JOURNALISTS are seldom held in high regard. Too often, they are seen as pushy and obnoxious, fascinated with bad news, and all too ready to betray secret details of celebrities' private lives.
Yet one of the most important secrets in journalism was held firm for a third of a century: the real identity of Deep Throat, the mysterious government source who provided a young reporter named Bob Woodward with just enough detail to keep him on the right track with Watergate, which turned out to be the biggest story in history, and the only one which led to a president's resignation.
This spring, an article in Vanity Fair identified Deep Throat as W. Mark Felt, the former deputy director of the FBI, and quoted him as confirming it. After hesitating for days, Mr. Woodward and his partner, Carl Bernstein, finally confirmed that the former top cop had been their secret source.
Yet why the hesitation, especially once Mr. Felt said he was who he was? Some thought that it was a case of sour grapes - that Mr. Woodward was miffed that, at long last, he wasn't the one to reveal the secret.
The reality is far more poignant.
In his new book The Secret Man, Mr. Woodward reveals that he made a promise to Mr. Felt that he would never reveal his identity, no matter what, until after he died. Naturally, Deep Throat himself could have chosen at any time to say who he was. But when he did, the reporter faced a dilemma. Mark Felt is no longer the man he had been. He suffers from senile dementia. He no longer knows who Richard Nixon is, or has any memory of Mr. Woodward.
Was he the same man?
After agonizing soul-searching, the reporter decided he was not. And he thought he still needed to keep his vow of silence to the man who had been. Only after the facts were confirmed by Mr. Felt's children, and it was clear that the secret couldn't be contained, did he finally, reluctantly, confirm the truth.
Whatever you think of reporters, the fact is that one reporter kept a confidence for 33 years. Today another - the New York Times' Judith Miller - sits in a jail cell rather than reveal her source.
Journalism is not always easy, and there are journalists who embarrass the profession. However, as Allen Drury once said of politicians, it is a tough life, but one which, as the story of Deep Throat proves, is capable of honor.