Woodward and Bernstein’s Secret Sources
By Max Holland
In 2005, W. Mark Felt came forward in Vanity Fair to identify himself as journalism’s most famous secret source. The 91-year-old former FBI executive admitted—with a little push from his family—to being Deep Throat, the anonymous source whose information was vital to numerous scoops about the Watergate scandal written by Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in 1972-73. A national guessing game that had been played for 31 years seemed over.
Yet the arrival of Deep Throat in the flesh created new complications, as media scholar Matt Carlson observed in 2010. A stroke-afflicted Felt was unable to speak on his own behalf; simultaneously, “Woodstein” (as the reporting duo were known internally at the Post) could no longer dictate the terms for how to think about Deep Throat. Speculation persisted, not only over how Woodward and Bernstein had used sources but also over what Carlson called “the overall accuracy of the Watergate narrative as retold by journalists,” who have a vested interest in a self-glorifying version.
Nothing did more to stoke these doubts than a 2012 biography of Ben Bradlee, Woodward and Bernstein’s fabled editor at the Post. In Yours in Truth, author Jeff Himmelman, a former Woodward disciple, described how he found an interview recorded while Bradlee was preparing his autobiography in the early 1990s. In it, the Post editor expressed doubts about Woodstein’s portrayal of Deep Throat in their book on the investigation, All the President’s Men.
“There’s a residual fear in my soul that that isn’t quite straight,” Bradlee told the interviewer in 1990. Himmelman also found in Bradlee’s papers a memo from Bernstein that described his clandestine encounter in December 1972 with a source identified only by the code name “Z.” In All the President’s Men, the information provided by “Z” was put on a par with disclosures made by Deep Throat. Himmelman put two and two together and realized “Z” was a member of the grand jury that had issued the original indictments against the Watergate burglars in September 1972—although in their book, Woodstein expressly denied getting information from anyone on the grand jury. One didn’t have to be a skeptic to believe that Woodward and Bernstein were still withholding the full truth about their exploits.
Now a document has surfaced in an unlikely place that sheds sorely needed light on Woodstein’s reporting while providing some perspective on the press’s role in uncovering the scandal.
Oddly enough, the document—a draft of a Woodstein story from January 1973—was buried deep within the papers of Alan J. Pakula, director of the eponymous 1976 Hollywood film based on Woodstein’s best-seller. Pakula, who died in 1998, deeded all his papers to the Margaret Herrick Library at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences—the people who give you the Oscars. The collection includes his copious research for All the President’s Men, and in many respects, Pakula’s papers are more illuminating about the book and the movie than Woodward’s and Bernstein’s own papers, which are housed at the Harry Ransom Center in Austin, Texas.
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