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Deep Throat saga reminds us of need to go with info's flow

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THE uncovering of the world's most famous anonymous source, Deep Throat, sends me into old files I haven't looked at in 30 years. There's Frank Pelz and there's Paul Chester, and there's Turk Scott, too. They were not Richard Nixon, and I would not pretend to be Bob Woodward or Carl Bernstein. But the files, on old copy paper now frayed around the edges, reminds me how far we have come in newspapers, and how much of it seems frightening.

Deep Throat, aka the ex-FBI man W. Mark Felt, transports all of us of a certain age back to Watergate, when the Nixon White House tried to sneak a fast one past Justice while she had her blindfold on. It's probably too much to say that Felt saved the country while hiding in the shadows. But he gave courage to a couple of young reporters and their newspaper at a time when the pressures in Washington were suffocating, and those in political power tried to cover their tracks by making reporters the bad guys.

Not that such a thing would ever happen again, of course.

Thirty years ago, editors at a vanished newspaper called The News American paired me with Joe Nawrozki on a series of investigative pieces. What we learned, very quickly, is the thing learned by all reporters poking into uncomfortable places: For all our sense of idealism, most people's instincts start with self-protection.

"You want me to tell you the truth about wrongdoing? They'll take my job away. They'll try to hurt me."

So you offer the only assurance you can: You'll keep their names out of the newspaper.

In the current climate, this isn't so easy. Now we have the most serious newspapers in the country, including this one, wrestling with the very notion of anonymous sources. Some papers say they will not use them at all. Others say only in the most extreme situations.

The primary reason for this is simple: We want to be trusted. If readers don't believe us, they don't buy us. Our investment in the truth is paramount. But today's air is poisoned with those who question the motives of reporters so they can take everybody's minds off the motives of those in political power. It's also made it tougher to get people who know important secrets to tell the truth about them - which is also the motive of those in power.

So I look in an old file now, and see the name Frank Pelz. He was the sheriff of Baltimore, elected to office for several terms, who was shaking down his own deputies to give serious campaign contributions - or risk losing their jobs.

In my old files, I have page after page of interviews with deputies - none of whose names were ever used in the newspaper. They couldn't have talked without anonymity, which we gave them. And the stories were published, and a grand jury investigated, and Pelz was criminally convicted.

His office was in one first-floor corner of the criminal courthouse. Within weeks, sources were coming out of the other corner, the offices of the Court of Common Pleas. There, emboldened employees told us, the head of the court, Paul Chester, was shaking down his employees the way Pelz had. Many of them came forward; all needed anonymity. The paper published the stories, and Chester met a fate similar to Pelz's.

Would most newspapers run the same stories today? With the same rules on anonymity? It's a call that gets tougher all the time. We know we're being scrutinized - and that's fine. We also know we're being scrutinized strictly for political purposes - and that's not so fine in a democracy. And it makes everybody in the world's most self-conscious business become even more reflective. We don't want to do anything that shakes our readers' confidence in us as tellers of truth.

Thirty years ago, Nawrozki and I wrote about James A. "Turk" Scott Jr. He was a member of the House of Delegates who happened to be under police investigation for allegations of smuggling heroin into Baltimore. Where did we get such information? Right out of confidential police files, opened to us by somebody with access, and from sources on both sides of the law who knew Scott's work and did not want to be identified. This wasn't about fear for their jobs, but their lives.

The police investigation was moving slowly. But the newspaper stories that followed got everything jumpstarted - including great criticism of the paper. Certain politicians asked about these anonymous sources. Did they really exist? Did the paper make up these people?

But then Scott went on to be indicted by the U.S. Attorney's office on charges of smuggling $10 million worth of heroin into Baltimore. And, amid courthouse talk that he might turn in certain drug traffickers, Scott was gunned down in the basement garage at Sutton Place Apartments just weeks before he was to stand trial.

There's a generation of newspaper people who came of age watching a couple of young Washington Post police reporters uncover the darkest secrets of a corrupt government. At its very best, that's what journalism does. And the process isn't pretty, because it involves people in power trying to hold onto it, and people who are outraged and have secrets to tell but are worried for their own security.

The story of Deep Throat reminds us that we're at our best when we talk things out, when we keep the flow of information open. There's a generation of Americans remembering when we found this utterly inspiring - and worrying about the changes since then, and the chill in the air.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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