Deep Throat sets off debate on sourcing

BY Dasu Krishnamoorty| IN Media Practice | 09/06/2005
It`s worth reconsidering the entire nature of reportorial authority and responsibility. In other words, why quote anonymous sources at all?

Dasu Krishnamoorty

A report in the Hindu (06 June 05) says that President Richard Nixon knew the identity of Deep Throat, the source for two Washington Post reporters¿ Watergate story, described by Guardian as the best real life whodunit of modern times. Their report saw Nixon leave the White House. For his own reasons, Nixon chose to keep it a secret. Neither of the two reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, disclosed it, bound as they were by the understanding between the source and the journalist. Last week, Deep Throat himself, now 91 and suffering from dementia, broke his 33-year-old silence to tell Vanity Fair that he, Mark Felt, is the man who guided the two reporters to successfully chase the story to its end. Washington Post immediately confirmed that its reporters had acted on information supplied by Felt. A byproduct of this disclosure is the revival of a debate on sourcing, reporter-source relationship and reliance on anonymous sources. Felt¿s admission comes against the background of newspapers tightening sourcing norms and the government threatening reporters with jail for refusing to disclose their sources.

This debate must necessarily allude to the ongoing trial of New York Times star reporter Judith Miller and Time reporter Matthew Cooper, who refused to tell a grand jury the identity of a government source who committed a federal crime by leaking the identity of a CIA agent, Valeri Plame. Both of them now face a prison term though Judith Miller never used the leak to write a story for her paper. The Christian Science Monitor pointed out how strange it was that nothing happened to Robert Novak, the columnist who actually did publish the leaker¿s information. More ironically, nothing is likely to happen to two senators - Indiana Representative Richard Lugar and Massachusetts Democrat John Kerry, who publicly identified another undercover CIA agent Fulton Armstrong at the hearing to confirm John Bolton as UN envoy. The latest development is that attorneys general of 34 states and the District of Columbia have filed a brief in the United States Supreme Court to defend Miller and Cooper. Apart from this, 36 news organizations submitted a friend of the court brief arguing that there is clinching evidence to doubt that the leaker committed a substantial crime.

Joe Strupp (Editor & Publisher) believes that Felt broke silence in time to give anonymous source new life and respectability and show that whistle blowers could depend on journalists to keep their word. Bernstein told the New York Times soon after Deep Throat¿s revelation, ?This is a case history and a case lesson of why it is so important that we have confidential sources.? The letdown such as Newsweek suffered last fortnight came even as newspapers in the US had begun to plug holes in their sourcing norms. Some newspapers like the USA TODAY claimed that they had reduced their reliance on anonymous sources by 75 per cent.  When reporters at a Radio and TV News Directors Association meet asked President Bush for his views on anonymous sources, he did not seem to be troubled by what awaits Judith Miller.

Bush said, ?Seems like to me the balance is just right when you think about it. If you think about all the unnamed sources in Washington, D.C., that affect a lot of stories, relative to the actual number of reporters that have been called into account. I mean, a lot. I¿d say it¿s a million in one. That would be the ratio.?

In the week of excitement that followed the unmasking of Deep Throat, some people suspected that the New York Times was happy that Felt chose Vanity Fair, and not Washington Post, to open up. The Times wondered: ?Mr. Woodward and his reporting partner, Carl Bernstein, said they would never tell. Now, at a time when reporters¿ right to keep sources secret is under so much attack, it¿s worth asking whether Deep Throat would have shared his secrets at all if he had not had confidence they would keep their promise.? But the taunt aimed at the Post came in an article the Times published. Katherine Seeley wrote, ?Yesterday, the paper (the Post) was scooped on Deep Throat by a monthly magazine.? It simply escaped Seeley that Post¿s silence could be the outcome of its adherence to the source-journalist ethics.  As Guardian said in an editorial, ?Mr. Felt¿s refusal to out himself for gain and Messrs Bernstein and Woodward¿s determination to not stop him became increasingly admirable in the let-it-all-hang-out era. But sadly, in the end even Deep Throat could not keep a secret.? The New York Times thought that Deep Throat had a grouse against Nixon for passing him over to succeed Herbert Hoover as the CIA chief. ?He (Felt) had motives both high and low for wanting to get a story out,? said the Times editorial.

For the Washington Post, Howard Kurtz was quick to explain what prevented the newspaper from upstaging  Felt and coming out with the source. ?The answer is that Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein and Ben Bradlee (executive editor of Post at the time of Watergate) felt they were in a box?the promise of confidentiality made to W. Mark Felt during the Nixon administration --- and were not convinced that the 91-year-old former FBI agent was lucid enough to release them from that pledge.?  To Woodward, the Vanity Fair story came as surprise. Bradlee wondered how, as the only people who were ¿clinically and morally¿ bound not to break the story, they broke it.

Kurtz tells us how confidential sources sometimes identify themselves under pressure. He quotes the case of Jim Tericani, a Rhode Island television reporter who was sentenced to six months of house arrest last year for refusing to tell who had given him FBI videotape in a Providence corruption case. Kurtz mentions how the Clinton White House frequently attacked independent counsel Kenneth Starr for leaking during the Monica Lewinsky investigation that led to the former president¿s impeachment.

Jack Shafer, editor at large of Slate and Daniel Okrent, former public editor of the New York Times, do not readily endorse the reliance on the use of anonymous resources. Indeed, Shafer is regarded as an authority on the subject. Okrent raised that question after taking a look at the effect of the Times new anonymous sourcing policy, that restricts ?the use of unidentified sources for situations in which the newspaper could not otherwise print information it considers reliable and newsworthy.? Not satisfied with the results the new policy yielded, Okrent took this view:

?It`s worth reconsidering the entire nature of reportorial authority and responsibility. In other words, why quote anonymous sources at all? Do their words take on more credibility because they`re flanked with quotation marks?? Okrent would rather prefer reporters write their article in their own voice, eschewing all blind quotes and meaningless attributions and making only the assertions they were confident were true, because that way the newspaper could hold someone responsible for the accuracy: not the dubious sources, but the writers themselves.

Bill Kovach, chairman of the Committee of Concerned Journalists, expressed concern that reporters would continue to abuse the use of anonymous sources, a practice that he thinks has spread after the Watergate.

A blogger offers this view of the reporter-source relationship: ?In the current journalistic epistemology, the reporter is not the knower; the source is the knower. This is clearly mistaken in this sense: If the source tells the reporter and the reporter understands, then the reporter can be said to know, too. So verification really is a hierarchy of knowing, in which the reporter bows to the source and sells the source to the audience as the greater among knowers.?

Shafer wrote in June last year: ¿Despite the fact that nobody in American journalism professes to like anonymous sources, they keep replicating in newspapers like flesh-eating bacteria. In recent months, both the Washington Post and the New York Times have acknowledged the contagion and tried to spritz the anonymice away with tough new memos from the top, dictating the proper use of anonymous sources.?

But anonymous sources are as resistant to extermination as their microbe cousins, as two press observers recently noted. The New York Times found that there was a slight up-tick in anonymous sources in the post-memo period. Washington Post also noticed found an increase in this species of anonymice.

Shafer argued in the same column that news organizations could reduce their dependence on anonymous sources by following the example of the Wall Street Journal: The Journal hasn`t eradicated anonymous sources, but it keeps their population under control by giving reporters latitude to assert the truth on their own authority. Okrent came close to endorsing this approach on Sunday, asking, ?Finally, it`s worth reconsidering the entire nature of reportorial authority and responsibility. In other words, why quote anonymous sources at all? Do their words take on more credibility because they`re flanked with quotation marks??

Editors in India seem to be too busy with issues such as Gujarat, judicial activism and self-regulation (or even its absence) to worry about sourcing ethics.

Contact: dauskrishnamoorty@hotmail.com

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