W. Joseph Campbell

Posts Tagged ‘crime’

Six years on: Identity of Watergate’s ‘Deep Throat’ revealed

In Anniversaries, Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on May 29, 2011 at 6:22 am

It’s been six years since W. Mark Felt,  once a senior FBI official, was revealed to have been “Deep Throat” of the Watergate era, the most famous source in modern American journalism.

Alias 'Deep Throat'

Felt’s “Deep Throat” identity had remained a secret — and was a topic of often-intense speculation — for more than 30 years.

On May 31, 2005, Vanity Fair disclosed that Felt had been the Washington Post’s elusive and enigmatic source as the Watergate scandal unfolded in 1972-73.

The disclosure was made with the consent of Felt — who then was 91 and in declining physical and mental health — and his daughter, Joan.

The Vanity Fair report meant that the Post effectively had been scooped on its own story.

“The identity of Deep Throat is modern journalism’s greatest unsolved mystery,” Vanity Fair crowed in its article lifting Felt’s secret. “It has been said that he may be the most famous anonymous person in U.S. history.”

As I note in Getting It Wrong, my media-mythbusting book that came out last year, the prolonged guessing game about the identity of “Deep Throat” help solidify the notion that the Post and its lead Watergate reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, were central to uncovering the scandal and forcing President Richard Nixon’s resignation.

I point out that speculation “about the identity of the ‘Deep Throat’ source provided periodic and powerful reminders about the Post and its Watergate coverage, serving to keep Woodward and Bernstein in the public eye far longer than they otherwise would have been.”

I further note:

“They and the mysterious ‘Deep Throat’ source became central figures” in what the Philadelphia Inquirer once called “the parlor game that would not die. … With each passing year, as ‘Deep Throat’s’ cloak of anonymity remained securely in place, his perceived role in Watergate gained gravitas.”

“And so,” I write, “… did the roles of Woodward and Bernstein.”

Although Alexander Haig, John Dean, and Henry Kissinger were among the suspects mentioned in the “Deep Throat” guessing game, Felt’s name always placed high on the roster of likely candidates.

As I discuss in Getting It Wrong, speculation about the identity of “Deep Throat” began in earnest in June 1974, with a front-page article in the Wall Street Journal, and continued periodically over the next 31 years.

The Journal article appeared soon after publication of All the President’s Men, Woodward and Bernstein’s best-selling book about Watergate in which they introduced the furtive source they called “Deep Throat.”

The Journal article described Felt as the top suspect.

Felt, though, repeatedly and adamantly denied having been “Deep Throat.” He was quoted as saying in the Journal article in 1974:

“I’m just not that kind of person.”

He told the Hartford Courant newspaper in 1999 that he “would have been more effective” had he indeed been Woodward’s secretive source, adding:

“Deep Throat didn’t exactly bring the White House crashing down, did he?”

That’s a revealing point that goes to the heart of what I call the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate: Disclosures by “Deep Throat” didn’t bring down Nixon’s corrupt presidency; nor did the reporting of Woodward and Bernstein.

(Bernstein, by the way, never spoke with Felt during the Watergate scandal; Felt was Woodward’s exclusive source. Bernstein finally met Felt in November 2008, shortly before the former G-man’s death.)

On the day six years ago when Felt was confirmed to have been “Deep Throat,” his family issued a statement calling him “a great American hero who went well above and beyond the call of duty at much risk to himself to save his country from a horrible injustice. We all sincerely hope the country will see him this way as well.”

Felt, though, hardly was such a noble character.

In his senior position at the FBI, he had authorized illegal burglaries as part of FBI investigations into leftists associated with the radical Weather Underground in the early 1970s.

Felt was convicted in 1980 on felony charges related to the break-ins, but pardoned by President Ronald Reagan.

Interestingly, his “Deep Throat” alter ego may best be known for a line Felt never spoke: “Follow the money.”

As I’ve discussed at Media Myth Alert, Felt never offered such guidance to Woodward. He never advised the reporter to “follow the money.”

The line doesn’t appear in the book All the President’s Men. But it was written into the script of the cinematic adaptation of Woodward and Bernstein’s book.

Follow the money” was spoken by Hal Holbrook, who delivered a bravado performance as “Deep Throat” in the movie.

Holbrook delivered his “follow the money” lines with such quiet insistence and knowing authority that it sounded for all the world as if it really had been guidance crucial to rolling up Watergate.


Recent and related:

‘Kill the Irishman’: Glamorizing ’70s Cleveland underworld?

In Cinematic treatments, Media myths, Newspapers on March 2, 2011 at 7:14 am

A lawyer friend in Cleveland told me yesterday that a movie called Kill the Irishman is soon to be released. It’s about a dapper Cleveland mobster named Danny Greene who was  slain in a car-bombing in 1977.

I was quite surprised that the life and death Greene, a swaggering smalltime crime figure in a gritty rustbelt city, would win Hollywood’s attention after all these years. And with such comparative star power, no less: Kill the Irishman features roles by Christopher Walken, Val Kilmer, Paul Sorvino, and Vincent D’Onofrio.

Ray Stevenson plays Greene.

As cinema is wont to do, Kill the Irishman may end up glamorizing and mythologizing Greene and the violent Cleveland underworld of the second half of the 1970s. Publicity material for the movie suggests as much, referring as it does to “Greene’s heroic rise from a tough Cleveland neighborhood to become an enforcer in the local mob.”

I was in Cleveland then, a young reporter for the city’s morning newspaper, the Plain Dealer. The mob scene was murky, chaotic, and hardly glamorous; its figures were scarcely “heroic.”

It did churn up some flamboyant characters, though, including Greene and another rackets figure, Alex (Shondor) Birns, who was killed in a car bombing the night before Easter in March 1975.

I wrote the story about Birns’ bombing death — and Jim Flanagan, the newspaper’s inestimable night city editor, rewrote the lead to say:

“Alex (Shondor) Birns, Cleveland numbers racketeer, was blown to bits at 8 last night seconds after he entered his car parked behind a West Side bar.

“Police, who made the identification, said Birns was hurled through the roof of a 1975 light blue Lincoln Continental Mark IV. The upper torso was found beside the opened front passenger door.”

Blown to bits. Do newspapers still write crime stories that way?

Everyone believed Greene to have been behind Shondor Birns’ death, but no one could finger him.

And a lot of people suspected that it was a matter of time before Greene was killed, too. He flirted with both sides of the law after all. For a time at least, Greene was an informant for the FBI.

Part of Greene’s appeal rested on a catlike ability to dodge attempts on his life.

About six weeks after Birns was blown to bits, Greene survived the bombing of his house on Waterloo Road in Cleveland.

I wrote that story, too, along with a police beat reporter named Mairy Jayn Woge, who commuted to work in Cleveland from somewhere near Pittsburgh.

The article opened this way:

“Cleveland gangland figure Daniel J. (Danny) Greene yesterday survived the second bombing attempt on his life in seven years.

‘Greene, 45, was at his home … when a bomb was thrown through a downstairs window at 3:50 a.m. The explosion destroyed the building that Greene also used as an office to run an industrial consulting firm.”

I remember relishing that line, “Cleveland gangland figure.”

His luck and elusiveness notwithstanding, Greene began to seem more eccentric than significant. He was, as I came to understand it, less important than his reputation. He may have been elbowing his way into the gambling rackets, but Greene really wasn’t such a leading figure in the Cleveland underworld.

He was colorful, though.

Plain Dealer articles described Greene as revealing no fear after escaping the attempt on his life in 1975.

“After that bombing,” one article recalled, “Greene used to sit on a bench in front of his office in a trailer, conducting business and unafraid of being shot down.”

He was killed in October 1977, the victim of what the Plain Dealer called a “trojan horse” bombing. An explosive device packed into a car parked next to Greene’s Lincoln Continental was detonated remotely, killing Greene immediately.

Greene had just completed a visit to the dentist.

I was one of nine Plain Dealer staffers who worked on that story, which carried the headline, “Car bomb kills Danny Greene.” Flanagan, the night city editor, also was credited as having contributed to the report.

Flanagan, a hefty man of Irish descent who wore suspenders and had a heart of gold, was a veteran of Cleveland’s once-lusty newspaper scene. He worked for the afternoon Cleveland News before it folded, and afterward joined the Plain Dealer.

He was steeped in a detail-rich, tabloidesque writing style. And he took time to mentor young reporters, if they were willing. I still have copies of some of my stories that Flanagan rewrote, to which he usually attached detailed notes of explanation.

“Don’t waste space on the obvious,” one note began.

“Remember the old English lesson, avoid adjectives; move the sentence by verbs,” said another.

“Simplify, simplify, simplify,” Flanagan wrote in another note, adding, “Again, I stress using simple, declarative sentences and make your attribution down in the story.”

I suspect Flanagan wrote the sidebar to the story about Greene’s violent death. Either he or Bob Daniels, a gifted rewriteman who called just about everyone “coach.”

The sidebar began this way:

“Daniel John Patrick Greene had the quiet courtesy of an Irish butler but his shillelagh-bold eyes were those of a muscleman. …

“His manner was reserved and polite and he showed compassion for friends.

“But bombs burst around him so frequently and bullets were fired at him so often that his mere appearance in a saloon caused an uneasy atmosphere and a gradual emptying of the bar.”

Vivid writing, delightfully over the top. And it’s just the kind of stuff that Hollywood seems to love.


Recent and related:

Myth-busting at Busboys and Poets

In Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on July 8, 2010 at 9:47 pm

It was a fine event last night at the Busboys and Poets restaurant/bookstore in the lively U Street corridor in Washington, D.C.

Despite the staggering, record-setting heat (temperatures reached 102 degrees in the capital), an engaging audience showed up for my talk about Getting It Wrong, my new book that busts 10 prominent media-driven myths.

I opened with a detailed look at what I called a “uniquely Washington historical event,” the Watergate scandal that toppled Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency in 1974. Specifically, I described how the “heroic-journalist” interpretation has become the dominant narrative of Watergate–that is, how two young, intrepid reporters for the Washington Post brought Nixon down.

That interpretation, I said, represents a fundamental misreading of history, one that ignores the far more important and crucial contributions of subpoena-wielding authorities such as special prosecutors, bipartisan congressional panels, federal investigators, and ultimately the U.S. Supreme Court.

“Against that tableau, newspapers—including the Post— were  decidedly modest factors” in determining Watergate’s outcome, I said. “Journalism’s contribution to Nixon’s fall was hardly decisive.”

Even principals of the Post have said as much over the years, I noted, quoting Katharine Graham, the newspaper’s publisher during the Watergate period who said:

“Sometimes people accuse us of bringing down a president, which of course we didn’t do. The processes that caused [Nixon’s] resignation were constitutional.”

Complexity-avoidance, I said, helps explain the tenacity of the heroic-journalist interpretation of Watergate: Like many media myths, the heroic-journalist meme minimizes the intricacy of historical events in favor of simplistic, and misleading, interpretations.

It is far easier to focus on the exploits of the Washington Post reporters than it is to try to grapple with the intricacies and complexities of what was a sprawling scandal, I noted.

I also discussed media myths of the “Cronkite Moment” of 1968; the “crack babies” scare of the 1980s and 1990s, and the misreporting that characterized the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina‘s landfall in New Orleans in 2005.

Members of the audience posed a number of very thoughtful questions, including one about why the “crack baby” scare became so widespread.

At Busboys and Poets

It was propelled in part, I said, by hurried, anecdotal reporting.

Reporters and columnists pushed too eagerly on preliminary and inconclusive research about children born to women who took crack cocaine during pregnancy. The horrors that some journalists predicted—that “crack babies” would grow up to be a vast, permanently dependent class, a so-called “bio-underclass” of staggering dimension—proved to be quite wrong.

Part of the explanation for the wide embrace of “crack baby” myth, I said, was that it offered something for everyone,” as the magazine Mother Jones once put it.

I write in Getting It Wrong that the crack baby phenomenon “inspired fearful commentary across political and ideological boundaries.” It was “a rare social issue that had appeal across the political spectrum—appeal that made the phenomenon especially powerful, compelling, notable, and tenacious.

“For conservatives, the specter of crack babies underscored the importance of imposing stiff penalties in the country’s war on drugs. And penalties were stiffened for crack possession during the second half of the 1980s. For liberals, meanwhile, crack babies represented an opportunity to press for costly assistance programs aimed at helping crack users and their children.”

One of the best questions of the evening was about whether media audiences aren’t complicit in perpetuating media myths, whether media consumers have a role in myth-busting.

There is, I replied, plenty of room for media audiences to develop and hone a sense of skepticism, especially about news reports that seem too neat and tidy. Stories that seem too delicious, or too over the top, may prove to be inaccurate.

This also is the case with succinct turns of phrase. Quotations that “sound too neat and tidy,” I write in Getting It Wrong, “often are too perfect to be true.”



The poverty-causes-crime link: A myth?

In Debunking, Media myths on January 11, 2010 at 5:56 pm

The Wall Street Journal published recently an intriguing op-ed commentary disputing the notion of a strong link between poverty and crime.

The commentary, written by Heather Mac Donald, a contributing editor to the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal, asserts:

“The recession of 2008-09 has undercut one of the most destructive social theories that came out of the 1960s: the idea that the root cause of crime lies in income inequality and social injustice.

“As the economy started shedding jobs in 2008, criminologists and pundits predicted that crime would shoot up, since poverty, as the ‘root causes’ theory holds, begets criminals. Instead, the opposite happened.”

“Over seven million lost jobs later, crime has plummeted to its lowest level since the early 1960s. The consequences of this drop for how we think about social order are significant.”

Mac Donald further asserts that “by the end of 2009, the purported association between economic hardship and crime was in shambles.

“According to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports, homicide dropped 10% nationwide in the first six months of 2009; violent crime dropped 4.4% and property crime dropped 6.1%. Car thefts are down nearly 19%. The crime plunge is sharpest in many areas that have been hit the hardest by the housing collapse. Unemployment in California is 12.3%, but homicides in Los Angeles County, the Los Angeles Times reported recently, dropped 25% over the course of 2009. Car thefts there are down nearly 20%.”

[In an op-ed in today’s Washington Post, Robert Samuelson cites the latest edition of the Statistical Abstract of the United States in noting:  “From 1993 to 2007, murders dropped from 25,000 to 17,000 and robberies from 660,000 to 445,000. Crime rates per 100,000 declined more, because the population rose 16 percent over the same period. There is no consensus as to why. Possibilities include better policing techniques and tougher sentencing (the incarcerated population doubled from 1.15 million in 1990 to 2.29 million in 2007).]

Mac Donald in her op-ed says the “increase in the number of people incarcerated had a large effect on crime in the last decade and continues to affect crime rates today, however much anti-incarceration activists deny it.”

She also says that “data-driven policing” techniques also have contributed to the drop in crime.

It’s all intriguing material, evocative in some respects of the research of Princeton economist Alan B. Krueger on what makes a terrorist.

As I note in my forthcoming book, Getting It Wrong, Krueger disputes “the popular notion that poverty breeds terrorism. Such a linkage seems intuitive, and has been invoked by politicians, scholars, analysts, and journalists. Krueger’s research showed persuasively, however, that the poverty-terrorism symbiosis is illusory.”

Mac Donald’s op-ed certainly suggests that the poverty-breeds-crime nexus is a myth — or at very least, conventional wisdom that the news media have routinely embraced.

She notes that the recession “could still affect crime rates if cities cut their police forces and states start releasing prisoners early. Both forms of cost-saving would be self-defeating.”

Her op-ed raises intriguing issues that surely merit fuller attention by the news media.


%d bloggers like this: