Throat Clearing

The resolution of the Deep Throat mystery didn't clear up much of anything for the media.

The resolution of the Deep Throat mystery didn't clear up much of anything for the media, or even lift the spirits of this depressed profession. After a euphoric day or two spent racing around in characteristic headless-chicken fashion, the news class fell into a state of confusion, bordering on despair.

Mark Felt wasn't the glamorous, high-principled hero some expected Deep Throat to be. Nor was he the fictional composite—or X-Files-ish villain—others were hoping for. He was complicated, and so were his motives, both in helping The Washington Post on the Watergate story 30-some years ago, and in coming out himself now.

Knowing the answer to one of journalism's oldest riddles didn't help us solve the newest one: Are the media good or bad? For some, Felt's emergence was a reminder of the amazing feats that news people can, with talent and pluck, occasionally perform. After Dan Rather spoke up on the subject, the Chicago Tribune said it succinctly, with the poignant headline, "Rather: Deep Throat Proves Press Needed."

For others, this was just another excuse to worry about media abuses, particularly on anonymous sources ("'Deep Throat' Is Out in the Open, and So Is the Sourcing Debate," headlined USA Today), or about the trade's generally low standing with the public ("Media's Reputation Has Sunk Like a Stone Since Watergate," said a headline on the Romenesko Web site, with a link to a Washington Post story).

But is that all there is?

Now that the dust has settled, I think it's possible to glimpse in this episode a few real truths about the media. It turns out that journalists are a lot like Deep Throat himself: a complicated lot, neither the cartoon heroes they briefly were after Watergate, nor the demons they lately have become. This business is full of tricky internal contradictions—in fact, it's often two opposing things at once.

Idealistic and Pragmatic: No sooner had the Felt story broken than journalists were highlighting the sins of the players, flaws in their characters, wrongs they had committed in pursuit of fame, money, career. This applied especially to Felt, but the anonymous-sourcing debate turned the scrutiny inward. The media's puritanical streak is a mile wide, and it comes out most strongly when the story is about us.

Yet for all their idealism, the media are a deeply pragmatic tribe. Even as we obsess about ethical lapses and motivations, we wind up letting real-world results be the final judge of our work. "It's all about impact," I heard a blunt editor bark more than once when I was a Washington Post reporter. Maybe Felt broke the law when he helped Bob Woodward, and his motives were mixed at best. (Woodward, I should note, was my boss for several years and is now my friend.) But the story that Felt leaked revealed a higher order of corruption than his own, and the former justifies the latter. That's the media's collective view, anyway (with some ideology-driven exceptions). It's a sophisticated kind of pragmatism, in that it takes more than a sentence to explain. There's still room in this business for nuance.

Chaotic and Orderly: Journalists are insecure creatures, prisoners of the last decent opinion uttered in their vicinity. Thus, when the Felt story broke, reporters ran around asking everyone what they thought about it, and believing (for a moment) that what everyone said was true. Chaos reigned and, frankly, we looked pretty ridiculous. My favorite absurd headline came from an item on Romenesko, picked up from The Baltimore Sun: "Most in High School Honors Class Say Deep Throat Did Wrong." Even the brains hate us!

But this chaos is deceptive, because it's a chaos that ultimately yields a kind of order. Even now, just 10 days after the story broke, the opinions are shaking out rather neatly. What Pat Buchanan and Chuck Colson think of Deep Throat isn't worth much. Nor is the blind lionizing of Felt at the other end of the ideological spectrum. Felt is who he is. What matters is whether the story he told—and the story The Post told about him—was true. And it was.

Shortsighted and Farsighted: In the short run, we tend to let our trade's petty internal values—get it first, beat the other guy—trump the values that matter to our audience. From the earliest hours, the great media outlets were obsessed with the idea that The Post had been "scooped" by Vanity Fair, which broke the Felt news. The New York Times was especially hot on this theme, still nursing a subconscious grudge about being scooped in a much larger way 30 years ago. Never mind that you can't really get "scooped" on a story you were trying to keep secret. The public didn't care who outed Throat first. In their view, Throat outed himself, which he did.

Still, after the petty kibbitzing is over, in the long run media people are pretty good at giving credit where it's due. Three decades ago, we decided to make a few Washington media figures the heroes of our profession, even though we still didn't know all the particulars, not even the identity of a key source. We did this because the story panned out. We also did it because we had a professional and personal sense of what these people—Woodward and Bernstein, Ben Bradlee, Katharine Graham—were made of. Every craft creates its own giants, and who they are tells you all you need to know about the craft's true values.

Surprise, surprise: Our giants are not the cable screamers, the celebrity-underwear sniffers, the slingers of gossip and tripe. Our giants are the ones who worked like crazy to snag a huge story, and nailed it. It doesn't get more farsighted than that.