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Deep Source

At a time when journalists are increasingly under attack for anonymous sources, history's most famous confidential source is being heard -- just in time to give anonymous sourcing everywhere new life.
 
 
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At a time when journalists are increasingly coming under attack for using anonymous sources, history's most famous -- and well-protected (this side of Robert Novak) -- confidential source is being heard. And he emerged just in time to give anonymous sourcing everywhere new life.

W. Mark Felt, the former FBI deputy director whose identity as the famed Watergate source Deep Throat had remained secret for nearly 33 years, broke his silence Tuesday, admitting in a Vanity Fair article that he was The Friend who helped Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein bring down Richard Nixon.

In admitting this, Felt not only solved one of journalism's biggest mysteries, he also reminded skeptics that such reporting can be vital and positive. Moreover, the ability of Woodward, Bernstein and former Post executive editor Ben Bradlee to keep his identity a secret proved that whistleblowers who aid journalists can be protected even over three decades.

But more than solving a legendary Washington riddle, Felt's admission also breathed some much-needed life into the dying support for anonymous sources, which seems to have crippled journalistic credibility in many areas. From WMDs to the Valerie Plame case to Newsweek's recent stumble, confidential sourcing is a much battered journalistic tool.

"This is a case history and a case lesson of why it is so important that we have confidential sources," Carl Bernstein told The New York Times last night.

In recent years, newspapers have clamped down on the use of such sourcing, with tighter rules, stronger pressure to avoid no-name attribution, and more efforts to get information on the record. USA Today claims to have reduced anonymous sourcing by 75% in the past year.

While it is obviously preferable to have as much news on the record as possible, and the trend toward tightening anonymous sourcing can only lead to more reader confidence in news, the reminder of what the duo known as "Woodstein" and Felt accomplished through detailed, methodical, and multi-sourced reporting about a high-government scandal is important.

For a generation of readers who were not even around when Watergate occurred and view anonymous sourcing of today as merely bias, laziness, or cheap shots, a fresh look at Deep Throat's accomplishments, power, and positive contribution to U.S. history, is welcomed.

But it is also a reminder that proper sourcing is still needed. In each case that Deep Throat aided Woodward and Bernstein, he was never used as a sole, or even direct source. He was, as the nickname describes, always "on deep background." Watergate junkies also know quite well that the investigative duo forced themselves to have at least two sources on every story. That lesson remains even more important today, especially after the single-sourced Newsweek goof.

Some observers, such as former Nixon White House aide John Dean, have claimed the Bush administration is even more secretive and anti-press than Nixon's White House. The need for careful anonymous sourcing appears to be more obvious than ever.

And reminders of a past era when even the president could not hide his misdeeds - and a source could remain protected until he chose to come forward decades later - prove again that reporters need not hold back a story just because the sourcing might draw attacks, as long as the news is correct.

Joe Strupp ( jstrupp@editorandpublisher.com) is a senior editor at E&P.