As everyone knows by now, W. Mark Felt was Deep Throat, history’s most famous anonymous source. Given that Watergate forms such a large part of the foundation upon which our esteemed press corps has built its self-image in the ensuing decades, it’s worth asking just how sturdy that foundation remains.
Deep Throat, in the classic telling, is in a position to know of profound corruption that shocks his conscience. If he speaks up, he will face terrible retaliation from the nefarious forces above him. But he cannot remain silent, and his heroism is matched only by the investigative reporters who follow up on the leads he gives them, get the story out, and take down a cartoon-villain of a President, all while protecting their source’s identity. In this version, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, and by extension the generation of journalists influenced by them, are fighting the good fight for the people’s right to know against powerful forces determined to keep terrible secrets. That is why, goes the narrative, the cover-up is worse than the crime.
(This narrative assumes that the motives of the truth-seeker are untainted by ideology or partisanship, which partially explains the apparent hypocrisy of those who revered Woodward and Bernstein but were horrified when The American Spectator or Lucianne Goldberg helped expose scandals during the Clinton years. That doesn’t quite smooth out the inconsistencies between the zeitgeists of ’70s and the ’90s, though; Clinton’s cover-up, after all, ultimately was his crime, namely perjury and obstruction of justice; the non sequitur defense that adultery isn’t a crime remains a bit baffling.)
Now that Mark Felt has been officially outed, we have a different narrative. Felt was a Hoover-era FBI man; he was convicted of ordering illegal break-ins during the investigations of the odious Weather Underground terrorists (Ronald Reagan pardoned him in 1981). That the Watergate break-in would scandalize him is laughable. In fact, he was motivated by petty bureaucratic jealousy: He was mad at Nixon for passing him over as FBI director. His leaks were probably illegal at the time; he demanded anonymity not merely because he feared the wrath of the Nixonites, but because, according to the Vanity Fair article where he went public, he worried about “what the judge would think.”
Along with Felt, who’s lied to the press repeatedly, Woodward and Bernstein have perpetrated a massive cover-up over Deep Throat in these past decades. George Neumayr has caught Bernstein lying to the Hartford Courant; Timothy Noah has noted Woodward apparently lied about Deep Throat in a 1979 Playboy interview. There seems to be deliberate misdirection in their reporting, too; Deep Throat is described in All The President’s Men as a heavy smoker, which Felt hasn’t been since the 1940s.
Perhaps this duplicity is understandable. But reporters wouldn’t cut much slack to a corporation that behaved like this; why do they alone get an exemption from the cover-ups-worse-than-crimes rule? To put it another way, if the public doesn’t have a right to know certain things that journalists keep private, shouldn’t reporters be at least a little more circumspect than they are about when the public does have that right? Would the infamous Newsweek Koran-flushing story, to take one example, have ever seen print if they were?
Such circumspection is pretty tough if one’s judgment is colored by belief in the classic Deep Throat hero-myth. Here’s to burying it.