Columnist Jack Anderson, whose published record for acknowledging error wouldn't exactly paper a room, has charged me with "egregious sin" for misquoting a column of his that The Post refused to run a few weeks ago.
The unpublished piece was about allegations of possible drug use by nine current and former members of Congress. I supported the paper's decision in this space on May 4.
A week later, The Post ran the article (with the last paragraph trimmed by editors for space) in which I am reproached. It has since been placed as a paid advertisement in Editor and Publisher, a journalism trade publication, by United Feature Syndicate, which distributes Mr. Anderson's column.
This piece first denounces special counsel to the House Ethics Committee Joseph Califano for his denial of the allegations that Sen. Edward Kennedy may have used drugs purchased through a "Capitol dope ring" that Mr. Anderson claims he uncovered. In addition to "egregious sin," I was accused also of ignoring the author's "detailed defense" of what he had written.
I plead guilty, first, to incompletely quoting Mr. Anderson where he said, "There is no supporting evidence against these congressmen so far as I know," by omitting the preliminary remark, "Except for the statements of the informants," and I acknowledge that the full sentence was intended to apply only to three of the nine congressmen named. At another point, I used an incorrect first name for former congressman Robert Dornan (R- Calif.), in whose office, as I pointed out, Mr. Anderson arranged "cover" for a special investigator to work as an aide. Leave aside that this might be questionable business for a journalist to undertake. I stand corrected on the foregoing two points and am not embarrassed to express regret.
For the rest, my column stands. It included Mr. Anderson's assertion that the names were given to a grand jury and the House Ethics Committee, as well as his comment in a telephone interview that Mr. Dornan testified similarly to the committee last March. That the column did not identify the investigator for whom Mr. Anderson arranged "cover" is at best immaterial. As for his complaint that my article appeared under the headline "The Anderson Allegations," and thus "misstated the case," that is pettifoggery.
Earlier this year, Mr. Anderson devoted several columns to reports that the Justice Department was investigating allegations that Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) received money from an associate of former CIA agent Edwin P. Wilson, who since has been convicted of arms smuggling. The source, who was eventually identified in the fourth column on the subject and who was later indicted elsewhere for fraud, reportedly had told a grand jury that he witnessed Sen. Thurmond receive $20,000. The senator's repeated denial of the charge was also reported. The Post carried all of the columns.
On April 20, Attorney General William French Smith announced that the Justice Department found "no substantiation whatsoever" to the allegation and had closed its inquiry. Sen. Thurmond was quoted by Associated Press and United Press International as saying, "In my almost 60 years of public service I have never been subjected to a more reckless, demeaning and irresponsible attack . . . one of the most distasteful chapters of my political career." The Post ran a UPI account.
There is no record known to Post editors nor Sen. Thurmond's office that Mr. Anderson has reported the Justice Department's conclusion. Appearing to dismiss the subject, Mr. Anderson was quoted by UPI as saying his column had identified the man who made the allegation and reported the senator's denial.
This obvious disregard for squaring the record after airing unsubstantiated information is not uncommon among syndicated columnists. Newspapers, with their own deficiencies in redressing wrongs, are often left holding the bag for the columns they buy. Columnists rarely return to errors of fact or forecast. Individuals and institutions subjected to cruel and unjust punishment in print, if they're lucky, may get a letter to the editor as consolation. Meantime, the columnist is working up to the next subject.