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Washington Post writers need to set up their own flowerpot signaling system with key source Bob Woodward.
When Vanity Fair, on May 31, scooped the Washington Post on the identity of Deep Throat, Post editors had a noble excuse for failing to break the news: Their decision not to out former FBI official W. Mark Felt stemmed from a decades-old confidentiality agreement with the pivotal Watergate source. “We were the only people who were clinically and morally bound not to break this story, so how could we break it?” former Post Executive Editor Ben Bradlee said, in an interview with his own paper.
No such high-minded principles, however, explain why the Post has stumbled in following up the Deep Throat saga.
At 3:02 p.m. on June 30, USA Today posted on its Web site a story titled “Woodward’s ‘Deep Throat’ book surfaces.” The story, though written hurriedly, provided a full breakdown of Post investigative ace Bob Woodward’s The Secret Man: The Story of Watergate’s Deep Throat. USA Today reporter Mark Memmott lucked into scoring an early copy of the book at a Fairfax County Wegmans supermarket.
Wegmans’ book distributor had mistakenly put it on the store’s shelves days before its July 6 release date. “They [later] pulled them out of the store, but in the meantime, this one copy had been purchased,” says Jo Natale, consumer-services manager for Wegmans Food Markets Inc. (The distributor, Harrisburg News, claims that the book’s publisher failed to include the July 6 embargo date on the boxes.)
Stocking snafus at the Fairfax Wegmans led to tumult amid the cubicles of the Post. The Style desk switched into scramble mode, straining to produce a serviceable piece on The Secret Man to match the USA Today piece in the next day’s editions. But they didn’t even have a copy of the book.
As it turned out, Style books writer Bob Thompson didn’t end up having to make a run to Wegmans. Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. got a copy of the book from Woodward and passed it along. Thompson and his peers tore it into pieces, speed-read it, and quickly produced a 758-word summary.
The frenzy kicked up resentments in the Post newsroom. Think about it: USA Today, a paper that didn’t even exist during Watergate, gets a clean break on a story whose component pieces are sitting on the desk of a Post employee. Style officials had been agitating for an advance copy of the book way before USA Today got the goods.
The disenchanted at 15th and L, of course, won’t go on record trashing their most famous assistant managing editor. “It just shows how far Woodward has moved beyond his roots,” says a Post staff writer.
Downie scoffs at any notion of a Woodward drift. The best parts of The Secret Man, argues Downie, appeared in a front-page excerpt that ran two days after the Vanity Fair piece surfaced. “What was most important to have in the Post, we had in the Post,” says Downie.
Try telling that to the paper’s Metro desk. In the USA Today Web piece was a detail that Metro reporters had coveted for weeks: the exact location of the Arlington, Va., garage where Woodward had all those early-morning rendezvous with Felt. In one of the sweeter pieces of Watergate lore, Woodward would move a flowerpot on the balcony of his Dupont Circle apartment to set up the garage meetings.
After the Vanity Fair piece came out, Metro had asked Woodward for the garage’s address so that the section could do its local-angle piece on the whole Deep Throat sensation.
Woodward declined. “You know, it’s just a garage,” he says.
Woodward had a different answer for Tom Brokaw and NBC, which wanted to do a big Dateline piece on Woodward’s relationship with his key source. For the network, Woodward not only divulged the location of the garage—1401 Wilson Blvd.—but chatted with Brokaw on camera in the legendary space. “I was going to go there and talk with Brokaw about it, and it seemed more appropriate,” says Woodward.
Well, why wasn’t it appropriate to tell the Post? Woodward explains that he’s always had a deep-seated reluctance to give out details on the garage. The building above the garage, Woodward says, is rumored to house some kind of FBI surveillance post. Such a post, he says, may have been in use back when he had his meetings with Felt. “I was afraid if somebody knew the location, it would point toward the FBI” as the home agency of his source, helping Watergate buffs narrow the list of Deep Throat candidates.
Bizarre cloak-and-dagger digressions aside, Post reporter Annie Gowen had to share the space with a swarm of cameras and reporters when she showed up to profile the garage.
And if you’re wondering how pissed Posties were that NBC had gotten there first, just savor this excerpt from Gowen’s July 1 piece: “A crew from ‘Dateline NBC’ was there because, as it turns out, they’ve known the Identity of the Garage for weeks. Tom Brokaw and Woodward have gamboled among the yellow parking stripes, talking history.” (Emphasis in original.)
Woodward says the complaint he’s received about Post Deep Throat coverage is that there’s been too much of it. And he isn’t concerned that his colleagues had to scurry about to jam their Deep Throat pieces into the paper: “What was the problem—some people were late for dinner?”