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There’s lots to say about the sudden unveiling of “the guy they used to call ‘Deep Throat’” and by the time the Sunday morning political talk shows are over, everything will have been said and everyone will have tried to say it. Sitting out here on the web, it’s been interesting to read the stories and comments not just as the end of a great mystery but as documents of the way in which the media business has changed since that hot summer in 1974 when Richard Nixon was forced from office.
First a bit of background. I lived in and around Washington most of my life and during Watergate, I was enrolled at the same high school as one of Nixon Attorney General Elliott Richardson’s daughters. The school counts Katherine Graham (and her daughter) as alumnae in addition to Stockard Channing (Dr. Abby Bartlet to you West Wing fans). One of Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee’s kids attended briefly. It was a place where people, even young people, knew their politics and their place in the political world. And journalists were not seen as powerful, not as powerful as politicians, anyway. And certanly not as rich.

Watching Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein enter Woodward’s very nice Georgetown House (it’s worth millions and only a few blocks from Mrs. Graham’s former home) I was struck by how establishment the two former rebels looked and by how wealthy and comfortable they seemed. If there’s a measure of how the media business has changed and how it has changed politics, that snapshot – the press gaggle outside, the Georgian townhouse, the luxury cars in the driveway, the suit bags and leather carry-all – spoke volumes. These two guys aren’t the hardscrabble outsiders they once were; they’re career journalists. And their careers have changed journalism and politics.
Want to measure that change? Listen to the rumblings from the Felt family and what’s been described as their polite insistence that Bob Woodward share – literally – some of the wealth for their story. Listen back to Woodward saying he didn’t think the 91-year-old Felt was in any shape to make decisions about revealing his identity. What’s that sound you ask? That’s the arrogance of Big Media telling us what’s good for us. Woodward has become a master of that game and that statement is not a compliment. Now, I don’t think the Felt family has good reason to “charge” for its story. But I do think Bob Woodward and his pals at the Washington Post could be a little more gracious as the source that made their paper decides to claim his place in history. There is, no surprise, money involved. And that’s as much a measure of how much the media business has changed as anything else. Where do you think Woodward got the down payment for the house?
Mark Felt’s family had talked to People magazine a few years ago; it wanted to be paid for its story. After all, if there had been no “Deep Throat,” there’d be no Watergate. People turned the family down, eventually. The said it was “checkbook journalism.” I agree with that decision. And while there are going to be plenty of folks who will call the family greedy and charge them with a host of other sins, I don’t think that’s necessarily the issue here. Their belief – right or wrong – that they deserve something for their contribution is a new one. It’s not one that my high school classmates or their parents would have found very appealing. But the belief that the telling of the story shouldn’t be more enriching than the story itself is very much at the heart of this polite but public dispute.
Word that a book deal with a $1 million advance (it’ll go higher; much higher once the bidding is over; just look at the coverage this story has gotten) is in the works for Felt’s story. Woodward and Bernstein are huddled together for the first time in years; playing catch-up to a monthly magazine where one of them was on the masthead. They have work to do, they said zipping by their less-prestigious, less-well-paid colleagues standing outside Woodward’s house. I’ll bet. The Woodstein book proposal – which probably landed with a thud in New York this very morning – will go head to head with Felt’s. The boys will get big money, too. I’ll be the Washington Post even figures a way to horn in on the action.
It’s too bad, however, that an outsider isn’t writing this book; it’s as much a story about what motivated Felt: Richard Nixon was a horrible, awful man who played his politics with a stiletto and punished everyone who got in his way and pretty much everyone did get in his way. But it’s also a story of how the media business has changed, grown powerful and, finally grown fat and happy, often with very little regard for those it serves and by whom it is often served. That started with Watergate.
Think that’s an exaggeration? Try this on for size. Today’s news was dominated by news about a 91-year-old former lawyer whose name – until today – was only remembered by a handful of political and news junkies. His identity, intriguing as it is, knocked almost every other story off the airwaves, front pages and websites because the press loves nothing better – and yes, oh, yes, kettle I am black as coal here – than to write about itself. That, too, is new. And it’s not a change for the better.

Share  Posted by Chris Nolan at 8:15 PM | Permalink

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