WASHINGTON — America in the 21st century is hungry for heroes. In the past 30 years the news media have become more zealous in their pursuit of stories. They have become more investigatory in nature. And much of that increased scrutiny has focused on scandals and exposing fraud.
But that media environment makes people need someone to believe in all the more. They need a personality to elevate. All of which brings us to W. Mark Felt.
Unless you've been under a rock for the past week, you know Mr. Felt has come forward to announce that he was "Deep Throat," the anonymous source Bob Woodward relied on to unravel the Watergate scandal. Felt, who at the time was the No. 2 man at the FBI, met with Mr. Woodward at a parking garage late at night on several occasions to give the reporter tips, and steer him in the right direction on the story that eventually led Richard Nixon to resign the presidency.
The story, briefly: During the 1972 presidential campaign, the Democratic headquarters at the Watergate was broken into and bugged, twice. Those break-ins were sanctioned by the highest levels of the Nixon White House. The White House then tried to quash the investigation of the break-in with the help of the CIA, claiming it was in the interest of national security.
The news that Felt was Deep Throat was big news everywhere in America, but probably even bigger news here, where guessing the identity of the source was something of a parlor game. Everybody had his or her own picks and undoubtedly some money changed hands last week as good-natured wagers were settled one way or another.
But the bigger news coming out of the news was the debate about Felt himself. Washington, which is always hunting for a good hero - and rarely delivering - turned to debating whether the man who brought down the White House in 1974 was a good soul or a treacherous one.
Many said Felt had acted as a patriot, disclosing wrongdoing at the highest levels of US government. But some members of the Nixon White House declared that Felt was not a hero, but a traitor. They say Felt abandoned the president for whom he was working and leaked information about an on-going investigation to a reporter. What's more, they say, he did it in part because he was passed over for the top job at the FBI.
Talk radio shows asked the question repeatedly last week: Was Felt a traitor or a hero? And listening to them showed that "team think" - hooray for my team, boo for yours - is alive and well even 30 years after the fact. But the discussion of Felt's hero/traitor status focuses on the wrong question.
Why is there a need to define Mark Felt? So much of the chatter about what he did seems to focus on his motivations, what was going on his mind. These are things no one can know but Felt himself and regardless of what we learn from the umpteen books that are surely already under contract from Felt and others, we will probably never know. What we can know are his actions.
The question is not whether what he did was heroic or patriotic or traitorous. Depending on where one stands, it could be one or all those things. The question is did he ultimately do the right thing, for whatever reason. Should he have met with a reporter to reveal the information he did?
You can call Mark Felt whatever you'd like. If you need a hero, go ahead. If you are looking for a villain, fine. But considering what he knew and what we eventually discovered, you'd be hard-pressed to make the case that the country would have been better off if he hadn't talked.
The irony for Felt is his reputation is now trapped in a machine he helped create. It was his talking that helped create the air of distrust and mistrust that made heroes more needed than ever - and the digging and questioning that made them even harder to find.
• Dante Chinni is a senior associate with the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism. He writes a twice-monthly political opinion column for the Monitor.