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Marketing Deep Throat

THIRTY YEARS ago, information was mostly power. Today, information is also money.

W. Mark Felt had many qualms about revealing himself as the government source who fed The Washington Post information about the Watergate scandal. In the end, his daughter, Joan, persuaded him to go public by promoting a basic financial argument, according to the Vanity Fair article which identifies Mark Felt, now 91, as Deep Throat:

''Bob Woodward's gonna get all the glory for this, but we could make at least enough money to pay some bills, like the debt I've run up for the kids' education," Joan recalls saying. ''Let's do it for the family."

Much has changed since the Watergate scandal toppled a president, forcing Richard M. Nixon to resign in 1974. Would a politically motivated break-in and White House coverup, revealed largely by an anonymous source, yield the same outcome today? Media power then was heavily concentrated in the hands of a select few, and there is no question that the few wanted Nixon out of the White House.

Piece by piece, and largely on the basis of information provided by the man dubbed ''Deep Throat," The Washington Post unraveled the story behind the break-in of Democratic National Committee headquarters and Nixon's coverup. Eventually, other media outlets fought for their own scoops. There was little organized opposition -- no Fox News or Rush Limbaugh -- to challenge the basic story line. No Internet bloggers were available to deconstruct the day's headlines and cast doubt upon the revelations.

Another major change between then and now involves the media and the profit motive. Back then, Felt had reasons of his own to divulge what he knew. They included ambition -- he was the number two man at the FBI and wanted to be director -- and revenge -- he knew Nixon was trying to shut down the FBI probe. Some degree of altruism is also part of the mix, or so his family wants the world to believe.

But the cottage industry that thrives today for people who are willing to tell what they know for a hefty book advance was in its infancy. In the aftermath of Watergate, journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein reaped journalistic glory and financial gain. Some of the main characters in the Nixon White House went on to publish tell-all memoirs. Felt kept his role secret.

Today, marketing opportunities abound for enterprising public servants. Consider just one recent example: Richard A. Clarke, who advised four presidents on national security matters and terrorism. Clarke resigned his government post in 2003 to work on his book ''Against All Enemies." The book, which was highly critical of President Bush's handling of the terrorist threats, came out in early 2004, just in time for the past presidential campaign.

Watergate was a turning point for the country, and especially so for politicians, journalists, and whistleblowers. After Nixon's fall, distrust of government grew, as did cynicism about politics and politicians. For a brief period, journalists were cast as heroic pursuers of truth. But many squandered the role, in search of scalps that would lead to Pulitzer Prizes, book contracts, and appearances on ''Hardball." It became more difficult to uncover a post-Watergate scandal with greater shock value than the original, but the market for the next big shock remains high. Whistle-blowers learned to bypass the middleman -- the media -- in search of their own book contracts, television appearances, and nest eggs for their families.

Meanwhile, Watergate retains its mystique and market value. The University of Texas purchased the Watergate papers for $5 million in 2003. They are the record of the scandal, as documented by Woodward and Bernstein, minus papers that would identify Deep Throat and other anonymous sources.

In a previous book, Felt makes a point of categorically denying he is Deep Throat. But Felt's post-FBI life was not golden. In 1980, Felt was convicted of authorizing illegal FBI break-ins of suspected antiwar activists. President Ronald Reagan pardoned him in 1981, but Felt and his wife ''felt betrayed by the country he had served," author John D. O'Connor writes in Vanity Fair. So the Felt family's desire to cash in now is perfectly clear, as Nixon might say -- and understandable.

In an odd way, his motives were purer when he revealed key elements of the Watergate scandal to Woodward and Bernstein. Then, he was driven by ambition, revenge, and altruism -- not by money. And his memory was sharper, too.

Joan Vennochi's e-mail address is

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