Deep Throat and Being in the Belly of the Beast A’borning

Ever since W. Mark Felt, Jr. stepped out of the shadows of Hal Holbrook and a parking garage to reveal himself as Deep Throat, my thoughts have dwelled on that time nearly 30 years ago when I was in the first class of students to enter journalism school after the movie “All the President’s Men” came out. I’ve thought not just about those days, but the effects of Mr. Felt on journalism today and on my own life.

My introduction to journalism actually came in the fall of 1971 when I was in the 8th grade and started to write for the school newspaper. By the spring of ’72 I was co-editor and thought my life’s course was set: I was going to go journalism school and write for a living. Also right about that time we first started hearing about something called Watergate, but the fall of ’72 brought President Nixon’s re-election. This was followed by his resignation in ’74, and the movie in 1976.

In the fall of ’77 I started my journalism classes at one of the big three journalism schools in the country, along with an impassioned lot committed to being the next Woodward and Bernstein’s. Those were heady days back then as we sat in our News Writing 101 class (really, that’s what it was called) and learned interview techniques, story construction, to question everything and to always get at least two sources before running anything. We were given 30 minute deadlines and pounded out our assignments on old manual Underwoods and Royals with ribbons left over from the Crimean War. We also sat in our History of Journalism class as Professor Taft, who looked old enough to have worked as Gutenberg’s copy boy, tried to drum the history and traditions of the craft into our heads. He’d talk about all of us “Woodsteins” sitting out there wanting to break the story of the century without learning the lessons of the past century.

Part of our training involved working on the daily city newspaper the J-school produced — world and national news, metro, sports, lifestyle, including advertising — with a daily circulation of some 35,000. The reporters were all students and our professors and editors were often one and the same. One editor in particular taught a News class and looked like Central Casting’s idea of a gunfighter: ramrod straight, steely eyes, a withering glare and a temperment itching to gun down the careless and undedicated. He absolutely hated, and would not tolerate, an anonymous or aliased source. You dared not bring one into a story in his newsroom, and he would rail against it from his lectern as a technique that invited abuse from a lazy journalist and manipulation by a source who could keep his name and agenda hidden.

Most of us had read our Capote, and were reading Hunter S. Thompson, and itching to tell stories through the eyes of the principals – especially the kinds of stories where the principals might not want to be specifically identified, and this restriction seemed unnecessarily harsh. When I, while working under another editor, wrote a magazine feature about a Vietnam vet turned mercenary (who needed to remain anonymous for legal reasons), I had to bring both the merc and some of his documentation to my editor in order for the article to run.

Certainly everything we were warned about manifested just a few years later, in 1980, when Janet Cooke, someone our age, won and then was stripped of a Pulitzer when it turned out she had invented the 8-year-old heroin addict, “Jimmy,” who was the center of her series of articles for the Washington Post. In the process she became godmother to Stephen Glass and Jayson Blair. Until Felt came forward there were those who wondered if Deep Throat really existed or was as fanciful as Cooke’s Jimmy, as Glass’s computer hackers or as Blair’s expense reports.

What has largely been forgotten about Watergate is that Deep Throat’s main usefulness to Woodward and Bernstein was in pointing them in certain directions and confirming information they discovered as a result. The information he provided was born out by events. Woodward and Bernstein may not have been lazy, but as we’ve learned lately, Mr. Felt was not as forthcoming with his own motives as he was with other information, and they didn’t pursue this part of the story and deprived the story and the public of that context. Ultimately it may have made no difference in the outcome. Further, their efforts to find multiple confirmations is a far cry from today where not correcting a statement is accepted as a confirmation.

Certainly combative relationships between journalists and governments has a long history predating Watergate, and even Tammany Hall. One side has and will always try to keep some things hidden, and the other will always try to find ways to bring these to light. Something about the Nixon and Watergate era, however, appears to have made this battle personal in the way it is prosecuted, but that may simply be my perception from living in these days. Romantically, perhaps, I think of the time before Watergate, Vietnam and Deep Throat as more of a game, although played for high stakes. Since then it has become a war, and has often been said, truth is the first casualty.

Carl Bernstein himself may have described it best when he said, “The lowest form of popular culture — lack of information, misinformation, misinformation and a contempt for the truth or the reality of most people’s lives — has overrun real journalism. Today, ordinary Americans are being stuffed with garbage.”

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