One of the great mysteries of journalism was solved Tuesday when former FBI #2 Mark Felt announced himself as Deep Throat—the shadowy parking lot lingerer who helped Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein and the Washington Post take down the Nixon presidency.
The resultant Watergate trials introduced more than a few budding watchdogs to the reality of presidential-level corruption. The subsequent movie introduced us to the idea that journalists could be heroes, like Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman.
But if journalists could suddenly be seen as truth’s archeologists, Deep Throat was journalism’s holy grail, the smoking gun that saved democracy—or at least forestalled its death. Deep Throat, as his family has announced, is an American hero.
But heroism aside, the coolest thing about Deep Throat was that his identity remained a secret—for decades—in a field of endeavor dedicated to unearthing and exposing secrets. The prospect, as a journalist, of finding a Deep Throat of one’s own, of impacting events on the large scale, for the better, became its own sort of holy grail. It doesn’t happen very often that journalists find that get-out-of-jail fact, that red-handed proof, and sometimes we want it so badly we get ahead of ourselves—just ask Dan Rather. Or Newsweek.
Perhaps journalism isn’t what it used to be. Perhaps the nation’s psychic conflation of Watergate’s Deep Throat with the fellatious contemporary film of the same name tainted the trade in the public mind with a whiff of whoredom. The last movie we recall about the field was called Shattered Glass, and when the red-handed proof was uncovered, it fingered fabulist Stephen Glass as the corrupt one.
But just because journalists have revealed themselves as fallible, and Deep Throat has revealed himself as a mortally ailing old man, that doesn’t mean politicians have suddenly become heroes, or that all the important secrets have been told.
Who wrote Dick Cheney’s—thus America’s—energy plan, for instance, and why is it so important to Dick Cheney that you not know? Who blew Valerie Plame’s CIA cover, and since the obvious answer is columnist Robert Novak, why is he the only person not being questioned about the leak? Why, to pinch a phrase from Norman Mailer, are we in Iraq?
Good questions all, all as yet unanswered.
There may yet be Deep Throats out there to answer them. And there are certainly still journalists willing to protect them, even under government attack—just ask The New York Times’ Judith Miller.
What there may no longer be is a public willing to suspend its distrust of “the media,” or its disbelief that government could be corrupt at the highest levels. And that’s too bad. Because it really doesn’t much matter who Deep Throat was. What mattered is what he taught America about power. And it’d be a shame to forget that lesson.