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Journalists See More to Story Than Secret Source

They say that anonymity was key in Watergate, but that investigative reporting goes deeper.

June 01, 2005|James Rainey | Times Staff Writer

The long-awaited revelation of the identity of "Deep Throat" should remind journalists and a sometimes-skeptical public of the crucial role anonymous sources can play in revealing wrongdoing in high places, an array of reporters and writers said Tuesday.

The Washington Post confirmed Tuesday that W. Mark Felt, a former No. 2 official at the FBI, provided much of the crucial information that helped unravel the Watergate scandal that brought down President Nixon.

Many journalists said that Felt's high government position, his intimate knowledge of his subject and the fact that his pronouncements repeatedly proved true all made a powerful case for the value of unidentified sources.

But those reporters and writers said Deep Throat's legacy would be incomplete if their colleagues were to forget the rest of the Watergate story. Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward built stories on White House corruption not only through shadowy meetings with Deep Throat in a parking garage, but also by working with partner Carl Bernstein to review reams of documents and to interview dozens of sources over many months.

"Deep Throat and the whole Watergate story really galvanized journalism," syndicated columnist Molly Ivins said. "I would lecture all these kids who wanted to be investigative reporters and tell them, 'Think about what it's like to sit in a room for hours looking at old insurance company annual reports. Because that's what it's really like to be an investigative reporter. It's not all romantic and glamorous.' "

Still, Ivins and other reporters said they thought the unveiling of Deep Throat's identity should help readers understand the use of anonymous sources. They said that reminder was particularly important in the wake of Newsweek magazine's recent retraction of an anonymous report about alleged desecration of the Koran. The report was blamed for setting off deadly anti-American violence in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

"This is a perfect example of why, sometimes as a reporter, you would be willing to fly in the night -- perhaps a little in the dark -- with someone because you take them very, very seriously," said David Halberstam, an author who shared the 1964 Pulitzer Prize for international reporting for his newspaper coverage of the Vietnam War. "Sure, anonymous sources can be abused," he said. "But every once in a while they are simply mandatory ... for a democracy to work."

Journalism schools saw applications and interest in investigative reporting soar after the Post's reporting on Watergate and its depiction in the book and movie "All the President's Men."

Ben Bagdikian, former assistant managing editor for national news at the Post, said many U.S. newspaper editors of that time suddenly agreed to free reporters to spend weeks or months looking into government corruption.

"It was a stimulant in a positive sense. It made investigative reporting an important item on the agenda of many newspapers -- to get into serious stories in depth," said Bagdikian, who later led the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley. "But in too many cases, it was a superficial imitation of the Watergate reporting, and on insignificant parts of local government."

Onetime Nixon aide and former New York Times columnist William Safire said writers invoked unnamed sources too often, and sometimes needlessly, in the years after Watergate.

He staged his own form of rebellion when former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger would give background information on foreign policy. Safire recalled that he would identify Kissinger as "an administration source with a heavy German accent."

Leonard Garment, Nixon's White House counsel and onetime law partner, said Tuesday that he also had misgivings about using anonymous sources, and not just because his 2000 book had concluded that Deep Throat was Republican strategist John Sears.

"For 30 years we have had the pursuit of wrongdoing in high and low places, sometimes to good effect and often to bad," said Garment, who lives in New York and is aiding an effort to open a jazz museum in Harlem. "And often that's had the unfortunate affect of a diminution of trust in government that was undue."

Deep Throat's legacy, he said, "is very hard to summarize simply in terms of gains and losses. Like most things, it's more complicated."

In recent times, some newspeople have called for ending or sharply curtailing the use of anonymous sources. They point to low public trust in the media and say that could be improved by eliminating secret sources.

But Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, said the objections should be more narrowly targeted at anonymous sources that proved to be wrong.

"Deep Throat told the truth," said Jamieson, co-editor of "The Press," a recently released collection of essays. "It's good when people tell the truth and uncover massive government corruption. That's not a problem at all.... That's a great model."

The danger comes when journalists try to take shortcuts, Jamieson said.

"The model is not: Find a Deep Throat and win a Pulitzer," she said. "The model is: Think about ... how a complicated system works and then over a long period of time, through a very difficult process, figure out what's possible and what's not possible.

"That, in turn, can lead to an understanding of how the government is flawed and how you can make improvements to fine-tune democracy."

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