That new historical marker at the parking garage where Bob Woodward of the Washington Post occasionally met his stealthy “Deep Throat” source has stirred some cheery buzz among journalists — and some breathtaking exaggeration about the consequences of Woodward’ reporting on the Watergate scandal.
The marker titled “Watergate Investigation” went up late last week outside the garage in the Rosslyn section of Arlington, Virginia.
As I’ve noted at Media Myth Alert, the marker errs in stating that information Deep Throat” (who in 2005 was self-revealed to have been W. Mark Felt) provided Woodward “exposed the Nixon administration’s obstruction of the FBI’s Watergate investigation.”
“Mark ‘Deep Throat’ Felt, passed state secrets to Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward for a string of stories that would eventually take down a president — what would come to be known as the Watergate scandal.”
Quite simply not true.
Felt, formerly a top official at the FBI, offered Woodward mostly incremental details about Watergate as the scandal unfolded in 1972 and 1973. And as Woodward noted in the book, All the President’s Men, the role of “Deep Throat” was “only to confirm information that had been obtained elsewhere, and to add some perspective.”
It was hardly the stuff of “state secrets.”
Embracing that interpretation of Watergate, I write my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, “is to abridge and misunderstand the scandal and to indulge in a particularly beguiling media-driven myth.”
It’s an interpretation that not even officials at the Post have endorsed.
“Sometimes people accuse us of bringing down a president, which of course we didn’t do. The processes that caused [Nixon’s] resignation were constitutional.”
And Woodward, in earthier terms, has concurred, telling American Journalism Review in 2004:
The popular Washington entertainment blog, DCist, offered an even stranger interpretation of “Deep Throat” and his meetings with Woodward in the garage.
DCist, in a brief report about the marker, said yesterday the garage was where “the informant, the FBI’s Mark ‘Deep Throat’ Felt, fessed up to what would eventually become the Watergate scandal that brought down President Richard Nixon.”
Huh? The “Deep Throat” source “fessed up to what would eventually become the Watergate scandal”?
Such wording suggests that Felt/”Deep Throat” was a culprit or a suspect in the Watergate scandal.
Which he wasn’t.
Felt in fact wasn’t even around the FBI when the scandal reached its climax with Nixon’s resignation in August 1974.
He had been passed over for the FBI directorship and left the agency in 1973. Felt last conferred with Woodward at the Arlington garage in November that year.
But that’s not to say Felt was beyond reproach.
He really wasn’t such a hero.
In his senior position at the FBI, Felt had authorized illegal burglaries in the early 1970s as part of the agency’s investigations into leftists associated with the radical Weather Underground.
Felt was convicted in 1980 on felony charges related to those break-ins, but pardoned by President Ronald Reagan.
So if it not Felt’s tips to Woodward, what then brought down Nixon?
As I point out in Getting It Wrong, rolling up a scandal of Watergate’s complexity and dimension demanded “the collective if not always the coordinated forces of special prosecutors, federal judges, both houses of Congress, the Supreme Court, as well as the Justice Department and the FBI.
“Even then,” I write, “Nixon likely would have served out his term if not for the audiotape recordings he secretly made of most conversations in the Oval Office of the White House.”
Only when compelled by the Supreme Court did Nixon surrender the recordings that captured him plotting to cover up the break-in in June 1972, the signal crime of Watergate.
Recent and related:
- Inflating the exploits of WaPo’s Watergate reporters
- Fox News misremembers Watergate and ‘follow the money’
- A trope that knows few bounds: The hero-journalist myth
- Always ‘follow the money’ — even if it’s made up
- Talking ethics and the ‘golden days’ of Watergate
- The Watergate myth: Why debunking matters
- Those delicious but phony quotes ‘that refuse to die’
- Blogging about journalism history: Why, and why bother?
- Every good historian a mythbuster
- ‘Getting It Wrong’ goes on Q-and-A