Thursday, June 2, 2005

Felt Good

The Miami Herald lauds Mark “Deep Throat” Felt and says his example is a lesson for us all.

W. Mark Felt’s timing couldn’t have been better. His revelation that he was The Washington Post’s “Deep Throat” during the Watergate scandal comes at a time when the role of media secret sources is under public scrutiny and outright attack by the U.S. Justice Department.

Mr. Felt’s story — and that of the two reporters to whom he leaked information about the White House crimes and its coverup after the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate Hotel — is a good lesson in why secret sources and the media’s correct use of them matter in a democracy.


What makes this journalistic episode stellar is that Messrs. Bernstein and Woodward, along with the their editors, never took Deep Throat’s word alone. The reporters meticulously tracked down leads, dug through paper trails and sought confirmation from other sources before going to print. They took nothing for granted, and their reporting stood up under intense criticism from the administration.

Theirs is the gold standard on handling sources. Their scrupulousness contrasts sharply with the sloppiness behind recent secret-source gaffes. Unfortunately, governments — even democratically elected ones — are secretive by nature. Good journalists recognize that covering governments thoroughly can involve off-the-record information. People want to blow the whistle yet protect their careers. Retaliation against many whistle-blowers justifies the need — on rare occasion — for a journalist to protect a source’s identity. Without it, vital information about public business might not come out.

This is why it’s deeply troubling that the Justice Department’s investigation of the leak of the identity of a CIA section chief looks more like a witch-hunt than a legitimate probe. The operative’s name was published by columnist Robert Novak. Yet two other reporters who got the same tip but didn’t publish it, not Mr. Novak, face jail for refusing to name the source. It isn’t clear that the feds have even questioned Mr. Novak. One can only wonder what would have happened to the Watergate investigation if the Justice Department had used such harassment tactics to intimidate The Post reporters into exposing Mr. Felt and scaring them off the story.

By the way, did you notice that the people who are the sharpest critics of Mr. Felt — G. Gordon Liddy and Chuck Colson — are the ones who actually spent time in the joint for their crimes? Either they’re mad at him because they were dumb enough to get caught and are too ashamed to admit it, or their priorities are really criminal in nature and they have some aversion to honest and daring patriotism. It’s a sentiment shared by too many people inside the current administration, and it’s generating the fear and silence that Liddy and Colson could only dream of.