Opinion

Woodward and Bernstein’s take on anonymous sources reveals media incompetence

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Op-ed views and opinions expressed are solely those of the author.

Famed Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein (“Woodstein”) have recently weighed in on the use of anonymous sources in the reporting of President Trump’s alleged slurs of deceased soldiers.  While they use their iconic status to support the “truth” spoken by such unnamed witnesses, they unwittingly prove the profound incapability of modern journalism in its assumed role as the arbiter of truth. 

There can be no better example of this than Woodstein’s discussion of their use of anonymous sources in Watergate.  These sources, Woodstein argues, were all proven truthful and brought down a sitting president.  Therefore, they contend, the present anonymous sources must be telling the truth.  But this jejune reasoning shows precisely how modern journalism got out over its skis in Watergate and continues to careen wildly downhill.  

It is better to be lucky than good, and the reporters were fortunate that their witnesses in Watergate were speaking contrary to their own interests against a White House to which they were otherwise loyal.  And the reporters knew from the employment of the witnesses that they knew whereof they spoke.  To litigating lawyers, these factors are critical, that is, competence (basis for knowledge) and lack of motive to falsify.  But to journalists, such analysis is foreign, and when attempted, usually is performed amateurishly.  

Moreover, all of Woodstein’s “anonymous” witnesses were not unknown to the FBI, on whom the reporters tailgated.  That they had been willing to speak to the FBI on formal interview was another indicium of truth.  

But still and yet, the Post often had no understanding of facts it had in hand. According to Woodstein’s editor Barry Sussman, the paper did not understand the meaning of what a caller (likely Mark Felt) had provided through a knowledgeable witness about the Donald Segretti “dirty tricks” program, nor did it understand its credibility, so was not intending to publish an article.   It was not until anonymous source Deep Throat (Mark Felt) sat on a garage floor with Woodward until six a.m. that the reporter, and ultimately his editors, comprehended the overall narrative.  Deep Throat was not so much a source of fact, then, as he was an astute, lawyer-like analyst.  Aided by his insight, the explosive October 10, 1972, reporting turned Watergate into a scandal of epic proportions, immediately causing the formation of what became the Ervin Watergate Committee, and the attention of the national television networks. Journalism’s greatest triumph came, then, because Post reporters and editors were humble enough to rely on someone with far greater ability to assess and organize raw facts. 

  But for the profession of journalism, the perceived lesson of Watergate was not humility, but arrogance. After all, journalists had brought down a president, and their paper won a Pulitzer Prize. Thinking of Deep Throat as a source of fact, and not of analysis, gave most young reporters the incentive to find their own anonymous sources, whose secrets they could then reflexively regurgitate on their way to fame, fortune and political power.

So how does the use in Watergate of anonymous sources compare to the present scenario?  As any lawyer knows readily, but many major media journalists may not, the four anonymous sources might be telling the truth, or might not, for a number of reasons not explored by the media. Unlike Watergate, the undisclosed sources may not be speaking against their own interests, but instead might be furthering them, giving them a strong motive to falsify. How much is a mediocre Trump tell-all book worth today? Quite a bit. Moreover, none, some or all may or may not have been in a position to have heard the controversial claimed verbiage.  The first thing we know is that, contrary to the famed Woodstein, this is not at all similar to Watergate.

 Do any of the four claimed sources bear a grudge against Trump?  Do any claim to have heard the remarks in the presence of named sources who deny them?  What was the supposed occasion for the remarks?  Did all four sources happen to hear the same claimed utterances, or were they allegedly said at different times?  If all four heard them while together, is it likely that they did so without any of the ten contrary witnesses being present?  If the remarks were allegedly made on more than one occasion, each convenient to the story of a witness, does the ring of truth now become a discordant clang? 

Common sense, often in short supply in the major media, would tell us that it is highly unlikely that each of these four anonymous sources heard the remark without the other witnesses around.  So clearly, we have a swearing contest, where close and precise questioning is required.  Lawyers, FBI agents and local law enforcement know this, and practice their art daily in order to determine credibility.  But judging from the superficial journalism put forth recently, no such close questioning was attempted, or, if it was, it has been concealed deliberately.  

We know that astute commonsense questioning could have averted the Duke Lacrosse imbroglio, the Covington Catholic defamation, the Richard Jewell hysteria, and the clownish reporting of the George W. Bush National Guard story.  We know that the “Russiagate” stupidity could have been avoided with sound analysis of Joseph Mifsud and Sergei Millian, analyzing shrewdly facts easily available in early 2017.  

Journalists, to be sure, should report important stories sourced anonymously.  But has the modern media shown itself capable of astute analysis of conflicting or confusing evidence?  Absolutely not.  

Deep Throat, an experienced legal analyst, told Woodward that he distrusted the press because it was shallow, superficial and too quick to make judgments.  That observation still holds true, journalism’s self-aggrandizement to the contrary notwithstanding.  

The wisdom of crowds, informed by unrushed discussion before the jury of democratic public opinion, aided by experienced judges,  lawyers, investigators, and, yes, pundits, in most cases will prevail, and determine at least the rough truth upon which our democracy depends.  

So mainstream media outlets should heed the following advice, but likely will not, when contemplating an instantaneous opinion: shut up and report. 

John D. O'Connor

John D. O’Connor is the San Francisco attorney who represented W. Mark Felt during his revelation as Deep Throat in 2005. O’Connor is the author of the new book: Postgate: How the Washington Post Betrayed Deep Throat, Covered Up Watergate, and Began Today’s Partisan Advocacy Journalism.
John D. O'Connor

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