Syndicated investigative reporter Drew Pearson, lesser known than the Hall of Fame wide receiver of the same name, was part of history in a way that connects to today, as history frequently does, specifically, to Gov. Jim Justice and his tortured relationship with the press.
Modern acrimony between elected officials, especially Republicans, and the media traces its roots to the journalist whose muckraking dominated Washington politics for 40 years until his death in 1969. Pearson’s former researcher, Jack Anderson, is better remembered, partly because he died more recently, in 2005 at 83.
That pair accomplished an early journalistic feat with a 1952 column about a 39-year-old U.S. senator from California who had been named to the Republican presidential ticket under that year’s eventual election winner, Dwight Eisenhower. The column excoriated Richard M. Nixon for having taken money from corporate interests. The piece resulted in Nixon’s famous “Checkers” speech in which the future coverer-upper-in-chief boldly declared he would not return the dog of the same name that had been given to his daughter as a gift.
It also sent to permanent full boil Nixon’s enmity with the press, heightened later by Pearson and Anderson reporting, wrongly as it turned out, that the trickster had received payoffs from Union Oil. Demonstrating the emaciated ethics that one day would doom his reign, Nixon as president ordered the CIA to surveil Anderson and his family, according to journalism professor and former investigative reporter Mark Feldstein. Eventually, Feldstein wrote in a 2010 book, White House operatives considered directing two of Nixon’s henchmen to carry out the assassination of Anderson.
He was saved, Feldstein wrote, when G. Gordon Liddy and Howard Hunt were assigned another job — the Watergate break-in.
This provides welcome context to the drama in Charleston, which pales next to that induced by the blinding paranoia of the nation’s 37th president. Indeed, the clearest connection between the state’s chief executive and Nixon might be of the four-legged sort. Nixon turned attention to a cocker spaniel when a column threatened his political career. Justice turned attention to a bulldog when a virus threatened public health.
But Nixon and Justice also are linked by their despising a columnist unwelcomely in their midst. For Nixon, that was Anderson. For Justice, it is Phil Kabler, longtime statehouse reporter for the Charleston Gazette-Mail, who frequently is assigned for all HD Media properties, including The Herald-Dispatch, coverage of Justice’s COVID-19 briefings
Kabler’s primary offenses are criticism of the governor and disagreeing with the man they call “Big Jim.” Refraining from criticism and agreeing with the governor evidently are prerequisites for being permitted to ask questions during online press briefings, which ostensibly are aimed at providing updates to media and the public on the pandemic.
Anyone who believes that is the real intent of Justice’s briefings might be in the market for the Brooklyn Bridge, or a newspaper. The real intent is to provide the governor a stage with him situated at precisely the center. From this stage, he gets what he seems to covet most: total control.
Other governors holding similar briefings allow reporters to ask follow-up questions. Not Justice. Other governors allowed reporters back into briefing rooms with the chief executive once the pandemic eased. Not Justice. Other governors allow all reporters to ask questions. Not Justice.
In fact, Kabler attended the charades these online briefings have become June 22, June 24, June 29 and Tuesday and was not permitted once to ask a question. He requested attending briefings in person July 8 and July 10 but was refused.
West Virginia is back in business. Masks are largely gone. Restaurants and bars are open. Festivals, fairs and concerts have returned. But the governor’s press briefings remain virtual, like the reality he seeks to project. “Big Jim” still can’t risk being in the same room with the godawful media.
“If he would just ask,” a top Justice official recently wrote, complaining about a Kabler piece, “we would explain.”
Surely, the official who wrote these words did so with a smile. The governor rarely allows himself to be “just asked.” For all his overflowing bluster, Justice either is too smug or too cowardly to face questions from the statehouse reporter for the company that owns the newspapers in West Virginia’s two largest cities. Neither will he face follow-up questioning from others in the state press corps.
If there is a response to this from Justice, it will invariably include a harangue against Kabler and a certain newspaper. This will not explain his prolonged, weak-kneed hiding from the physical presence of the reporters who cover him. Instead, it will demonstrate things he shares with Nixon: fear and loathing of the press and an affinity for dogs that don’t hunt.
Lee Wolverton is vice president of news for HD Media and executive editor of The Herald-Dispatch.