What do jurisprudence, tabloid journalism, and the Watergate- era informant known as Deep Throat have to do with each other? Maybe better to ask what they have to do with anything cowboy. But I believe that a stroll down journalism’s (and history’s) back roads reveals something about our nation’s need for cowboy forthrightness and plain-spokenness. And cowboy ethics.
Recently, in a conversation about news media, my new son-in- aw remarked that what bothered him about mainstream media today “is the prevalent use of anonymous sources.”
He was more specific than that, drawing a finer focus, but the point he raised deserves scrutiny even in its broadest terms. He was right. News media has changed. Society has changed. The implications might be greater than we suspect.
What did he mean about “anonymous sources”? We see it all the time. I read an article in one of the major newsweeklies some years ago that gave an insider’s look at how business is conducted in the White House. That piece employed a spate of journalistic cloaking devices, identifying sources as, for instance, a “high ranking source,” a “very high ranking source,” a “source close to the President,” and other such covers. One wonders why the reporter troubled to make such distinctions— why not just dispense with the labels and credit all remarks to merely a “high ranking source”? Especially since we as readers will never know speaker A from speaker B or C anyway, nor will A, B, or C ever have to give account of themselves, if indeed they all exist.
And therein lies the problem with anonymous sourcing. It releases the source—and to some extent, the journalist—from accountability. There is a virtue in sources—in the citizenry—standing up for what they have to say, and accepting all consequences, even unfair ones.
When my son-in-law made his observation, my mind fl ashed back to the passing, on Dec. 19, of the most famous unnamed source in maybe all of journalism. The man once known only as Deep Throat—his real name was Mark Felt—died then at age 95.
The justification commonly offered by supporters of the Washington Post’s handling of that 1970s episode, with Felt, the FBI’s second- highest official, as unnamed informant, was the toppling of a presidency—Richard Nixon’s—widely regarded as corrupt, a crusade the Post deemed worthy of the momentary setting-aside of journalistic principle. In bringing down that president, the Post’s reporter tandem of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein battered down much of the resistance, seemingly as old as journalism itself, to the use of the unnamed source.
What we don’t hear about today is the fallout of that change. Whatever the merits of the Watergate reportage, the fact is that we have inherited a media composed of other, mostly lesser, news reporting outlets that have adopted those extreme methods as—in many cases—standard operating procedure.
That fallout is obvious, too, from the way mainstream media has become so much like tabloid media. It’s not for nothing that anonymous sourcing is the bread and butter of tabloid journalism, all whispers and innuendos and rumors, though of course “attributed” to a source—an unnamed one. We are supposed to credit the mainstream media with nobler aims and worthier ends than their tabloid brethren. But the distinctions have blurred. And our nation is all the more impoverished, for lack of journalistic stand-up, be-counted, cowboy-esque values.
In hindsight, I’d rather have seen Felt give it to them straight up, scorning secrecy, defiantly declaring his name, and to blazes with the job. Imagine if he had tackled things in the full-on cowboy manner: “No, I’m not going to hide my identity,” he could have said. “Yes, I’m bringing serious allegations. Yes, I will lose my high-ranking position. But what is my paycheck, even my career, when the stakes are the fate of the nation?”
Was the hurrying of Nixon from office worth what may have contributed to the compromising of the fourth estate? There was once a feeling that if no one is willing to come forward with allegations, taking the heat, then society ought to just live with the circumstances until that day arrives. In jurisprudence, we never question the principle. There, the accused has the right to confront his accusers. And “It is better that 100 guilty men go free than one innocent man be convicted.” The law accepts this because the law believes that the end does not justify the means.
And yet, for all of that, the fault is not Mark Felt’s. Felt did what others wouldn’t. Nor is the fault even the Post’s. The larger blame lies in what happened after Watergate, and that was a slow change within all media.
And more than that. We have inherited a world in which the public has been weaned away from, or lost its taste for, a more straight-from-the-shoulder media culture. Until the public has a demand for journalism done in the timehonored ways of the past, and until sources—which are you and me—are ready to affi x our names to our testimonies, then media built on those ways will not command a following. And without a vital, society-shaping media, our freedoms and security are threatened.
The blame for the current state of affairs belongs, as it does with every other such lapse, at the feet of all the citizenry. But we live in a world where the citizenry is hardly held to account for anything. It’s fine to criticize the high and mighty who tread the national stage, but it is completely un-PC to suggest that our citizenry could be diff erent than it is. That’s being judgmental. That’s treading on individual “liberties.” Conversely, our predecessors were more inclined to look at the common man as the problem and as the cure.
This magazine has always been about the common man and common virtues. The example of journalism is given only as one instance. In every way, nations prosper only insofar as the commonest people among them do good. That was the tell-the-truth-and-tell-it-square mentality of the old-time cowboys— always under an understanding that they moved in a society that was made up of their own kind.
What has arisen in America is a top-down orientation to our problems and needs. Everything hinges on the highest-profile people and events. If only we can get the right president. If only we can intercept the next catastrophic terrorist strike. If only those people in Congress can get things right.
I suspect that is partly due to the fact that we have quit believing that all real change occurs on the level of the people and that we the people have the power to lift society. But our forefathers believed it. We can too.
What accounts for the greatness of, for instance, the Founding Fathers is that they sprang from a populace that was much like them. Look anywhere in history—you will never see elitist governments succeeding. Greatness has come only where the common people were uncommonly capable.
What we are for here, as advocates of the Cowboy Way, is to encourage a bottom- up orientation. A bootstrap philosophy that says that raising the level of all Americans will supply all those needs that we now deem to be the preserve of our leaders. A trickle-up philosophy. Let me give it a name: incrementalism. It’s the idea that little by little, bit by bit, in even the tiniest of ways, things can be changed for the better—all at the level of the common people. And that a rising tide lifts all ships.
It is this sort of thing that we speak of here when we talk about this nation receiving revitalization from the Cowboy Way. For that is surely an incrementalist’s philosophy. And in saying so we lay down a plank in what one day might become a platform.
It is because you are with us, as readers and partners, that we are able to work upon these things at all. We hope you will help us to build that platform.
Thank you for 15 years of keeping us in the fight, sustaining bit by bit what we believe is a grand and worthy cause.
"Our forefathers believed it. We can too."