In the July 1974 issue of Commentary magazine, before Richard Nixon resigned from office, Edward Jay Epstein asked in a memorable essay: “Did the press uncover Watergate?” Epstein asked more specifically “who was ‘Deep Throat’ and what was his motivation for leaking information to Woodward and Bernstein?” He inferred that Deep Throat was likely a high-ranking officer of the FBI. (My vague recollection is that he actually named Mark Felt, but if so it is in a part of the essay not available on Epstein’s site). Epstein wrote:
Whether Deep Throat is real or fictive, it is clear that the arduous and time-consuming investigation by Woodward and Bernstein of Segretti was heavily based on FBI “302″ reports, which must ultimately have been made available by someone in the FBI. The prosecutors suggest that there was a veritable revolt against the directorship of L. Patrick Gray, because he was “too liberal.” Specifically, he was allowing agents to wear colored shirts, grow their hair long, and was even recruiting women. More important, he had publicly reprimanded an FBI executive. According to this theory, certain FBI executives released the “302″ files, not to expose the Watergate conspiracy or drive President Nixon from office, but simply to demonstrate to the President that Gray could not control the FBI, and therefore would prove a severe embarrassment to his administration. In other words, the intention was to get rid of Gray.
Such a theory would be perfectly consistent with the information-disclosing activities of the source that led Bernstein and Woodward astray. Ironically, even on the wrong trail, the stalwart Bernstein and Woodward generated enough damaging publicity about “Watergate” to cause the White House to vilify them and the Washington Post, and thus elevate them to the status of journalistic martyr-heroes. If instead of chastising the press, President Nixon and his staff had correctly identified the “signals” from the FBI, and had replaced Gray with an FBI executive, things might have turned out differently. (But Gray, as it happened, had acquired damaging files from Hunt’s safe, and could engage in his own information-releasing game, if threatened.)
Epstein subsequently concluded that Deep Throat was fictive rather than real. See Timothy Noah’s excellent 2002 Slate column: “Yes, Virginia, there is a Deep Throat.” Noah too speculated that Felt was Deep Throat, but Epstein’s 1974 essay is a model of the kind of sophisticated analysis that has been sorely lacking in reflection on the press use of anonymous sources since Watergate. In retrospect, Epstein’s 1974 analysis seems prescient.
The conclusion of Epstein’s essay is of continuing relevance to the mythical role imputed to the press in uncovering Watergate. The journalistic sense of self-importance that flowed from the myth has become a dynamo of destruction. Epstein wrote in his 1974 essay:
Perhaps the most perplexing mystery in Bernstein and Woodward’s book [All the President’s Men] is why they fail to understand the role of the institutions and investigators who were supplying them and other reporters with leaks. This blind spot, endemic to journalists, proceeds from an unwillingness to see the complexity of bureaucratic in-fighting and of politics within the government itself. If the government is considered monolithic, journalists can report its activities, in simply comprehended and coherent terms, as an adversary out of touch with popular sentiments. On the other hand, if governmental activity is viewed as the product of diverse and competing agencies, all with different bases of power and interests, journalism becomes a much more difficult affair.
In any event, the fact remains that it was not the press, which exposed Watergate; it was agencies of government itself. So long as journalists maintain their blind spot toward the inner conflicts and workings of the institution, of government, they will no doubt continue to speak of Watergate in terms of the David and Goliath myth, with Bernstein and Woodward as David and the government as Goliath.
UPDATE: Edward Jay Epstein writes:
You are correct in your memory. I mentioned Mark Felt in my book Between Fact & Fiction in adding to my Commentary article. The entire issue is simply another attempt to pretend journalism is some deep mystery. Mark Felt had it right when [he] said DT was a composite. And you are entirely right in your interpretation.
David Maizenberg writes:
I think Ed Epstein, in that original Commentary piece, was following the model of analysis set by Graham T. Allison in the seminal Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis. The “third take” in that book explains how an analysis of bureaucratic in-fighting is often the best lens through which to view political events.
I have always thought that the truly savvy political players are disdainful of journalists not because they have vulgar and transparent biases and are often sloppy (all that was obvious long before Power Line made so much hay of pointing it out), but because they are so egotistical and easily manipulated. The best journalists understand most acutely that they are being played; most journalists, however, think that they are players.
UPDATE 2: See Timothy Noah’s Slate column of this evening: “Deep Throat, antihero.” Also of interest are the Washington Post’s backgrounder, “The motives that drove Felt to talk,” and the Telegraph column by Nixon biographer Jonathan Aitken, “Deep Throat: The plot thickens.”