Saturday, June 04, 2005

Deep Throat Revealed

That's the title of the series The Washington Post has had about W. Mark Felt, the former number 2 man at the FBI who revealed this week that he was the infamous Watergate source, Deep Throat (in case you hadn't heard).

The Watergate story did a lot of good things for journalism. It also did a few bad things.

The good: It made people recognize the power of journalism and its ability to hold government and its officials accountable, thus providing one of the most striking examples of what the Founding Fathers had in mind when they exclusively protected the press in the Bill of Rights. It also got people interested in journalism as a profession, flooding journalism schools and newsrooms with eager young journalists.

The bad: Many journalists are now searching for their Watergate, thus leading to sloppy and misguided reporting and writing and a disservice to the public in not always covering the stories they should to the proper extent they should. Additionally, it left the door wide open to the abuse of using anonymous sources. The problem with anonymous sources is twofold: First, readers on the whole distrust anonymous sources. Second, it can protect certain people while damning others. It's important for nonjournalism folks to understand that many anonymous government sources now are not Deep Throat-like people, but those tapped by the administration (and this is all administrations, not just the Bush administration) to leak news to the press. The problem with this is that it allows the press to become a tool (in a sense) of the government. If anonymous sources are providing information more clandestinely (in a Deep Throat-like way), that raises serious concerns about just who the press is holding accountable (like the Newsweek Koran fiasco).

Watergate was American journalism's finest hour. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein (who attended the University of Maryland, BTW, and who worked for our great student newspaper, The Diamondback) spent a couple of years doing basic, on-the-ground reporting before the story ended as it did in President Nixon's resignation. But it's important that American journalism continue to reflect on this episode and be sure to throw out the bad before accepting the good from it.