In an editorial written a few days after W. Mark Felt was unmasked, The Washington Post’s Ruth Marcus perceptively opined that Felt had given every indication of preferring to take his secret to his grave. “I am glad, I suppose, to finally know the secret of Deep Throat,” Marcus wrote on June 5, 2005. “I am less confident that Mark Felt wanted me to know.”
Marcus suggested that Felt’s family euchred him into revealing what he had labored so hard to keep secret:
To comprehend how thoroughly Felt believed that it wouldn’t fit for him to be both Mark Felt and Deep Throat, consider how insistently he kept his secret hidden from his own family. The more you read of Vanity Fair’s account of the outing, the sorrier you feel for a failing old man prodded and even tricked by his relatives into telling all—to get “closure,” as his daughter put it, perhaps finally to profit from what the family, if not Felt, viewed as his heroism.
In point of fact, decades before Felt’s family sought profit from the secret, Bob Woodward irrevocably compromised Felt’s clandestine role by revealing Deep Throat’s existence in 1974, and benefited greatly from doing so. Two years later, Woodward compounded that betrayal by unilaterally deciding that he would identify Deep Throat by name at a time of Woodward’s own choosing, i.e., after Felt’s death. The first person, in other words, to disrespect Felt’s consistent behavior and exploit Deep Throat was the reporter entrusted with the secret.
The end to Washington’s favorite guessing game in 2005 meant that history and perspective could finally displace a fixation. And with the benefit of hindsight comes the clarity to ask some long-neglected questions about Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s protection of the most fabled confidential source in journalism history.
When a newspaper reporter negotiates an understanding with a source, does that agreement extend to only the newspaper medium? If the reporter wants a change of terms, is he or she honor-bound to obtain the source’s express permission? Or are silence and the absence of protest sufficient? And finally, what is the effect of the passage of time? Does it give license to a reporter to re-interpret an understanding unilaterally?
At several pivotal moments, Woodward amended the terms of his “deep background” agreement with Mark Felt to suit his, Bernstein’s and The Washington Post’s best interests, but not necessarily Felt’s. Woodward’s situational adherence to his arrangement with Felt does not rise to the level of Janet Malcolm’s controversial remark about journalists. But it might be best not to hold up the famed journalist’s treatment of Deep Throat as an exemplar to budding reporters.
It certainly makes for an interesting case study though.