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Deep Throat, Anonymous Sources and Speaking Power to Power

In case you missed it, Stratfor had a tremendous writeup, on the occasion of the death of Mark “Deep Throat” Felt, on the real meaning of the revelation that Felt was Woodward & Bernstein’s source. Basically, it’s a reminder that anonymous sourcing is just another way for the media to be beholden to powerful figures, usually in the government, who are often acting in unsavory ways even when they tell the truth (and when a news report is anonymously sourced, there’s no way to have any conifdence that it is true). Stratfor focuses on the fact that Woodward and Bernstein were basically naive pawns in Felt’s continuation of J. Edgar Hoover’s power game – particpants in, not opponents of, the dirty tricks of the era. Here’s the key takeaway:

The only way Felt could have the knowledge he did was if the FBI had been systematically spying on the White House, on the Committee to Re-elect the President and on all of the other elements involved in Watergate. Felt was not simply feeding information to Woodward and Bernstein; he was using the intelligence product emanating from a section of the FBI to shape The Washington Post’s coverage.

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…The FBI was carrying out espionage against the president of the United States, not for any later prosecution of Nixon for a specific crime (the spying had to have been going on well before the break-in), but to increase the FBI’s control over Nixon. Woodward, Bernstein and above all, Bradlee, knew what was going on. Woodward and Bernstein might have been young and naive, but Bradlee was an old Washington hand who knew exactly who Felt was, knew the FBI playbook and understood that Felt could not have played the role he did without a focused FBI operation against the president. Bradlee knew perfectly well that Woodward and Bernstein were not breaking the story, but were having it spoon-fed to them by a master. He knew that the president of the United States, guilty or not, was being destroyed by Hoover’s jilted heir.

This was enormously important news. The Washington Post decided not to report it. The story of Deep Throat was well-known, but what lurked behind the identity of Deep Throat was not. This was not a lone whistle-blower being protected by a courageous news organization; rather, it was a news organization being used by the FBI against the president, and a news organization that knew perfectly well that it was being used against the president. Protecting Deep Throat concealed not only an individual, but also the story of the FBI’s role in destroying Nixon.

Of course, there are powerful parallels to our own day, including both the media’s role in giving a platform to Joe Wilson while concealing his ties to sources within the CIA, and the media’s subsequent role in blowing the whistle on those ties while concealing the source of their information, to say nothing of the many other purported anonymous sources (we have no way of knowing if they exist, if they’re all the same guy, etc.) used to attack the Bush Administration’s national security policies. Heck, the left blogosphere adopted as its motto the ironic (or maybe not so ironic) phrase “reality-based community,” derived from an anonymous quotation that may or may not have been said by a still-unnamed person; the use of the motto is itself a declaration of willingness to believe without proof, to accept sympathetic storylines that can’t be verified. They may find that adopting a posture of believing anything attributed to an anonymous source can be a 2-edged sword, the way they learned in the 1990s that a doctrine of considering the accuser in a sexual harrassment case to be coated in an irrebuttable presumption of truthfulness to be a 2-edged sword.

The WaPo’s story wasn’t about ‘speaking truth to power,’ but speaking power to power, and taking sides in a turf war:

The Felt experience is part of an ongoing story in which journalists’ guarantees of anonymity to sources allow leakers to control the news process. Protecting Deep Throat’s identity kept us from understanding the full dynamic of Watergate. We did not know that Deep Throat was running the FBI, we did not know the FBI was conducting surveillance on the White House, and we did not know that the Watergate scandal emerged not by dint of enterprising journalism, but because Felt had selected Woodward and Bernstein as his vehicle to bring Nixon down. And we did not know that the editor of The Washington Post allowed this to happen. We had a profoundly defective picture of the situation, as defective as the idea that Bob Woodward looks like Robert Redford.

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