena of politics. During Ander son’s long career he covered such high-profile topics as J. Edgar Hoover’s ties to the Mafia, the CIA’s plots to assassinate Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, the Watergate scandal, and Iran-Contra affair.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Mormon Upbringing and War Correspondence
The influential journalist Jackson Northman Anderson was born in Long Beach, California, on October 19, 1922, to a large family of the Mormon faith. When Anderson was two years old, the family moved to Utah, the stronghold of the Mormon church. Critics have often linked Anderson’s journalistic writing style, which incorporated an often moralistic tone and a desire to enlighten readers of hidden corruption, to his upbringing in a religious faith that prized sexual abstinence, purity of mind and body, and the value of mission work. Anderson himself would serve as a Mormon missionary for two years, in between reporting jobs with local newspapers and attendance at the University of Utah. Afterwards, Anderson served in World War II, where he gained valuable journalistic experience as a war correspondent in China. Accompanying Chinese soldiers in harrowing conditions and difficult missions, Anderson developed the dogged style of pursuing news for which he was later celebrated.
Breaking Ground in Washington
After returning from service in World War II, Anderson took a job with the high-profile journalist Drew Pearson. Pearson had already established himself as a “muckraker,” a journalist dedicated to exposing corruption in government and business, who would use any means necessary to get the next scoop. The ambitious Anderson became an invaluable collaborator on Pearson’s ”Washington Merry-Go-Round” column. For ten years Anderson labored in virtual anonymity, lacking a byline even though he provided most of the information for which the column received attention. In 1957, however, Anderson threatened to quit unless Pearson publicly recognized his contribution to the success of their ”Washing ton Merry-Go-Round” feature. The elder journalist then agreed to give Anderson more bylines and promised him that he would one day inherit the column.
Upon Pearson’s death, Anderson became the sole author of ”Washington Merry-Go-Round,” though he was assisted by several other reporters and investigators (whose contributions he was quick to acknowledge). The column then developed a reputation for being ”a more scrupulous, if somewhat less passionate institution,” wrote Joe Klein for the New York Times Book Review. Anderson, for example, tried to avoid the more blatant propagandizing that was common during Pearson’s heyday, and he insisted that his reporters go after the ”spare, hard expose” regardless of the wrongdoer’s political affiliation.
Tips, Informants, and Whistle-blowing
Anderson launched his career in Washington under the political climate of McCarthyism—so called for the influence of Joseph McCarthy and the House of Un-American Activities, which was given power by Congress to investigate the presence of Communist activity in America. During the Cold War period when America reached a stand-off with Soviet Russia and its allies, many politicians feared that America’s post-war enemies (namely Russia) would infiltrate the country with spies and informants. The investigations of McCarthy and his colleagues began a ”Red Scare” in which high-profile politicians, artists, and public figures were often unjustly accused of Communist sympathies. Though Anderson initially supported McCar thy and his cronies, he soon surmised that their accusations took on the air of a witch-hunt, and in his column he asserted himself to criticizing the House of Un-American Activities’ abuses of power and to clearing the names of the accused. Anderson’s reporting on the McCarthy hearings influenced several other works on the subject, for example, Richard Condon’s novel The Manchurian Candidate (1959) and Arthur Miller’s dramatic adaptation The Crucible (1953).
As the height of the Red Scare receded, Anderson expanded his attention to other areas of politics and government where he sensed injustice or corruption. In one of his most widely-read columns, he exposed the Central Intelligence Agency’s plot to kill Cuban Communist dicta tor Fidel Castro. This earned him the life-long antagonism of the powerful director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, J. Edgar Hoover, who famously referred to Anderson as ”lower than the regurgitated filth of vultures.” Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Anderson doggedly pursued high-level government and business scandal and corruption, though his methods of gaining information were often questioned by those exposed for wrongdoing; Anderson was accused of eavesdropping, bribing, and rifling through garbage, among other accusations.
In 1972 Anderson reported on America’s secret support of Pakistan during the Bangledeshi war for independence and also linked the Justice Department’s settlement of an antitrust suit against the ITT Corporation to the company’s $400,000 pledge to President Richard Nixon’s re-election campaign fund. For these efforts Anderson won the Pulitzer Prize and went on to play a vital role in the coverage of the 1974 Watergate scanda, which would eventually cause President Richard Nixon to resign. During the administration of Ronald Reagan, Anderson would reveal the Reagan administration’s efforts to sell arms illegally to Iran and funnel the proceeds to anti-Communist forces in Central America.
In later life, the journalist published several novels and an autobiography based on his experiences in politics. Anderson died of Parkinson’s disease in 2005, at the age of eighty-three.
Works in Literary Context
The Muckraking Tradition
Anderson’s journalistic style has often been associated with a group of writers called “muckrakers”—a term generally applied to journalists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries who exposed poor working and living conditions in slums, hospitals, sweatshops, mines, prisons, and schools. They often wrote in a controversial, sensational tabloid style, and were frequently accused of socialist or communist leanings.
Exposure of Political Corruption
During his long career as a journalist, Anderson covered such disparate topics as the McCarthy trials, Watergate, and the savings and loan and Iran arms scandals. The common theme is the exposure of wrongdoing at the highest levels of government and other offices of power. New York Times Book Review critic Al Marlens asserted
Mr. Anderson is paying the bills we all owe for the continuing health of the First Amendment. It is too often forgotten, as Mr. Anderson observes, that power in our democracy lies ultimately with the citizens, and that government secrecy disarms them.
Works in Critical Context
Throughout his long career, Anderson has met with mixed reviews for his investigative journalism. Washing ton Post writer Tony Kornheiser related that ”Washington Merry-Go-Round,” Anderson’s column, ”has been called everything from ‘gold’ to ‘garbage.’ Sometimes on the same day. Sometimes in the same sentence.” Some critics, however, have lauded Anderson’s integrity; they argue that he was not the muckraker his predecessors were and find that in spite of his faults, Anderson performed an invaluable service. ”He plays a unique role in American journalism,” proclaimed Peter Osnos in the Washing ton Post Book World, ”tackling sensitive subjects head on with a permanent sense of indignation at wrongdoing and a determination to get the news that officials might prefer to keep quiet.”
- Anderson, Douglas A. A “Washington Merry-go-round” of Libei Actions. Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1980.
- Anderson, Jack. Confessions of a Muckraker: The Inside Story of Life in Washington during the Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson Years. New York: Random House, 1979.
- Hume, Brit. Inside Story. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1974. Periodicals
- Corn, David. ”Mellowing of a Muckraker.” Nation (November 14, 1987).
- Kornheiser, Tony. ”Jack Anderson & His Crusading Crew.” Washington Post (August 7), 1983, p. 1.
- Sherrill, Robert. Review of Confessions of a Muckraker. Chicago Tribune Book World (May 6), 1979, p. 1.
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