Current Press Ethics Unlikely to Enable Second 'Watergate'

It's been more than 30 years since Bob Woodward (search) and Carl Bernstein (search) broke the Watergate scandal that brought down an American president.

Many media analysts say a story like Watergate, in which the two enterprising Washington Post reports relied on "Deep Throat" as an essential source, likely couldn't be broken in the same way nowadays because many news outlets have reined in the use of anonymous sources in the wake of recent ethics controversies.

"It depends on whether the next Watergate will rely on anonymous sources. And even if it does, it's a tough call," said media analyst Eric Burns, host of "FOX News Watch."

"What is likely to happen now, when an anonymous source is used … is that they’ll have to use more than one anonymous source before they're comfortable. Obviously, the more controversial it is, the more important it is to get it accurate," Burns said.

Former FBI agent Mark Felt (search), 91, admitted in a Vanity Fair article released on May 31 that he was the man Woodward would meet in a parking garage in the middle of the night to sort the string gathered by the Washington Post writers. Enough pieces of string eventually revealed the scandalous plot that forced President Richard Nixon to resign.

Because of the story's impact on America, Watergate came to glorify the use of anonymous sources. Woodward's secret source, known until last month only as "Deep Throat," became the brass ring of sources — the ultimate insider who not only could verify or nullify information a reporter had on a hot story, but could point the finger at other high-level officials within a conspiracy.

"There was a surge in anonymous sourcing right after Watergate as there was a sort of 'anonymity chic' in journalism, where every reporter fashioned himself a Woodward and every source fancied himself a Deep Throat," said Matthew Felling, media director for the Center for Media and Public Affairs.

But the Jayson Blairs (search) and Jack Kellys (search) of the world,as well as the recent brouhaha surrounding Newsweek's retracted story built on one unnamed official who claimed interrogators at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, flushed a copy of the Koran down the toilet have helped change all that.

"Those scandals took a toll on the media far more than they took a toll on individual journalists' credibility and … the media's image has taken some serious hits in recent years but their credibility is still on par with politicians in America," said Felling.

Clamping Down on the 'Evil of Journalism'

Anonymous sources have been blasted by the White House and others. USA Today founder Al Neuharth has called their use an "evil of journalism."

Some news outlets have voluntarily revised their policies regarding the use of anonymous sources since publications like The New York Times and Newsweek blackened their own eyes in the wake of journalistic scandals, some involving the use of secret sources.

"These policies are an attempt to tighten, to eliminate a looseness that's developed in the last 20 years, not to make it difficult to do investigative reporting," said Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism and the Committee of Concerned Journalists. "I haven't seen anything in these rules … that would chill investigating."

In their reporting on Watergate, Woodward and Bernstein sometimes wrote stories based mostly on anonymous sources. As far as Deep Throat went, then-Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee (search) said he didn't know the identity of Woodward's secret source until after Nixon resigned. Publisher Katharine Graham apparently never even asked who Deep Throat was, Bradlee said.

"The important thing about Deep Throat from Day 1 was that he was telling the truth. Everything he told us was true and in that sense, that was all I needed," Bradlee said in a online chat on June 2. "I didn't know exactly who the information was coming from but I gained confidence week by week when his information proved to be accurate. There were almost 400 Watergate stories and I think we gained confidence as these stories proved to be on the button."

There were few rules governing the use of such sources at that time, and "not only was there more trust of journalists by the public, there was more trust by journalists of fellow journalists," noted Burns.

In Woodward's book, "All The President's Men," the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist wrote that "gradually, an unwritten rule was evolving: unless two sources confirmed a charge involving activity likely to be considered criminal, the specific allegation was not used in the paper."

In Woodward and Bernstein's Sept. 29, 1972, page one article entitled, "Mitchell Controlled Secret GOP Fund," the two reporters unveiled that while serving as attorney general, John N. Mitchell (search) ran a secret Republican fund that was used to gather information about Democrats. The story is mostly attributed to "sources involved in the Watergate investigation" and "several reliable sources." Other information is attributed to "one federal source" and "the Post's sources." The only people quoted in this particular story is Mitchell himself, who called the story "crap," and a spokesman for Nixon's re-election committee.

In another story, "Dean Alleges Nixon Knew of Cover-up Plan," which ran June 3, 1973, on the front page, the lead paragraph that explained about how former presidential counsel John W. Dean (search) told prosecutors he discussed aspects of the Watergate coverup with Nixon or in his presence at least 35 times was attributed to "reliable sources."

This news was explosive, given that it was a senior Nixon adviser admitting the former president knew of the cover-up efforts going on. Other information in the story is sourced to unnamed Justice Department and Senate sources, "investigators," "one source with first-hand knowledge of Dean's statements" and "four White House sources."

The lack of guidelines governing use of such sources back then is in stark contrast to some policies in place now.

USA Today, for example, mandates that the identity of an unnamed source must be shared with and approved by a managing editor prior to publication. It also requires that anonymous sources must be cited only as a last resort, not only in direct quotes but also the use of anonymous sources generally.

"An editor must be confident that there is no better way to present the information and that the information is important enough to justify the broader cost in reader trust. This is not to be taken lightly," the policy states.

Many local papers ban the use of such sources outright, according to a survey conducted by The Associated Press and the Associated Press Managing Editors association.

A Center for Media and Public Affairs study found that the use of anonymous sources has declined by 33 percent, from nearly one in four sources during President Reagan's first year in office to one out of six in President George W. Bush's first year.

Speed vs. Accuracy

In today's fast-paced, 24-7 news cycle, slashed newsroom budgets and too few reporters to cover all the news fit to print often lead journalists to resort to using unnamed sources. On top of that, television reporters traditionally don't work sources as thoroughly as their print counterparts do.

But just because budgets are tight doesn't mean big stories can't be broken, observers said.

"This kind of reporting can still be done. It will have to be more time consuming and that's the problem more news organizations will have to face," said Burns. "Which is to say, 'might somebody else beat us?' … and that's going to be the real struggle in journalism … how do they balance their desire to be first, which is understandable and maybe admirable in some cases, with their need to be accurate."

During Watergate, Woodward and Bernstein frequently went directly to the sources of information such as secretaries of the officials involved.

"They were not getting a lot of leaks from special prosecutors or anyone else," Rosenstiel said, unlike that media these days, which are doing more "investigations into investigations."

"Today, a large percentage — a growing percentage of watchdog reporting is actual investigations of investigations" being done by prosecutors' offices or police agencies. "Those agencies are leaking to reporters — that's very different from what I call original investigative reporting," he added.

Watergate's influence may also have made government officials warier about sharing information, even with colleagues, say analysts.

"It caused government officials to perhaps talk less to one another because they would wonder, 'Is this person I'm talking to here Deep Throat or some other leaker?'" Burns said. "I don't think it affected tremendously the relationship between government and press but it did affect the need for secrecy between people in government … people on that 'need-to-know' list shrank greatly."

Some analysts note that even government officials like congressional aides and agency spokesmen are taking advantage of the lax, unnamed sources rules of the past few decades.

"What happened with anonymous sourcing between Watergate and now … they used anonymity as a tool to coax reluctant sources to come forward. Today, particularly in big cities like New York and D.C., anonymity is a condition the source imposes on journalists, often before the conversation begins," said Rosenstiel.

Rosenstiel surmised that with the tighter restrictions, some officials may be wary to talk to national reporters if they're not sure their names can be kept out of stories. But in local publications vital to elected representatives' political livelihoods, reporters generally have an easier job getting sources on the record.

"It's too important to demonstrate to people back home that they're actually doing something," Rosenstiel said. "And that's good, that would be great — if the power shift can go back to, 'you're only anonymous if you've got something we can't get any other way.'"

While experts agree that stories with the magnitude of Watergate can still be uncovered, Felling said he doubts the unraveling of the scandal could play out the same way.

"Could a Watergate investigation pass the public sniff test in America? I believe so," he said. "The question isn't whether Watergate-style media leaks could occur in 2005 but how the identity could be kept secret in the current media environment … I don't think the journalists would loosen their lips, I just think other entrepreneurial reporters would dig through enough trash cans and file through enough credit card reports to make a name for his or herself."