Watergate offers lasting example of principled journalism

by Robert Schmuhl

Last week’s revelation of former FBI official W. Mark Felt’s identity as the Watergate anonymous source known by the colorful code name of “Deep Throat” not only solves a three-decade-old mystery but also presents journalists — and citizens — with questions that remain relevant to news media conduct today and tomorrow.

What role should an unnamed source play in coverage affecting a president and a nation at a critical time, and what is the responsibility of a news institution to the public in transmitting information provided by someone who, for whatever reason, refuses to go on the record?

Such concerns take on added meaning in the media environment that currently exists because it is so vastly different from 30 years ago. Now, many more outlets are chasing what they consider news, and competition is more intense. Mainstream sources (newspapers, magazines, broadcast networks) have seen cable news, radio talk programs and Internet blogs grow in importance and create alternative options for information. Greater choice scatters the audience, forcing each medium to look for ways to engage readers, viewers and listeners.

Motivation stands out as a principal factor in assessing whatever an anonymous source might provide. What’s behind the disclosure of any sensitive information? Is the person pursuing an objective on behalf of a greater good? Could personal pique or even revenge exist as the primary rationale?

In Felt’s own case, debate approaches new decibel levels between those who think what he did was justifiably honorable and others who vigorously criticize his leaking of unauthorized governmental material. One’s larger opinions of Richard Nixon and his presidency come into play at this point, leading to polar opposite conclusions as well as the full-throated controversy.

For a younger person unfamiliar with what happened during the Watergate era, it might come as a surprise that early in their journalistic investigation reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were covering an unfolding story for the Washington Post that other news outlets deemed of marginal significance. Unlike today, when an “exclusive” story in one place usually captures far-flung and multimedia attention, the Post was almost alone in piecing together the “dirty tricks” of the 1972 Nixon re-election campaign and other White House misdeeds.

Here the paper’s policies in evaluating and using what Deep Throat and other unnamed sources provided offer a continuing lesson. Sensitive, insider information required confirmation from two separate sources. Felt and others could supply guidance, but verifying what the paper would decide to publish took time and effort. One person meeting a reporter at 3 a.m. in a Washington garage wasn’t dictating an article for the next day’s edition.

Over several months, the Post, in effect, kept the Watergate story alive and in front of governmental and judicial figures who, ultimately, could conduct their own investigations and follow their defined constitutional procedures. To claim that two young reporters “brought down” a president is an exaggeration bordering on myth without historical basis. Of course, they did their valuable work, but others (in the Senate, House of Representatives and on various levels of the judiciary) pursued formal processes that eventually resulted in Nixon’s resignation.

In today’s media world, so absorbed in bottom-line, dollar-sign concerns and daily worries about maintaining audience, one wonders whether editors and producers would provide the resources, time and space for a story that took so long to emerge and develop. Deep Throat was but one character in a long-running and high stakes story that seems light-years away from the quick-hit scoop we tend to see and hear now. In the deadline-driven minds of many journalists, immediacy has become a premier professional virtue.

It’s possible, however, that all the attention being devoted to Felt’s role and what he (and others) did will rekindle interest in serious, investigatory reporting of the kind Woodward and Bernstein performed before they became famous. Such work is far from glamorous and often leads to frustrating dead-ends. But it’s a matter of keeping the broader picture in mind, regardless of the costs and whatever else might be involved.

Since the early 1970s, Watergate has been the journalistic yardstick for measuring stories involving the powerful, and almost every scent of scandal has prompted some in the news media to affix the suffix “-gate” to transgressions, large and small. For instance, when Bill Clinton was president, we kept hearing about “Troopergate,” “Whitewatergate,” even “Monicagate.” More recently, with George W. Bush in the White House, there have been references to “Weaponsgate” and “Iraqgate.”

Solving the mystery of Deep Throat’s identity is an appropriate time to reflect on the reasons — both positive and negative — motivating anonymous sources and why they operate in the shadows with the intent of revealing information to the public at large. It’s also an opportune moment to close forever the suffix “-gate” — and to pursue new thinking in a journalistic mediascape that desperately needs standards and practices all of us can acknowledge serve a civic purpose.

* Robert Schmuhl is professor of American Studies and director of the John W. Gallivan Program in Journalism, Ethics&Democracy at the University of Notre Dame. *

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