Watergate Case Study: ‘Deep Throat’ and Anonymous Sources

Washington Post "Nixon Resigns"

Aug. 9, 1974, issue of The Washington Post (Newseum collection) and printing mat (loan, The Washington Post).

Ten years ago today, Mark Felt broke his silence and ended the decades-long mystery of who was “Deep Throat,” the anonymous source who helped two reporters bring down a presidency with their investigative reporting.

Felt, second in command of the FBI at the time, guided Washington Post journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein as they covered the 1972 Watergate office break-in and White House cover-up. Deep Throat’s identity remained a secret for 33 years, leading to much speculation and intrigue.

Felt, who was 91 years old at the time of his great reveal, died in December 2008.

The use of anonymous sources then — and still today — is hotly debated. Is using information from people who don’t want to be publicly identified the best way to get critical information without fear of retaliation? Can unnamed sources manipulate, mislead and misuse their shield of anonymity?

Without getting into the discussion of whether Felt was a hero or a traitor, we offer a classroom-ready case study on the reliance on a source who insists on remaining anonymous. This case helps students see how important it is for journalists to check and double check information passed on to them by sources, especially anonymous ones.

Newseum Education uses a case study approach in many of the media literacy and First Amendment classes it offers on-site. Students, in groups, discuss a case and explain the response they’ve chosen. There are questions to help guide the discussion, as well as “The Real Story.”

Washington Post "Nixon Resigns"

Steel door from the Watergate break-in. On exhibit at the Newseum in the News Corporation News History Gallery. Loan, Stephen W. Pace, Sr. (Megan Nobgria/Newseum).

In addition to the case study, the Newseum offers two Watergate-related videos through its online Digital Classroom. Each video has a viewing guide and lesson plan. (You must sign up to access Digital Classroom; registration is free.)

  • Watergate: This five-minute video examines the role of the press in the historic Watergate scandal.
  • Sources: This eight-minute video examines the sources that journalists use when reporting the news.

And, if you visit the Newseum, check out the Post reporters’ notes and the taped door from the Watergate office that led to the investigation. They are in the News Corporation News History Gallery,  along with a set of the Pentagon Papers, the secret Vietnam War documents leaked by Daniel Ellsberg to The New York Times. President Nixon’s efforts to discredit Ellsberg contributed to the president’s downfall in the Watergate scandal.

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