Thursday, January 24, 2008

Books, Books, Books 3

I enjoyed “STATE OF DENIAL: Bush at War Part 3” and “THE SECRET MAN: The Story of Watergate’s Deep Throat” both of which were authored by Bob Woodward. For the uninitiated, Bob Woodward was the Washington Post investigative journalist who, together with Carl Bernstein, reported the Watergate break-in in 1972 which eventually led to President Nixon’s resignation a few years later. His first book “All The President’s Men” published in 1974 was an instant bestseller and was adapted into a movie in 1976 starring Robert Redford as Woodward and Dustin Hoffman as Carl Bernstein.

Deep Throat made Bob Woodward. His Watergate expose, which he wrote when he was just in his mid-20s, made him famous not only in the U.S. but in the whole world. All of the ten books he subsequently authored or co-authored so far were consistent no. 1 bestsellers. Because of his celebrity status, he has amassed a wide network of contacts and unprecedented access to the “corridors of power.” I enjoy reading his books because they are always full of insider information and intimate details about who’s who in American politics.

Of the two books, I found the “THE SECRET MAN” more interesting. “THE SECRET MAN” is about Deep Throat, Woodward’s enigmatic source who helped him and Bernstein decode the Watergate scandal in 1972 (played by Hal Holbrook in the movie “All the President’s Men.” It was Deep Throat who advised Robert Redford to “follow the money” and the phrase has since become one of Hollywood’s most memorable lines). In the book, Woodward finally confirms Deep Throat to be Mark Felt, the No. 2 man in the FBI during Nixon’s time. Felt was a career civil servant and a protégé of J. Edgar Hoover. Deeply resentful of being passed over by Nixon, he felt no allegiance to the man and when the opportunity arose to hit back at the man who refused to promote him Mark Felt struck back.

I found “THE SECRET MAN” fascinating not because I wanted to learn about Deep Throat’s true identity (Mark Felt already came out in 2005) but because it tackles a common and very difficult dilemma faced by journalists today – how to protect confidential sources. Up to this day, the code of journalism has no clear-cut rules on when or under what circumstances a reporter can reveal the identity of their confidential informants. “THE SECRET MAN” offers an intimate insight into the pressures, struggles and difficulties Woodward had to face in safeguarding Deep Throat’s identity for the last 33 years. It was not an easy thing to do considering that Deep Throat aroused great interest not only in the political circles of Washington D.C. (where secrets do not keep for long) but the American general public as well. In fact, due to this immense public interest, the subject has spawned an entire genre of conspiracy theory books and Deep Throat has become some sort of “Americana enigma” (akin to the UFO sightings in Roswell or the Manhattan Project or the JFK assassination). In fact, one student from Turlock, California even chose it as a subject for his masters’ thesis (The said thesis paper, a copy of which was sent to Woodward, systemically considered 120 possible Deep Throat suspects, including Nixon’s nephew, Nixon’s brother, even Nixon’s personal secretary Rose Mary Woods. In the end the student guessed wrong.)

Going back to the subject of sources' confidentiality, Woodward claims that there are basically two schools of thought on the matter. One school maintains that journalists can reveal the identity of their confidential sources only upon the person’s consent. The other, more strident school of thought insists that journalists have a sacred duty to protect their sources and that they can reveal only after their sources’ death (with some even suggesting a period of 20 years after the person has died). As a celebrity journalist, Bob Woodward regularly gets invited to give a speech in various fora and every time he was asked whether the identity of Deep Throat would ever be known, his answer would invariably be that “it should be revealed only after his death, unless in his lifetime he changed his mind and agreed to have it disclosed.”

Woodward was prepared to wait until after Mark Felt died to reveal that he was Deep Throat but on May 31, 2005, he was surprised to read an article in Vanity Fair entitled “I’m the Guy They Called Deep Throat.” The author of the article was John O’Connor, Felt’s lawyer, and (as the title not so subtly suggests) it basically says Mark Felt admitted to his family that he was the person people referred to as Deep Throat and that he has decided to surface to bring some clarity to the issue. Woodward initially declined to confirm the Vanity Fair article, believing he had promised Felt unconditional confidentiality till his death. Also, at the time of the Vanity Fair article, Felt was already 91 years old and was suffering from dementia - his memory was all but erased. Woodward justifiably felt something was amiss but in the end, his editors at the Washington Post prevailed upon him to confirm Felt’s claim in order to bring closure to the issue. He issued a curt press statement: “W. Mark Felt was Deep Throat and helped us immeasurably in our Watergate coverage. However, as the record shows, many other sources and officials assisted us and other reporters for the hundreds of stories written in the Washington Post.”

It is perhaps the height of irony that the greatest “iskoopero” of all time, Bob Woodward, would be out-scooped not by some heavy investigative media outfit but by a magazine more known for its light entertainment and lifestyle articles.


akosistella said...

Actually Oli, the press statement was issued on June 1, 2005 before the Vanity Fair July issue hit the newsstands. VF contacted Woodward and Bernstein for comment which forced them to issue the press statement.

Also, VF is known not only for its entertainment and lifestyle articles, it is actually popular because of its hard-hitting investigative news stories, especially on politics and business.

I'm a regular subscriber of VF, which is required reading for anyone who wants to know more about corruption in Washington, and yes, the color of David Beckham's underwear :-)

akosistella said...

Oops, you're apparently right Oli, and I'm having another senior moment. While the VF story came out in July, the mag did issue a press release to announce its Felt story a month before.