Over the course of several decades, investigative reporter Jack Anderson managed to break some of the era’s biggest political stories, and to alienate some of Washington’s most powerful men, among them J. Edgar Hoover. Now, it appears that Anderson’s antagonism with the Feds has followed him to the grave. The FBI is demanding access to Anderson’s papers… and the family is refusing. Brooke speaks with Anderson biographer Mark Feldstein.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: After a long career as a muckraker and a battle with Parkinson's disease, journalist Jack Anderson died last December at the age of 83, but he'd fought many other battles along the way, against such foes as former pal Joseph McCarthy, Richard Nixon and J. Edgar Hoover. Anderson once told his staff to do an FBI-style investigation on the all-powerful FBI chief. “Go through his garbage,” he told his staff, “and rattle the cans. I want him to know.” Now the FBI wants to go through Anderson's stuff. His family has donated a reported 188 boxes of his documents to George Washington University, but the FBI wants to pick through them first. The family has refused. Mark Feldstein, a journalism professor at George Washington University, has been collecting Anderson's papers for a biography. The FBI approached him too, hoping he would turn them over so that they could be picked through for secrets.
MARK FELDSTEIN: I told them that I didn't have the power to do that. That was up to the university and to the Anderson family. And they surprised me by telling me that Mrs. Anderson, Jack's elderly widow, had signed a consent form to allow them to go through the records. It turns out, according to the family, they sort of sneaked that consent form to Mrs. Anderson after the FBI agent convinced Mrs. Anderson that they were distantly related cousins –
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS]
MARK FELDSTEIN: - from West Virginia, and they apparently did it when the younger children were out of the room so that they wouldn't be there to object to the letter being signed.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So do you know whether they have the right to go through those papers or not?
MARK FELDSTEIN: Well, I think the courts are ultimately going to have to decide that. My university and the Anderson family are resisting it. We think it's an unwarranted intrusion into historical materials that have very little relevance, and kind of a chilling one for any journalist who tries to protect their sources. And the fact that they're going after him even after he's dead is really unprecedented.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is, of course, just the latest, though, in a long history of confrontations between Anderson and the FBI, right?
MARK FELDSTEIN: He was notorious for baiting J. Edgar Hoover when the legendary FBI director had most of the rest of the nation's media cowed. There are some who think that this is some kind of FBI revenge. I don't believe that. You know, there's been too much turnover in the FBI since the Hoover days. But there is a sort of fitting irony here that even from the grave they're taunting Jack Anderson and he's fighting back.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But he wasn't always such a thorn in the side of the U.S. intelligence community. In fact, for a brief time, in his early days as a reporter, wasn't he actually kind of one of them?
MARK FELDSTEIN: Well, he actually was. Back in his early days, just coming out of the military, he for a time was a secret informant for the OSS, the precursor to the CIA. And Anderson was actually very conservative politically in a lot of ways and very patriotic, as he saw it, and on numerous occasions declined to publish information if he believed it would truly endanger national security. But the point he made was that most of the time when national security are invoked, they're really about not national security but political embarrassment. And that's what I can't help but wonder if they're not dealing with here.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, then I think maybe we have to jump ahead to the Glomar incident in which there probably was a very legitimate national security interest. But he bucked the trend of the other journalists, including Seymour Hersh, on this story and went ahead and reported it.
MARK FELDSTEIN: That was a case when the U.S. intelligence agencies were trying to dig up a Soviet submarine that had sunk in the ocean and were using Howard Hughes' help to do so. Anderson reported that story when the rest of the media was holding back. In fact, I've actually gotten access to the transcripts of Anderson and other reporters' conversations with the CIA director. All the other journalists are kowtowing to him and kissing the CIA director's hindquarters. Not Jack Anderson. He's keeping him on the phone just long enough to stall him so that they can get the story on the air before any other reporter breaks it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But did exposing the sunken Soviet sub really serve the American people at that moment?
MARK FELDSTEIN: Well, considering the fact that tens of millions of dollars had been wasted on an unsuccessful effort, he felt the answer was yes. What he didn't know at the time, because the CIA hadn't told him, was that they had reason to believe there were actual nuclear missiles involved and that it could truly be an issue of national security. They didn't trust him enough to tell him that. If they had, he probably would have withheld it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What were some of his biggest journalistic scoops?
MARK FELDSTEIN: Well, he had a series of journalistic scoops going back to the Truman administration. He was the first to report that the CIA had plotted to assassinate Fidel Castro using the Mafia, of all unlikely co-conspirators. He was the first to report that the Nixon re-election campaign fund had settled an antitrust action against a powerful corporation in exchange for a donation. He published highly classified documents, more secret than the Pentagon Papers, which show that the Nixon Administration was lying to the public and to Congress about its non-neutrality during a war between India and Pakistan. He first exposed how the Chief of Staff to Dwight Eisenhower was essentially taking bribes from a businessman, and that episode became notorious when he was caught in the process of reporting the story, caught red-handed eavesdropping with bugging equipment-
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS]
MARK FELDSTEIN: - on the industrialist who was bribing Eisenhower's Chief of Staff.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But the techniques he used to gather those scoops would simply not pass muster today - actually having financial relationships with his sources, getting involved with Congressmen to push pet issues, and so on. I mean, as a journalism professor, you can't possibly approve of Anderson's techniques.
MARK FELDSTEIN: There's no question that by today's contemporary standards, a lot of the techniques Jack Anderson used were unsavory. He never tried to pretend to be an objective reporter. He viewed himself as a crusader, and he was in many ways a throwback, the last of the old-fashioned muckrakers.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But by the end of his career, Anderson was written off as an old crank. Few people paid attention to his column. The revelations he printed there were often ignored. What happened?
MARK FELDSTEIN: You know, for several decades, if you had dirt, you came to Jack Anderson. Well, after Watergate, everybody wanted to be an investigative reporter. Sources who had this kind of information could get it in The Washington Post, The New York Times, television, places that had bigger readerships, that had more space for it, that had more prestige and impact. And Anderson lost his monopoly on the dirt.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mark, thank you very much.
MARK FELDSTEIN: Thank you, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Mark Feldstein directs the journalism program at George Washington University. His biography of Jack Anderson, “Poisoning the Press: Richard Nixon, Jack Anderson and the Rise of the White House Attack Machine,” hits bookstores next year. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
BOB GARFIELD: Coming up, when news lagged behind a radioactive cloud, a look back at Chernobyl, and the man who invented Fidel.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media from NPR. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]