THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
In 1944 Franklin Roosevelt called the newspaper columnist Drew Pearson a chronic liar for revealing anti-Russian sentiments within the US State Department, despite the wartime alliance with the Soviet Union. Prime Minister Winston Churchill soon broadened the charge to “the most colossal liar in the United States.” Churchill was furious when some of his top-secret telegrams appeared verbatim in Pearson’s daily ‘Washington Merry-Go-Round’ newspaper columns. In Britain, the columnist would have been prosecuted for violating the Official Secrets Act, but in the U.S. the First Amendment shielded him.
What angered FDR and Churchill was not that Pearson had gotten his stories wrong, but that he had gotten them right. As a liberal Democrat, Drew Pearson generally supported Roosevelt’s New Deal, and his column profited from the many power struggles within the Roosevelt administration, recording the bickering of cabinet secretaries and bureau chiefs as they jockeyed for presidential approval. One side or another would leak information to the columnist to bolster its own position or undermine an opponent. FDR encouraged rivalries, calculating that they produced imaginative proposals and creative compromises. But Roosevelt also liked to keep people guessing. He did not mind the column’s reports on his advisers’ squabbles so much as he resented having his own hand revealed.
Pearson was also a vigorous opponent of American isolationism and had used his column to promote aid to Great Britain before the US entered World War II. The British Security Coordination (BSC), an intelligence operation headquartered in New York, had found him a useful ally in their effort to shape American public opinion in favor of Britain’s war effort. The BSC appreciated that Pearson’s columns and radio broadcasts reached enormous audiences and they provided him with items embarrassing to leading isolationists. But Pearson, a Quaker, was also anti-colonial. He came to believe that the influence Winston Churchill exerted on FDR was aimed not just at winning the war but at maintaining the British Empire. In one instance, Pearson published a secret report from the American ambassador in India who found the Indians more anti-British than anti-Japanese and argued that support for Indian independence would boost the war effort. A lower-level State Department official showed this report to a member of the Indian High Commission in Washington, who in turn slipped a copy to Pearson.
On December 12, 1944, the ‘Merry-Go-Round’ published a telegram from the American ambassador to Italy to the State Department, quoting Churchill as giving orders to the British general in Athens not to hesitate to open fire on civilian demonstrators, “as if he were in a conquered city.” Churchill repeatedly pressed American officials for an inquiry into the leakage, warning Roosevelt that all their communications were at risk. At the State Department, high level officials came under suspicion, but Pearson told his readers that such accusations were “not even warm.”
In fact, Churchill himself bore responsibility for the leak. He had dictated the cable so late at night that his exhausted secretary marked it “TOP SECRET” but neglected to add “GUARD,” the signal that the Americans should not see the information. Consequently, the cable went out through US military channels. American officials, offended by the notion that the British might use Lend Lease tanks against Greek civilians, leaked the information to the columnist.
The BSC became so concerned that they planted a spy within Pearson’s social circle. They selected an injured Royal Air Force pilot stationed at the British embassy in Washington. Wing Commander Roald Dahl, later famous as the author of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and other children’s books, moved suavely through Washington society, equally popular at dinner tables and in bedrooms. Dahl visited Pearson’s home so frequently that he became one of the family. Tasked with uncovering Pearson’s sources, Dahl also tried to dissuade him from publishing anything detrimental to Britain. Once Pearson grew wise to Dahl’s agenda, he cooperated with him. He showed Dahl his British-related stories in advance, and Dahl kept him well supplied with news. “We became very good friends and we exchanged information openly,” Dahl later recalled. “He wanted it for his column, and he knew I wanted it for other reasons.”
Drew Pearson’s opposition to government secrecy, even in wartime, subjected him to frequent investigation. Government agents followed him, tapped his phone, and threatened him with prosecution - although they were usually unable to uncover his sources. Just as Pearson ushered his readers behind closed doors, my research for The Columnist: Leaks, Lies, and Libel in Drew Pearson’s Washington, aimed to uncover the facts behind his columns: the sources who leaked to him and the credibility of their information.
As a self-professed “keyhole peeper,” Pearson dismissed much of the news coming out of Washington as so much propaganda - the government’s version of the truth - and devoted his career to determining what officials were doing behind closed doors. He revealed classified information and passed along rumors and conjectures based on sources high and low within the government. Going against the official line meant presenting charges as forcefully as possible without exposing himself to government prosecution or successful libel suits. Fellow journalists claimed that he knew more dirt about more people in Washington than even the FBI. Those who worked for him later compared his efforts to Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon papers or Edward Snowden and WikiLeaks, except that he did it daily for decades.
Pearson made his share of mistakes, but his errors usually resulted from haste or misunderstanding rather than ill will. Although his targets invariably charged him with lying, he denied intentionally publishing anything he thought untrue, and successfully defended the column’s accusations in court. Truth was his best defense in winning libel suits and keeping the column in print.
A measure of his accuracy was his track record in winning so many libel suits. Pearson was sued at least 120 times and lost only once. In his first case, in 1934 General Douglas MacArthur sued Pearson for a column that charged him with using his father-in-law’s political influence to win promotion to major general over more senior officers. Pearson got that story from MacArthur’s ex-wife, but she would not repeat in court what she said at dinner. MacArthur only agreed to drop the suit after Pearson obtained the general’s love letters to his mistress. Eventually, in 1964, the Supreme Court ruled in New York Times v Sullivan that plaintiffs would have to prove that journalists knew that what they published had been false, making it much harder for public officials to win libel suits. Although the older libel laws had heightened Pearson’s diligence for accuracy, his career would have been less stressful, and less expensive, if the Supreme Court had rendered its decision earlier.
The FBI found it so fruitless to track down leaks that it advised agencies just to do a better job of keeping their files secret.
In addition to the tips that people phoned him, Pearson relied on a squad of “leg men,” young reporters he hired to scour the halls of Congress and the federal agencies to provide him with unauthorized news. His leg men often returned with documents stamped secret, but he concluded that rather than protect national security much of what got classified protected officials by hiding actions that were “embarrassing, unsavory, or downright illegal.” Pearson’s ability to reveal classified information motivated intelligence agencies to hunt for his sources. He played cat and mouse with the investigators who shadowed him. They never got any help from him about who was feeding him the classified information. The FBI found it so fruitless to track down leaks that it advised agencies just to do a better job of keeping their files secret.
Was Drew Pearson the most colossal liar in the United States? Whenever I tracked down accusations that he had been lying, I found that the columnist had gotten the facts reasonably correct and that his accusers were often lying to protect themselves. His detractors sneered that Pearson was often in error but never in doubt. “Being human, I make mistakes,” he accepted. “But I endeavor, when I do make them, to correct them.” Those who peddled stories to him often had ulterior motives, but he did his best to verify their accusations. Most of all, he relied on his sense of smell, asserting: “If something smells wrong, I go to work.”
Like all media legends, Pearson’s name faded in the public’s mind after he ceased reporting and commenting. From 1932 to 1969, he had appeared in more than six hundred newspapers, and made weekly radio and television broadcasts, so that his name worked its way into cartoon captions and board games. (A presidential politics game included a “crisis card” that read: “Drew Pearson just exposed you. Go take a vacation in Maine.”) In later years, a Dallas Cowboys’ wide receiver named Drew Pearson preempted his prominence - a Google search for Drew Pearson will encounter more references to American football than to journalism. That Drew Pearson’s parents had named their future football-playing son for their favorite newspaper columnist.
The columnist’s influence has persisted through the investigative reporters who followed him in print, on the air, and online. Unwilling to take officials at their word, these new muckrakers have continued to reveal hidden truths and unmask deception. Drew Pearson admonished his staff that whenever those in power betrayed the public’s trust, it was their job as reporters to be ruthless in exposing that betrayal. His admonition remains valid today.
The Columnist: Leaks, Lies, and Libel in Drew Pearson’s Washington by Donald A. Ritchie will be published, in hardcover, by Oxford University Press in June 2021