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Out of Our Minds
Wednesday, June 01, 2005 7:44 AM
Do Motives Matter?
Kevin Salwen on Ethics

So, after 30 years, the secret is no longer closeted: 'Deep Throat,' the Woodward and Bernstein source for many of their stories during the Watergate era, is Mark Felt, the No. 2 guy at the FBI at the time. There are many stunning facets to this -- how Vanity Fair scooped the Washington Post, how Felt's family didn't know until recently, how the Felt family is openly discussing cashing in on the info, how some still doubt a physically and mentally weakened Felt actually is telling the truth (on CNN last night White House counsel John Dean said he doesn't believe Felt).

But I find myself drawn to the ethical debate: In reconstructing all this, it appears that Mark Felt became a whistleblower -- is a silent source still a whistleblower? -- less because he thought the White House was doing criminal things and more because he was ticked off that the Nixon Administration hadn't promoted him to FBI director. Instead, Nixon appointed White House crony L. Patrick Gray to that slot after the death of J. Edgar Hoover.

So, to cast it in its harshest light, the Watergate scandal and the presidency of Richard Nixon came unglued because of a pissed-off, passed-over administrator, not some Brave Patriot. This is somewhat shocking to me, as one of the thousands who went to journalism school in the mid- to late-1970s inspired by the investigative reporting of that era and hell-bent on saving the world from injustices. (How quaint, right?)

This morning, I find myself wondering: Do the motives matter? Should whistleblowers have purer rationales? If we end up in the same place, should we care why?


Brandon - 6/7/2005 7:42:27 PM

I heard an interview with Pat Buchanan in which by no means did he defend Nixon. He thought Mark Felt was wrong to simply leak to the Press rather than handle through the appropriate channels -- a point many of us could dispute, in hindsight, would have ever resulted in anything worthwhile...
TPB, Esq. - 6/2/2005 11:41:58 PM
Motives matter but only in equal proportion to the ends. Yeah, Felt had petty motives but the ends were 'good.' I think, though, that's the only time that the ends cancel out the motives (when good is done). When evil is done, and the motives are either good or bad, I think that motives become critical. If evil is done with what a reasonable person would consider good motives, I think that is very different than when evil is done with what a reasonable person considers evil motives.
Harold - 6/1/2005 1:24:31 PM
Yes, this is interesting. But I think the important question is this, could Mark Felt have starred in the movie? And would Gerard Damiano have cast him?

I realize to be akin to asking, 'what if Eleanor Roosevelt could fly' but it does make me wonder.

pat - 6/1/2005 1:01:49 PM
The only thing I could think about is that Watergate probably wouldn't have been much of a story today. Relying so much on an anonymous source would have likely spelled death for the story. Officials would have denied many of the charges, the Post would have issued an apology and -- who knows? -- journalists who are now heroes may have found themselves fired instead.
Coley - 6/1/2005 12:06:54 PM
I'm bummed that we now know who 'Deep Throat' is. American History class just got a lot more boring all the youngsters out there. There were two well kept secrets that always fascinated me when learning American History-- who really shot JFK and who is 'Deep Throat'? I loved the idea that decades later, with all of the investigative technologies and abilities we have, there are still only a handful (if that) of people who know the truth. Mark Felt is nowhere near as cool as the guy I had imagined in my head. What a letdown. Can we pretend it's not him for the sake of our youth's interest in history class? And for the love of God, if we find out 100% that it was anybody besides Martians(because it would be fun to know that Martians did it) that killed JFK, can the media keep it under wraps to keep history at least a little bit fun??? Thanks!
Brian - 6/1/2005 10:31:21 AM
My wife and I were discussing this last night after watching the news - specifically Pat Buchanan lambasting Mark Felt. To me, it is a simple case of - he did the right thing by blowing the whistle. Maybe he did it for the wrong reasons (but whose motives are 100% pure anyway)? As for Pat Buchanan - is he really defending the Nixon White House - that seems preposterous.


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