Media Ethics Lesson: Deep Throat

feltAmerica’s most famous anonymous source, Mark Felt, or Deep Throat as he was better known to the world as, died yesterday at the age of 95.

From Washington Post:

As the second-highest official in the FBI under longtime director J. Edgar Hoover and interim director L. Patrick Gray, Felt detested the Nixon administration’s attempt to subvert the bureau’s investigation into the complex of crimes and coverups known as the Watergate scandal that ultimately led to the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon.

He secretly guided Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward as he and his colleague Carl Bernstein pursued the story of the 1972 break-in of the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters at the Watergate office buildings and later revelations of the Nixon administration’s campaign of spying and sabotage against its perceived political enemies.

By the way, All the President’s Men is a slamming movie, as is Frost/Nixon, which I will speak more about in a later post. But I digress.

Woodward and Bernstein promised to not reveal Deep Throat’s identity until after his/her death or the person gave consent to be revealed. According to his book, The Secret Man, Woodward speculates on Felt’s reasons for keeping silent about his identity as Deep Throat for so many years. Following the Watergate scandal, Felt was seriously investigated by the F.B.I. for possible illegal activities that he had committed as an agent during the Hoover years. In 1980, Felt was convicted of the felony of violating the civil rights of people thought to be associated with members of the Weather Underground by ordering FBI agents to search their homes as part of an attempt to prevent bombings. He was ordered to pay a $7,000 fine but was pardoned by President Ronald Reagan during his appeal.

During the time he was being investigated, Woodward says, Felt needed to preserve his law enforcement ties. He would have placed these ties in serious jeopardy if he had revealed his role as Deep Throat. After Felt’s 1980 conviction, Woodward reports, he called Felt and asked if it would help Felt’s appeal of the conviction if Woodward were to spread Felt’s secret. Felt took exception to his suggestion, under the pretense that if he were revealed as Deep Throat, it would have a pernicious effect on his appeal.

Here are my questions:

Do you think it is ethical for journalists to keep their sources anonymous for an undetermined amount of time?

Yes, I think it was correct for Bernstein and Woodward to protect Felt’s identity. While I am a big supporter of transparency, there are times when it is necessary to protect the source from any backlash.

Is it possible for sources to stay anonymous in the age of new media and 24-hour cable networks?

Probably not. Even if a reporter did try to protect its source, the blogosphere would pick up the story anyway. Remember, Felt had been rumored to be Deep Throat for over ten years prior to his revelation. Some blog (maybe mine!) would have found out the truth.

Your thoughts…

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