Monday, June 20, 2005

Deep Throat apparently was more of a committee than a single source, Part II

It is at the core of journalistic ethics that reporters do not reveal their confidential sources. It was for that correct and high-minded reason that Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein kept the secret for more than thirty years that W. Mark Felt was Deep Throat.

In this morning's Washington Post, reporter Michael Dobbs, in writing a lengthy account of Felt's role in Watergate, appears to have written an account less concerned for the truth than protecting the brand name. The vast majority of scholars, historians, press critics, and other journalists who have studied Watergate in recent years have concluded that the historic role of the Post was much less than that portrayed in "All the President's Men" and by the Post itself over the last three decades. Dobbs' account, disappointingly, selectively omits evidence that tends to undermine in any way the mythology of the Post's role. The Post's Watergate reporting was a historical watershed for journalism; there is hardly any good reason therefore to continue to exaggerate their real historical role. The newspaper could have used recent events to set the historical record straight. I have written about this in a post directly below, and in a recent article in the Village Voice, and will have more later here and elsewhere.

But for the time being, Dobbs does write something that should make any journalist, or first-year journalism student for that matter, cringe. He reports that Woodward and Bernstein not only revealed the identity of a source, but actually told the FBI the identity of one of their sources. The person they accused was an FBI agent then working the Watergate case, Angelo J. Lano. Woodward and Bernstein, writes Dobbs, accused Lano of planting a false story with their newspaper. As it turns out, Lano did no such thing at all. The mistakes in the Post story which so upset Woodward and Bernstein were of their own making. There is no evidence that Lano did anything wrong.

By turning in Lano, the two reporters shamed themselves, their newspaper, and anyone who is a professional journalist. Perhaps they have an explanation, but in the meantime both Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein apparently have nothing to say-- even to their own newspaper.
Dobbs has no comment from either reporter in his article. (I did speak to Dobbs this morning for a while about his piece, but he declined to talk for the record, so my hands are tied from saying anything more.)

In any case, here is what Dobbs wrote this morning regarding the Lano incident:

Felt was under huge pressure to deflect White House suspicions about FBI leaks away from himself. Fortunately for Felt, the Post reporters had been talking to other sources in the bureau, including Angelo J. Lano, the Washington field office agent directly responsible for the Watergate investigation. Woodward and Bernstein were angry with Lano for allegedly providing them with bad information on the Haldeman story. They decided to get even with him by reporting him to a superior, in violation of the confidentiality understanding.
(Woodward and Bernstein provide a detailed account of this incident in "All the President's Men," without naming the agent involved. Lano's version of the incident is contained in declassified FBI files.)
In a four-page memo to Attorney General Richard D. Kleindienst, Felt came to Lano's defense. depicting him as the victim of a "vicious fabrication". He accused Woodward and Bernstein of taking Lano's comments about Haldeman "completely out of context."
It is a journalistic sin if not a journalistic felony for reporters to reveal their sources. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein are yet to appropriately explain why they did so in this instance. What they did wrong should obviously be taken in the broader context of their historical reporting on Watergate. But the fact they do not feel it necessary to explain their actions does not speak for well for them-- as does the original bad deed.

Being angry with a source is not a reason to turn them in: especially an FBI agent who was working the Watergate case. As it turns out, the reporters made a serious mistake, not their purported source. (And I should note we have only the Post story this morning identifying Lano as their source-- without any attribution or sourcing to show that was the case. That Lano was indeed a source for the reporters is not a proved fact by any means.) But even if the reporters had good reason to be upset with a source, they did journalists everywhere a disservice by breaking their word to him. One would hope they would feel compelled to now explain. Their earlier actions might be explained away as the actions of youth and inexperience and the extraordinary pressure of working on such a significant and high-risk story. One wants to think well of them.

But their failure to explain themselves today is simply one of arrogance. If there was a single lesson of Watergate, it was that democracy only works when there is accountability for anyone exercising power, whether that is a President of the United States who violated his constitutional oath, or the once (it now seems like so long ago) underdog reporters who violated their own ethical rules.