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.

"But the main reason, I think, was that Felt saw his leaks as a betrayal of the FBI. Six years ago, I asked Felt (who at that point was still denying he was Deep Throat) whether, if he were Deep Throat, that would be so terrible. His reply:

" 'It would be terrible. This would completely undermine the reputation that you might have as a loyal, logical employee of the FBI. It just wouldn't fit at all.'

"But wasn't Deep Throat a hero?

"'That's not my view at all. It would be contrary to my responsibility as a loyal employee of the FBI to leak information.' "

Power Line quotes a 1974 piece by Edward Jay Epstein:

"The conclusion of Epstein's essay is of continuing relevance to the mythical role imputed to the press in uncovering Watergate. The journalistic sense of self-importance that flowed from the myth has become a dynamo of destruction. Epstein wrote in his 1974 essay:

" 'Perhaps the most perplexing mystery in Bernstein and Woodward's book is why they fail to understand the role of the institutions and investigators who were supplying them and other reporters with leaks. This blind spot, endemic to journalists, proceeds from an unwillingness to see the complexity of bureaucratic in-fighting and of politics within the government itself. If the government is considered monolithic, journalists can report its activities, in simply comprehended and coherent terms, as an adversary out of touch with popular sentiments. On the other hand, if governmental activity is viewed as the product of diverse and competing agencies, all with different bases of power and interests, journalism becomes a much more difficult affair.' "

Keep in mind, though, that Epstein said Throat was a fictional character. And The Post and Throat didn't bring down Nixon; the judicial process did. But they kept the story alive for months when other news organizations weren't investigating and were just quoting Ron Ziegler's third-rate-burglary denials from the White House podium.

RightWing NutHouse questions Felt's motivation:

"Felt wouldn't be the first Washington bureaucrat to dish some dirt as the result of being passed over for promotion. Information is power. And Felt's talking out of school eventually made L. Patrick Gray's position untenable to the point where the Acting FBI Director declined to be in the running as a permanent replacement for Hoover.

"Now I'm sure that Felt sees in his own mind a nobility of purpose and purity of motive that blinds him to the more unsavory aspect of his deed. There's a reason FBI reports aren't made public; they alert the target of the investigation to the interest of the Bureau. And in Felt's case, he guided Wood/Stein in such a way as to throw suspicion on people who could have been squeezed by the Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox before their names were associated with the crime.

"Would this have made a difference in the final analysis? Probably not. But it certainly made the job of Cox and his successor, Leon Jaworski that much harder."

G. Gordon Liddy has been on TV blasting Felt for betraying the Nixon administration, and Editor & Publisher picks up comments by ex-Nixon speechwriter Pat Buchanan along the same lines:

"I always believed it was Felt, but kept that private because what he did was so dishonorable I didn't want to tie him to that if it was not true. If it was honorable, why did he keep it hidden so long? I think the man is ashamed of it."

Jon Friedman at MarketWatch.com focuses on how the news became public:

"The two most celebrated investigative reporters since Gutenberg just got scooped on their own source! And their journalistic mystique, as the keepers of the 'Most Famous Secret' of modern times, has been dramatically devalued. Imagine the shock of the dynamic duo."

Media Bistro links to a CNN interview with ex-LAT Washington bureau chief Jack Nelson, who quotes former Post editor Barry Sussman on Throat's importance or lack thereof:

"He said, 'That's the power of the myth. Over the years, an anonymous, bit player, a minor contributor, has become a giant.' And he said, 'The fact is that, whoever this was, whether it was Mark Felt or whoever it was,' he said just did not have that much of importance in covering the -- in uncovering the whole Watergate scandal."

Now, so you ask, how did this myth get perpetuated?

KYRA PHILLIPS: "Well, probably the movie 'All the President's Men,' right?"

NELSON: "That's what kept it going. 'All the President's Men.' That's exactly right. Until that -- until that movie, you didn't hear anything about a Deep Throat. And I think it was a dramatic device, and I think it played right into the whole thing of this big myth."

Well, it wasn't entirely a myth, since it was also in the best-selling Woodstein book about Watergate.

But even that book had Throat guiding and confirming information for Woodward, not providing hard facts.

Those came from knocking on other people's doors.

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