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June 06, 2005

Deep Throat and Press Vanity

A couple of good points:

A "sustaining myth of journalism," as Epstein wrote 30 years ago in Commentary about the book All the President's Men, holds that reporters pry secrets out of government. What's really going on is slightly less heroic, he believes. When sources leak, they do so for a host of reasons, but most often to damage their official rivals. Journalists suffer from a "blind spot" that keeps them from appreciating the complex infighting taking place inside government bureaucracies.


What moved Felt to leak, Woodward writes, were the corrupting political pressures the White House was applying to the FBI. Woodward writes of how threatened the FBI was by a 1970 White House plan, which proposed using the FBI, CIA, and military intelligence to increase surveillance of "domestic security threats." Hoover opposed the Huston plan, as it was known, because it encroached upon the bureau's domestic sleuthing.

Now, if ever there were a corrupt organization, it was J. Edgar Hoover's FBI. With his stash of detailed dossiers on politicians from both parties, Hoover kept all presidents on a short leash and obliged their darker impulses, as when he wiretapped Martin Luther King Jr. at the behest of the Kennedy administration.


What Woodward doesn't explain is why Felt thought Nixon's ambitions made him a Nazi, but the FBI's slimy domestic surveillance programs didn't tar the bureau with the same brush. ... The Hoover FBI wanted to be the only semi-fascistic national police force on the scene and would repel all trespassers.


Epstein believes reporters err too often by viewing the operations of government as monolithic instead of the "product of diverse and competing" interests. He's especially critical of those who believe Woodward and Bernstein "revealed" Watergate. In his Commentary article, Epstein provides a timeline that credits FBI investigators, federal prosecutors, a grand jury, and congressional committees with unearthing and developing "all the actual evidence and disclosures of Watergate." All the President's Men gives Woodward and Bernstein excessive credit for uncovering Watergate, he writes, because it focuses primarily on the parts of the government's case that were leaked to them, rather than the whole story.

What makes Mark Felt such a satisfying Deep Throat candidate is that he conforms to the Epstein formula of the self-interested leaker. He wasn't an idealist or a whistle-blower or a patriot. He was just another vigilant protector of Washington turf, a player who didn't want his side to lose.

Reading All the President's Men is a bit disappointing, because you do get the sense -- a bit hidden by the narrative -- that mostly what Woodward & Bernstein were doing was leaking info already collected by the grand jury or federal prosecutors. Yes, they were doing their jobs as reporters, but they weren't really detectives. They mostly just leaked the findings of the detectives (sometimes erroneously).

Still a big story, obviously. But it's just a press-sustained myth that Woodward and Bernstein "got" Nixon. They reported on those who were getting Nixon. They didn't find much new information themselves.

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posted by Ace at 11:56 AM

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