Pressure and Deep Throat

June 13, 2005

I grew up professionally during the Watergate years. These were my formative years, in college, when televised hearings on Capitol Hill took the place of soap operas and most of my classmates wanted to be investigative reporters.

I grew up professionally during the Watergate years. These were my formative years, in college, when televised hearings on Capitol Hill took the place of soap operas and most of my classmates wanted to be investigative reporters.

Over the last three decades I've wondered off and on who might have been Deep Throat. I had hoped, even expected, it was a staffer inside CREEP (Committee to Re-Elect the President), someone incensed by injustice yet powerless to effect a change in any other way than to leverage the media. Learning that it was the number two man at the FBI was, well, disappointing.

Didn't he have more resources at his disposal than a couple of cub reporters at the local newspaper? I mean, come on! His job was to bring criminals to justice, not slink in the dark corners of a parking garage, leaking information to the press. But then I got to thinking about it. What would have happened if he hadn't had a free press to turn to? Moreover, what would he have done if he hadn't had two writers without much to lose.

People say journalism today isn't what it used to be, but I think it is. Woodward and Bernstein weren't highly paid political writers. They were entry-level word weenies covering Washington's police beat. Now as in the past, those who have the most to lose, like Deep Throat, tend to look the other way or try to get somebody else to help them out.

The trade press is no different. Whether it's government officials or corporate executives, either group has the power to shut a reporter out. It's no fun being on the wrong side of a multibillion-dollar company.

I chuckle a little when I get calls from product managers who wonder why I don't use their press releases as they are, or marketing VPs who want to check the story I've written before publication just to be sure everything is all right. But it's a nervous chuckle. I can't seem to get across to many vendors that sending copy out for their review surrenders objectivity and - just as important - credibility among the readership.

This pressure to make allowances for companies - for advertisers - is of the same ilk as the pressure exerted 30 years ago on the editors of The Washington Post by the Nixon White House to kill the Watergate stories. It's the kind of pressure that led thousands of other newspapers to keep from printing stories about Watergate until it was "safe" to do so. But the worst pressure, because of its insidiousness, may be the pressure not to offend readers, not to report on things too ugly to think about. This is just the kind of reporting that needs to be done.

We all want to believe we have a free press. We want to believe what is published in it. The test of whether it's free or not, whether it is believable or not, is that you may read what you would rather not.