Has anonymous sourcing outlived its usefulness?

The Bush administration has developed so many ways of manipulating information that the Watergate coverup now seems quaint.

Published June 2, 2005 5:01PM (EDT)

So it was Mark Felt who checked the position of the flowerpot with the red flag on Bob Woodward's balcony -- a sign that the reporter wanted to speak to Deep Throat.

Felt, deputy director of the FBI in 1972, preempted death by revealing that it was he who gave Woodward and Carl Bernstein, his fellow Washington Post reporter, the inside dope on Tricky Dicky. The two had pledged not to expose him until their source was dead. When Felt self-exposed in Vanity Fair this week, the gumshoe journalists initially refused to confirm or deny, but the Post then confirmed he was the one.

Felt, the world's most famous anonymous source, may have come forward just in time to grab the last seat at the funeral of anonymous sourcing. Until Watergate, the unnamed source was usually confined to gossip columns and political tipsters. Watergate made anonymous sourcing indispensable. With it, every critic had a curtain to hide behind. Without it, no story seemed quite scandalous enough.

Editors adopted ever more complex rules to hold anonymous sourcing in check, but the rules never held for long. It was just too easy for the unscrupulous to bludgeon the defenseless. Over the next 30 years, anonymous sourcing ate away at the credibility, integrity and effectiveness of the American press, until even journalists became alarmed.

Paradoxically, that third-rate burglary, as President Nixon called it, and the ensuing coverup also made information free. In reaction, dozens of states and municipalities rushed through sunshine laws to open their records and meetings to the public. The federal government followed with a freedom of information law, prying open file cabinets and record books in every agency and department. By the end of the 1970s, there was hardly a cloud in the sky.

By the early 1980s, deceit began to develop immunity. The Reagan administration evolved propaganda techniques to overcome disclosure. The fresh air turned stale. Reagan held fewer press conferences and organized more public events than any other president in modern history -- until George W. Bush. As a tool for exposing corruption, anonymous sourcing wore itself out by the late 1990s. No need for unnamed accusers to expose wrongdoing when well-financed characters are willing to go before cameras with embarrassing revelations about their employers, political enemies, celebrities, families, even themselves.

The Bush administration has developed so many ways of manipulating information that anonymous sourcing would now be of little use. Secret "military" tribunals, indefinite detention without charge, torture, kidnapping, dressing up official press releases as news stories for complicit publishers -- these all make the Watergate coverup seem quaint.

In another era, the revelations in the Post shocked the nation and stirred Congress to start impeachment proceedings, driving Nixon from office. The more horrific crimes and misdemeanors of the current White House have been exposed by insiders and outsiders, but so far the wheels of justice have not started to grind. If Nixon were still with us, he'd be envious.

By Albert Scardino

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