The Nation’s David Corn is “somewhat bemused” (translation: mildly irritated) that a Page One story by Michael Dobbs in the June 20 Washington Post failed to credit Corn and Jeff Goldberg’s cover story in this week’s Nation, “How Deep Throat Fooled the FBI.” I think he has a fair point. The Nation piecefocused on the irony that the FBI’s No. 2 man, Mark Felt, was in charge of an investigation into the identity of Deep Throat even though he was Deep Throat. The Post piece was a broader portrait of Felt, but it led with this irresistible nugget, relying on a memo that Corn and Goldberg had unearthed a week before. Dobbs’ piece also spotlighted a second Felt memo that the Nation piece made extensive use of in showing how Felt tried to throw the White House off his scent. The double-agent theme wasn’t the only element in Dobbs’ story, but it was the most interesting, and—if you hadn’t read the Nation piece—the newest.
Why didn’t Dobbs give credit to the Nation? “I unearthed [the memos] a week before they were reported in the Nation,” Dobbs told me. Dobbs didn’t do the story because he saw it in the Nation; he did it in spite of the fact that the Nation had scooped the best part of his story. That’s not how Dobbs puts it. “Somebody had sent me the Nation article and I had seen it,” he told me. “But I didn’t pay very much attention to it because I was writing my own article.” What is this, William Shawn’s the-race-is-not-to-the-swiftest New Yorker? (“A friend writes …”)
It’s clear from reading Dobbs’ piece that it wasn’t something he threw together in a desperate attempt to play catch-up. But it’s also clear that the Nation stole his thunder, just as Vanity Fair stole the Post’s thunder by first reporting the Felt family’s revelation that Mark Felt was Deep Throat. (The Post knew that independently, too, though in that instance it was bound by a pledge of confidentiality.) The cumulative embarrassment of being scooped by a second magazine on a significant Felt story may have played a role in the Post’s failure to credit the Nation. There is also, I suspect, a reluctance by the Post specifically to credit the Nation because its leftism puts it ever-so-slightly beyond the pale within upper management in mainstream newsrooms in a way that, say, the New Republic is not. If the Corn-Goldberg story had appeared on the front page of the New York Times, the Post might still have tried to avoid any mention of that fact. Such things have been known to happen. But it would have been a lot more difficult.
On the other hand, the Nation left it to the Post to put the Felt memos online—the two highlighted in the Nation piece, plus a third, in which Felt rages comically against the treachery of Woodward and Bernstein, that Dobbs got but the Nation, apparently, did not. Newspaper Web sites have been slow to put the documents used by investigative reporters online. The reason, I suspect, is partly that they are lazy, and partly that they don’t want to demystify what it is that investigative reporters do. So, I applaud the Post for showing us the originals in this instance. Perhaps we should start applauding a new kind of scoop—the archival scoop, wherein one news organization beats all the others in posting documents undergirding important news stories that are otherwise unavailable on the Internet. But let’s not forget the old-fashioned kind, where the point is to publish first.