The death of Deep Throat

Former FBI associate director Mark Felt — better known as Deep Throat — died this week. Felt’s death at the ripe old age of 95 lends support to the sentiment that only the good die young. Felt was of course the anonymous source for much of Woodward and Bernstein’s Watergate coverage in the Washington Post. The Post’s long obituary therefore represents something like the authorized version of his story. It is headlined “Lawman’s unwavering compass led him to White House showdown.”

Edward Jay Epstein never bought the authorized version of the Deep Throat saga. In the July 1974 issue of Commentary, before Richard Nixon resigned from office as a result of Watergate, 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. He actually reported that Felt was the likely suspect:

The prosecutors at the Department of Justice now believe that the mysterious source was probably Mark W. Felt, Jr., who was then a deputy associate director of the FBI, because one statement the reporters attribute to “Deep Throat” could only have been made by Felt. (I personally suspect that in the best traditions of the New Journalism, “Deep Throat” is a composite character.) Whether or not the prosecutors are correct, 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.

It remains to be seen whether Deep Throat was in fact a composite character principally composed of Felt. Epstein may or may not have erred in his speculation in that respect. Regardless of the identity of Deep Throat, Epstein’s commentary on the meaning of Deep Throat’s service to Woodward and Bernstein leaves that of the mainstream media in the dust:

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 journalistic use of anonymous sources since Watergate. In retrospect, Epstein’s 1974 analysis is 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.

Epstein’s seminal essay is included in his book Between Fact & Fiction. In a message to us in 2005 at the time that Felt identified himself as Deep Throat, Epstein wrote: “The entire issue is simply another attempt to pretend journalism is some deep mystery.”

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