By Oakley Burt
Drew Pearson (1897-1969) was an American journalist from Evanston, Illinois. He is regarded as one of the most influential, but controversial news and radio journalists of his time with a career spanning close to fifty years.
Pearson’s career in journalism began while he attended Swarthmore College (1915-1919) and worked as an editor for the school newspaper, The Phoenix. After graduating from Swarthmore, Pearson took on new opportunities and ventured into the world. From 1919-1921 he served with the American Friends Service Committee directing post-war efforts in Kosovo. He returned to the US and taught geography at the University of Pennsylvania until 1922.
Pearson traveled abroad again in 1923, to Eastern Europe, Asia, and Australia. According to one source, he wrote about his travels as a freelance journalist and secured a six-month lecture tour in Australia. As Pearson was traveling through the Mediterranean he was also commissioned for America’s “Around the World Syndicate” for a series of interviews titled, “Europe’s Twelve Greatest Men.” (Nimmo and Newsome, p. 267)
Upon returning to the United States he transitioned into a full-time career as a journalist. Pearson went on to work at the United States Daily from 1926-1933, and the Baltimore Sun from 1929-1932. While working at the Baltimore Sun in 1930, Pearson was sent to Cuba to cover the Cuban Revolution. According to Heintze, his reporting earned him an honorable mention for the Pugsley Award for the best journalistic reporting of 1930.
Pearson’s most notable and famed contribution to journalism was a book he co-authored titled, Washington Merry-Go-Round, and the daily column that followed. In 1931, he and Robert S. Allen anonymously published the book described as “a collection of gossip-ridden news items concerning key figures in public service.” (Heintze) The pair released another book the following year titled, More Merry-Go-Round, but were found to be the authors and were fired from their jobs. Pearson was subsequently hired as the head of the Baltimore Sun’s Washington division. From there he and Allen began the infamous “Washington Merry-Go-Round” daily column. Like the book, the column was dedicated to honest reporting, uncovering corruption, lies, affairs, etc. “From the thirties through the sixties, no one crossed the journo-politico line in search of real policy impact with greater fervor than Drew Pearson,” reported the New Yorker on September 28, 2015.
Pearson rarely shied away from reporting on controversial topics throughout his career. He reported on bribes taken by New Jersey Congressman, J. Parnell Thomas from the White House, and that Senator Robert F. Kennedy had authorized electronic surveillance of Martin Luther King Jr. (Hopkins, p. 552) Pearson often reported on the Kennedy family, President John F. Kennedy in particular. He aired his concerns with the Kennedy Administration and was one of the journalists reporting on President Kennedy’s alleged affairs. Pearson also reported on the Watergate scandal in 1972. Pearson’s beliefs and stances on issues were made well known in his reporting, he remained candid and controversial in his work.
Toward the end of his career, his status landed him numerous speaking engagements, including a guest speaking appearance at the University of Utah. On November 7, 1970, the Daily Utah Chronicle reported that Pearson would be a guest speaker in Kingsbury Hall at the University of Utah. Roger Traynor and Jan Preece were also selected as guests to highlight activities during that week. Traynor spoke on appellate judges while Preece, a famed metropolitan opera singer, would be performing works of Bach. The Daily Utah Chronicle reported on November 9, 1970, that Pearson’s lecture topic would be his famous syndicated column, “Washington Merry-Go-Round.” On November 14, after his lecture, the Chronicle reported that Pearson mainly spoke on the new Kennedy Administration — voicing his concerns surrounding the election and speculating that Nixon would run for president again.
For the remainder of his life and career, Pearson continued to publish the “Washington Merry-Go-Round” column and air his radio show of the same name. Upon his death, his longtime aide, the investigative journalist Jack Anderson, inherited the column. (Heintze)
Drew Pearson died on September 1, 1969. On September 2, the Washington Post reported on Pearson’s death, saying, “He was a crusader. He passionately believed that public office was a public trust, and with his brand of journalism, he went after the corrupt, incompetent and pompous.” The Washington Post reported on Pearson again on September 3, saying, “He was a moralist who was proud to be a muckraker in the strict dictionary sense — one who searches out and exposes publicly real or apparent misconduct of prominent individuals.” The Post continued, “Somewhere in these unlikely combinations lies the key to his extraordinary career as the most successful, in many ways the most effective, and certainly the most controversial journalist of his time.” The Washington Post accurately described Pearson’s impact on journalism.
Drew Pearson’s contributions to the journalism profession cannot be ignored or forgotten. He was an influential, controversial and important figure in American journalism. In more ways than one Pearson laid the foundation for current journalists to follow in his footsteps and conduct in-depth reporting. Especially in today’s political climate, it is crucial that American journalists never shy away from reporting on controversial topics and news as Pearson did not. Journalism is a profession that aims to keep the government and its public figures in check, a statement that was upheld by Pearson and should be regarded by modern-day journalists as well.
Oakley Burt is a junior at the University of Utah. She is a communication major with an emphasis in journalism and a minor in political science.
“Drew Pearson Speaks Friday in Kingsbury,” Daily Utah Chronicle, November 7, 1960, 1.
“Drew Pearson, Columnist, to Address Students,” Daily Utah Chronicle, November 9, 1960, 1.
“Drew Pearson to Speak in Kingsbury,” Daily Utah Chronicle, November 10, 1960, 1.
“Pearson Talks on Coming Kennedy Administration,” Daily Utah Chronicle, November 14, 1960, 2.
Jack Anderson, “Drew Pearson: A Great Reporter Dies: The Washington Merry-Go-Round,” Washington Post, September 2, 1969, 13.
“Drew Pearson,” Washington Post, September 3, 1969, 22.
Hopkins, W. Wat. “Pearson.” In Biographical Dictionary of American Journalism, edited by Joseph P. McKerns. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1989.
Heintze, Jim. “Drew Pearson Biography.” University Library, American University, February 9, 2006.
Mallon, Thomas. “The Journalist Who Was His Own Inside Source,” The New Yorker, September 21, 2015
Nimmo, Dan D. and Chevelle Newsome. Political Commentators in the United States in the 20th Century: A Bio-Critical Sourcebook. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1997.
“Drew Pearson,” Encyclopedia Britannica, December 9, 2019.