By Leonard Downie Jr.
Sunday, December 21, 2008
The death last week of W. Mark Felt -- Bob Woodward's secret source, indelibly dubbed "Deep Throat," who played such a crucial role in this newspaper's Watergate reporting -- coincided with the appearance of Richard M. Nixon, as played by Frank Langella, on local movie screens. As I watched Langella's Nixon being interrogated about the conspiracy and coverup by Michael Sheen's David Frost in "Frost/Nixon," I relived strong memories. And Felt's death raised the inevitable question: Could the kind of reporting that Woodward and Carl Bernstein pulled off be done today, more than three decades later, in the age of the Internet?
For many reasons, I believe it could. But it would probably play out quite differently.
There are still whistle-blowers like Felt in government today -- probably many more than there were back then. They are encouraged by various public employees' organizations and protected by whistle-blowers' legislation enacted after Watergate. And they have many more investigative reporters to talk to -- not only at newspapers, despite deep and worrying cuts in newsroom staffs, but also many other media outlets, including investigative Web sites and blogs.
Numerous confidential government and other insider sources have helped Washington Post reporters with investigative stories in recent years, about everything from the CIA's secret interrogation sites for terrorist suspects to mismanagement at the Smithsonian Institution. Unnamed whistle-blowers assisted many news organizations, led by Joshua Micah Marshall's investigative blog, Talking Points Memo, in uncovering a pattern of Justice Department firings of U.S. attorneys across the country for apparently political reasons.
Just as it was with Mark Felt and other confidential sources used by Woodward and Bernstein in their Watergate reporting, few of these officials simply seek out journalists and spill all the beans. They usually have to be painstakingly pursued and wooed, and they often are wary of providing more than snippets of information that must be pieced together over time from numerous sources for the most explosive stories. Still, it happens every day in Washington, during every administration.
But two young local reporters chasing hunches and scraps of information about a criminal conspiracy involving the highest officials in government, including the president? Could that really happen again?
There's no reason why not, even though so much has changed since 1972. New technology actually makes investigative reporting somewhat easier. We can now use computers and the Internet to search records and other information, and we can use pre-paid cell phones for conversations with confidential sources. Of course, an administration under siege would also have more sophisticated resources for investigating leaks and marshaling counter-attacks in the news media and the blogosphere.
Reporters working today on a story such as Watergate would be unlikely to be left relatively alone, along with their sources, for as long as Bob and Carl were. Now, from day one, the story would be all over the Internet, and hordes of reporters and bloggers would immediately join the chase. The story would become fodder for around-the-clock argument among the blowhards on cable television and the Internet. Opinion polls would be constantly stirring up and measuring the public's reaction.
So the conspiracy and the cover-up would unravel much more quickly -- and their political impact would probably be felt much sooner. Nixon was re-elected five months after the burglary in 1972, and Watergate was not much of an issue during the campaign. That would not happen today.
In an age when the media have been turned upside-down by the biggest shifts in audiences and economic models since the advent of television, my two biggest questions about whether we could still pursue a story like Watergate center on resources and verification. Many Americans, including opinion leaders in Washington and elsewhere, simply didn't or wouldn't believe The Washington Post's reporting about Watergate during its early months -- not until we were joined by the New York Times, Newsweek, CBS News, Judge John J. Sirica, the Senate Watergate committee and the special Watergate prosecutor.
In today's cacophonous media world, in which news, rumor, opinion and infotainment from every kind of source are jumbled together and often presented indiscriminately, how would such an improbable-sounding story ever get verified?
As newsrooms rapidly shrink, will they still have the resources, steadily amassed by newspapers since Watergate, for investigative reporting that takes months and even years of sustained work.
These questions are not just about holding presidents accountable to the American people, as vital as that is. The answers could affect anyone whose conditions could be helped by great journalism, such as the wounded Iraq veterans whose care at Walter Reed Hospital has been greatly improved because of investigative reporting by Dana Priest and Anne Hull in this newspaper.
Despite the fame that came to Woodward and Bernstein after the book and movie "All the President's Men," these questions aren't about the greater glory of journalists either. In fact, Woodward, Bernstein and The Post were under almost constant attack during the early days of Watergate. Near the end of "Frost/Nixon," when Langella's Nixon refers to those "sons of whores" in the news media, a friend turned to me and whispered, "He's talking about you." I played only a supporting role in editing some of our Watergate coverage, but even after all these years, that still felt good.
Leonard Downie Jr. was executive editor of The Washington Post for 17 years. His novel, "The Rules of the Game," will be published next month.