Deep Throat Mark Felt Has Sense for Journalism History – and Irony

So now we know Mark Felt, a former No. 2 man at the FBI, was infamous Watergate informant Deep Throat. His was the voice that launched 1,000 journalism careers and helped bring down the Nixon White House. He also is indirectly responsible for Washington Post reporter Bob Woodard’s novel-writing career, but we shouldn’t hold that against him.

Now 91 years old, felt wanted his identity known so his legacy would not go gently into the modern news media light. And, I believe, because Felt has a keen nose for irony.

This is, after all, the guy who made journalism seem exotic, like something out of a pulp fiction novel. If Watergate happened a decade or so earlier, James Bond would have been a crack investigative reporter for the London Times who drank bourbon instead of gin. Now the careers of whom Felt’s secret role as celebrity informant inspired are the same media sycophants who are covering his story.

I can’t imagine what Felt must be thinking – he risked his job and possibly his life to do something he believed in, and what does he have to show for it? Chris Matthews, Michael Jackson trial re-creations and shocking exposes about former pop stars sleeping with aspiring pop stars. For this he hung out in parking garages at 4 a.m.?

It also may not be coincidental that Felt, arguably the most famous unnamed source in journalism history, revealed himself after Newsweek retracted a story based on unsubstantiated information from an unnamed source. Deep Throat created the unnamed source (reporters call these “deep background” sources), and inadvertently gave license to aspiring journalists to use “off the record” or background sources whenever they believed it necessary.

The problem is it’s almost never necessary. A President committing criminal acts? Yeah, you got an FBI No. 2 who wants to talk on deep background, that’s worth the risk. Flushing a Qoran down the toilet? I don’t think so. Unnamed sources made that story a joke, and now that real reporting has discovered that the incident or others like may have actually occurred, no one believes it. Newsweek cried wolf and now no one is listening, all because of an unnamed source.

Most unnamed sources are cowards, and most reporters who use them are lazy. But Felt was a rare breed – a background source who risked it all, a patriot in a three-piece suit (yes, he also had a lot to gain from ridding Nixon’s influence over the FBI, but so did others). And Woodward and fellow Post reporter Carl Bernstein were hard working and relentless, and did plenty of “real” reporting with real named sources to make their stories hold up.

There will be a backlash – Felt will be portrayed as an opportunist, a publicity seeker. The extreme right will ostracize him; professional blowhard Pat Buchanan has already called Felt a “traitor.” This is what we do to people in America, embrace them as friends and then turn against them as if they just killed our dog.

But Felt will also be remembered as someone who took a risk when that still meant something. He did it without the promise of satellite media tours, book deals or a spot on the next Barbara Walters special. It’s hard to imagine anyone in a similar situation today keeping a secret like that for 30 minutes, much less 30 years.

Now we know, Mark Felt is Deep Throat. The mystery is over. I just hope the now nearly extinct journalistic legacy of investigative reporting he inspired will survive.

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