Would Deep Throat Be a Hero in 2005?

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 1, 2005; 10:44 AM

Most people, I believe, would say yes. This was a guy who provided The Post with crucial information about a badly corrupt administration. Forget Hal Holbrook and moving the flower pot and meeting in the parking garage and all of that. Deep Throat concluded that since John Mitchell's Justice Department was itself corrupt, the only way to get the story out was to whisper it to Bob Woodward.

But now imagine that the president involved was not Richard Nixon but George W. Bush and the media climate was that of 2005 rather than 1972. Imagine that the White House was railing against the use of unnamed sources. Imagine that a special prosecutor was threatening to jail Woodward and Carl Bernstein, a la Matt Cooper and Judy Miller, for not revealing who in the administration was giving them confidential information.

It's easy now, more than three decades later, to lionize Throat as a brave government official. But that, as the Newsweek fiasco and the Valerie Plame case have reminded us, is not the prevailing attitude toward officials who leak.

Now obviously, just because Mark Felt leaked to Woodstein about the crimes of Watergate doesn't justify the explosion of anonymous sources these days, nor the media's willingness to protect those with partisan agendas, nor does it mean that leaked stories are always accurate. But it drives home the point that for all the abuse and overuse of sources these days, there's a reason that some people won't talk to reporters with their names attached, and sometimes that is the only way for the press to blow the whistle on wrongdoing.

Why did Woodward and Bernstein wait most of the day to confirm that Felt was the real-life version of Hal Holbrook? Sure, both reporters and Ben Bradlee took a pledge to honor the confidentiality agreement until Deep Throat's death. But a source coming forward and naming himself releases the journalist from the promise of confidentiality. In the end, it's hard to escape the irony that Vanity Fair beat The Post on the secret Woodward had kept for more than 30 years.

Yes, Felt has denied being the leaker in the past, but he seems deeply conflicted about his role and may have felt he had no choice but to issue such denials.

Perhaps in his nineties he finally started, with his family's encouragement, to confront the question of how history would treat him.

One upside of the Felt revelation is that it puts to rest all the silly speculation that the leaker was David Gergen or Diane Sawyer or, most absurdly of all, William Rehnquist.

But it must also be said that while Watergate and "All the President's Men" briefly turned journalists into heroes, they may have contributed to the long-term credibility problems of the profession. Too many journalists became sloppy with anonymous sources, some of whom didn't have first-hand knowledge of what they were talking about, and some reporters tried to pump every two-bit scandal into a "-gate." Having been lied to by the Nixon White House, journalists became more confrontational, more prosecutorial and more willing to assume that politicians must be lying. And the news business is still paying the price for some of those excesses.

Woodward now says Felt was disappointed at being passed over to head the FBI, and Slate's Tim Noah picks up the point:

"Why did Felt maintain his silence for so long?

"Part of the reason, I imagine, is that Felt knew his prosaic, bureaucratic-infighting motive was at least as strong as any moralistic desire to expose the truth about the crooks in the White House. That tarnishes Deep Throat's luster a little. Also, Felt's previous brush with national publicity involved his criminal conviction for bypassing warrants in his investigation of the Weather Underground. Ronald Reagan pardoned him, but it was a deeply painful experience, and Felt thinks the stress contributed to his wife's early death. It would only be logical that he'd avoid the spotlight after that. Possibly, too, he could imagine that the press would note that Deep Throat shared with Nixon an enthusiasm for illegal break-ins.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2005 The Washington Post Company