The Source of Whose Troubles?
Monday, June 6, 2005
Was Watergate bad for journalism?
On its face, the question seems absurd. The drama of two young metro reporters for The Washington Post helping to topple a corrupt president cast a golden glow over the news business in the mid-1970s.
Newspapermen became cinematic heroes, determined diggers who advanced the cause of truth by meeting shadowy sources in parking garages, and journalism schools were flooded with aspiring sleuths and crusaders.
But the media's reputation since then has sunk like a stone, and one reason is that some in the next generation of reporters pumped up many modest flaps into scandals ending in "gate," sometimes using anonymous sources who turned out to be less than reliable. Journalism became a more confrontational, even prosecutorial business, with some of its practitioners automatically assuming that politicians in the post-Nixon era must be lying, dissembling or covering up.
The disclosure last week that Deep Throat, Bob Woodward's secret Watergate source, was former FBI official Mark Felt provided a needed reminder that sometimes reporters have no other way to ferret out vital information than by promising anonymity. In the war-against-its-enemies atmosphere of the Nixon administration, Felt not only would have lost his job had he gone public about White House skulduggery -- he was threatened with firing just as a suspected leaker -- but might well have been prosecuted for breaking the law.
The revelation also serves as a reminder that sources may have complicated motives for whispering to the press. Felt may have worried about the FBI's integrity but he also may have been resentful, as the bureau's No. 2 official, at being passed over for the top job, and according to Woodward he came to detest the Nixon White House. Inside sources rarely have clean hands.
Three decades later, the use and abuse of unnamed sources is rampant, especially in Washington, and the media all too often protect those with partisan agendas. It's a long road from Felt telling Woodward to "follow the money" to a Bush adviser telling the New York Times that John Kerry "looks French." But such potshots have become routine in daily reporting.
The public, understandably, has become increasingly suspicious of blind quotes, and sometimes unnamed sources are simply wrong. The Post recently relied on "two senior federal officials" in reporting that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had given the authorization to shoot down if necessary an errant Cessna that had strayed too close to the White House, but when Rumsfeld denied this, it turned out the sources did not have firsthand knowledge that he was involved.
Newsweek apologized and retracted a news item -- attributed to "a senior U.S. government official" -- saying military investigators had confirmed that U.S. guards at Guantanamo Bay had flushed a Koran down a toilet.
By the time the source backed off, riots in Afghanistan and elsewhere had killed 16 people.
Newsweek has now joined the Times and Post in vowing to curtail the use of unnamed sources and to better describe their motives -- although reporters at USA Today, which has cut the use of such sources by 75 percent, say it is harder for them to compete on investigative stories.
And columnist Robert Novak's Deep Throats -- two senior administration officials who revealed that Valerie Plame, the wife of Bush White House critic Joe Wilson, was a CIA operative -- are nobody's idea of heroes. Time's Matt Cooper and Judith Miller of the Times are now facing jail for refusing to disclose their sources to a prosecutor investigating the Plame leak.