April 28, 2008
As the Senate considers the pending federal shield law, many of you have urged its speedy passage. Missing from the arguments in favor of the bill has been any real discussion of how your profession proposes to police itself when one or more of you abuses the privilege of protecting an anonymous source. For 34 years your profession has failed to do so with the most famous anonymous source of them all.
When Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward published All the President’s Men in 1974, some of your peers knew immediately that “Deep Throat” was a fabrication, a fictional composite made up from multiple real sources. I know this because several of them - well-known investigative reporters and an editor -- have told me so, complete with background and specifics. Each of them chose to remain silent while the two perpetrators of this fraud became cultural heroes; while the teaching of both American history and 20th century journalism rested on falsehood; and most important, while two generations of young Americans were brought up believing a lie.
It’s one thing for a reporter to protect the names of real sources and be willing to go to jail in the process; that’s honorable and makes a good argument for a federal shield law. It’s quite another for a pair of reporters to publicly attribute high-level whistle-blowing to a fictional composite named “Deep Throat,” then to wait 31 years for one of the actual sources to enter dementia before falsely claiming him to be the one (and the only one), all in order to sell an after-the-fact book and movie, thereby enriching themselves by millions of dollars and falsely elevating themselves above you, their more ethical peers. That fraud needs to be exposed and roundly condemned.
That “Deep Throat” was a fabricated composite is no longer disputable. Woodward and Bernstein have provided their own “smoking gun” by selling their reporters’ notes and other papers to the University of Texas for $5 million, a deal they struck in 2003 while the identity of “Deep Throat” was still theirs to withhold. (The contract allowed them to hold back notes of still-secret living sources.) As the notes he was finally forced to deliver to Texas prove, Woodward’s “Deep Throat” was fabricated from multiple real sources, two of whom are still alive and one of whom - Donald Santarelli, a prominent attorney who was a Justice Department official during Watergate - has verified that a set of notes claimed by Woodward to be of an interview with Mark Felt was actually with him. The story that Woodward and Bernstein have been selling for 34 years is a fiction.
The details are laid out in my book, In Nixon’s Web: A Year in the Crosshairs of Watergate, published March 4, 2008 by Times Books.
I now ask that each of you who knows the truth to speak out publicly, to say in your respective outlets what you have told me, or others, directly. I ask the rest of you to examine the evidence and then to speak out just as loudly. To do anything less will be to demonstrate to the rest of us that your profession deserves no federal shield. Just the opposite, in fact.
I know you don’t want to do this. I know that for those of you not already aware of it, the truth will be hard to accept. At the early stages of Watergate, my father and his colleagues in the Justice Department did not believe that the president who had appointed them was a liar and a criminal, but as they did their jobs they eventually learned the truth and turned over the evidence to the courts, to the Congress, and to the American people, bitter as that pill was for some of them to swallow individually. My father paid a great personal price for doing his part in it, but he never doubted that it had to be done. Now you as a responsible member of the press must do the same. Whether you are among those who have already talked to me or not, this is the time to examine the evidence, recognize that it is inescapable, and speak out.
The integrity of your profession requires nothing less. As John McCain said in his speech endorsing passage of the bill: “[T]he workings of American newsrooms are some of the least transparent enterprises in the country, and it is easy to believe that the press has one set of standards for government, business, and other institutions, and entirely another for themselves... I think that is an impression the press should work on correcting.”
Here’s how to work on it: by making the mother of all corrections. The fate of your federal shield might lie in the balance.