Baseball Crank
Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
January 8, 2009
POLITICS/HISTORY: Deep Throat's Puppets

I had meant to link to this earlier - Stratfor had a tremendous writeup, on the occasion of the death of Mark "Deep Throat" Felt, on the real meaning of the revelation that Felt was Woodward & Bernstein's source. Basically, it's a reminder that anonymous sourcing is just another way for the media to be beholden to powerful figures, usually in the government, who are often acting in unsavory ways even when they tell the truth (and when a news report is anonymously sourced, there's no way to have any conifdence that it is true). Stratfor focuses on the fact that Woodward and Bernstein were basically naive pawns in Felt's continuation of J. Edgar Hoover's power game - particpants in, not opponents of, the dirty tricks of the era. Here's the key takeaway:

The only way Felt could have the knowledge he did was if the FBI had been systematically spying on the White House, on the Committee to Re-elect the President and on all of the other elements involved in Watergate. Felt was not simply feeding information to Woodward and Bernstein; he was using the intelligence product emanating from a section of the FBI to shape The Washington Post's coverage.


...The FBI was carrying out espionage against the president of the United States, not for any later prosecution of Nixon for a specific crime (the spying had to have been going on well before the break-in), but to increase the FBI's control over Nixon. Woodward, Bernstein and above all, Bradlee, knew what was going on. Woodward and Bernstein might have been young and naive, but Bradlee was an old Washington hand who knew exactly who Felt was, knew the FBI playbook and understood that Felt could not have played the role he did without a focused FBI operation against the president. Bradlee knew perfectly well that Woodward and Bernstein were not breaking the story, but were having it spoon-fed to them by a master. He knew that the president of the United States, guilty or not, was being destroyed by Hoover's jilted heir.

This was enormously important news. The Washington Post decided not to report it. The story of Deep Throat was well-known, but what lurked behind the identity of Deep Throat was not. This was not a lone whistle-blower being protected by a courageous news organization; rather, it was a news organization being used by the FBI against the president, and a news organization that knew perfectly well that it was being used against the president. Protecting Deep Throat concealed not only an individual, but also the story of the FBI’s role in destroying Nixon.

Of course, there are powerful parallels to our own day, including both the media's role in giving a platform to Joe Wilson while concealing his ties to sources within the CIA, and the media's subsequent role in blowing the whistle on those ties while concealing the source of their information, to say nothing of the many other purported anonymous sources (we have no way of knowing if they exist, if they're all the same guy, etc.) used to attack the Bush Administration's national security policies. Heck, the left blogosphere adopted as its motto the ironic (or maybe not so ironic) phrase "reality-based community," derived from an anonymous quotation that may or may not have been said by a still-unnamed person; the use of the motto is itself a declaration of willingness to believe without proof, to accept sympathetic storylines that can't be verified. They may find that adopting a posture of believing anything attributed to an anonymous source can be a 2-edged sword, the way they learned in the 1990s that a doctrine of considering the accuser in a sexual harrassment case to be coated in an irrebuttable presumption of truthfulness to be a 2-edged sword.

The WaPo's story wasn't about 'speaking truth to power,' but speaking power to power, and taking sides in a turf war:

The Felt experience is part of an ongoing story in which journalists' guarantees of anonymity to sources allow leakers to control the news process. Protecting Deep Throat's identity kept us from understanding the full dynamic of Watergate. We did not know that Deep Throat was running the FBI, we did not know the FBI was conducting surveillance on the White House, and we did not know that the Watergate scandal emerged not by dint of enterprising journalism, but because Felt had selected Woodward and Bernstein as his vehicle to bring Nixon down. And we did not know that the editor of The Washington Post allowed this to happen. We had a profoundly defective picture of the situation, as defective as the idea that Bob Woodward looks like Robert Redford.
Posted by Baseball Crank at 11:07 AM | History • | Politics 2009 | Comments (14) | TrackBack (0)

Here, here, Crank.
Hopefully, your post will lead all to see how the media was complicit in getting the US to attack and occupy Iraq.

Posted by: Berto at January 8, 2009 11:49 AM

Do you think the media should reveal all their sources, or are you just pointing out some of the negative consequences of anonymous sources?

Posted by: MVH at January 8, 2009 12:25 PM

The point here is that sometimes the media is used (knowingly) by government officals to advance an agenda. This is not a good thing. It should not be the media's role to take sides during political infighting rather they should expose political infighting.

Particularly in the Watergate affair (for those old enough to have lived thru it rather than just reading about it) now understanding that the leaker was using the WP as a tool (with their knowledge) for a political end (getting blackmail power over a President) is quite a revalation. It makes us look back on the events with a whole new perspective. It does not make Nixon better, rather give us a better understanding of the landscape.

Posted by: Lee at January 8, 2009 12:56 PM

How would the media have done that without revealing (or making transparent) their confidential source? Maybe the WP would write an article which would roughly say: "a source from the FBI reveals that Nixon knew about the watergate break-in, which in turn means that the FBI is spying on Nixon."

I guess the fear is that confidential sources wouldn't risk being exposed and wouldn't report the initial illegality. In that case, we wouldn't know about either problem. Is that really better?

Posted by: MVH at January 8, 2009 2:37 PM

I think it just goes to underline that the public's so-called right-to-know - a virtual mantra of the for-profit press - is instead just a boardroom-made business decision. Surely the public had a right to know that the #2 guy at the FBI was sharing classified data with a couple of young reporters. WaPo, for their own purposes, disagreed but if any any other paper had then learned of it, we would have known about it long ago. Watergate was a great story but Mark Felt is deserving of no accolades for his role in it nor should protecting such sources be afforded any constitutional protections the rest of us don't enjoy.

Posted by: Maryland Conservatarian at January 8, 2009 2:56 PM

While I don't agree with your exact wording, I'd says YES. If the WP had told the public what they really knew, we would have better understood what was going on.

Yes it would inhibit confidential sources BUT in this case the WP helped the confidential source manipulate the situation. Their role in doing that was wrong.

Also they failed to investigate/report that the FBI was spying on Nixon! Why did they not do that? That story is a big as Watergate! Imagine if the WP had pursued both Watergate and the FBI spying at the same time! Was it because Watergate allowed them to attack Nixon (who they hated) and if they pursued the FBI story then Nixon might be let off the hook?

Back at the time, Nixon Derangement Syndrome makes the BDS look like a mild case of the flu. The media's hatred of Nixon was way beyond anything that has been seen since then.

Posted by: Lee at January 8, 2009 3:00 PM

"in this case the WP helped the confidential source manipulate the situation."

How? By simply publishing the information?

The press only has an obligation to make sure the information is credible enough to be publishable, not to consider whether they are being "manipulated." They had evidence of a crime by a sitting president. They can't not publish that if they deem it credible. Moreover, if they reveal the confidential source in any way, then the public -never- gets that kind of story again. It's not worth the one-off benefit of knowing the "whole story" this time.

I don't pretend to be an expert on Watergate, so I'll ask another question: did anyone from the Nixon administration come forward at the time and call out the FBI? In that circumstance, the press would be able to publish and investigate it.

I hate to defend the press here because I generally loathe the press, but from what you are telling me, in this case, I can see why they did what they did.

Posted by: MVH at January 8, 2009 3:25 PM

Who cares what Felt's motives were? Everyone has a motive for revealing information and only rarely is it benign. The more important, larger truth is that Nixon was engaging in "high crimes and misdemeanors" and Felt helped the Post uncover the facts and get Nixon out of office.

Posted by: Magrooder at January 8, 2009 5:11 PM

The bottom line is that Felt helped bring down a corrupt president, which wouldn't have been possible without the guarantees of anonymity.

Posted by: seth soothsayer at January 8, 2009 9:14 PM

I'd ask those on the left who are missing the point to look at it a different way. Ignore Nixon and whatever feelings you have towards Nixon. Instead imagine that a year from now Bob Mueller is out as Director of the FBI and several senior FBI guys are unhappy with not being the choice to replace him and one of the unhappy folks decides to independently spy on the Obama administration. Do you think the WP would be more interested in spying or what the spy leaks?

I know some on here have little historical perspective, but it is important to remember that while we act outraged by the actions of Nixon and his administration, very little of it was out of line with some previous administrations. What was truly different was, under Hoover, administrations were able to brush crap under the rug by buying Hoover's silence. Both Kennedy and Johnson wanted to fire Hoover but couldn't because he knew their warts. Not defending Nixon just saying he seems worse than he was because of several factors (extremely hostile press, FBI problem, & Vietnam) that didn't exist to the same degree as for some other presidents.

Posted by: largebill at January 9, 2009 10:14 AM

Bunch of Nixon apologists and revisionist historians on here.

Posted by: seth soothsayer at January 9, 2009 12:42 PM

"Bunch of Nixon apologists and revisionist historians on here."

No, not really. None of them are claiming what Nixon did was right. They are just oversensitive to the whole media bias issue.

Posted by: MVH at January 9, 2009 1:54 PM

I didnt see them blogging about the supposed dangers of anonymous sourcing when the Bush Administration was feeding the media WMD and 9/11 connection lies in the Iraq war lead up.

Posted by: seth soothsayer at January 9, 2009 1:58 PM

You'll notice since the Judith "Ms Run Amok" Miller affair many papers (most notably the NYT) require reporters to explain everytime an anonymous source is used why that person chooses to remain anonymous.

And speaking of Ms. Run Amok -- has any reporter ever received less sympathy for spending time in the can to protect her sources? Across the board I remember columnists and reporters describing how cowardly her position was, and how comfortable her jail cell was.

And finally, as many of the posters and Crank point out, Mark Felt was probably the dirtiest trickster of all. An old throwback the Hoover regime trying to protect the old guard in the face of encroachment from the Nixon Administration.

Posted by: Patrick at January 11, 2009 2:28 PM
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