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“The Power of Political Journalism: Leaks, Lies,
and Libel in Drew Pearson's Washington”
Donald A. Ritchie
Friday, February 12 at 1 p.m.
Zoom link will be emailed to registered participants.
Franklin Roosevelt called him a chronic liar—a charge seconded by numerous members of Congress. Yet while Drew Pearson was sued 120 times for libel, he won all but one of those cases by proving the accuracy of his accusations. From 1932 to 1969 Pearson’s daily column, “The Washington Merry-Go-Round,” appeared in six hundred newspapers throughout the United States and abroad. His weekly radio and television news programs further expanded his audience and his influence. His opposition to government secrecy and his advocacy of transparency, even in wartime, subjected him to frequent investigation. U.S. and foreign agents regularly spied on him to discover his sources. Just as Pearson ushered his readers behind closed doors, my intention has been to uncover the facts behind his columns: those who leaked to him, the reliability of their information, and the credibility of the denunciations made against him.
This presentation will outline Pearson’s tactics and his effective use of government whistleblowers. It will also discuss the type of research needed to reconstruct his career, fifty years after his death, including his private papers and diaries, the files of the intelligence agencies that trailed him, and an array of oral histories with his supporters and adversaries. The interviews in particular provided insights into Pearson’s operations, motivations, and personal traits, and a collage of evidence to weigh the validity of his columns and the complaints of “fake news” by his targets. The paper will include a PowerPoint with short clips from Pearson’s broadcasts.
Donald A. Ritchie is U.S. Senate Historian Emeritus, a former council member of SHFG and former president of OHMAR. Among his earlier books, Press Gallery: Congress and the Washington Correspondents received the SHFG’s Henry Adams Prize, and Electing FDR: The New Deal Election of 1932 the George Pendleton Book Prize. His book on Drew Pearson will be published by Oxford University Press in 2021.
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