On the one side are snarling German shepherd Nixonians like Pat Buchanan and Mary Matalin, who throw the term traitor around in prototypical vainglorious Beltway leech style, betraying an utter lack of self-knowledge about the braying insanity flowing frothily from their lips. They don't know how stupid they sound. (Possibly worse is Henry Kissinger, voice ever deeper, slouching ever further into ancient age, still defending the Boss against charges of anti-Semitism; yeah, the tapes lied).
Almost as bad - but not quite - are the Robert Redford image-makers, all too ready to hoist the failing Felt into the golden hero's chair as "The Man Who Saved the Republic." Hogwash. Felt was a career government type, passed over for promotion, jealous of his hard-won bureaucratic territory like any puffed-up Washington apparatchik, given to rumor-collecting (like his own hero, Mr. Hoover), and privy to the raw, unedited field files collected like mosquitoes by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, through time immemorial. Yeah, maybe Felt believed the Nixon White House was subverting justice; but goddamnit, they were subverting justice on his turf, and that's what could not be allowed.
Further, Felt was a bit player in the Watergate drama, and even in the Washington Post's gargantuan heavy-lift of reporting - the real heroic act in the saga, a heroic act of two years of hard-core, work-a-day reporting, the kind of reporting our Republic needs to survive and thrive, in my opinion.
There is a movement afoot to replace this kind of investigative work with "open source" journalism, whose pseudo-libertarian rules seem to consist of no anonymous sources, reporters who spend their days blogging and reacting to the public, and links and tags instead of ledes and nut graphs. Opening newsrooms is a fine thing to do in principle; but it's no replacement for a free press that has no fear of taking on those in power, whatever their political party (see Nixon/Clinton). Is the New York Times aloof, elitist, and often-times a self-parody of "big journalism." Absolutely. Would we all be poorer if we didn't have a Times or a Washington Post or a Wall Street Journal with some "trust me" swagger? Yes, we would be.
Back in the day, I worked in a newsroom that was entirely open to the public - but also engaged in grinding, exhaustive reporting. The Riverdale Press is a great community newspaper, one of thousands of local papers around the country that - quite literally - have their readers in their faces every day. When I was there, readers would walk in off the street, demand to see me, and I'd walk out of the newsroom and sit down with them to listen to what they had to say. Or they'd call. This happened every day, to every reporter and editor. It was part of the job.
So we were as open as a newsroom could be, and incredibly responsive to the community (indeed, editor Buddy Stein maintained a controversial but hugely entertaining open letters policy that - along with his Pulitzer-winning editorials - has always made the paper's opinion pages one of New York's must-reads). But we also investigated, followed up on tips, did the digging for documents - and occasionally, used sources whose identity we protected. Contrary to the popular term, these were not "anonymous" sources. They were protected sources; reporters and editors knew who they were. And they were never solo sources - to quote Mark Felt himself, we almost always followed the money...and money meant documentation.
In many cases, we did what Woodward and Bernstein did with Deep Throat and other Watergate sources - we played wave off. Especially when a story involved criminality and a potential or already empanelled grand jury, wave off was a useful way for officials in the know to confirm our facts (gathered independently and documented) or "wave us off" an incorrect line of questioning. This kind of reporting was both back-breaking and great fun, because when we nailed it, we really nailed it. Many of our stories either led to investigations or reported on the early stages of investigations. Some led to indictments. And yeah, some of the targets of those investigations went to jail. (All of them, by the way, were Democrats).
To be blunt: we never would have broken many of those stories without protected sources. In other cases, the stories would have been less hard-hitting, wide-ranging, or meaningful without sources. In all cases, I believe, we were judicious in the use of sources and in our decision to print allegations of official corruption.
Yes, it was "trust me" journalism. And it was vital. And we need more - not less - of it today and in the future.
I knew a bunch of Mark Felt types back then - lawyers, agents, prosecutors, officials, politicians, and semi-professional gadflies. They were not particularly heroic. They all had their axes to grind, their peculiar sets of motivational factors. What people forget is that most of the stuff you get from this crowd never makes it to the printed page - it gets weighed, researched, and discarded. That's called reporting. Not open source. Closed source.
Trust me on this.
UPDATE: Eleanor Clift gets it right in a terrific Newsweek column (yeah, she writes - what hubris, Jeff Jarvis! - and I read it: it works) and it'll be my last bit of DT posting, I think:
It used to be journalists were lauded as the Fourth Estate. Now they’re seen as an obnoxious irritant by the administration and the public. “All the President’s Men,” the vintage movie starring Robert Redford as Woodward, stirs nostalgia for the days when the reporting profession was revered. If they made a movie about the press corps today, who would have the starring role—the reporter who uncovers Michael Jackson’s latest porn stash?
The press is best when it is pushing back and not just channeling partisan debates.
To repeat: The press is best when it is pushing back and not just channeling partisan debates. Trust me.
UPDATE II: Thought I was done with the Deep Throat beat, but then I noticed a red flag in a flowerpot on the blog across the way - the one belonging to journalism critic Jay Rosen, who has a truly wonderful essay/link compendium with commentary. I don't always agree with Jay (nor he with me) but he's always fodder for real consideration, kind of like a mysterious note dropping from my morning New York Times. This particular graph stuck with me and I think it's dead on:
As a professor of journalism, a lot of my work has been trying to get journalists to recognize in their work that the "feeling yourself a participant..." part is basic to any demand that may exist for their skills and services. Watergate was different from prior news events I had lived through because it didn't happen without me. This immediately made me a customer for political journalism. (There's a theory of the serious news customer in there somewhere.)
But I'll give the final word in this rambling, old post to centrist uber-blogger Joe Gandelman, who leads his memoir thusly:
People who weren't around during the Watergate days may look with dismay on former Nixon administration officials refighting Watergate with such bitterness but that's because you had to be around then to realize how it permeated the then-primative news cycle — and life in the United States — in the early 70s.
I won't spoil the story - or the hilarious ending - just go read it.