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News-Sentinel.com Your Town. Your Voice.
Opening Arguments

Sore throat

It's hard to overstate the effect Watergate had on a whole generation of journalists. We were in journalism school when it happened, and, man, oh, man, here was the perfect example of just what we were aspiring to. Brave, dogged reporters take on the powerful and corrupt and, with the help of a courageous insider, expose the truth and bring down a president.

And, of course, it was all a big crock.

The real story is "considerably messier and less than a fairy tale," Holland writes in Leak. Through interviews, declassified documents and Nixon's White House tapes, he demonstrates convincingly that Felt's objectives were covetous rather than civic: He desperately wanted to be director of the FBI.

Less than a month before the Watergate break-in, the top FBI job had come open for the first time in 37 years with the death of J. Edgar Hoover. Enraged that he hadn't gotten the job, Felt saw Watergate as an opportunity to shatter the career of the man who did, Nixon's friend L. Patrick Gray.

Felt began systematically leaking material from the FBI's Watergate investigation. He knew Nixon, whose paranoia about leaks was legendary in Washington, would figure out that the source was somewhere in the FBI. Gray would be blamed, lose his job (he hadn't yet been confirmed by the Senate and was officially only acting director) and Felt would be the logical replacement.

Felt played the Washington media like a mighty Wurlitzer, planting his leaks not just with the [Washington] Post but Time magazine, the Washington Daily News and anybody else who would take them. As his scheme began to work, with Nixon pressing Gray hard to plug the leaks, Felt stood smugly by as other FBI officials were demoted or threatened with the loss of their jobs. [...]

It takes journalists some time to realize (and some never quite get there) how tricky dealing with sources can be. We're using them to tell the stories we want to tell, but they're also using us to further agendas that aren't always easy to figure out. That doesn't make what they say any less valid -- just more difficult to weigh and judge. Nixon was Nixon, after all, whatever the motives for the person who ratted him out.

Last word to Michel de Montaigne (from a fascinating essay on cooperation in the us-against-them political age): "When I am playing with my cat, how do I know she is not playing with me?"


Fri, 02/17/2012 - 2:08pm

I'm not sure I take your point. I've *always* assumed that sources have their own agenda. But if the information is useful, as Felt's certainly was, who cares? I never thought that Deep Throat was a hero, but I admired Woodward and Bernstein nonetheless. Unfortunately, so did a lot of other people our age, who also majored in journalism and glutted the market, driving down wages.

Harl Delos
Fri, 02/17/2012 - 11:43pm

All The President's Men persuaded a lot of kids to go to J-school - and this week, 37 of them in the newsroom of the Philadelphia Inquirer got their pink slip. 

The ability to think clearly and write well is valuable in any occupation, but if you can get past the initial hiring process, a few courses in science and accounting would surely would have made the average reporter a lot more valuable because he could explain what's happening in the news a lot better - and make it easier to pay his bills when metro daily newspapers become obsolete.

Phil Marx
Sat, 02/18/2012 - 2:14am

Back when my neighborhood was an open-air drug market, and I spent well over a decade trying to communicate with FWPD, ACSD, DEA and F.W. Mayor's office, I was pretty well convinced at one point that they were all purposely allowing the activity.  It took a lot of time to realize that it was really just incompetence.

And when things finally changed, instead of ignoring me they started REALLY listening.  When I said a certain drug dealer was a problem, he was set up and arrested in an undercover buy.  And when I said a certain house was a problem, it was bulldozed.  One person I talked to who knew a lot of cops said he heard my word was "good as gold" as far as what was going on here.

And that got me thinking about how overly-focused these professionals are, about how they often seem to miss what is right in front of them, about how one might turn this to his advantage.  Wouldn't the guy who crusaded against the drug dealers be the last one the police would ever suspect of joining them?  Not that I'd ever do this for real, but it would make a good plot for a book.

Phil Marx
Sat, 02/18/2012 - 2:18am

Anyway, your story here made me think of that.  How Felts was really looking out for his self-interest but was viewed by many as some kind of hero.