The voluntary outing of Mark Felt as the “Deep Throat” of Watergate fame puts into relief the current White House’s cynical attack on journalists’ use of anonymous sources.
It also should shame the corporate media, which has been caving in to this pressure, with the announcement of new stricter rules and promises to limit the use of such sources in the future at many news organizations.
As an investigative reporter who has made frequent use of anonymous sources throughout my career, let me put it bluntly-if Americans want a press that functions even minimally as a watchdog on corruption and abuse of power, they’d better get comfortable with anonymous sources. Toss them over the side and all we will be reading will be official press releases.
Nixon lovers, like Pat Buchanan, the late dark lord’s former speechwriter, are blasting Felt, saying if he the erstwhile number two man at the FBI had evidence of illegal behavior he should have reported it to the Justice Department or to his boss, not to a reporter.
Excuse me, but is Buchanan expecting us to seriously believe that Attorney General John Mitchell, or FBI Director Patrick Gray, both later convicted of being feloniously involved in the cover-up of Nixon’s crimes, would have done anything with such information besides sacking Felt and burying his story? Well, that and destroying his reputation?
That, after all, is what the Nixon administration MO was. Remember the Nixon “Enemies List”? If someone was a threat, like Daniel Ellsberg, for example, he went on the list. Then you broke into his psychiatrist’s office and looked for damaging evidence to leak to the public. Or you sent some of that secret army of dirty tricksters-an army that Woodward and Bernstein say one source tallied at 50, but which a source I know-an anonymous source who was one of them-says numbered in the hundreds-and you messed them up somehow.
We see the same thing happening today, of course. This administration is at least as vicious as the Nixon White House was at destroying its enemies. Just look at the Valerie Plame outing case.
If anything, the cowardly corporate media, which can’t even bring itself to report openly on the damning memorandum to British PM Tony Blair detailing in 2002 how the Bush administration planned to “fix” the evidence about terror links and WMDs to create a pretext for an invasion of Iraq, needs to round up more anonymous sources to report honestly about this most devious and corrupt of governments.
Just for an example, when I was breaking the story (in Counterpunch, Salon and Mother Jones) about the device under President Bush’s jacket during the three presidential debates-all on the basis of named sources, I might note-there clearly were Washington reporters from all the major news organizations with sources inside the White House and the Republican National Campaign committee who could have taken the story further. Instead, they all ran with lame denials from the White House and the Bush/Cheney campaign that the lump on the president’s back was a “wrinkle” in a “badly tailored” suit or shirt. The only news organization that even tried to do a genuine investigation of the bulge story, the New York Times, killed it on the eve of publication (allegedly because it was too close to the election, but then of course they never went back to it after the election).
“The New York Times can’t say the president is lying,” Elizabeth Bumiller famously said at a public forum on covering the campaign. I’m sure that journalists and editors at the other major news outlets, print and electronic, would say the same thing if they were honest. How far we have come from the early 1970s, when a young Dan Rather could imply just such a thing at a presidential press conference.
The reason the public has such a low opinion of the media today is not that the media uses anonymous sources. It’s because the media doesn’t tell the truth. The reading and viewing public are savvy enough about advertising and marketing to recognize that most of what they’re getting in the “news hole” is just more of the same-official handouts from corporations and government officials, carefully packaged reports aimed at supporting advertisers, and entertainment filler.
If the media gave them red meat, in the form of hard-hitting investigative reports that looked at what government is really doing, how the war in Iraq is really going and how we got there in the first place, what is really happening to the environment, and how we are all being gouged by a tax system that gives away the store to the rich and corporations, you can bet they’d have a higher opinion of them, even if many of those stories relied on unnamed sources.
I’m not saying reporters should take shortcuts and not even try to get sources to go on the record, but let’s face it-you cannot expect people with knowledge about wrongdoing to put their jobs and lives in jeopardy just to get a story out. If you want to know about those things-many of which can be life-and-death matters of public interest–you’ve got to accept that the information will be provided by an anonymous source.
The Bush White House knows this, and that’s why it is coming down so hard on stories that use such sources.
They want to nip any chance of a return to Watergate-era journalism in the bud.
Dave Lindorff is the author of Killing Time: an Investigation into the Death Row Case of Mumia Abu-Jamal. His new book of CounterPunch columns titled “This Can’t be Happening!” is published by Common Courage Press. Information about both books and other work by Lindorff can be found at www.thiscantbehappening.net.
He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org