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Deep Throat’s legacy
Mark Felt’s final service to his country may have been in reminding us what journalism is supposed to be for

THERE WAS A time — say 20, or even 10 years ago — that the revelation of Deep Throat’s identity would have created a sensation. It’s still big news. Nevertheless, when it was reported by Vanity Fair this past Tuesday that history’s most famous anonymous source was the number-two official in the FBI, it came across more as a historical artifact than as something directly relevant to our time.

And no, it’s not just because so many years have passed since the now-91-year-old Mark Felt passed whispered secrets to a young Washington Post reporter named Bob Woodward. What makes the Deep Throat saga seem so at odds with our own era is that Woodward and his fellow reporter Carl Bernstein saw their calling — journalism — as public service at the highest level.

The Watergate scandal, which they reported so doggedly for months, was, at root, the story of a president and his administration grown corrupt to the core. The reporters, executive editor Ben Bradlee, and publisher Katharine Graham risked everything — indeed, Graham was threatened with the loss of her paper — by pursuing that rottenness, and exposing it for what it was, until that president, Richard Nixon, was forced to resign.

To the extent that we remember Watergate at all, it is for the break-in at the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters (at the Watergate Hotel) by Nixon’s infamous "plumbers." The bumbling crime, and Nixon’s subsequent attempts to cover up his involvement, seem almost humorous on some levels. But that "third-rate burglary," as it was called, was part of a much larger and more pernicious conspiracy, going back to Nixon’s paranoia about the publication of the government’s classified history of the Vietnam War — the "Pentagon Papers" — in the Post, the New York Times, and the Boston Globe. From the secret bombing of Cambodia, to the so-called enemies list, to the use of the Internal Revenue Service to harass political opponents, Nixon’s presidency was a dark moment in our history. Felt served his country as a true patriot by helping to keep the story alive.

The situation today is no less dire. Unfortunately, there are few journalists in George W. Bush’s America who see their craft as a calling the way Woodward, Bernstein, Bradlee, and Graham did. Not long ago, Newsweek was forced to retract a brief news item about the US government’s having concluded that an American interrogator at the Guantánamo prison camp had flushed a Koran down a toilet. It turned out that the item was based on the word of one anonymous source who later backed down. The journalist who wrote that item, Michael Isikoff, enjoys a reputation as a fine investigative reporter, and no doubt he gets it right more often than he gets it wrong. But the difference in standards in comparison with Woodward and Bernstein’s time was striking. And the Bush team, far more media-savvy than Nixon’s, used Newsweek’s error to shield itself from considerable evidence that Muslim detainees — and, yes, Korans — have indeed been abused at Guantánamo.

Media culture has changed in other ways as well. While a few old warriors like Seymour Hersh, now with the New Yorker, continue to shout truth to power, many elite journalists today are more interested in holding forth on television than in doing the tough job of reporting. Woodward himself, though still a model of accurate reporting, is best known these days for acting as a stenographer to the powerful, writing two books about Bush that the White House itself used as campaign literature. We are caught in an endless, unnecessary war in Iraq that has cost more than 1500 young Americans their lives, as well as hundreds of billions of dollars spent on the backs of the poor and hungry in our own country. We have assembled an invisible archipelago of detention facilities worthy of Solzhenitsyn’s pen. And yet, in the eyes of many, "real journalism, fair and balanced" consists of Fox News’s Sean Hannity questioning the patriotism of anyone who dares ask about these matters.

The media were not perfect during the Watergate era (one of the things that made Woodward and Bernstein’s crusade so remarkable was that it was so solitary), and they are not perfectly dreadful today. This week, for instance, the New York Times published an important front-page report on a small airline company that is apparently a CIA front; the airline is used to transport terrorism suspects to countries such as Egypt, where they can be tortured with impunity. Still, there’s no question that journalism’s center of gravity has swung from public service to celebrity, ideological mud-slinging, and talk, talk, talk, all of it in the service of ever-higher profits for the corporate conglomerates that now own most of the media.

You could catch a glimpse of what it used to be like in the Washington Post’s reaction to the Vanity Fair story. Felt had long been a leading candidate in the Deep Throat sweepstakes, but Woodward, Bernstein, and Bradlee waited several hours on Tuesday before confirming Felt’s identity, wanting to make sure the revelation was in accordance with the elderly man’s wishes. It was a rare example of honorable conduct by honorable journalists, and a quiet rebuke to the talk-show culture that permeates today’s public discourse.

Mark Felt did this country a crucial service more than three decades ago. Though he was just one of dozens of sources used by Woodward and Bernstein, he was a singularly important one, confirming information the young reporters had dug up elsewhere and helping to steer them in the right direction. On Tuesday night, David Gergen, who should know better, and Chuck Colson, who’ll never get it, took to the airwaves to denounce Felt for betraying his public trust. Quite the opposite: democracy depends on the willingness of courageous whistleblowers like Felt who are willing to risk their careers and their reputations, not on timid bureaucrats like Gergen — and certainly not on corrupt public officials like Colson, who went to prison for his role in Watergate.

Yes, Felt had his flaws. He was angry over not having been promoted to FBI director following the death of J. Edgar Hoover, which gave him a personal motive to help Woodward. And he might have gone to prison for his role in the FBI’s dirty war against the left had Ronald Reagan not pardoned him. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that he did the right thing at the right time.

Today we desperately need a Deep Throat II — and a news media willing to listen to that person. In revealing his role in bringing down a president, perhaps Felt will do a final service: reminding Americans what journalism is for. And what the consequences are when journalists fail to do their jobs.

What do you think? Send an e-mail to letters@phx.com

Issue Date: June 3 - 9, 2005
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