“Deep Throat,” Obama and the news media

I was going to write about this earlier in the week. But didn’t get to it. Dick Feagler, the longtime reporter and commentator in Cleveland, wrote Sunday that his Plain Dealer column would be kaput at the end of the year. I don’t know if Feagler jumped, or was pushed. Doesn’t matter. Feagler is a news guy. And I still think we need news guys — even though everyone with a computer and a cellphone can aspire to be a journalist these days.

Feagler began writing his column in 1971 with The Cleveland Press (now defunct). That was a year before Watergate. And before Woodward, Bernstein and “Deep Throat.” Mark Felt — “Deep Throat” — died yesterday. He’s the guy who feed Woodward the inside scoop on Tricky Dick Nixon — leading to the resignation of the president and the glory days of journalism. Ah, history. And journalism when the traditional media folks were watchdogs.

I wonder if Woodward and Bernstein would get their stories published today — either in dead tree editions or online? Not so sure. The real hero of Watergate was Katharine Graham, the owner of The Washington Post and related media properties. She put everything on the line in the face of intense government pressure that could have resulted in criminal action and financial ruin. Gee. Wonder what Sam Zell would do? Or the now financially wounded New York Times?

Oh, well. With some luck maybe we won’t have to find out. Obama’s communications team says we’ll see an administration dedicated to “transparency and openness.” And the incoming president has gone out of his way to talk about a new ethic of responsibility. That to me means honesty — and civility. All qualities that have been sadly lacking in government, corporate America and elsewhere.

From an article that will be published in The New York Times Magazine this Sunday:

In spite of their closed-ranks tendencies, the Obama communications team’s buzzwords of choice are “transparency” and “openness.” These are notions few people would quibble with, although they tend to mean different things to different people — White House officials and reporters, for instance.

After the arrest of Rod Blagojevich, the Illinois governor, Obama was criticized by some reporters for dodging questions on contacts between his staff and the governor, using the familiar Washington phrase that it would be “inappropriate” for him to comment during “an ongoing investigation.”

When you press Obama aides on how they would define “transparency” and “openness,” they often invoke their willingness to make documents public during the campaign. “We had our donors online, we had our bundlers online, we had Obama’s birth certificate online,” Hari Sevugan, a senior spokesman who specialized in rapid response and opposition research, told me.

As with the Bush model, Obama’s view of transparency and openness did not include exposing internal discussions. “Sometimes the press corps thinks transparency and openness should be defined as carrying out all of our internal deliberations on the Web so they could watch,” Dunn said. “But in fact, transparency and openness is about the process of how government is run. It’s not necessarily about who might be mad at whom on a different day.”

In the course of the campaign, the Obama team showcased a number of new-media applications designed to project a sense of open-book communications to the public. They promoted the fact that the campaign made major announcements — like Obama’s selection of Biden — by communicating “directly” with voters who provided their e-mail and text addresses.

So let’s be optimistic that we are about to enter into an era of openness and transparency — guided by honest communications. Still — let’s salute news guys and gals: Feagler, Woodward, Bernstein and the thousands of others out there who we still need to keep a watchful eye on people in government, business and elsewhere.

And since I’m thinking about it, I guess I might as well head off soon to see Frost Nixon. Ah, history.

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