Posted by: Jim | June 1, 2005


Mark Felt, Anonymous Sources, and the Freedom of the Press

With Deep Throat’s identity revealed, a lot of old-timey conservatives are coming out to voice their criticism of him.

Here are a few quotes from today’s news:

G. Gordon Liddy: “If he possessed evidence of wrongdoing, he was honor-bound to take that to a grand jury and secure an indictment, not to selectively leak it to a single news source,”

Chuck Colson: “Mark Felt could have stopped Watergate. He was in a position of that kind of influence. Instead, he goes out and basically undermines the administration.”

Former Nixon speechwriter Pat Buchanan, in an appearance on MSNBC television, bluntly said Felt was a “traitor.”

However, the Washington Post says: “Had Felt remained quiet, Nixon might have succeeded in one of the most serious abuses of power ever attempted by an American president,” [Until recently, of course -TB]

The New York Times says: “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” if he had not been confident the Post reporters would keep the secret.

I am very very curious about why Mark Felt chose now to come forward. I find his timing spectacularly poignant. Even at 91 years of age, he obviously still reads the paper, and still cares about what is going on.

A few weeks ago there was an incident that gave me pause. I did not blog about it because I was too busy at work. But here’s what happened.

Newsweek printed a story about how interrogators in Guantanamo were desecrating the Quran. The news story quoted an anonymous source. It was run by the Pentagon for approval first, but the Pentagon did not express any disapproval over Newsweek’s desire to print the story. So they printed the story. There was a riot in Afghanistan, and people were killed. It roused a great deal of suspicion over whether Guantanamo was another Abu Ghraib.

Then … and here is the important part … The White House assails Newsweek for what he considered a “botched”, “bungled” report. I’ve still yet to read exactly where the mistake was. All the facts were corroborated since the article was published. The White House, however, cleverly diverted the criticism away from what was happening in Guantanamo, and shifted the criticism to how the Press was out of control by saying things that lead to horrible consequences.

Newsweek retracts the story, saying mistakes were made. But what exactly were those mistakes? I’m not really certain. But in these times when the White House is brandishing so much power, it’s difficult to tell how sincere Newsweek is in their apology. After all, any news organization that gets shut out of the White House might as well take up internet porn for a living, because their business of journalism is through.

Was Newsweek irresponsible? Or were the Guantanamo interrogators irresponsible? It’s like when we were kids. Is stealing candy from the store isn’t bad, or is getting caught stealing candy bad? Here is the where the Neo-Cons apply their newly invented “dance of the seven veils” that cleverly disguises the truth in a very alluring way.

Even the President jumped in the fray. He made a personal statement to the news saying that Newsweek should do even more than a retraction. Try to find that story in a news archive now. I can’t. But I read it on Yahoo. Regardless, for the President and/or The White House to insinuate their policy into Newsweek’s policies (Newsweek ended up modifying its policy regarding anonymous sources) is an egregious assault on the freedom of the press.

Apparently, the source used by Newsweek was not credible. Hmmm. The story turned out to be true, though. So where was Newsweek’s big mistake? The mistake that was stated was that they used an anonymous source that lacked credibility. Their de facto mistake was to criticize the current administration.

Enter Mark Felt, stage left. At a time when the use of anonymous sources is being discredited, the most famous anonymous source in history “outs” himself. I think … to prove a point. Anonymous sources are credible, Mr. President. The Press can be trusted to know the difference between a liar and someone who is afraid to tell their story publicly for fear of reprisal. And in this day and age, reprisals clearly happen to those who speak out against the current administration.

Perfect timing, Mr. Felt!

This smokescreen of how some members of the press are “taking sides” is absolutely dangerous. The press SHOULD be allowed to take sides. They took sides when President Clinton made his indiscretions, and I did not see any attack on the Press from the White House then.

The incorrect concept that the press should be neutral what people learn in High School journalism class about writing news articles, but is not a requirement of the Press in general. Get that idea out of your head, people. The press is not supposed to be neutral. They are supposed to be the opposition when an opposition is needed.

And these days, opposition is sorely needed.

PS. I got some of these ideas while chatting on the phone with Brian, who is away in Paris. I’ve stolen his ideas before, however, and I will due it again. So sue me!

Also, E. J. Dionne of the Seattle Times says some interesting things on the topic as well. I highly recommend this column.


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