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June 6, 2005
Kurtz: Did Watergate Spoil Journalism?

Howard Kurtz has an excellent, introspective look at the lessons the Exempt Media should learn from the exposure of Mark Felt as Deep Throat in his column for today's Washington Post. Rather than lionize Felt and wax reminiscent about journalism's biggest gotcha, Kurtz looks at the damage that the glorification of anonymous sourcing has done to his craft:

Newspapermen became cinematic heroes, determined diggers who advanced the cause of truth by meeting shadowy sources in parking garages, and journalism schools were flooded with aspiring sleuths and crusaders.

But the media's reputation since then has sunk like a stone, and one reason is that some in the next generation of reporters pumped up many modest flaps into scandals ending in "gate," sometimes using anonymous sources who turned out to be less than reliable. Journalism became a more confrontational, even prosecutorial business, with some of its practitioners automatically assuming that politicians in the post-Nixon era must be lying, dissembling or covering up.

The disclosure last week that Deep Throat, Bob Woodward's secret Watergate source, was former FBI official Mark Felt provided a needed reminder that sometimes reporters have no other way to ferret out vital information than by promising anonymity. In the war-against-its-enemies atmosphere of the Nixon administration, Felt not only would have lost his job had he gone public about White House skulduggery -- he was threatened with firing just as a suspected leaker -- but might well have been prosecuted for breaking the law.

The revelation also serves as a reminder that sources may have complicated motives for whispering to the press. Felt may have worried about the FBI's integrity but he also may have been resentful, as the bureau's No. 2 official, at being passed over for the top job, and according to Woodward he came to detest the Nixon White House. Inside sources rarely have clean hands.

Three decades later, the use and abuse of unnamed sources is rampant, especially in Washington, and the media all too often protect those with partisan agendas. It's a long road from Felt telling Woodward to "follow the money" to a Bush adviser telling the New York Times that John Kerry "looks French." But such potshots have become routine in daily reporting.

Too much of the reporting and commentary that has surrounded the Felt disclosure has served as an effort to paint Felt as a hero or traitor to the nation. Kurtz gets much closer to the truth in this short treatment by acknowledging Felt's usefulness while noting his selfish reasons for providing it. His contribution to the story has been overblown, first by Hollywood and then by a generation of journalists captivated by the cloak-and-dagger sensationalism of the contact.

While anonynous sourcing may have played a key role in Watergate, it has proven disastrous in the decades since, and Kurtz shows that side with references to Jayson Blair, Janet Cook, and other journalistic scandals. The blame for this does not lie with reporters alone. Editors make the decisions on whether to publish stories, and part of that responsibility is to ensure that articles are properly sourced, whether they are named in the story itself. If reporters can be accused of having fantasies of becoming Woodward and Bernstein, then editors certainly also have Bradlee complexes as well.

Interestingly, no one in the Exempt Media is discussing the case of Todd Foster, the man who claims to have had the Felt scoop three years ago, but walked away from it. The famly had evidence that supported their contention that Felt was Deep Throat, but wanted payment for Foster's story to appear in People Magazine. Neither Foster nor People would pay for the story, but Foster decided that a book deal would be ethical and signed on with HarperCollins and agreed to split the proceeds with the family. However, as Foster reported in the News-Viriginian, once he and his collaborator started interviewing Felt himself, they realized that he no longer had the mental capacity to make the decision to reveal himself -- and they dropped the entire project, including the millions of dollars they would have made from it.

That story sounds like one that the media should pursue if it wants to restore its reputation as principled and objective. Unfortunately, the press is so busy lionizing Felt that they have no room now to report that he's suffering from dementia and can't remember what year it is or even if he really is Deep Throat on a consistent basis. That self-indulgence paints a much more accurate and accusing portrait of journalism in the 21st century, to their great shame.

UPDATE: Perhaps even better is Jay Rosen's evaluation of the press and Watergate in today's Pressthink. Jay, who always has an excellent analysis even if I sometimes disagree with his conclusions, hits the nail on the head today when he talks about the religion of journalism:

Watergate, a sustaining myth, sustains an entire press system, including its thought system. (We might also say national hierarchy. Or priesthood.) "It was more consensual," Schudson says of the scandal. What Nixon and his henchman did wrong is wrong by consensus-- or even acclamation. It's like mom and apple pie in reverse. Therefore what the Washington Post did right during Watergate is right by consensus, or even acclamation. And who doesn't want to be right like that? Who wouldn't want to sustain it?

The myth of Watergate presents the press as a powerful force but also an innocent actor because its only weapon is uncovering truth. One of the reasons I kept running into Watergate in my research is this spectacular production of innocence, which is supposed to serve as a force field against charges of agenda-serving. Of course it doesn't.

Watergate has been treated by journalists as a consensus narrative, with an agreed-upon lesson for all Americans. The Fourth Estate model not only works, it can save us. The press shall know the truth and the truth shall check the powers that be, whether Democrat or Republican. Chasing stories, exposing corruption, giving voice to the downtrodden: that's what we in journalism do, the myth says. We do it for the American people. And they understand because they know from legend--from the movies--how it was when the country was in the dark about Nixon and Watergate.

When I spoke to the Townhall meeting the other day about the New Media, I spoke about this belief system, although not as elegantly as Jay Rosen does here. And a belief system is what it is. When the high priests/priestesses proclaim Truth, the minions are expected to receive it as Wisdom, not fact-check it to death. That explains a lot about Mary Mapes, Dan Rather, Eason Jordan, Chris Cramer, Linda Foley, and to a lesser extent Michael Isikoff. It also shows why turning Watergate into a myth has crippled the American media and made good journalistic practice so hard to find.

After all, what would you rather be: a good gumshoe reporter, or a High Priest?

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at June 6, 2005 7:39 AM

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