Leaking, Leakers and Leaks

What makes sources leak to me or to anyone else in the media?

A new book by veteran journalist Max Holland called Leak: Why Mark Felt Became Deep Throat (University Press of Kansas) looks into the Watergate scandal from a different perspective.

Leak overturns once and for all the romantic, popular interpretation of the Watergate saga of one inside source risking it all to save democracy. “Nixon’s downfall was an entirely unanticipated result of Felt’s true and only aim,” Holland writes. Although Holland never disparages the enterprise of Woodward and Bernstein, acknowledging the impact their reports had on Judge John J. Sirica and the senators who formed an investigative committee, neither does he bow to them. “Contrary to the widely held perception that the Washington Post ‘uncovered’ Watergate, the newspaper essentially tracked the progress of the FBI’s investigation, with a time delay ranging from weeks to days, and published elements of the prosecutors’ case well in advance of the trial.”

So Woodward and Bernstein were in fact fast followers of the investigation, but with a heads up from the leaker:

Leak, to be published Mar. 6, vindicates journalist Edward Jay Epstein, one of the earliest critics of Woodsteinmania. In a Commentary piece published in July 1974, about a month after the Woodstein book came out, Epstein eviscerates what he calls the “sustaining myth of journalism.” Naïve readers believe that intrepid reporters expose government scandals by doggedly working their confidential sources. Of course such scoops do occur, but the more conventional route to a prize-winning series is well-placed leaks from well-oiled government investigations, which Holland maintains was the case with Watergate.

I like the description “sustaining the myth of journalism”. But what of the leaker? What motivates them?

 Every source leaks for a reason, and it’s usually not about preserving the Constitution and the American way. As Stephen Hess writes, sources have many reasons to leak. They leak to boost their own egos. They leak to make a goodwill deposit with a reporter that they hope to withdraw in the future. They leak to advance their policy initiative. They leak to launch trial balloons and sometimes even to blow the whistle on wrongdoing. But until contesting evidence arrives, it’s usually a safe bet that a leak is what Hess calls an “Animus Leak,” designed to inflict damage on another party.

Heh “Animus Leak”…yep I like that description.


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  • Hakim of phut

    A leak will get you only so far , you need a crook like Nixon to make it even bigger. And in US politics there are a lot of real crooks around. Recently there were two ex Governors of Illinois in jail while another was on trial. But it didnt work out that way in the 70s and before.
    I think Felt wanted to make sure Nixon didnt wriggle off the hook, remember this was just as Hoover era ended. Felt was effectively  2IC to Hoover and then to Gray.