Whistleblowers seen as good, bad

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, June 14, 2005

We want to think things are different now, but they aren't. The role of whistleblowers can be simultaneously cheered and castigated. Whistleblowers can be characterized as courageous and true public servants and still be viewed as selfish snitches and traitors. They are portrayed positively and negatively with simple tags. 'Whistleblowers' and 'sources' are positive; 'moles' and 'leaks' are not.

The mystery behind Deep Throat, key source that led to the demise of the Nixon presidency, ended last week. W. Mark Felt, a former FBI official whose tips kept Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein on the trail of the Watergate scandal, came forward as the source.

Speculation about his motives for going public now are surfacing. Some have suggested his family urged him to reveal his identity to cash in on his story. Literary agents speculated Felt's story could land a book deal worth up to $1 million. His family has offered to sell family photos to accompany articles.

Felt is now 91 and appeared frail in front of TV cameras. He suffered a stroke in 2001. His family refused all questions this week, leading some to wonder if his memory is sharp enough to retell a story that brought down a president more than 30 years ago.

Your view of Felt and other whistleblowers - he gets lumped with greats like Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times, but also with the not-so-greats like Linda Tripp, who contributed to the impeachment of Bill Clinton - very often depends on your view of who or what they were exposing.

We doubt if Felt considers himself a hero for leaking information that led to the downfall of a President - even a corrupt one. It's taken him a very long time to come forward, or be dragged forward. We certainly can't say this was all about money. This is America. People have done worse.

Back in the day, Felt sure sold a lot of newspapers for the Washington Post.

Troy Messenger, Thursday, June 2