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Inside the newsroom: A look at anonymous sources, Watergate and the value of trust

During the past week, the use of anonymous sources has been both attacked and supported with the publication of The Atlantic’s piece on President Trump

Mark W. Felt, pictured here as an FBI man Jan. 22, 1958, rose through the ranks of the FBI and became a key anonymous source for Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein who uncovered the Watergate scandal.  Felt’s identity was kept secret for 33 years.
Mark W. Felt, pictured here as an FBI man on Jan. 22, 1958, rose through the ranks of the FBI and became a key anonymous source for Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein who uncovered the Watergate scandal. Felt’s identity was kept secret for 33 years.
Deseret News archives

SALT LAKE CITY — On a cool evening in June 2005 alerts started coming into the newsroom of the Press Democrat in Santa Rosa, California, where I was working as an editor. Vanity Fair magazine had released a blockbuster story, identifying the key source in the Watergate scandal, a secret successfully kept hidden for more than three decades.

Mark Felt, a career FBI man, was “Deep Throat.”

We snapped to attention because Felt had been living in Santa Rosa with his daughter Joan for 13 years and some of our reporters knew her. The identity of “Deep Throat” was one of the few remaining mysteries in one of the biggest stories of the century. Many had put forth theories about the identity of this key unknown Watergate figure. But this time was different; Felt’s family was involved.

The compelling account traced how Joan and the Vanity Fair writer had come to know that Felt, who was 91 at the time, was the anonymous source that helped guide Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein through the reporting that eventually led to the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon.

With Felt’s permission, the Post confirmed the Vanity Fair account and Woodward penned the long-awaited compelling piece, How Mark Felt Became “Deep Throat,” one of the most consequential anonymous sources in modern U.S. history.

During the past week, the use of anonymous sources has been both attacked and supported following the publication of The Atlantic’s piece by executive editor Jeffrey Goldberg headlined: “Trump: Americans Who Died in War Are ‘Losers’ and ‘Suckers.’”

Goldberg, who said he’s followed the president’s reaction to the military for years, said four “excellent” sources provided him the information that led to the story. Reporters from other news outlets, including Fox News, said they confirmed some parts of the report, also with anonymous sources.

The White House refuted the story and said flatly, “It’s false.” It then collected and published on-the-record statements under this headline: “21 Officials, 14 from Paris Trip, Now on Record Refuting Anonymous Sources in False ‘The Atlantic’ story.” Some praised Trump’s actions with the military, his past responses or focused on a key part of The Atlantic piece.

Should anonymous sources be used?

Goldberg, who stands by his reporting, said this about the use of anonymous sources, in an interview that appeared in his magazine following the publication of the article: “It’s not a decision that should be made lightly. There are moral complications and ambiguities around granting anonymity to sources. But you have to balance those concerns with the public’s need to know, two months away from an election.”

Journalists use anonymous sources, including here at the Deseret News. We try very hard to abide by our rules, standards and principles surrounding use of such sources. We understand both the risks and the opening it gives to critics of an article; how can you trust the information if others can’t verify or know the source?

Here’s how we approach it.

A reporter must reveal his or her sources to an editor before we consider publication. I am involved as executive editor on key stories and revelations attributed to anonymous sources. Often our response to the reporter is, keep reporting. Find on-the-record sources. Is there another way to confirm the information?

Not all sources are created equally. We assess their motivation for seeking anonymity. Is this a trial balloon, meaning is the source trying to weigh a reaction and unwilling to bear a consequence? Is there a monetary gain for the source? Is there a political gain? Is there a political or personal risk that reasonably requires anonymity? Government has whistleblower laws in place for just this reason. States have shield laws to protect the sourcing of journalists.

Can the anonymous source lead us to on-the-record verification? This is the best use of anonymous sources and it was evident in the Watergate investigation. If a source helps you learn information, the reporter is obligated to then confirm the information through other sources. Anonymous sources often point reporters toward documents. Reporters make mistakes when they fail to identify sources with firsthand knowledge. In many instances, a number of people hear about an occurrence or issue, but it may originate with the same singular source (person). Even if multiple people hear the same thing from the same person, that’s still only one source.

Finally, two principles are perhaps the most important: What is our relationship and past experience with the source? Can we exercise patience and restraint?

Woodward met Felt in a chance encounter in 1970 while Woodward was in the Navy, delivering a package to the White House as a courier. Felt sat down next to him as they waited together.

Wrote Woodward of that first encounter: “His suit was dark, his shirt white and his necktie subdued. He was probably 25 to 30 years older than I and was carrying what looked like a file case or briefcase. He was very distinguished-looking and had a studied air of confidence, the posture and calm of someone used to giving orders and having them obeyed instantly.

“I could tell he was watching the situation very carefully. There was nothing overbearing in his attentiveness, but his eyes were darting about in a kind of gentlemanly surveillance. After several minutes, I introduced myself. “Lieutenant Bob Woodward,” I said, carefully appending a deferential ‘sir.’”

Over the years that meeting would result in an advice-seeking mentorship between the young Woodward and the seasoned FBI leader. “The relationship was a compact of trust; nothing about it was to be discussed or shared with anyone,” Woodward wrote.

Excerpts of Woodward’s latest book, “Rage,” were also released during the past week. The book is the compendium of interviews and observations, including 17 on-the-record interviews with the president over seven months. There is strength in those reports, yet Woodward has received some criticism for holding onto the information about his conversations with the president until now. My view: his restraint in this case allows for greater context.

That’s a lesson he learned early in his career when he told his father, and then Felt he was going to forgo law school and become a journalist at a newspaper for about $115 a week. He wrote:

“‘You’re crazy,’ my father said, in one of the rare judgmental statements he had ever made to me. I also called Mark Felt, who, in a gentler way, indicated that he, too, thought this was crazy. He said he thought newspapers were too shallow and too quick on the draw. Newspapers didn’t do in-depth work and rarely got to the bottom of events.

“Well, I said, I was elated. Maybe he could help me with stories.”