It’s hard to resist capitalizing that that word when writing on this subject and this newspaper. That said, the reaction of Washington Post writers to the death of W. Mark Felt, who unveiled himself in 2005 as “Deep Throat,” has been, a little surprisingly, not completely a series of panegyrics.
It is true that the Post’s obit of Felt (the latest, much-expanded version, with Bob Woodward re-credited as a contributor rather than co-author, appears here) simply stuck to the basics of the DT story as Woodward has described it over the years. And it’s true that the Post’s editorial on Felt’s passing stressed that, though his career was “ambiguous” when considered as a whole, where Watergate was concerned he had performed “an invaluable service” when he surreptitiously fed information from a criminal investigation to a reporter in an effort to undercut the position of FBI Acting Director L. Patrick Gray.
But yesterday, in Slate.com (owned by The Washington Post Company) Tim Noah, while arguing that Felt had done his nation good by leaking to Woodward, also said that the G-man’s motives in doing so were comparable to those of “Scooter” Libby when he was involved in the events that led to the leaking of Valerie Plame’s CIA affiliation, which is hardly seen as a patriotic act down at the Post building.
But Noah’s column might well have been topped for irreverence in the Post’s own pages this morning. Hank Stuever, a reporter known for his insights into pop culture and his forays into questioning the conventional wisdom, devoted a column, somewhat deceptively headed “Appreciation,” to Felt and Deep Throat’s significance to what (Stuever hinted) may well be a dying era of investigative journalism.
In his column, Stuever quotes Carl Bernstein’s pious claim on CNN yesterday (but which he’s repeated, in one form or another, to hundreds or thousands of journalism students for a quarter-century) that Felt “had the guts to say: ‘Wait. The Constitution is more important in this situation than a president of the United States who breaks the law.'” Stuever follows that with: “Cue trumpet solo,” and goes on to speak of the “swagger” of Woodward and Bernstein’s era of newspaper work.
He concludes by alluding to words Felt, famously, never spoke:
There is, in the end, plenty of money begging to be followed, the money we don’t know about and the money we do: stimulus money ($850 billion!); Madoff money ($50 billion!), automaker bailout money ($17 billion!). The best way to appreciate Mark Felt is to work the phones, take notes and figure out how to get that which is off the record, on.
Am I wrong or is there just a hint that Stuever is aware that after January 20, there may well be as many questions about the direction of money as there were in the Clinton administration (especially its last years), and the Washington Times might just be a bit likelier than the Post to examine where it goes?
And in tomorrow’s Post the paper’s former executive editor Len Downie, who seems to have been the last person to be told the secret of DT’s identity before Felt’s family and John O’Connor approached Vanity Fair, has a long meditation about the question so often asked in recent years: Could there be another Deep Throat in the atmosphere of today’s Washington?
Downie says the big difference between 1972 and 2008 is that in those faraway days, the Post had the story to itself for many months; he argues that now, a similar scandal, if written about in one place, would instantly be taken up by bloggers, websites, and maybe even newspapers around the country within a matter of hours. “Of course,” he continues, “an administration under siege would also have more sophisticated resources for investigating leaks and marshaling counter-attacks in the news media and the blogosphere.”
But Downie also poses two other questions at the end of his article (and very significant ones, as TNN commenter Maarja Krusten observes):
In today’s cacophonous media world, in which news, rumor, opinion and infotainment from every kind of source are jumbled together and often presented indiscriminately, how would such an improbable-sounding story ever get verified?
As newsrooms rapidly shrink, will they still have the resources, steadily amassed by newspapers since Watergate, for investigative reporting that takes months and even years of sustained work?
Downie leaves these unanswered, signing off instead by describing the pride he felt when he watched Frank Langella (as RN in Frost/Nixon) calling reporters “sons of whores.” But the questions are certainly worth thinking about while the Fourth Estate indulges itself in nostalgia about the good old days of underground garages and shifting flowerpots.
(And having mentioned John O’Connor I should also note that in today’s issue of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat, he solemnly compares Felt to Holden Caulfield in The Catcher In The Rye.)