Thoughts about Deep Throat (not the movie)

I was working for WTMJ-TV in Milwaukee when the whole Watergate business went down. The relentless, daily hammering of the Nixon White House by The Washington Post — and everybody else — birthed the eras of gotcha and pack journalism. If you were around back then, you’ll understand when I say it got old. Over and over and over again, little details dominated the press, and frankly, pushed everything else aside. We’re used to that these days, but back then, it was new.

The coverup was the story — a coverup that was a reaction to the press, and because of that, the press — The Washington Post — became a part of the story. Oh, the glory!

I believe the seeds of contemporary discontent for the press were born in this story. Woodward and Bernstein became celebrities — a place to which everybody now aspires. And nowhere is that more evident than in watching the current pack run all over the story of Mark Felt’s surprise announcement that he was the famed “hero” of the story, the one and only “Deep Throat.”

I watched Woodward and Bernstein on Larry King last night, and the interview was very revealing, if you can step away from the forest for a bit. Here’s the entire transcript.

They went out of their way to frame Felt’s role in such a way that their heroic reporting didn’t get set aside. I found this entertaining, to say the least.

BERNSTEIN: Bob and I were trying to figure out this morning how many conversations and meetings there were with him over the course of two years. And it’s fewer than a dozen, I think. So it’s very important to understand that he provided us at some very crucial moments with context and certitude, with things we had obtained elsewhere for the most part, but we knew we were right. It made Ben Bradlee and the editors of “The Washington Post” more confident in what we were being told, and enabled us to know we were going in the right direction. And he kept saying, you’re going in the right direction.
They got scooped by Vanity Fair in the story of Mark Felt, and they’re trying hard to get their creds back. Here’s the portion of the transcript that reveals most.
KING: Bob Woodward, did Mr. Felt like the book? Did he like the movie?

WOODWARD: I’ll tell you, that — that’s part of the story that we’re going to tell later on in all of this. We’re trying to put something together, and get it out as quickly — I mean, what is so important, particularly at this time, is we explain to people exactly how the relationship developed, how the information was used, what was the nature of the relationship with Mark Felt in the 30 years since Nixon resigned, that is a long period of time, and there were lots of reactions, and we decided to lay those out in detail.

And they are good questions. I just — I want to make sure that we put it all together. We’re in a period when people have lots of suspicion and distrust about journalism. This can be an opportunity to explain exactly, precisely what happened at each turn in the road.

KING: And you’ll come back on when it comes out, which is when, Carl?

BERNSTEIN: As soon as it can get out, and we can…

KING: July? August?

BERNSTEIN: You know, this story is two days old now.

KING: But how much of it is written already?

BERNSTEIN: Bob has written a good bit of it.

KING: Will the book be by both of you?

BERNSTEIN: It will probably be by both of us in some way. We’re trying to figure out exactly how to do it.

KING: Is this set to go? I mean, like — how soon?

BERNSTEIN: Parts of it are. I think within the next few months certainly, and as fast as possible. And at the same time, trying to understand…

WOODWARD: Sooner than that.

KING: Sooner than that.

BERNSTEIN: He’s always quicker than I am.

KING: Have you got a — therefore, you have a publisher? You have a deal already?

WOODWARD: Well, we can — we can get a deal, that’s for sure. And it — but it — it — you know, and our concern is that — and Carl makes this point, and it’s a critical one, that the business of this kind of journalism, trying to get to the bottom of something complicated, hidden, scandalous, or important decisions by people who have lots of power, involves lots of sources. Not one source, not 10, but dozens or even hundreds.

This may shock some of my readers, but I don’t view the whole Watergate affair as a triumph for journalism. Don’t get me wrong; the reporting was outstanding. Woodward and Bernstein deserve the respect of us all. But the PRESENTATION of the whole thing was clearly to sell not only The Washington Post but also these two reporters.

Books, movies and fame; it’s what the business is these days. These two guys built a life on Watergate, and Felt’s disclosure with Vanity Fair moved the story away from them and dropped it in everybody else’s lap. That means the carefully-framed history of the whole thing is up for grabs, and the deconstruction of the Watergate legend has begun.

As this unfolds, I keep asking myself if this story could have taken place in today’s world. The answer, I think, is no, because it’s no longer possible for the motive(s) of sources to be kept out of the story. I think that’s a good thing, and only Mark Felt truly knows his motive for his role as Deep Throat. We can speculate, and so can Woodward and Bernstein. They, however, profit from the belief that his motive was heroic.

And that’s a problem for me.

Comments

  1. S-townMike says

    Why are market incentives seen by the right as perfectly fine for big corporations like Halliburton or Exxon, but as a problem for the MSM?

  2. Firstly, I don’t represent the right, and I’m unclear as to why you keep making that judgment in comments? I’d be curious as to how you arrive at that conclusion.

    Secondly, to answer your question, one can’t be objective — or even fair, I’d add — if market incentives are a motivation for journalism, and I view this as an element of the hypocrisy that is “professional” journalism. If the press — including reporters — were to declare they were motivated by profit, then I think it changes the dynamic between publisher and reader. To claim to be driven by pursuit of truth when, in fact, one is driven by profit, the product is bullshit and nothing else.

  3. I don’t know if this is what you were getting at, but one of the things that amused me when the story came out is the large number of journalists who seemed offended on Woodward and Bernstein’s behalf that the Felt family had come forward without letting them know first.

    I suspect many were annoyed bbecause they’d like to believe that if they ever came across a story that big they’d want to be sure to make all the profits they could, and if the source outs himself before then– without their coöperation– that makes the chance for a good book deal exceedingly unlikely.

  4. It’s not just the money. ‘Fortune and Fame’ is a two part story. Woodward and Bernstein’s legend is as much a part of it as anything. The quintessential Boomer-era muckraking story was supposed to end with a shout, not a fizzle. The story didn’t end the way it was supposed to, and that’s got to rankle with these two storytellers as much as any royalties that they missed out on.

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