Northern Valley Beacon

Information, observations, and analysis from the James River valley on the Northern Plains----- E-Mail: Enter 'Beacon' in subject box. Send to: Minnekota@Referencedesk.org

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

 

The legacy of Deep Throat: A secret well kept

One of the most satisfying and exciting times in my life was when I was the coordinator of investigative reporting projects for a newspaper. I was used to dealing with sources who "leaked" information. After I began teaching full time in 1968, I maintained my relationship with the newspaper I worked for and with a press organization to which investigative reporters of the region belonged. During the time that the Watergate story was breaking, I was working with some colleagues on digging through records and interviewing people on some matters that led to the bankruptcy of a major international corporation that employed more than 10,000 people in the community. The identity of Deep Throat was the subject of much conversation and speculation for us at the time.

The newspapers I and my colleagues worked for had stringent rules about using information from anonymous sources. Any such information had to be verified by two other independent sources. Or an anonymous source who we knew to be reliable and credible could be used to verify information we obtained from other sources. That is how the Washington Post used information supplied by the now-revealed Deep Throat, Mark Felt.

In the aftermath of the Newsweek story about the Koran being flushed down a toilet, readers tend to think that journalistic practice is publishing a piece of information from one source. In the Newsweek incident, that was not the case. The magazine had multiple sources about disrespect displayed toward the Koran as a means of trying to disorient prisoners into revealing information. The problem at Newsweek was one of precision in stating the circumstances about the disrespect shown toward the Koran, not about the factual basis for the report. However, in reducing the story down so that a presumedly ignorant public could understand it and verifiedly ignorant bloggers could have a basis for attacking Newsweek, the press generally treated the issue as believing and publishing information from one source.

As Deep Throat, Mark Felt was largely consulted to check out the accuracy of information that reporters Woodward and Bernstein gathered from other sources. As the assistant director of the FBI, Mark Felt was a dream source for verfications. He knew everything taking place in the Watergate episode, but he did not simply tell the reporters what he knew. He guided them to sources of documented information that they could use in unraveling the Watergate story.

Over the years, the identity of Deep Throat was a recurring subject of conversation for old investigative reporters. Inevitably, a list of possible identities was compiled. Mark Felt was on the list, but among the people I worked with over the years, he was considered a possible source but not a likely one. The reason we did not think him likely was that he seemed too high up in the bureaucratic chain of command to be a leaker or anonymous source. However, the investigative journalists I worked with placed more importance on the fact that Woodward, Bernstein, and Ben Bradley used Deep Throat as part of the journalistic verification process and honored their commitment not to reveal his identity with unflinching commitment. We realized they had utilized a source according to the rules of integrity and that they had determined the credibility of the information he provided. Consequently, journalists were not restless to find out Deep Throat's identity. The information and the ability to trust it were the overriding concerns.

The significance of Deep Throat and the revelation that he is Mark Felt is in a journalistic enterprise that was done right. The best journalists make mistakes on occasion. The run-of-the-mill journalists, as in South Dakota, make them as a matter of course--but seldom go after the real stories that whiz by them day after day. Mark Felt's revelation as Deep Throat gives us a time to ponder what real journalism means to our democracy and culture and to honor those who practice it.

David Newquist

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