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Shield the messenger

THE UNMASKING of ''Deep Throat" as W. Mark Felt last week represents a significant, timely victory for the embattled press and for the principle that anonymous sources are sometimes indispensable to the process of gathering news.

As the number two official at the FBI in the early 1970s who was effectively running the bureau's investigation of the Watergate break-in and cover-up, Felt turned out to be what reporters call a Triple A source.

Imagine the uproar that would have ensued if it had been established -- as many cynical press bashers and conspiracy theorists long believed -- that Deep Throat was a composite, or made up outright? Unfortunately, in the context of the Jayson Blair fiasco at The New York Times, CBS's retraction of its story about President Bush's National Guard service, and, most recently, Newsweek's Koran misadventure, it probably wouldn't have been a surprise to many if Deep Throat had been proven a fiction.

That he was not, however, and that he turns out to have been so well positioned represents a validation not only of The Washington Post's original work but of the continued importance of investigative journalism today.

Newspapers -- nearly all suffering declining circulation because of media fragmentation, the rise of the Internet, partisan fervor, and other factors -- should get a proud shot in the arm from the Deep Throat denouement. And many publishers and editors across the land should at least be given pause in their race to dumb down, slash costs, and reinvent newspapers as mere infotainment vehicles in an effort to pander to the elusive 18 to 34 demographic that never seems to have grasped onto the newspaper reading habit.

For the Felt case serves as a potent reminder and reaffirmation of the press's crucial role in a vital democracy -- especially the role of newspapers, from which the vast majority of investigative stories still bloom. And for the most important of those stories, there will always have to be a place for anonymous sources.

Having concluded that there were abuses of power occurring all around him, Felt's only realistic option was to turn to the press. He could hardly have taken what he knew to his bosses -- Acting FBI Director Patrick Gray and Attorney General John Mitchell -- since they were immersed in the coverup themselves. And in choosing to deal with Bob Woodward, Felt couldn't realistically have been expected to go on the record. If he had, he'd have been fired the next day, and perhaps even prosecuted by a vengeful Nixon Justice Department.

The debate surrounding Felt's motives in helping Woodward, or whether he should be viewed as a hero or a traitor, is complex and can be argued either way depending on your politics. But it is irrelevant to the overarching goal of getting the story out and to the question of whether Felt had to remain anonymous in doing so.

Of course he did. And most important, he told the truth. Everyone now knows that the information Felt provided played a key role in exposing criminal behavior that led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon.

But the events of last week don't have to just stand as Felt's coming out party at age 91, or as a victory lap for the Post's old guard. They can also shape the debate now roiling America's newsrooms over what to do about anonymous sources. There is considerable sentiment to eliminate their use entirely on the grounds that they only fuel reader mistrust.

It is undeniable that after the Post's Watergate success and its subsequent glamorization on film in ''All the President's Men," too many newspapers began to grant anonymity to sources too willingly and with insufficient reason and rigor. Editors should insist that reporters get the people they interview to go on the record in almost all instances, and where that is not possible, the source should be characterized as closely as possible so that readers can glean what ax the source might have to grind.

This is already happening at the best newspapers around the country, and that's a good thing. But there need be no putsch to ban the use of anonymous sources altogether.

Deep Throat/Felt stands as perhaps the shining example of why that should be so. Yet there are no doubt hundreds of other officials in sensitive positions at the federal, state, city, county, and even town levels across the United States who have important whistle-blower information they might be willing to give a reporter -- only if they are afforded anonymity.

More broadly, here's hoping the events of last week will reignite a commitment by the demoralized newspaper industry to return to its core values of gathering news -- real news, not blather. Here's hoping, also, that those 18- to 34-year-olds will read and watch less schlock and make newspapers a part of their daily lives.

Ben Bradlee Jr., formerly deputy managing editor for projects and investigations at The Boston Globe, is writing a biography of Ted Williams.

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