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The personal journal of technology journalist and conference speaker Randall S. Newton.

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Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Mark Felt, American Hero--And My Own Private Watergate

It will be thirty years this August since Richard Nixon resigned in shame, ending one of the darker periods in American history. Today, finally, comes word of the identity of a man who has until now only been known as "Deep Throat." Former FBI executive Mark Felt finally admitted that he was the "confidential White House source" who met with Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward several times, guiding the Post's investigation just enough to keep it on track.

I was in college in those years. I had selected journalism as a major while in high school, long before Watergate began. During the height of the Watergate crisis, Mark Felt was a campus speaker. I was impressed by his stately bearing and his personable yet strong presentation. Compared to many campus settings, conservative Baylor was probably a cakewalk for a G-man like Felt, who spoke at many colleges, often to hostile reaction. During the question and answer, I asked him what kind of person the FBI recruited. My friends laughed at me afterwards, for asking a "Boy Scout meeting kind of question." But I wanted to hear him put into words what I saw on the podium. I don't remember the specifics of his answer, but I do remember he spent more time describing a person of honor than anything about college major or grades.

When I think about Mark Felt (whom I have suspected for years to be Deep Throat--I'm kicking myself for not having that prediction in print), I think about my own "Watergate" experience. During my senior year at Baylor a disgruntled football player started feeding me "inside" information about the football program at Baylor. He told of rules ignored, parking tickets fixed ... minor stuff compared to modern college football scandals, but stuff that shouldn't have been happening, especially at a Baptist university that espoused a higher standard. My advisor at the college newspaper (James Batts, a great teacher and seasoned veteran newspaper reporter/editor) cautioned me to be very careful, but to continue to pursue the truth. After weeks of trying to put together a story, I thought I had enough to confront the head football coach. This was the man who is now a legend at Baylor, Grant Teaff. I called him on the phone and read the first paragraph of my article. I could feel the anger coming through the phone. He insisted that I get myself down to his office immediately. When I arrived there, the director of the athletic dorm was also there (many of the allegations concerned rule violations in the dorm). Wayne Hatcher and I had worked together two years earlier, when I was a resident assistant in the same dorm, before it was converted to athletic use. By the end of the meeting, Teaff had successfully refuted all but the most minor accusations, Hatcher had convinced Teaff that I wasn't the kind of "journalism student radical" he originally assumed me to be, and we departed on good terms. I knew coming out that I no longer had a story, but I had done the right thing by going to the coach before the article was published. My "Deep Throat" had been a little too enthusiastic, exaggerating his claims; I suppose that came with sitting on the bench for four years.

I learned a lot from the experience: never rush to judgment, wait for all the facts. And, that I didn't have the "go to the jugular" passion to become a star reporter. I hated the confrontational aspect of reporting.


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