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Scott Larson





Building façade in Cannes, France

Clearing Deep Throat

I promised myself that I wasn’t going to write about Revenge of the Sith anymore. After all, one of my main aims in doing this web site was to broaden discussion about films that don’t get a lot of bandwidth in the usual mass media environment. And Sith certainly doesn’t fall into that category. There are plenty of other places to read or hear about the Star Wars, so I’ve really spent way too much time on it, specifically two weeks ago and the week before that.

I’ll just bring it up one more (last?) time to succinctly sum up my verdict of the film (in case I over-explained myself before) and to point out an irony that escaped me the last time. (I mean a different irony than the fact that I am still talking about this over-talked-about movie, long after everybody else seems to have moved on.) My verdict was that, like most of George Lucas’s other films, this one is a definite cut above the usual Hollywood entertainment, but it is essentially a backstory to another movie and probably didn’t need to be told. The irony is that the other topic of my column two weeks ago, the revelation of the identity of the legendary Deep Throat, likewise turned out to be a backstory that perhaps needed to be told but maybe we wished it wasn’t. (Note: I actually was going to publish this commentary last week, but I figured it was much more important to note the passing of Anne Bancroft.)

As with the whole story of Anakin Skywalker, learning the entire detailed story of Deep Throat is somewhat anticlimactic. For one thing, he didn’t turn out to be Alexander Haig or Richard Nixon (suffering from multiple personality disorder) or any of the other, sexier theorized identities that we have read about down through the years. Hardcore political scandal buffs would have known Mark Felt as a candidate, but for most of the rest of us, his name evoked a bit of a shrug. Then, after the excitement of having this secret finally outed, there was additional irony upon irony, as the story played out during the ensuing week. Chief irony was the fact that this mysterious (in fact really, romantic) figure who is forever etched in our minds as Hal Holbrook standing in the shadows of a parking garage, has in reality spent the past couple of decades living in northern California in, uh, a garage. Echoing a plotline more suitable to a comic book villain than a heroic whistleblower, we find that Deep Throat has been struggling economically while watching Bob Woodward, a reporter whose career he practically single-handedly made, get richer and richer. It was the cost of medical bills that provoked DT to break the discrete arrangement that he would wait until he was dead to get famous.

All this new information seriously interferes with our “memories” of Deep Throat, which consist mainly of Hal Holbrook saying, “Follow the money.” Things are further complicated when William Goldman, who was the screenwriter for All the President’s Men, tells us that Deep Throat never said, “Follow the money.” Goldman made that up. It turns out that our “memories” of Deep Throat are mostly mythology, just the way that our “memories” of the Michael Jackson trial are liable to be of the television reenactments, which had a funny way of creeping into straight newscasts.

Now, let me be clear here about something. I am not the first nor the only one to note all the mythologizing that has been built about around Deep Throat and the famous Washington Post reporting on Watergate. Several conservative commentators have seized on this for their own purposes, i.e. to discredit the mainstream press or the political left in general or even to try to do a bit of rehabilitation of Richard Nixon’s place in history. In fact, it is perfectly reasonable to separate the Watergate mythologizing from the public service that Woodward and Bernstein’s reporting performed. Whether you think the fallout from their articles was a good thing or a bad thing, most reasonable people should be able to agree that more information is better than less information. And W&B gave us a heck of a lot of information about something very important going on in our country and our government. But that doesn’t mean that their personal story has not been romanticized and mythologized into a whole other reality.

In the interest of full disclosure, I will put my own cards on the table. I have always had a bit of resentment toward W&B. In the old days, journalism wasn’t the glamorous, sexy profession that it has been perceived to be for the past three decades. Reporters (and we are mainly talking about print media back in those days) used to be overweight, heavy drinkers who would sell their own mothers to get a scoop over a rival, with accuracy of the details a secondary consideration—if a consideration at all. They were the kind of guys that no respectable girl would bring home to meet her parents. The archetype of this classic kind of reporter is on prominent display in the timeless 1928 play The Front Page by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. It was adapted into a 1931 film by Lewis Milestone, starring Adolphe Menjou and Pat O’Brien, remade by Howard Hawks in 1940 (as His Girl Friday) with Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell and by Billy Wilder in 1974 (under the original title) with Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau and by Ted Kotcheff in 1988 (as Switching Channels) with Kathleen Turner and Burt Reynolds, finally updating the story from print media to cable TV news. This perennial story, in all its incarnations, has showed the classic journalist in all his or her grubby, scrambling, not-above-hitting-below-the-belt manic style. Somewhere during the 20th century, our reporter prototype went from Pat O’Brien to Robert Redford.

The reasons for that change can be attributed to three things: 1) Woodward and Bernstein’s Watergate coverage, 2) Woodward and Bernstein’s book about their Watergate coverage and 3) the movie adapted from Woodward and Bernstein’s book about their Watergate coverage. It was my personal, youthful dream to become a reporter back in the grubby, heavy drinking days. By the time I got to journalism school (a relatively modern idea that would have been laughed at by the old reporters), the classes were filled with high-achieving eager-beaver students who wanted glamour and fame in the Robert Redford mold. It was a whole new ballgame, and there was a lot of competition for a finite number of newspaper jobs. While I did spend a few years working for small papers, I came to realize that I was no longer cut out for (if I ever was) the newspaper game as it had become Post-Watergate. My life took a different path. I’m okay with that, but there’s still a bit of residual resentment toward Woodward, Bernstein, Redford and Hoffman over the way they changed the image of the journalist and lured a lot more young job seekers into the profession.

So, you now know my bias. Now, back to the ironies piling up on ironies. Chief among these for me is the fact that Mr. Felt has emerged to take the mantle of Deep Throat years after the Washington Post guys told us that Deep Throat was never one person but actually a composite. Felt may have been the chief informant, but he wasn’t the only one. There wasn’t just one source. W&B did a lot of gumshoeing beyond just midnight meetings in garages. But that raises another question. In the past couple of decades, reporters have been fired for making up composite characters for their news stories. Yet W&B have been idolized because of their personal account which, as it happens, features a composite character. That doesn’t affect their reporting (they never mentioned Deep Throat in their articles), and it doesn’t seem to be an issue for a book, even a non-fiction one. Still, it’s an irony. Indeed, the whole pressure to live up to the W&B legend has presumably led to a number of embarrassing high-profile lapses in journalistic ethics (including making up composite characters) committed by hot rising young stars. Examples: The Post’s Janice Cooke, who got a Pulitzer for concocting a child drug addict. Steven Glass completely made up several events that he reported as fact in The New Republic. (Incidentally, the film version of that story, Shattered Glass, is still the best evidence that its star, Hayden Christensen, can credibly play a character sinking into moral darkness. And, yes, that is a reference to that movie I’m not talking about anymore.) And young hotshot Jayson Blair pulled the same trick on The New York Times, bringing down editor Howell Raines with him. Of course, these relative few lapses pale next to the amount of fine investigative reporting that has been inspired by the mythology of Woodward and Bernstein. But it does demonstrate that the mythology does have a (excuse the expression) dark side.

So, Woodward & Bernstein (sometimes referred to in the media business by the shorthand nickname Woodstein) threw things in the journalistic galaxy out of kilter. But maybe there is one who can mend the Force, I mean, the journalism profession, by bringing the light side and the dark side together. I think there is just such a person, and I think you know whom I am talking about. Yes, of course, it is Dan Rather. You remember Dan Rather, don’t you? He’s the former CBS news anchor who delivered a report on a TV news magazine about George W. Bush’s youthful apparent quasi-military experience. He offered and then defended the evidence of a decades-old memo that had clearly been written with Microsoft Word. Now this was a major gaffe but, to be fair, it is the sort of thing that could have happened to anybody (yeah, over the age of 70!). Compared to the Watergate story, this was small potatoes. We already knew that Bush wasn’t exactly a war hero, so the amount of political fuss over the story (on both sides) was a bit puzzling, but then things don’t always make sense on the eve of a major election. Still, “memogate,” as critics like to call it, was a huge, extremely high-profile journalistic error that crippled the mainstream media’s arguments that it had some sort of monopoly on reliability and trustworthiness, which made it a better source of information than, say, scruffy bloggers.

So, I was amazed to hear a Columbia University journalism professor, interviewed at the time on National Public Radio’s On the Media program, say that she couldn’t understand what the journalistic fuss was about. Huh? If any of the professors in the journalism school that I attended had been asked to comment (assuming that any of them are still alive; after all, they were old enough to have been part of the generation of reporters that were heavy drinkers), they would have said in no uncertain terms that the only asset a newspaper or TV network news division has is its credibility. Mistakes like this are not trivial and cannot be tolerated by any serious news organization. That was the philosophy in the 1970s anyway.

So, maybe things have finally come full circle. Maybe we are finally over the Watergate-era glamour business and back to the really old days when reporters were conniving and grubby and didn’t let a lot of niceties get in the way of a real scoop. Maybe Dan Rather has mended the Force (at least symbolically) and we can go back to the healthier attitude of not believing anything we read (or hear or watch).

Happy Bloomsday!

-S.L., 16 June 2005


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