NPR Ombudsman

NPR Ombudsman


Friday, December 19, 2008

It was only when the book came out that Felt learned that Woodward and Bernstein privately referred to him as Deep Throat. He was embarrassed and furious, and thought Woodward had betrayed him.

By Alicia C. Shepard

Less than a month ago, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, The Washington Post reporters who helped topple President Nixon, made a surprise visit to Mark Felt, the man known as Deep Throat.

It was a fitting denouement among men who played a historic role in the Watergate scandal, and in changing journalism. It was also the first time that Bernstein had ever met Felt, who died yesterday at 95.

The relationship among the three men was complicated. It was Felt, the No. 2 in the FBI during the 1972 Watergate break-in, who became a key source for the two young reporters. Many speculate on Felt's motives, but no one ever will know exactly because Felt was 91 and showing signs of dementia when his identity was revealed.

Woodward met Felt by chance when he was a young man in his late-20s in the Navy. He nurtured a filial-like relationship seeking out Felt for career advice. When the Watergate story broke, Woodward called Felt, promising him what's known in journalistic parlance as 'confidentiality.' It meant that Woodward would use Felt's information but never reveal Felt as his source.

And he never did.

In the modern history of journalism, there is little dispute that Deep Throat is by far the most famous known anonymous news source. Nor is there any dispute that the Post's reliance on Deep Throat played a role in popularizing the still--controversial use of anonymous sources.

But it also showed what can happen when journalists keep their word.

Ironically, when Woodward referred to Felt inside the Post newsroom, he told his editors, "My friend told me on deep background" when relaying information. In his notes, Woodward identified his source as "M.F." for my friend, even though those are also Felt's initials.

It was then-managing editor Howard Simons who dubbed the secret source Deep Throat based on a notorious pornographic movie in 1972 with the same name. The nickname stuck. Among several unanswered questions is a basic one: Would Felt have become such a cultural icon if his moniker were "my friend?"

The nick name "Deep Throat," appeared for the first time in Playboy magazine in May 1974, when an excerpt of the book All the Presidents Men, ran. Felt was one of many anonymous sources the pair used but he drew the lion's share of attention because of the sexy name.

It was only when the book came out that Felt learned how Woodward and Bernstein privately referred to him. He was embarrassed and furious, and thought Woodward had betrayed him. He was equally unhappy when the book became a hugely successful movie in 1976.

His anger unnerved Woodward, but neither he nor Bernstein ever waivered in keeping their promise. Over the decades, both reporters were repeatedly asked when they spoke publicly: "Who is Deep Throat?" They never even gave a hint.

Through the decades it became a parlor game to figure out who was the source high up in the Justice Department who betrayed the Nixon administration. Articles and books were written fingering people. A University of Illinois class spent four years investigating Deep Throat's identity. The class held a press conference at the Watergate in 2003 to announce their suspect. But they were wrong.

Each time an author was certain of Deep Throat's identity, Woodward and Bernstein said nothing. Neither did Felt. In fact, Felt denied he was Deep Throat in his 1979 memoir, The FBI Pyramid. He wrote that he'd only met with Woodward once during the Watergate investigation.

Actually, Woodward secretly had contact with him 18 times during the years from the break-in until Nixon's 1974 resignation.

Most famous were the late-night meetings in an Arlington, Va. garage portrayed in the movie, All the President's Men. There were 6 garage meetings, 7 phone calls, one rendezvous at Felt's Fairfax, Va. house, one meeting at a Maryland tavern, one on-the-record visit to Felt's FBI office and two other meetings, according to Woodward's papers that were sold to the University of Texas along with Bernstein's for $5 million in 2003.

The Deep Throat mystery lasted 33 years -- a record for such a high-profile secret in a gossipy town like Washington, DC It lasted that long because Woodward and Bernstein kept their promise of confidentiality. Ben Bradlee, the Washington Post editor during Watergate, told me he didn't learn Felt's identity until 1976.

"Ben and I made a decision that on some of them [sources] we wouldn't ask," Simons told the pair in 1973 when they interviewed him for their book. "For instance, Deep Throat. You know, we've never wanted to know."

Woodward was shocked. Why not?

"Because you really didn't want to tell us," Simons said. "Sure. At one point we could have said to you, 'Ok. We must know.'"

But they didn't.

While it may be hard to believe, over three decades only five people knew Felt's identity -- Woodward, Bernstein, Felt, Bradlee and Woodward's wife, Elsa Walsh, whom Woodward told in the early 1980s.

Finally, Felt and his family decided to reveal the identity on May 31, 2005 in Vanity Fair magazine, hoping to profit from their secret. It did lead to a book and a movie contract for Felt.

Although Woodward and Bernstein were following typical journalistic protocol by keeping Felt's name quiet, it was a decision that would influence the rest of their careers. Future confidential sources knew that if they spilled secrets to either man, the secrets would be kept.

Even more important to journalists is the notion that every source deserves a reporter's protection, regardless of whether that person is a hero or a heel. As long as the source tells the truth and sticks to the bargain that's implicit in confidential relationships, a journalist will go to jail rather than reveal the name.

By keeping their promise to Felt, Woodward and Bernstein, in turn, helped many other journalists who followed. It paved the way for other sources to trust journalists who keep their word.

"This is an absolute contract," Woodward said in 2005 at Harvard University. "This really is an unbreakable contract unless somebody is dishonest with you." And Felt never was.

Shepard is the author of Woodward and Bernstein: Life in the Shadow of Watergate (2007).

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categories: How journalism works

4:16 - December 19, 2008

Monday, December 15, 2008

Didn't NPR receive one billion dollars in a bequest from Joan Kroc?" asks Bill Diunbgfelde. "Doesn't such largesse insulate you from having to make cuts?

As one walks from NPR's basement garage inside to the elevator, a sign asks to make sure the door shuts tightly. "We don't want the bliss to escape," it says.

Well, last week, some of the bliss escaped when management announced it was laying off 64 people, eliminating 21 unfilled slots and ending two California-based programs, Day to Day and News & Notes. That's a 7 percent cut of 889 employees.

The sadness, confusion and anger inside and outside NPR are palpable. Many names on the list have been at NPR for more than two decades. Vicky O'Hara, who now edits "The Impact of War" series, is on the list. She joined NPR in 1982, when it was still an adolescent network trying to figure out what it wanted to be.

O'Hara famously covered the 1989 massacre of pro-democracy demonstrators in Beijing, stuffing a radio cassette down her pants to save it from confiscation. Others on the list have equally storied careers, but don't all want to go public.

Some inside NPR have demanded the 64 names be shared, but I agree with NPR's general counsel that it is their story to tell. It's never easy being laid off, and it's hard to not take it personally -- even if it is not meant to be.

The layoffs are not surprising in an economic climate where practically every day, a new lion is felled. Many, but not necessarily all, NPR employees seem to accept the rationale that big cutbacks were needed to ensure the company's long-term financial health. Assertions by senior executives that the layoffs were not targeted at getting rid of specific individuals have not been as widely accepted, however.

I'll take the company's word on both counts. But wouldn't buyouts have been a more humane way to go -- such as many news companies have been doing for the last few years as troubles descended? NPR's financial situation has been deteriorating for more than six months, so there has been time to make adjustments, as the company did in July when it dropped the experimental Bryant Park Project.

Targeted buyouts were considered and rejected, said NPR's interim President and CEO Dennis Haarsager. "It could take months and months and leave you with a lot more expenses if people you don't want to leave, leave," he said. "Then you have to deal with recruitment and possibly hiring temporary employees. I don't believe we have the time and money to do that."

While I believe buyouts still would have been preferable, NPR did give those laid off a 20-day notice including holiday pay and severance packages based on Jan. 1, 2009 salary levels, which will include merit increases. NPR also will keep Day to Day and News & Notes on air until March 20. I doubt anyone losing his or her job, though, would say these concessions greatly ease the pain.

Listeners quickly reacted with emails and phone calls -- especially to canceling two shows. A petition drive was started to save News & Notes, a show hosted by Farai Chideya and aimed at an African-American audience. "People in public radio are passionate about their programs," said Ellen Weiss, senior vice president for news. "These decisions are not reversible. These are economic decisions. They are not about the quality of the programs or the quality of the staff."

Repeatedly listeners have expressed two concerns that indicate NPR needs to better explain how public radio works and what NPR has done with a generous bequest five years ago from Joan B. Kroc, widow of the man who built the McDonald's hamburger empire.

Why hadn't NPR let listeners know that it faced financial difficulty?

"NPR should have given listeners a warning that Day to Day & News & Notes were in trouble and we could have had a bake sale type of fundraiser to save these good shows," said Mike Smith. "This is another sign of NPR's disrespect of listeners after yanking Justice Talking and Bryant Park Project (in July) without advanced warning to rally to save it." [Editor's Note: NPR didn't produce Justice Talking; it only distributed it.]

If only it took a bake sale. When one donates money to public radio, you donate it to your local public station. Your station then uses it to buy NPR's programming or to pay for locally-produced shows (Fresh Air, for example, or local news segments) or to buy other programming produced by Public Radio International (This American Life) or American Public Media (Market Place and Prairie Home Companion.)

About 50 percent of NPR's operating budget comes from donations to stations. The rest comes from corporate sponsorships, foundations and the Kroc endowment. Because of the way the current system is structured, NPR couldn't hold a bake sale. The stations would have to do that, but they are experiencing their own financial woes. Chicago Public Radio's WBEZ just announced it laid off 9 percent of its staff.

Another listener expressed frustration at not being able to find a "donate" button on NPR's website. In fact, there's no donate button because local stations, which ultimately control NPR, don't want the network accepting direct donations from the public. The board expressly forbids NPR from soliciting individual contributions on its website. Nor is NPR allowed to solicit money through direct mail, on-air fundraising or telemarketing unless it's done in collaboration with the stations, according to a board document.

It's important to note that NPR is not a radio station. It depends on local stations to buy and air its content.

Now to the Kroc pot of money.

"Didn't NPR receive one billion dollars in a bequest from Joan Kroc?" asks Bill Diunbgfelde. "Doesn't such largesse insulate you from having to make cuts? Please let me know."

I'm sure management wishes it were $1 billion.

Mrs. Kroc gave NPR $230 million in 2003; $193 million was consigned to a restricted endowment from which only investment interest could be spent. The rest is held in ready reserve for costly contingencies such as covering wars, natural disasters, etc. Up until this year, NPR earned about $10 million annually in interest off the gift. That money helped support the $150 million operating budget.

But like many bequests, it came with legal restrictions that prevent NPR from dipping into the endowment's principal for short-term needs. As any investor knows, if you dip into the principal, then each year subsequently you earn less interest. This year, the financial downturn wiped out even the expected interest on the Kroc money.

While other news organizations have contracted, NPR has been growing steadily over the last 10 years, both in terms of its audience and its news-gathering. It now has 18 foreign and 18 domestic bureaus, and no plans to close any. NPR also has been expanding its online offers to continue to be relevant.

Weiss promises that cutting the staff through layoffs won't mean cutting quality. Let's hope the network, and those who support public radio, can make sure that promise is kept.

Other stories about the layoffs: Morning Edition, Day to Day, News & Notes, New York Times, Ellen Weiss on WAMU, NPR announces cuts.

Continue reading "NPR Makes Budget Cuts " >

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6:22 - December 15, 2008

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Immediately following her appearance on Talk of the Nation, Alicia Shepard will take your questions live.

She will talk about an NPR funding credit from the Department of Homeland Security, which offers E-Verify, a program that allows electronic verification of an employee's legal status. (Read her blog post on the subject.)

You can start leaving your questions, now, in the comments section below.

The chat starts shortly after 3 PM EST.

10:40 - December 4, 2008



Alicia Shepard

Alicia Shepard

NPR Ombudsman

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