Friday, February 15, 2013

An inconvenient book (Part two)

Part one: Felt’s game

The problem with sources

Deep Throat is the most famous anonymous source in history. He gets trotted out to justify the passage of reporter shield laws. His name is invoked every time a favored reporter is criticized for using unnamed sources to make unverifiable charges.

“Deep Throat helped Bob Woodward break the Watergate cover-up. Unnamed sources help investigative reporters do the Lord’s work. So shut up!”

Now that we know Deep Throat was the FBI’s Mark Felt, we can make a searching examination of the actions and motives of this renowned source.

Such an examination shreds the conventional narrative and journalistic myth-making. As Max Holland notes, the dance of reporter and source is “a complex, adversarial but ofter symbiotic relationship.” The specific case of Deep Throat/Felt/Woodward is less a story of Fourth Estate virtue and is much more a “cautionary tale” for both reporters and readers.

The tale Holland tells is nothing like the movie version. Mark Felt is not an anguished truth-teller who relies on the press to save the Constitution from Nixon’s designs. Leak gives us a picture of a skilled bureaucratic manipulator who used a young reporter for his private purposes. Felt’s purposes had almost nothing to do with defending the Constitution. He was chiefly concerned with getting rid of L. Patrick Gray and getting himself into John Edgar Hoover’s old chair.

On one level, Woodward and the Post were dealing with problems faced by all reporters. As Scott Shane of the New York Times described his work: "I'm a journalist whose job it is to explain to others things he doesn't understand himself." Edward Jay Epstein put it this way in his 1975 book Between Fact and Fiction:

The problem of journalism in America proceeds from a simple but inescapable bind: journalists are rarely, if ever, in a position to establish the truth about an issue for themselves, and they are, therefore, almost entirely dependent on self-interested 'sources' for versions of reality that they report.

Indeed, given the voluntary nature of the relationship between a reporter and his source, a continued flow of information can only be assured if the journalist's stories promise to serve the interests of the witness.
Holland shows that Felt was not just a “self-interested source”; he was a dishonest one. His leaks were carefully calibrated to keep the heat on Gray. For instance, Deep Throat did not tell Woodward about the White House’s attempt to use CIA to stymie the FBI investigation. Nor did he reveal that Alfred Baldwin was cooperating with the Bureau and could tie the burglars to E. Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy. These were bombshells because they tied the White House to both the break-in and the cover-up.

Neither revelation served Felt aims so he let them remain secret. This fact alone is almost conclusive proof that Deep Throat’s agenda was not the Truth and that he saw Bob Woodward as something other than an ally in a crusade for Justice.

In an ideal world, Leak would be a required text at every school of journalism. The keepers of journalistic standards should convene panels of wise men to ponder its revelations and draw some useful lessons for reporters and editors. Back in the real world, however, the profession seems intent on ignoring this book.

Perhaps that should be no surprise. Woodstein’s Watergate reporting remains a foundational myth for the profession of journalism. Holland's research has revealed that much of the standard narrative is half-true at best and fraudulent at worst. Faced with that, the deciders have decided to avert their eyes and stick with the legend.

CSPAN has video of several talks Holland gave on this book, Mark Felt, and Watergate history. See here.

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