Woodward's Debt to Deep Throat

After the big stories, sometimes more than credit is due, sources say

The Watergate story 33 years ago can be fairly marked as the starting point of the age of journalists as celebrities. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein weren't celebrities when they cracked the story for The Washington Post, but they soon would be, and a wave of emulators quickly began applying to journalism schools.

Woodward in particular has remained a celebrity and striver for attention. He has also been a diligent worker, turning out an assembly line of books, first about Watergate (written with Bernstein), but then solo books about the goings-on in lots of government high places in Washington. Most of them have been bestsellers, and Woodward has become wealthy.

Early next month, he will publish his latest book, titled The Secret Man: The Story of Watergate's Deep Throat. Simon & Schuster, Woodward's publisher, is putting out a first printing of 750,000 copies. It's likely to make a lot of money. But the man the book is about—Mark Felt, a former senior FBI official, who clandestinely guided and mentored Woodward and Bernstein through that investigation—apparently will not be sharing in the profits. Felt's family, acting at Felt's request, had some time ago asked Woodward for a collaboration on the book, and he declined.

Three weeks ago—in an authorized Vanity Fair article written by Felt's attorney, John D. O'Connor—the exchanges about a collaborative book were described. The article, as all of America now knows, revealed that Felt was "Deep Throat"—the name that Woodward and Bernstein gave to their pivotal confidential source, vowing not to reveal his identity until after his death. Woodward had pretty much finished his book when Felt, his health in decline, suddenly outed himself. The book is being rushed into print for a reported publication date of July 6.

That news led Felt and his family to seek a separate book contract. They reportedly received $75,000 from PublicAffairs, an independent publisher. There was also an option for film rights, but that would pay very little if the film did not come to fruition, as is often the case. Woodward's advance from Simon & Schuster was not made public, but if the first hardcover printing is 750,000, precedent says it would have to have been at least seven figures.

The question here is not whether Woodward is obligated to share earnings with Felt (he is not, unless a court orders him to) but whether, in such situations, journalists should take into account whether a source was merely helpful or instead a central partner right through the process, without whom the story would not have been the exemplary result that it was. The story, it turned out, was a career maker. If this is the case, should not the partner share in the rewards?

A standing ethical rule in journalism says you shouldn't pay sources for information. There are good reasons for this rule. If the source knows there could be money in the offing, he might embellish the information to get a fee, telling the reporter not the truth but what he thinks the reporter wants to hear. Those are the ingredients for a libel suit.

But, like all rules, it is not absolute. Sources come in all forms and sizes. In my reporting life, stringers, guides, and interpreters have taken me into places I could never have reached by myself and, once there, could never have understood what I was seeing and hearing without them at my side. I have shared rewards equally with Dith Pran, my partner in Cambodia in the 1970s—including the money from the film The Killing Fields. We call ourselves "brothers."

I have also shared writing fees with other guides in hairy foreign places. They took great risks to help me get the story.

I mention these examples not because I think my experiences are analogous to Woodward's with Felt, but because sometimes the people who help us with our stories are not just ships passing in the night, but something much more.

I am also not seeking to examine Felt's character or his motives. Those are beyond my knowledge. The issue for me turns only on the level of assistance he gave to Woodward and Bernstein.

Simon & Schuster, in its June 2 announcement of the coming Deep Throat book, said, I believe accurately: "Woodward will discuss how he first met W. Mark Felt and how the former FBI official became the legendary secret source whose insider guidance was so critical to The Washington Post's coverage of the Watergate scandal."

There are precedents for sharing on book projects. One obvious example was Gay Talese's Honor Thy Father in 1971, about the personal family of Joseph Bonanno, the head of a Mafia crime organization. Talese was given access to the Bonanno family history by Joseph's son, Bill Bonanno. The exquisitely written book was a major success both here and abroad. Talese set aside part of the profits to create trust funds for Bill Bonanno's four children, to whom he had dedicated the book.

I sought to interview Woodward for this piece and he did return my call, but only to explain that for now he was abstaining from further comments about the Deep Throat story. "I agreed not to do any interviews until the book came out," he said. I then explained the nature of my story, which I had not done to that point, and he responded: "Those are all fair questions. It's not because I'm trying to avoid anything but because I agreed that the book should come out first. I hope you understand."

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