Once upon a time, Drew Pearson, the muckraking columnist who wrote “The Washington Merry-Go-Round,” sued the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner for libel.
WC supposes that simple sentence requires some explanation these fifty-five years on.
Drew Pearson, according to Jack Shafer, was “one of the skuzziest journalists to ever write a story.” Pearson started the “Washington Merry-Go-Round” column in 1932. The column was nationally syndicated and, until August 1958, carried in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. Pearson combined gossip, speculation, innuendo, unprincipled tactics and blackmail against those he perceived as abusing power.
He was the first, loudest and most persistent critic of Senator Joe McCarthy, to the point that Senator McCarthy physically attacked him at the Sulgrave Club, then a hush-hush meeting place for Washington socialites and powerbrokers, at a party hosted in December 1950, by 27-year-old socialite named Louise Tinsley (“Tinnie”) Steinman. The fight was broken up by none other than Richard “Tricky Dick” Nixon.
Senator McCarthy, the following week, from the floor of the Senate, denounced Pearson as the “diabolically” clever “voice of international communism,” a “prostitute of journalism,” and a “Moscow-directed character assassin.”1
Anyone who fought Joe McCarthy can’t be all bad.
But C. W. Snedden, the editor and publisher of the News-Miner, from 1950 – 1989, took umbrage at a Pearson column on July 8, 1958, where Pearson wrote:
A lot of Johnny-come-latelies such as Gov. Mike Stepovich are now claiming credit for making Alaska the 49th state in the Union. But the man who unobtrusively, but consistently, badgered senators, buttonholed congressmen, maneuvered in the smoke-filled rooms to bring statehood to Alaska is an ex-newspaperman named Ernest Gruening. He more than anyone else is the father of the 49th state.
Bill Snedden, never a dispassionate editor, wrote in an editorial:
Drew Pearson irritates us often. On days like yesterday he infuriates us. It isn’t so much because of his opinions, which frequently are so biased they almost tilt out of the page, as it is because his facts are so cockeyed.
. . . . .
But in describing the statehood efforts of our former governor-real and imaginary-we think it was wholly unnecessary for Mr. Pearson to start his piece by describing our present governor as a ‘Johnny-come-lately’ and stating that Governor Stepovich is ‘now claiming credit for making Alaska the 49th state.’
. . . . .
For the time being we’ll get a clothespin for our editorial nose while we decide what to do about this free-wheeling garbage man of the fourth estate.
That was followed up by further word from Snedden on August 15, 1958, when he editorialized:
We have known for a long time that on subjects having to do with Alaska Mr. Pearson has been so inaccurate as to be very disturbing to us. It was not until the publisher of the News-Miner recently spent several months in Washington, however, that the general reputation of this columnist was fully appreciated.
That reputation is summed up in the comment of a member of the working press in the nation’s capital that Pearson is ‘the garbage man of the fourth estate.’
Not wishing to distribute garbage with our newspaper, we have dropped Pearson. We will not be parties to publishing what we know to be inaccurate and misleading.
WC suspects that Snedden was offended more by Pearson’s cheap shot at fellow Republican, local boy and personal friend Mike Stepovich than anything else. You’ll note he made a point of using the “garbageman” line twice.
That was too much for Drew Pearson; he sued Snedden and Fairbanks Publishing, the parent of the News-Miner, for libel. The irony of Drew Pearson suing someone for libel never made it into the court proceedings. But the case made it all the way to the Alaska Supreme Court, where Pearson lost. Justice John Dimond flopped around a lot in the opinion, at one point rejecting the controlling authority, New York Times v. Sullivan and at another point embracing it. But it didn’t matter; Pearson never had a prayer of winning.
Tony Dimond, John’s father, of course, was another zealous advocate for Alaska’s statehood. And a fellow Republican. So he included Pearson’s column and Snedden’s two editorials in the published opinion. Think of it as an object lesson in the perils of lawsuits for slander and libel.
UPDATE: WC conflated Tony Dimond with his son, John Dimond. Sorry. Tip of the Digital Hat to reader Donna P. for the correction.
- Senators cannot be sued for libel based on statements made from the floor of the U.S. Senate. ↩