Fair Warning! Rabbit Hole Argument. Should Woodward and Bernstein Have Mentioned Their Sources’ Motives for Leaking Information

I’m of the opinion that Watergate did a huge disservice to the American electorate in glorifying unnamed sourcing in stories without having to reveal possible motives for the source’s leaking. This review of a new book discusses Mark Felt’s rather Machiavellian actions in trying to secure the Directorship of the FBI. Did he do the country a service? I have to wonder.

21 Responses

  1. If the Nixon WH, as the article suggests, were on to Felt in October 1972, it seems they did a dismal job of dealing with what they knew. Why’s that? Why did those who knew or suspected they knew Deep Throat’s identity, aside from W&B, stay mum for 30 years? Wouldn’t they also have a reason to mention Felt’s possible motivation?

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  2. I think Bernstein’s been lying (ask William “I talk even in a coma” Casey,) in that Deep Throat was more than just Felt. It’s also funny to think that if Felt had been named as FBI Director he would have actively suppressed all the info he gave to the Post and would have delightfully ferreted out other leakers. Had he been Director, Nixon would have finished his term.

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  3. Ultimately though, if the reader had known that Deep Throat was squeezing like Ned Beatty in Deliverance because he was pissed about not getting a promotion, would they have been more or less likely to believe Felt? If less likely, how far would it have gone? Did the reader deserve to know his (Felt’s) motivation? If not, why not?

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  4. Troll, IMO you’re really stretching here for a conspiracy. Even if your conspiracy is correct, what difference do you contend it makes today?

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  5. Oh, no conspiracy, Bernstein’s a known liar (see Casey reference earlier) and so there was, despite his denials, no one Deep Throat, but many sources and his suppositions rolled into character he called Deep Throat and told others was Mark Felt so that he could get the Post to print the story. I think Felt got the bulk of the credit because the Editor, Bradlee, and the lawyers, needed a name to hang their hat on.

    My question is, if you knew at the time that Deep Throat was very bitter about not getting a promotion and that was his motivation (that and his desire to try and engineer himself into the job) would the stories have had less credibility to you? I’d not, why not?

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  6. Don’t know what “Casey reference earlier” you want folks to dive for, but I’m not making the effort. I repeat, what difference do you contend this makes today even if true? This has every characteristic of another rabbit hole. No thanks, unless you have something really solid. (“really solid” does NOT equal WND and like)

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  7. You almost have to assume all sources have an ulterior motive. The question is whether his information was accurate and complete and if not, what was he hiding or protecting?

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  8. Pretending anyone would know what they’d do or how they’d react to events of nearly 40 years ago if one or more circumstances were somehow altered is, for me, an exercise akin to armchair quarterbacking. We could argue just about any past event in this manner. No thanks.

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  9. Okie, what is “WND”?

    George, we would have to read the book to determine if the author had evidence of Felt having lied. Did you read the book? Has the author said someplace else what “lies” Felt may have told? I thought we already knew that there were other sources aside from Deep Throat.

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  10. Okie and others, I’m diving down the rabbit hole so those not interested, let this serve as a warning. I beg the forgiveness of those who wasted this time and will annotate the title as a warning to others.

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  11. I contend that had the public know the motivations of Mark Felt, he would not have been believed.

    Okie, I find your comment “No thanks, unless you have something really solid. (“really solid” does NOT equal WND and like)” absolutely fascinating.

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  12. Mark,

    Nope, I haven’t read the book. I do know Felt’s motives were entirely self serving. If that was known, would Deep Throat been believed?

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    • George, “self serving” or otherwise motivated allegations are suspect. Investigators do not ignore them, they just look for corroboration before acting. Same is true for plaintiffs’ attorneys. And for defense attorneys. All plaintiffs’ complaints are self serving and all defendant’s denials are self serving. That is why solid corroboration is essential. We put the burden of proof on plaintiffs partly because it is so difficult to prove a negative. So it should be for investigative reporters.

      Without having read any of this, I would assume that a leak from a high FBI official would both be taken more seriously than one from a clerk, and with more suspicion, at the same time.

      My recollection is that the leaks were pursued and ultimately were found to have merit. Are you suggesting that W&B, also motivated to break a big story, should have sat on it? Should have had more corroboration, themselves before publishing [I don’t know the state of the record about that, or perhaps no longer recall if I did know]?

      Sometimes the quality of the information – its specificity, the inclusion of the names of persons who can corroborate, the dovetailing with other known facts – can outweigh the known motivation of the witness for the investigator or for the fact finder.

      I’m trying to fully discuss this, because I think the short answer to your question is loosely “trust, but verify”.

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  13. “I’m trying to fully discuss this, because I think the short answer to your question is loosely “trust, but verify”.”

    I tend to think that W&B “sold” to Bradlee the idea that Felt was their source and, due to his high rank w/in the FBI, was his own corroboration. That’s obviously speculation on my part.

    Getting back to my original question though, was the reader entitled to know that Deep Throat’s motivation was completely self-serving (if not, why not)? As a side question, if the reader was allowed to know would there have been enough political pressure for Nixon to resign? Finally, if describing even in general terms the motivation of your unnamed source could / would reveal their identity (in this case saying “a high ranking FBI official bitter about being passed over for a promotion”) and you think a source’s motivation needs to be revealed, would the stories have run?

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    • Getting back to my original question though, was the reader entitled to know that Deep Throat’s motivation was completely self-serving (if not, why not)?

      No. However, if the source is uncorroborated, either by other testimony or other facts that are known, the reporter should not print the story.

      As a side question, if the reader was allowed to know would there have been enough political pressure for Nixon to resign?

      As I recall, yes. The Articles of Impeachment were returned after the Erwin-Baker Committee investigation. I and the nation followed those hearings and their revelations in shocked awe. I never read the WaPo then or the NYT, but it was the testimony to the Committee, coupled with the Elliott Richardson matter that led to the impeachment. If W&B had a role, it was that their story led the Erwin-Baker investigators to look for the material that they discovered. Maybe DC insiders saw it differently. I was doing trial work in Austin at the time and only catching the highlights of Erwin-Baker at night. But it was fascinating like a trainwreck and it was an awful time to be a lawyer.

      Finally, if describing even in general terms the motivation of your unnamed source could / would reveal their identity (in this case saying “a high ranking FBI official bitter about being passed over for a promotion”) and you think a source’s motivation needs to be revealed, would the stories have run?

      No.

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  14. I think it’s fair to assume that a significant fraction of leakers have a personal agenda for doing so. Being surprised that Felt had personal reasons for leaking is akin to being shocked to find out gambling is going on in this establishment.

    It’s a bit more interesting regarding Deep Throat being a synthesis. A bit of fog or war for the Nixon administration? As the revelations were the story as opposed to Deep Throat, not a significant concern for me.

    In a related matter, have folks been following the kerfuffle regarding The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs? The interview of Daisy in the retraction by This American Life was painful. He’s one of a long line of Fabulists.

    We’re a household with six iThingies (iPad, iPad2, iTouch, 2 iPhones, and an iPod Nano) and now one Kindle. I discovered about the latter when the case arrived. My wife had spent a day of her per diem on it. I was amused, though I do really like the E-ink display.

    BB

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  15. Troll: Troll, IMO you’re really stretching here for a conspiracy.

    I’m not sure I see the stretch, although I will say that Bernstein may be credibility challenged in regards some interviews conducted with people without brain activity.

    Getting back to my original question though, was the reader entitled to know that Deep Throat’s motivation was completely self-serving

    I don’t think so. I say caveat emptor. Every reader should assume that folks who leak or blow whistles, especially anonymously, have self-serving motivations or delusions of grandeur and are trying to be puppet masters, or something. Everything should be taken with a grain of salt.

    I think it’s fair to assume that a significant fraction of leakers have a personal agenda for doing so.

    100%. Even if it’s not a monetary or career motivation, there’s a desire to right wrongs (in their opinion) or manipulate the situation to something they find ideologically or politically better. Otherwise, why do it?

    I watched that Shattered Glass movie recently. In every case, I had to ask myself: if this is remotely representative of what went on, and the editors weren’t having red flags go up all over the place, there’s something wrong with their sense of skepticism. And the patience his people demonstrated over his clear (and sloppy) coverups before finally blowing up, way too late . . . perhaps the movie takes too much license. I dunno.

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  16. I thought it was Woodward who claimed to have interviewed Casey. Do I have that backwards? If it was Woodward, how does that challenge Bernstein’s credibility?

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  17. it was woodward.

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  18. My bad on Woodward. Shows you that what you think you know is what you know you should check. Thanks to both of you. An again, apologies on not warning ahead of time about Rabbit Holes and time wasters!

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