When reporters were heroes

The scandal that brought down a president marked the heyday of print journalism.

June 05, 2005|By John Woestendiek and Paul West | John Woestendiek and Paul West,SUN STAFF

When "Deep Throat" first cloaked himself in secrecy, W. Mark Felt was the nation's No. 2 crime fighter, the presidency was headed into some of its darkest days ever and the news media were on the verge of what would be their brightest.

Today, more than 30 years later, Felt is a 91-year-old stroke victim who uses a walker. The presidency has, despite some bumps, rebounded. And the news media are limping through a mire of scandal, public distrust and self-doubt.

Felt's disclosure that he was the nation's most famous anonymous source comes at a time - ironically or not - when the press, and newspapers in particular, is re-examining not just that practice, but its very soul.

Battered by those who consider it too liberal, more concerned with profits than pursuing truth, some critics say, and left reeling after a series of blows to its integrity - from the fabricated reporting of Stephen Glass to Jayson Blair to Jack Kelly - the industry, fearful of its future, is endlessly re-examining itself as readership steadily declines.

It's a far cry from the years after the Watergate scandal was exposed, leading to Nixon's resignation, when newspapering became noble, cool, even, in some circles, respected.

Ed Asner played the gruff, but lovable, city editor Lou Grant on television. Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman played Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein on the big screen. Journalism schools were inundated with applications. In the late 1970s, newspapering had a heyday.

Journalism was like a proud bulldog then - maybe, some would argue, a bit too quick to pounce. Today, by comparison, many on its front lines would describe it more along the lines of a quivering Chihuahua.

Against that backdrop, some in the business view the revelation of "Deep Throat's" identity - that he was real, that he was right, that he was protected - as evidence that unnamed sources, in some cases, have their place.

For others, the disclosure of "Deep Throat," in the coming issue of Vanity Fair, is a much-needed public reminder that the press is a vital part of a democracy.

"That was a moment in which the democratic system worked and journalism played an important role in its working," said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

"We're looking back at it now almost with a sense of nostalgia because there haven't been great moments for the press to revel in since then. When people talk about the press, they talk about its failings now."

"There have been small heroic moments - like nursing home and mental institution investigations - but the big, breathtaking, stop-the-democracy moment hasn't occurred lately. ... We could have done it with Iraq and weapons of mass destruction, but the press is patriotic and nationalistic and nationalism trumped the investigative instinct." Instead, she said "journalists rolled over and played dead."

While some criticize the modern-day media as lax; others still see them as overly aggressive. More harmful to their image, though, have been the much-publicized cases of sloppy and flat-out bogus reporting.

In 1998, Stephen Glass was fired for making up quotes, people, places, even entire events, in articles he wrote for The New Republic magazine and others. His fall from grace was the subject of the 2003 bad-reporter movie, Shattered Glass, which hit the screen 27 years after the Watergate-inspired reporter-as-hero movie, All The President's Men.

After Glass came Jayson Blair, The New York Times reporter, and former University of Maryland student, fired for making up sources and stories. Then came Jack Kelly, forced to resign from USA Today for similar reasons.

USA Today says it has reduced its use of anonymous sources - an "evil" practice in the view of the newspaper's founder, Al Neuharth - by 75 percent in the past year, and across the country, hundreds of newspapers are considering or have already established policies prohibiting or restricting the use of unnamed sources.

Too heavy a reliance on unnamed sources was a factor in both Newsweek's controversial Quran-abuse story and CBS' report on President Bush's National Guard record.

Just last month, Newsweek retracted a story that, based on anonymous sources, said investigators at Guantanamo Bay prison, as part of their interrogations, had flushed a copy of the Quran down the toilet - an article some blamed for leading to deadly riots in Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, two nationally known reporters - one from The New York Times, one from Time magazine - still await final say on whether they will face jail time for failing to reveal who disclosed to them the identity of CIA agent Valerie Plame.

The lesson of Watergate, if not the legacy of "Deep Throat," Jamieson said, is that anonymous sources aren't the end of a reporter's search, but a beginning.

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