Biography of Drew Pearson
February 9, 2006
by Jim Heintze

Andrew Russell (Drew) Pearson (1897-1969) was one of the most successful newspaper and radio journalists of his day. His career spanned close to fifty years beginning with his graduation from Swarthmore College in 1919. During the 1920s he served as a foreign journalist for newspapers in Europe, Australia, India, and South Africa. He also served as director for war relief in the British Red Cross office in the Balkans. He later wrote for the United States Daily and other smaller newspapers, but was best known as a journalist for the Baltimore Sun during the 1930s and 40s. In 1930 Pearson was in Cuba reporting news of the Cuban Revolution; his reporting won him honorable mention for the Pugsley Award for the best journalistic reporting of the year.

In 1931, Pearson and Robert S. Allen, Washington bureau chief for The Christian Science Monitor, anonymously published Washington Merry-Go-Round (New York, H. Liveright), a collection of gossip-ridden news items concerning key figures in public service. Although this book was considered scandalous by some, Pearson and Allen issued a sequel, More Merry-Go-Round, the following year. They were subsequently exposed as the authors and were forced to resign their positions. Not long thereafter, Pearson was hired as head of the Baltimore Sun’s Washington bureau and, with Allen, began the infamous “Washington Merry-Go-Round” column. By 1940, the syndication of this column included some 350 newspapers nationwide and by 1969 there were more than 600, with readers estimated at 60 million. In the late 1950s, Jack Anderson, who earlier was one of his investigators, became his associate.

In conjunction with his journalistic reporting, Pearson interviewed such dignitaries as Premier Nikita Khrushchev (1961 and 1963), President Tito of Yugoslavia (1962), the King and Queen of Greece, and Premier Fanfani of Italy. In 1962 he accompanied President Kennedy to Venezuela and Colombia.

Pearson also published ten books, including American Diplomatic Game (1935), U.S.A.: Second Class Power? (1958), The Case Against Congress: a Compelling Indictment of Corruption on Capitol Hill (1958), his own Diaries, 1949-1959 (1974), as well as a newsletter, “Personal from Pearson.”

In 1935 Pearson’s interests were directed towards media broadcasting, whereby he was moderator and reporter for a weekly radio show that was later known as “Washington Merry-Go-Round.” In 1941 Pearson compiled scripts and was broadcaster for the NBC show “News for the Americas.” By the 1950s “Washington Merry-Go-Round” was syndicated throughout the United States, as were his television shows. In Washington, D.C., for example, the ABC affiliate WMAL (AM630/FM107.3) aired his show on Sundays at 6:00 P.M. “Washington-Merry-Go-Round” served as a prototype for similar discussion and public affairs productions that became popular during the sixties and thereafter. A hallmark of Pearson’s columns and broadcasts was his “predictions of things to come.” In this segment, Pearson would forecast events that were likely to occur and people likely to appear in the news. Pearson capitalized on the popularity of “predictions” by creating a word game in 1949 he called “Drew Pearson’s Predict-a-Word.” The game, billed as “exciting” and “fun for everyone!” was sold throughout the country and played in America’s living rooms. Pearson’s popularity and that of his “Washington Merry-Go-Round” provided opportunities for him to do commercial advertisements for Bromo-Seltzer and other well known household products. Drew Pearson remained an active contributor to radio broadcasting until his death in 1969.

Pearson's appeal also provided numerous speaking engagements, at least two of which took place at American University. In April 1961, Pearson was guest speaker at the "annual banquet of AU's chapter of Sigma Delta Chi, professional journalism society" held in Mary Graydon Center. As described in AU's student newspaper, The Eagle, Pearson "singled out Congress for covering up conflicts of interest in both Houses, the Sherman Adams-Barnard Goldfine Case and the investigation of the Federal Trade Commission." Pearson also "played down the Russian space achievements" and that "the Russian man into space and the Cuban invasion were published in advance." On April 22, 1969, Pearson was a keynote speaker at a Pan Ethnon meeting held in SIS Lounge. He titled his presentation as "Our Relationship with Eastern Europe." Other AU connections include Pearson as guest speaker at the Virginia Inter-Collegiate Press Association at the Virginia Military Institute College chapel, Lexington, Virginia, on December 3, 1937, when AU's student newspaper was awarded first place as the best college newspaper.

Known for his candid, hardhitting approach to journalism, Pearson was frequently the first to uncover and report on controversial news items. For example, he reported the kickbacks taken from House employees by New Jersey Congressman J. Parnell Thomas (Newsweek, 15 September1969) and the news that “Senator Robert F. Kennedy, as attorney general, had authorized electronic surveillance of the Reverend Martin Luther King” (Hopkins, 552). His positions on other issues were well known as well. For example, he supported the New Deal and was one of the first to stand firm against McCarthyism. He was a particularly strong advocate for freedom and democracy in Eastern-bloc countries. He opposed the Vietnam War and voiced strong reactions to media networks whom he believed exaggerated the extent of police related violence in Chicago.

Given his controversial news gathering and reporting techniques, Pearson was involved in some fifty libel cases throughout his career; however, he lost only one case. One of the best known suits was brought by General Douglas MacArthur, whom Pearson claimed petitioned for his own promotion. The case was later dropped.

In 1968 Pearson was asked what he believed were his two best accomplishments. He stated, “First, that I was the organizer of the Freedom Train [a cross country train excursion in the U.S. that collected food for impoverished war-torn areas in Europe] and second, that I was the rebuilder of the Clinton, Tennessee, High School which was bombed out right after the Supreme Court desegregation decision in 1954” (Life, 9 August 1968, 31). In addition to these causes, Pearson served as president of the Food for Peace Committee beginning in 1961, secretary of America’s Conscience Fund beginning in 1963, and president of the Washington, D.C. chapter of Big Brothers.

Pearson won the respect of his colleagues through his convictions, and the truth and accuracy of his news reporting. The awards presented to him, as well as those created in his name, were significant. He won the Sigma Delta Chi national award for best Washington journalism, the French Legion of Honor, the First Order Star of Solidarity (Italy), and the Pulitzer Prize nomination (with Jack Anderson) in 1967 for national reporting. In 1971 the Drew Pearson Foundation awarded the first Drew Pearson Prize “for excellence in investigatory reporting by a Washington correspondent” (New York Times, 13 December 1970).

In addition to awards, Pearson also received many tributes from fellow journalists. Rosset de Morrissey considered Pearson the “watchdog against corruption and ineptitude” and a Newsweek article dubbed Pearson “an American institution” (15 September 1969). Robert Sherrill of the Chicago Tribune Book World considered Pearson to be “the greatest muckraker of all time. Woodward and Bernstein,” Sherrill said, “may have toppled Richard Nixon, but as practitioners of muckraking they are drab apprentices compared to Pearson” Arthur Cooper of Newsweek stated simply that Pearson was “hat rare combination of showman and newsman, and every day his pungent blend of punditry and titillating gossip would set off quaking shocks on the Washington seismograph. . . . It is unlikely—and this may not be a bad thing—that any newsman will ever again wield as much influence as Pearson.”

Additional Source

Hopkins, W. Wat, “Pearson,” in Biographical Dictionary of American Journalism. Ed. Joseph P. McKerns. Westport, CN: Greenwood, 1989.