By Ralph Nader
“Hi Mort,” began my calls to Morton Mintz who would invariably answer his phone promptly at the Washington Post. “I’ve got a story,” to which Mintz would respond warily: “Tell me about it.” And so it went for nearly twenty years with me and lots of other citizen advocates, whistleblowers, and congressional committee staff. More than any other reporter, Mintz broke open the walls surrounding the media’s non-coverage of serious consumer, environmental, and worker harms and rights.
The big advertisers and corporate lawyers, such as Lloyd Cutler, kept complaining to the Post publisher, Kay Graham, about his exposés and relentless stories that nourished congressional investigations, lawsuits, and prosecutions.
Mintz was not deterred, even from championing the Post’s union troubles with management. In 1978 the Post assigned him to cover the Supreme Court making him an ‘official source journalist’ which he intensely disliked. After two years he went back to reporting, but by then Reagan was President, the Democrats’ hold on Congress was weaker, and Washington was closing down on the citizenry in favor of the corporate supremacists.
Soon after Mintz joined the Post in 1962, from his job at the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, he broke the story about Thalidomide – a drug used as a sedative and to treat morning sickness that was given to pregnant mothers causing thousands of children, mostly in Europe, to be born without arms or legs or sometimes no limbs at all. Fortunately, an alert scientist Frances Oldham Kelsey at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) spared America by refusing to approve Thalidomide. Mintz also wrote numerous stories about inadequate FDA tests for the birth control pill. His various probes into the drug industry led to his first book published in 1965, The Therapeutic Nightmare.
I met Mintz during the GM-detective scandal in 1965. GM’s detectives were hired to “get dirt” on this young lawyer challenging the auto industry’s unsafe motor vehicles that put style and horsepower over saving lives with long-known safety devices. Together with Jim Ridgeway, then at the New Republic, Mintz broke the story of a GM gumshoe following me into a Senate office building. The private detective mistook Bryce Nelson, a Washington Post reporter, for me. The following excerpt from the An Unreasonable Man documentary captures this bit of history:
Bryce Nelson: I was walking to the old Senate office building, underground corridors that they used and one of the capitol policemen said to me, “You’d better get out of here; there are a couple of detectives following you.” And I said, “What you do mean?” “There are two guys following you.” He said, “Didn’t you write a book on auto safety?” I said, “No.”
Morton Mintz: It was February of ’66, a Saturday afternoon, when Ralph Nader told me he’d been followed the previous day. Well, you can’t write a story saying somebody says he’s being followed when there’s absolutely no evidence of it.
Bryce Nelson: I felt that I better tell somebody in case I wound up face down in the Potomac or Anacostia Rivers. I mean, something strange was going on, so I told my editor, the national editor of the Washington Post, Larry Stern.
Morton Mintz: And then Larry Stern, my boss, told me that another post reporter who has white skin and black hair had told him something very similar.
Bryce Nelson: Because we were so tall, thin, dark… dark hair.
Morton Mintz: I was, you know, astonished to have this confirmation.
A special attribute of Mintz is that he stayed with the story; he wasn’t interested in a major one-time feature. That steadfastness helped consumer advocates and congressional staffers, such as Michael Pertschuk, immensely in their step-by-step drive to regulate corporate outlaws.
What made him stay on the story was not just his professionalism and his regard for the readers, but his passion for justice for the underdogs. He epitomized the aphorism “information is the currency of democracy.”
Mintz’s corporate critics were many. They knew of his commitment and told his editors that his emotions made him biased. Whether exposing the tobacco companies, the asbestos industry, or the medical device and pharmaceutical business, the corporatists tried to trip him up. He was just too factual, too full of evidence, and too aware of not going beyond the boundary of accuracy to fall prey to the corporate drive to silence or discredit him.
No matter how tense or explosive the subject, Morton had the softest tone of voice. He had a logical, linear, disarming way of interrogating industry people and others who did not believe in the public’s need to know.
If he had a complaint, it was that he couldn’t get enough space in the paper for his fact-packed reporting. To augment his reporting, he joined with lawyer Jerry S. Cohen in writing America, Inc. and Power, Inc., to overwhelmingly and devastatingly detail the abusive power of big business over America.
He was keen on mentoring younger reporters about journalistic standards and independence. No one felt the brunt of commercial advertisers more than this inexhaustible reporter of what was going on in the dark recesses of corporate systems. In 1985, he wrote the deadly story of the criminal Robbins corporation in his book titled, At Any Cost: Corporate Greed, Women, and the Dalkon Shield.
The Post publishers and editors liked the journalistic prizes that Morton Mintz received, but they did not give him the cachet accorded to flashier journalists on the staff. Sometimes, the editors were downright irritated at how his exposés upset the business side of this large corporation registered on the New York Stock Exchange.
At a social gathering at Kay Graham’s home, to which I was invited, she amiably asked “How’s your Morton Mintz?” As if anyone could induce him to ever write a story that didn’t hold up, or that didn’t merit the high standards of newsworthiness the reading public deserved.
About the time he was leaving the Post in 1988, Mintz wanted to write a book about AARP and its entanglements with the health insurance and other industries. Touted as an organization of elderly consumers, AARP was also a seller of services. It contracted out its huge membership for “Medigap” coverage and auto insurance to giants such as United Health Insurance and auto insurers, from which it took a large share for its budget. Unfortunately, he couldn’t find a publisher. It is noteworthy that many years later no one picked up where he left off to write such a book.
In a 1996 Washington Monthly article, Mintz, who was troubled by reporters namby-pamby questions to political candidates, prepared a list of 27 serious questions whose answers would have probed the candidates’ positions or lack thereof on such topics as corporate influence, campaign contributions, and ethics, labor, military spending, and consumer policies. Needless to say, his ditto-headed colleagues largely ignored this veteran reporter’s attempt to give them more professional significance and make news.
Full of quiet energy (except on the tennis court) Mintz even managed to co-author books with his daughter, Margaret Quotations from President Ron, 1987, and with his beloved late wife, Anita President Ron’s Appointment Book, 1988.
I had lunch with Morton when he turned 95. I recall his utter astonishment at being informed that most email-driven Washington Post reporters do not return telephone calls to learn about scoops, leads, reactions, or corrections the way he used to.
Happy 100th birthday (January 26th), Morton. May your example reach the next generation and may they be energized by your impeccable career as a reporter.