Mark Felt may be the most famous leaker in modern U.S. history.
Better known as “Deep Throat,” the FBI’s second in command secretly met with then-little-known Washington Post journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, and gave insider guidance to the scandal that threw Richard Nixon from power.
History has deemed Felt a great whistleblower for helping expose dirty tricks, secret surveillance and cover-ups that let an elected president operate above the law and threatened the country’s democratic institutions.
Are these leakers heroes or villains? In my view, as an editor who has spent years wrestling with this issue, it’s a distinction without a difference. Everyone who provides information to the press has a motive.
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Yet as the scandal blossomed, White House associates painted the shadowy source as a disloyal “leaker” who, rather than support the president’s agenda, undermined Nixon for personal reasons. Sound familiar?
A similar debate is swirling around Donald Trump’s White House, amid an expanding probe into whether his campaign worked with the Russians to influence the presidential election. Much of what is known publicly has come from so-called leaks – information provided surreptitiously, in some cases from within Trump’s own camp.
Are these leakers heroes or villains? In my view, as an editor who has spent years wrestling with this issue, it’s a distinction without a difference.
Everyone who provides information to the press has a motive. The “whistleblowers” look to expose wrongdoing in hopes of stopping it. The “leakers” may have more selfish motives – jealousy, revenge, taking down a competitor. Either way, leaks have illuminated major problems in government and business – many of which would never come to light.
Journalists, unlike the leakers, have a duty to verify the information before publishing. They also have to determine if it’s in context, if it’s important for public understanding and if it will endanger lives.
The best news outlets have acted responsibly. In 2005, for example, The New York Times delayed publishing revelations that President George W. Bush authorized the National Security Agency to conduct domestic eavesdropping. The Bush administration pleaded that release of the information would jeopardize investigations and alert terrorists who were under scrutiny.
When the article ran after a year’s delay, The Times omitted details that Bush officials claimed could aid terrorists. Such care is challenged in the new media landscape.
Today, journalism rules are being rewritten amid intense competition for news breaks and the rise of news sites that eschew media’s traditional role as a “gatekeeper.” BuzzFeed Editor in Chief Ben Smith defended the publication of the full text of a dossier compiled by a former British intelligence agent on Trump, saying modern journalists must sometimes publish “unverified information in a transparent way.” The decision was roundly criticized.
During the recent congressional hearings into the Trump campaign’s Russia connections, Democrats have generally praised the “whistleblowers” and probed the implications of the information they revealed. Trump has hurled personal insults, and Republicans, anxious to provide cover for their president, have largely downplayed the substance of the leaks to call for action against “leakers.”
Such hypocrisy is not exclusive to the GOP: Democrats reacted to the leaked emails from Hillary Clinton’s brain-trust by excoriating the leakers. Meanwhile, Republicans reveled and Trump asked the presumed Russian leakers to bring it on.
As hearings resume and leaks undoubtedly accelerate, an informed electorate must understand the cynical game that’s being played. Feel free to criticize the messenger. But pause and think before dismissing the message.
Wolinsky is a former executive editor and managing editor of The Los Angeles Times. He directed Pulitzer Prize-winning teams covering the 1992 Los Angeles riots and 1994 Northridge earthquake. He can be reached at email@example.com. He wrote this in association with Community Advocates Inc. of Los Angeles.