Poisoning The Press: Richard Nixon, Jack Anderson, and The Rise Of Washington's Scandal Culture, By Mark Feldstein, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 461 pages, $30.00
How To Become A Scandal: Adventures in Bad Behavior, By Laura Kipnis, Metropolitan Books, 208 pages, $24.00
In 1967, the jury for the Pulitzer Prize for national reporting unanimously recommended that the award go to the muckraking columnists Drew Pearson and Jack Anderson for their expose of the financial chicanery of Thomas Dodd, a powerful senior Democratic senator. The prize instead went to two Wall Street Journal reporters for a story about gambling and organized crime that the members of the jury had not even read.
The reversal by the Pulitzer advisory board created a scandal on top of a scandal. Newsweek, The New York Times, and the Associated Press all ran down the suspicious details, starting with the fact that the Journal had submitted its winning story in a different category (local as opposed to national reporting). Did Pearson and Anderson lose the Pulitzer because of their reputation for employing ethically fuzzy methods? Or did they lose it because the advisory board looked down on them as practitioners of the crude arts of scandal-mongering and sensationalism?
Scandal itself has a mixed reputation, sometimes tainting the journalists who uncover it even as their exposes earn them fame and fortune. Although Pearson and Anderson were denied the honor of a Pulitzer, they had other consolations. Published in 600 newspapers, their column, "Washington Merry-Go-Round," reached 40 million readers, and the Dodd scoop became the anchor for a best-selling book of theirs, The Case Against Congress. The Dodd story would be Pearson's last big scoop -- he died in 1969 -- but Anderson took over "Washington Merry-Go-Round" alone, growing its audience to 70 million and augmenting it with stints on radio and television, lectures, newsletters, and more books. By the time the Watergate scandal broke, Anderson had become the most famous investigative journalist in America.
Anderson is little remembered today, and it is his misfortune that the new book about his remarkable career and achievements, Poisoning the Press by Mark Feldstein, also exposes the full range of his failings. Feldstein details Anderson's reliance on bugging, bribes, and extortion and describes Anderson's work as "a blend of courageous reporting and cheap shots." Many of these cheap shots came in the form of sexual smear campaigns -- at one point, Anderson sent his legmen to look through J. Edgar Hoover's trash for any hints of homosexuality, while at other times Anderson was content to make up charges. Feldstein's careful tracking of this period's homophobia adds a fascinating layer to this book.
The book's focus, however, is the intertwined story of Anderson and Richard Nixon, two men who seem to have deserved each other. Both arrived in Washington in 1947 -- Nixon as a congressman, Anderson as a lowly legman to Pearson -- and, although they met face-to-face only a few times over the next 25 years, they became mutually obsessed. Anderson played a part in almost every important Nixon scandal, starting with his discovery of the "personal slush fund" that led to Nixon's "Checkers" speech. The columnist reveled in this role. Early in Nixon's presidency, for example, Anderson bragged on TV that someone in the White House was regularly sending him the president's memos. "I can assure you that if the President knew who was leaking," Anderson said, "he would be fired tomorrow." According to Feldstein, Nixon said of Anderson, "I believe him. What are we going to do about it?" Nixon's staff ended up analyzing dozens of "Merry-Go-Round" columns in an effort to locate the leak. A week later, Anderson chuckled about their efforts in print and then published another secret document.
While this was a minor moment -- later, Anderson would uncover Nixon stories big enough to win (and keep) a Pulitzer -- it illustrates the paranoia and gamesmanship that defined their relationship. It also illustrates Feldstein's remarkable reporting. A book like his could easily lapse into the mode of a transaction ledger. (February 1972: Anderson uncovers ITT memo claiming the global conglomerate's $400,000 donation to the Republican Party convinced Nixon to approve ITT's mega-merger; March 1972: Nixon's staff accuses Anderson of "stealing" said memo, drafts list of aggressive questions for his Senate hearing.) But Feldstein is a clear, brisk writer with the good sense to sprinkle in lots of quotations from contemporary sources. And what sources he has: Feldstein conducted more than 200 interviews, filed open-records requests with 50 agencies, and reviewed hours of White House tapes. The only thing he didn't -- or couldn't -- do was convince Nixon aides Chuck Colson and G. Gordon Liddy to talk.
What is a scandal -- and what can become one? In How to Become a Scandal, Laura Kipnis claims that "we lack any real theory of scandal." John B. Thompson, the author of Political Scandal: Power and Visibility in the Media Age, and Ari Adut, the author of On Scandal: Moral Disturbances in Society, Politics, and Art, would find this judgment a little uncharitable. Still, Kipnis has her own ideas on the subject, even if they amount to less of a theory than Thompson or Adut offers.
Thompson, Adut, and Kipnis would all agree that a scandal requires three things: a transgression against community norms; the exposure of that transgression; and publicly expressed outrage. Where Kipnis breaks new ground is on scandal's motivations. "Scandals are like an anti-civics lesson," she writes, "there to remind us of that smidge of ungovernability lodged deep at the human core which periodically breaks loose and throws everything into havoc." Scandals need us -- they require that we forget how commonplace transgressions are. And we need scandals -- they serve as rituals of "social purification" and occasions for debate of a society's "open secrets."
In Against Love, the book that established her as a cultural critic, Kipnis makes the same point, arguing that the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal let Americans air collective anxieties over traditional marriage. Unfortunately, none of the four case studies in her new book reaches the level of insight of her previous one. In Scandal, Kipnis returns to Monicagate, this time to psychoanalyze Linda Tripp. While she does make some interesting points -- our process for public humiliation stands as the modern equivalent to stoning, and, in Tripp's case, it was only intensified by her looks -- Kipnis spends far more time rehashing the public record than deepening our understanding of scandal. As the book moves along, Kipnis' narrative-to-new-idea ratio continues to slip. She avoids taking on the big questions or at least ones big enough to brace a theory of scandal.
Watergate not only destroyed Nixon's political career; according to Feldstein, it also "destroyed Anderson's muckraking monopoly." As he lost influence, Anderson turned to pure tabloid journalism with regular segments on Inside Edition and a column for the National Star. Still, Anderson's influence on post-Watergate investigators seems indisputable, if also overlooked. Thompson's and Adut's books both include lengthy discussions of Watergate, but neither mentions Anderson. The media were following Anderson's lead when they became more focused on uncovering scandal, often about the private lives of public figures. This is what Feldstein means when he claims that Anderson and Nixon led to "the rise of Washington's modern scandal culture."
But Poisoning the Press, for all its strengths, doesn't develop this idea thoroughly. By focusing on Anderson and Nixon, Feldstein fails to give a broad enough view of the stories that Anderson and Pearson investigated, leaving some basic questions unanswered, such as: What was the ratio between real news and insinuation in "Washington Merry-Go-Round"? Feldstein also skimps on the cultural history needed to establish the before and the after of Anderson's influence. He includes many examples of Anderson's homosexual smears but very little on the mainstream media's reluctance to cover such stories as anything other than "moral charges." Feldstein never even mentions the Pulitzer that Anderson and Pearson were denied.
That omission is unfortunate because Pulitzer-gate remains one of the more instructive episodes from Anderson's career. Scandal is shaped not only by what news circulates but also by how it circulates and by whom. It might seem to have its perennial categories -- sex, drugs, and alcohol, corruption, fraud -- but in our world, scandal cannot be understood apart from the forces that drive (or limit) the media.
Anderson and Pearson exhaustively documented Dodd trading favors for campaign contributions and using those contributions for private expenses, but this reporting wasn't enough to overcome their column's place in the media ecology. This pattern should feel familiar. For a media outlet, scandal is still a better way to earn readers than respect. When the National Enquirer broke the news of John Edwards' love child, the Pulitzer board resisted the Enquirer's prize nomination submission. There's a case for denying the Enquirer a shot at a Pulitzer, just as there was for denying a prize to Anderson and Pearson. The same impulse, however, led the mainstream media to make the mistake of ignoring the Enquirer's reporting for months. As many people who once supported Edwards now have to admit, the tabloids sometimes do have important news to tell us. We may not like what scandal has done to politics, but we have to pay attention.