Source-press partnership remains important to democracy

August 21, 2005|By C. Fraser Smith

BOB WOODWARD'S book about W. Mark Felt, perhaps the most famous source in the history of journalism, is a text for our democracy. Like his Watergate book, All The President's Men, it's a good yarn even if you know the plot. The characters are compelling, even heroic. And the real world stakes were as high as they get - then and now.

The secret man stuff ought to be just the come-on. The book should be read as a procedural on the interplay between sources and the press - a partnership the press has neglected, at its peril, to discuss until recently.

At its edgy best, the press puts officialdom in fear of having its business on Page One of the newspapers. Even now, when the status of newspapers as an important piece of the democratic machinery is being undermined, people still depend on independent, professional reporting to inform and alert them. Even radio talk show hosts see the importance of revelations about what bit of public land is being sold to insiders at bargain prices.

But how does a reporter learn of such abuses? Typically, some far less romantic and high-level personage than Mark Felt will be offended by shenanigans only he and a few others see. He or she may then find a reporter and, as they say, drop the dime.

There are many other ways important information makes its way into the news stream, of course: careful reading of documents, careful attention to the sometimes boring fare of public meetings, application of a curious mind to odd convergences in the public realm, and so on. Mr. Woodward showed up at a routine police arraignment, for example, and managed to hear that some of those characters in the dock were connected to the Central Intelligence Agency. One thing leads to another.

It was not quite that easy, of course. A road map was necessary. Enter Mr. Felt, the FBI's No. 2 man, a seasoned and wily bureaucrat skilled enough to survive as a source at the very highest level of national government. Had he been found out, he would have been gone from government, a source no longer. There may be no better example of why the protection of sources is important - and why reasonable reporter shield laws are needed at the national level.

The book shows how close to being "outed" Mr. Felt was on several occasions. He was vulnerable because some in government realized what an almost universal vantage point he held - how much of the vital information about Watergate passed through his hands. No wonder he contrived such an elaborate web of communication with Mr. Woodward and his partner at The Washington Post, Carl Bernstein.

He pointed them in the right direction. He suggested avenues of inquiry. He warned them away from blind alleys. He limited their access to him, thus limiting his personal exposure, hoping he could give the story legitimacy beyond his knowledge of it - something he and the newspaper needed for somewhat different reasons. He was more than a leaker.

He was a sophisticated operative, to say the least. He knew that a misstep by his relatively young reporter allies might stop the entire enterprise. It was difficult enough for the reporters and the Post to keep going after a president.

Some have suggested that personal ambition - Mr. Felt's belief that he should succeed J. Edgar Hoover at the FBI - motivated him as much as his concern about White House abuses. Sources, to be sure, are not always, if ever, pure of heart. Sorting it out - finding the useful and legitimate information while editing out the self-serving - is part of the chore.

Mr. Felt's approach to the story he was telling - helping reporters confirm its elements from sources independent of him - probably reduced any concern about his more personal motivation.

In addition to all its mystery and intrigue, this story illustrates another important point. A story of incandescent value can spring from the most routine circumstances. Mark Felt of the FBI met Bob Woodward, then a junior officer in the U.S. Navy, at the White House while both were engaged in something akin to the work of gofers. They took each other's measure and stayed in touch.

The White House would bring them together again for more important work.

C. Fraser Smith is news director for WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays.

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