By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 6, 2005 9:02 AM
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.
That case has prompted some of President Bush's detractors -- including Vanity Fair Editor Graydon Carter, whose magazine carried Felt's confession -- to liken the administration's criticism of the press to that of the Nixon regime's war on journalists. The president and his deputies have been sharply critical of the media at times, most recently in the Newsweek case, even as the White House has continued to make top officials available to reporters on a not-for-attribution basis.
Bill Clinton and his lieutenants also fought bitterly with the press corps over what they saw as the hyping of the Whitewater, Travelgate and Filegate stories, along with a relentless focus on Clinton's personal life and the allegations of Paula Jones, Kathleen Willey, Monica Lewinsky and Juanita Broaddrick. At the same time, the Clinton White House was one of the leakiest in modern history. And longtime FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover notoriously tried to peddle to reporters surveillance information about Martin Luther King Jr.'s sexual activities. Whether leaks are good or bad for those in power often depends on who is dishing what. But both administrations paled compared with Nixon's men, who thought nothing of wiretapping reporters to uncover leaks, ordering tax audits of its detractors and, in the case of The Washington Post Co., threatening to yank its valuable television licenses.
One other effect of Watergate and the movie "All the President's Men" is that journalism became a more lucrative endeavor than it had been in the old "Front Page" days. While few became as wealthy as Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the advent of television contracts, book deals and movie rights boosted many practitioners into the upper middle class -- where critics say they are less in touch with the daily concerns of many readers and viewers. The lure of instant stardom also may have prompted the fabrications of Janet Cooke -- the Post reporter who conjured up an 8-year-old heroin addict in 1980 -- and later Stephen Glass, Jayson Blair and Jack Kelley. In one string of Times stories, Blair quoted unnamed law enforcement officials about the case of the Washington snipers -- sources it now appears he invented, along with many others. Despite the mythology, The Post didn't force Richard Nixon from office -- there were also two special prosecutors, a determined judge, bipartisan House and Senate committees, the belated honesty of John Dean and those infamous White House tapes.
Perhaps a better lesson for the press is the way that Woodward and Bernstein pored over phone lists and knocked on doors late at night, the kind of shoe leather reporting that seems less fashionable in an age of cable, blogs, Podcasts and the like. There is still a burning need for original reporting amid the cacophony of analysis, commentary and celebrity news.
Felt, now 91, was conflicted enough about his role to lie about it for 33 years, in part out of concern for what the FBI would think about a top official who spilled secrets. But it has taken about that long for source-addicted journalists to engage in some serious soul-searching about whether they have pushed too hard and gone too far in an effort to recapture some of that ancient Watergate glory.
Radar, the new magazine launched by former Talk editor Maer Roshan, has no qualms about unnamed sources. TV "insiders" are quoted anonymously in trashing top anchors and correspondents with such comments as "She's so dumb she can't even read off a teleprompter"; "He's a sociopath"; and "Everything has to be scripted for her." One woman said to report by "flashing her cleavage." Not exactly courageous journalism.
Los Angeles Times reporter Ron Brownstein told readers last week that he didn't intend to treat John McCain any differently, despite the fact that Brownstein's wife, former CNN producer Eileen McMenamin, has become the Arizona senator's communications director. "I am confident that her new job will not affect my judgments," he wrote.
Times Washington Bureau Chief Doyle McManus says the couple is in Paris and "we decided not to stop the honeymoon to have the argument" about "where the right boundaries are" for Brownstein. "We're all agreed that Ron can't cover McCain per se," but McManus sees no problem with Brownstein writing a story "if McCain's name comes into it in a minor way. . . . We think Ron is the best political writer in the country and don't think it'd serve the nation or our readers to take him off politics."
The Cartersville, Ga., Daily Tribune News has fired Associate Managing Editor Chris Cecil after Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. told the paper that Cecil had lifted parts of eight of his pieces since March. The paper said it was "embarrassed, furious and simply dumbfounded."
Now that I'm back from an unsuccessful vacation--unsuccessful in that I spent half my time writing about Deep Throat--I want to catch up on a few of the hundreds of Throat postings that appeared during my absence.
The Washington Post Co.'s Newsweek gives the Throat saga cover billing, and Jonathan Alter engages in a little time-shifting:
"Imagine if Nixon were president in this era. After he completed his successful second term, I'd have to write a retrospective column like this:
"President Nixon left office in 2005 having proved me and the other 'nattering nabobs of negativism' wrong. We thought that his administration was sleazy but we were never able to nail him. Those of us who hoped it would end differently knew we were in trouble when former Nixon media adviser Roger Ailes banned the word 'Watergate' from Fox News's coverage and went with the logo 'Assault on the Presidency' instead. By that time, the American people figured both sides were just spinning, and a tie always goes to the incumbent.
"The big reason Nixon didn't have to resign: the rise of Conservative Media, which features Fox, talk radio and a bunch of noisy partisans on the Internet and best-sellers list who almost never admit their side does anything wrong. (Liberals, by contrast, are always eating their own.) This solidarity came in handy when Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of The Washington Post began snooping around after the break-in at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee. Once they scored a few scoops with the help of anonymous sources, Sean Hannity et al. went on a rampage. When the young reporters printed an article about grand jury testimony that turned out to be wrong, Drudge and the bloggers had a field day, even though none of them had lifted a finger to try to advance the story. After that, the Silent Majority wouldn't shut up."
Time has a great site with Watergate covers and excerpts (except you need to subscribe to read more than the opening paragraphs). For its first piece on the 1972 Watergate break-in, the cover subject was Woody Allen.
Peggy Noonan joins those disparaging Mark Felt:
"Was Mr. Felt a hero? No one wants to be hard on an ailing 91-year-old man. Mr. Felt no doubt operated in some perceived jeopardy and judged himself brave. He had every right to disapprove of and wish to stop what he saw as new moves to politicize the FBI. But a hero would have come forward, resigned his position, declared his reasons, and exposed himself to public scrutiny. He would have taken the blows and the kudos. (Knowing both Nixon and the media, there would have been plenty of both.) Heroes pay the price. Mr. Felt simply leaked information gained from his position in government to damage those who were doing what he didn't want done. Then he retired with a government pension. This does not appear to have been heroism, and he appears to have known it. Thus, perhaps, the great silence.
"His motives were apparently mixed, as motives often are. He was passed over to replace J. Edgar Hoover as director of the FBI by President Nixon, who apparently wanted in that place not a Hoover man but a more malleable appointee. . . .
"Even if Mr. Felt had mixed motives, even if he did not choose the most courageous path in attempting to spread what he thought was the truth, his actions might be judged by their fruits. The Washington Post said yesterday that Mr. Felt's information allowed them to continue their probe. That probe brought down a president. Ben Stein is angry but not incorrect: What Mr. Felt helped produce was a weakened president who was a serious president at a serious time. Nixon's ruin led to a cascade of catastrophic events--the crude and humiliating abandonment of Vietnam and the Vietnamese, the rise of a monster named Pol Pot, and millions--millions--killed in his genocide. America lost confidence; the Soviet Union gained brazenness. What a terrible time. Is it terrible when an American president lies and surrounds himself by dirty tricksters? Yes, it is. How about the butchering of children in the South China Sea. Is that worse? Yes. Infinitely, unforgettably and forever."
By that standard, though, no American president could ever be forced from office because there is always something important happening in foreign affairs. And I don't recall conservatives making the argument that Clinton shouldn't be impeached because of the situation in Kosovo. In fact, they ridiculed him when he bombed Iraq during Lewinsky.
Nora Ephron says on the Huffington Post that she had solved the Throat puzzle:
"For many years, I have lived with the secret of Deep Throat's identity. It has been hell, and I have dealt with the situation by telling pretty much anyone who asked me, including total strangers, who Deep Throat was. Not for nothing is indiscretion my middle name.
"I knew that Deep Throat was Mark Felt because I figured it out. Carl Bernstein, to whom I was married for a brief time, certainly would never have told me; he was far too intelligent to tell me a secret like that."
It isn't online yet, by Sy Hersh has a Watergate piece in the New Yorker, recalling how he was about to report that Henry Kissinger had authorized wiretaps of reporters and aides. Kissinger told him he'd have to resign, which worried Scotty Reston, but he didn't. Kissinger's deputy, Al Haig, asked if Hersh was Jewish--the answer was yes--and asked whether Kissinger, a Jewish refugee from Germany, "could engage in such police-state tactics as wiretapping his own aides?" But the story was true.
Barney Calame made his debut yesterday as the NYT's new ombudsman, but it turns out he had posted online awhile back about the Times's failure to be more aggressive on the Downing Street memo (the British document that, among other things, suggested Bush decided to go to war earlier than he has acknowledged):
"My checks find no basis for [one reader's] concern about censorship or undue outside pressures. Rather, it appears that key editors simply were slow to recognize that the minutes of a high-powered meeting on a life-and-death issue -- their authenticity undisputed -- probably needed to be assessed in some fashion for readers. Even if the editors decided it was old news that Mr. Bush had decided in July 2002 to attack Iraq or that the minutes didn't provide solid evidence that the administration was manipulating intelligence, I think Times readers deserved to know that earlier."
For the record, Washington Post omb Michael Getler has also criticized his paper over the Downing Street memo.
The Philadelphia Inquirer's Dick Polman highlights yet another need for the Dems:
"The clout-challenged Democrats yearn to close the guru gap.
"The dominant Republicans already have a guru - Karl Rove, who has guided George W. Bush since his Texas days, and now charts the GOP's fortunes. So it's no wonder that the Democrats seek one of their own, a font of wisdom who can divine what is wrong and point the way forward.
"It is an urgent desire, because the Democrats are facing more tough elections in 2006. They'd love to seize control of the Senate, but their hopes are bleak unless they win Senate races in at least six of the states that voted for Bush in 2004. And that won't happen unless they can somehow connect with voters who view Democrats as out of touch with traditional values.
"The problem is, Democrats still aren't sure how to connect. As party pollster Stan Greenberg said here the other day, 'They don't know their policy direction, they don't know their underlying values, they don't know who they fight for.'"
Finally, Boston Globe columnist Tom Oliphant explains his unplanned absence:
"'Where have you been?' people have asked.
"I have been away -- really far away, almost to the other side.
"For those who have wondered what happened to my musings all spring, the official answer of ''on leave" didn't tell the entire story. To those who produced a mountain of correspondence and gifts, I have been more than overwhelmed even as I attempt to answer each one.
"Near-death experiences are far from unique, except for the poor slob who almost dies. For each tale of the famous bright white lights, there are countless others like mine of sudden, impenetrable darkness. As with any condition or disease, information is a large part of the battle.
So here is what happened. I remember very little of it, but it's the information I've been able to piece together thanks to my wife, my kids, and the others who saved my life."
We're glad he's back.