WHAT: The Watergate story is considered perhaps American journalisms defining accomplishment. Two intrepid young reporters for The Washington Post, carefully verifying and expanding upon information given to them by sources they went to great lengths to protect, revealed brutally damaging information about one of the most powerful figures on Earth, the American president. They worked diligently on a story others were too indifferent, or too lazy, to pursue, and their reporting eventually forced Richard Nixon to resign, winning them a Pulitzer Prize as well.
The reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, became icons. After their stories broke in the mid-1970s, enrollment increased at journalism schools. They continue to be celebrated decades later for their integrity in never revealing the name of their principal source, Deep Throat. It was not until that source broke his silence in 2005 that anyone knew Deep Throat was Mark Felt, a high-ranking official at the Federal Bureau of Investigation at the time he was talking to The Post. And, for some critics, that raised questions.
Question: Is protecting a source more important than revealing all the relevant information about a news story?
WHO: Woodwards and Bernsteins promise to protect Deep Throats identity was fully supported by their executive editor, Ben Bradlee. Together, the three are the major decision-making moral agents in this case.
It was a decision that ultimately affected many stakeholders, most notably Mark Deep Throat Felt himself, and of course Woodward and Bernstein, who had made a promise that journalists treat with the highest reverence. President Nixon clearly was a stakeholder, as were others in his administration.
And in this case it also can be argued that the public had a higher stake than it does in many news stories because of the importance of the information revealed by a source who would not have revealed it had his identity not been kept secret.
WHY: Two major ethical principles are at issue in this very famous case. First is the journalistic credo that granting anonymity to a source is a vow that never should be broken. The other principle, at odds with the first, is that a journalists primary duty is to reveal information, not conceal it, and often the source of that information is an important part of the story, suggesting a motive or agenda for the leak.
In this case, some critics have held that Felt, who died in late 2008 at age 95, was manipulating The Post because he wanted to get even with the president for having passed him over for promotion to FBI director after the death of the legendary J. Edgar Hoover.
One analyst, George Friedman, wrote this for an intelligence and strategic consulting firm called stratfor.com: This was not a lone whistle-blower being protected by a courageous news organization; rather, it was a news organization being used by the FBI against the president, and a news organization that knew perfectly well that it was being used against the president. Protecting Deep Throat concealed not only an individual, but also the story of the FBIs role in destroying Nixon.
HOW: Most journalists consider The Washington Posts decision to protect Deep Throat an example of journalism at its finest. Working so hard for so long to keep the promise of anonymity allowed information to be revealed that was critically important to the survival of democracy and its need to correct its flaws. The role of a free press is to reveal those shortcomings, after which a responsive government can or should make the needed changes. In this case, the cover-up was perhaps more important than the crime itself, because it uncovered flaws in the presidential character. Nixons resignation became inevitable a cathartic moment for the country.
And yet reporters must continue to be very careful about promising anonymity. In some settings Washington, D.C., in particular its almost impossible to get anyone to talk without making such a promise. But in other areas of the country, where bureaucracy and politics are not so entrenched, news executives insist that promising anonymity should be used only as a last resort, not to break the ice at the beginning of an interview. The source of a leak sometimes is even more interesting than the leaked information, because it may reveal a motive that is less than the epitome of integrity.
by Fred Brown, SPJ Ethics Committee