Commentary: Trump whistleblower operates under new guidelines

Given the aggressiveness of the Donald Trump White House in finding the whistleblower who depicted the president’s efforts to dig up dirt on Joe Biden and his son, along with the current political environment, it is doubtful that the person will survive anonymity very long. Such brevity in beclouding makes the 31-year record of hiding the identity of Watergate’s “Deep Throat” — former FBI guy Mark Felt — even more admirable.

Indeed, there are several factors which explain how Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein kept Felt protected, albeit not totally.

First, Felt himself repeatedly denied being the source, which fed the Watergate scandal during the Richard Nixon presidency. When the secret of the 20th century was finally revealed in a 2005 Vanity Fair article, it was Felt’s family who brought the story to light.

For those in the news business, utilization of covert sources is paramount to full and accurate reporting. Protecting these people from exposure is part of the agreement made in such instances, and betraying that trust could have dire consequences for both the whistleblower and reporter. Generally, Woodward and Bernstein were aware of and followed this creed. Their steadfastness in protecting Felt’s identity not only gave them legendary status, but benefited the news media industry overall.

Dr. Samuel B. Hoff

Perhaps another reason for the success in keeping “Deep Throat’s” identity under wrap was scandal overload. Following Richard Nixon’s resignation as president in 1974, it didn’t take long for other earthshaking White House transgressions to dominate the landscape.

For instance, both the Iran-Contra episode during the Ronald Reagan presidency and the Monica Lewinsky case during Bill Clinton’s administration experienced a spasm of coverage which made most briefly forget Watergate’s fallout.

To be sure, newspapers have declined as a source of information for American citizens. Simultaneously, the explosion of social media has transformed the news environment, whereby every user can potentially be an influencer or independent reporter. Unfortunately, those folks whose mission is to disclose sources in this milieu are operating without training or ethical guidelines, which is inimical to professional journalistic standards.

Even as Felt’s secret was concealed for decades, it was not totally hidden. As a Washington Post article recently divulged, Bernstein’s wife, filmmaker and writer Nora Ephron, correctly guessed the MF initials which Bernstein’s partner, Woodward, used in his notes to refer to Felt. Both she and her son told various audiences of Felt’s identity following Ephron’s divorce from Bernstein for cheating on her while she was pregnant, though their disclosure was apparently disbelieved.

Still, the “Deep Throat” precedent in protecting sources is one to repeat rather than repent, even as contemporary conditions make whistleblower revelations harder to hide.

Dr. Samuel B. Hoff is George Washington Distinguished Professor for the Delaware Society of the Cincinnati and Professor Emeritus of History and Political Science at Delaware State University.

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