Deep Throat to Turd Blossom

When ethics and profit clash in today's corporate newsrooms, guess which side wins?

"Follow the money." It's a simple mantra that only hints at the complexity of investigative reporting. Effective journalism depends on it, conspirators and criminals work hard to prevent it, and who doesn't love Hal Holbrook, in full-on G-man Yoda mode, explaining the idea to a frustrated Robert Redford? A memorable line from the movie version of All the President's Men, it summed up in three words how Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein could pursue their story to its logical and history-making conclusions. It also happens to be useful advice, the kind of slogan that sticks because it works.

It stuck in Woodward's mind, an important clue in the defining investigation of his life—cryptic, obvious, and stingy in its revelation of useful information. Deep Throat didn't give it up easily, or all at one time. So he said things like "follow the money" to put his dogged young reporter-avatar on the right path. The only problem is W. Mark Felt, the honorable con artist formerly known as Deep Throat, never said those words.

"For decades I had thought he used that precise phrase, but it is not in our book, All the President's Men, and I cannot find it in any of my notes,"

Author, Bob Woodward
photo: Lisa Berg/Simon & Schuster
Author, Bob Woodward

Woodward writes in his hole-plugging coda to the Watergate story, The Secret Man (Simon & Schuster). He finished an early draft in 2002, but it was rushed to publication on July 6, about a month after Felt's identity was revealed in a Vanity Fair story written by John D. O'Connor, a lawyer who had befriended the Felt family. No doubt Woodward had envisioned his new book as a dramatic, news-breaking event. He co-owned the Watergate story, the source was his—as was the primary responsibility of keeping his identity a secret, and you'd expect him to be a little pissed that he got scooped on his own turf. But you'd never tell that from The Secret Man, a sentimental story about Woodward's long and complicated relationship with the most famous anonymous source in history. In it, Woodward wrestles with ethical problems he's dealt with in similar form for the past 33 years, discussing the difficult and unclear choices he faced about when to reveal a source's identity, what effect Felt's deteriorating memory had on a decades-old promise, and the very unreliability of memory itself.

As a young naval lieutenant, before he ever set foot in a newsroom, Woodward met Felt in the basement of the Nixon White House on a messenger trip, and he struck up a conversation that would set the tone for the rest of their interactions. A pretty important day, one would think, in Woodward's catalog of "days I should remember." But he writes: "It was either in the last quarter of 1969 but probably the first half of 1970 as best I can tell." He also doesn't remember whether he took notes at certain meetings with Felt. Somehow, these imperfections don't take away from Woodward's reliability, and his honesty about his own shortcomings is part of the reason he's credible. He's straightforward about his ethical lapses as well, copping to his broken promise to never quote Felt directly, and to his repeated violations of Felt's command to never call him at his FBI office.

I distrust Woodward's reportorial persona of the disinterested Washington insider-observer. It sets off my bullshit detector. It seems a little too calculated, a little too emphatically objective. But he built his reputation on his former posture, that of the aggressive teller of governmental misdeeds, the quintessential shoe- leather reporter. The only reason anybody knows his name is because he was on Nixon's ass for months. He's since fashioned himself as the chronicler of kings (The Agenda: Inside the Clinton White House, Bush at War), and it all seems very self-important. He's been accused of trading tenacity for access, and the sheer volume of his unnamed sources since Watergate attests to his wide-ranging usefulness to government officials and those in power. At what point, though, does access end and co-opting begin?

If it's therefore hard to see Woodward as completely sympathetic, his sincerity overcomes his shortcomings, and he remains a deserving icon, a hero to some, and a reporter to emulate. His career proves that all a journalist has is his word and reputation. Woodward's example is important because he takes pains to show the inherent imperfections of his Watergate journalism, the ways in which reporters can and do get things wrong, and how integrity and tenacity can outweigh errors and mistakes.

Moreover, Woodward's example is important because he didn't reveal his source, and it stands in stark contrast to the actions of Time Inc. editor in chief Norman Pearlstine, who bowed to pressure from special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald on June 30 and surrendered reporter Matt Cooper's notes, which contained the identity of the anonymous source who outed CIA agent Valerie Plame. (We now know the source to be senior White House adviser Karl Rove, whom Bush, in a rare flash of linguistic brilliance, nicknamed Turd Blossom.) In his pathetic stab at making his damaging cave-in to the Bush-appointed special prosecutor seem like a feat of Solomonic decision making, Pearlstine said, "The journalist and the lawyer were fighting in my head." But there's no covering up the fact that he's further damaged the ability of the Washington press corps to gather sensitive or well-guarded information about the workings of the Bush administration, to say nothing of the reliability of the journalists employed at Time Inc. Cooper seems to have done his best to stand up and protect his source, only to have the rug pulled out from under him by his boss. As a result, every Time Inc. journalist has been compromised and sold out. Any high-up source stupid enough to request anonymity from one of them now deserves to get burned.

If anything mitigates the severity of Pearlstine's blunder, it's the fact that he's not the first corporate news director to have crumbled in the face of financial pressure (such as the costs of Cooper's legal defense and the threats by Judge Thomas F. Hogan, who also broached the possibility of fines and other charges against Time and its executives). The problem goes beyond Pearlstine. It's the inevitable result of the increasing corporate influence on news departments, of diminished news-gathering resources, and of an institutional tendency to place financial concerns ahead of journalistic responsibilities. Investigative journalism requires risk taking and a big commitment, which are antithetical to the financial needs of corporate news divisions. That profit impulse plays a big role in the timidity of the Washington press corps. Fears of alienating readers and viewers, or of the cost of a well-orchestrated right-wing smear campaign—which looms as a threat whenever the news on Bush becomes too negative—are huge reasons why the press hasn't been aggressive enough in its coverage of the Bush administration.

Woodward was able to keep his confidential source a secret because he had the cooperation and support of Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee and publisher Katharine Graham. Pearlstine's actions suggest those days are on the wane.

The only solace—the only hope for investigative journalism, really—is to be found in people like Woodward, who prove that you don't have to be a flawless journalist to get the job done. You just need integrity. Even during his Watergate heyday, most of Woodward's D.C. colleagues distrusted the work that he and Bernstein did, and he had to drag the rest of them along with his reporting. It's a testament to the fragility of American journalism that important stories often owe their exposure to the work of a few dedicated practitioners, and a healthy dose of dumb luck. It makes you wonder how much is not being reported, but it's also comforting to know that at any moment, someone could come along, follow the money through the rot, and expose the roots of the Turd Blossoms. All it would require are a set of balls, cavernous pockets, a Deep Throat or two who escaped Bush's first-term ideological agency purges, and the willingness of news managers to stand behind the aggressive impulses of their investigative reporting staffs.

Oh, and a recognition that corporate ownership is destroying American journalism. Of course, there's no money in that.


John Giuffo is a former fellow at the Columbia Journalism Review.

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