In the movie “All the President’s Men”, Woodward (Robert Redford) angrily berates Washington political source Deep Throat (Associate FBI Director Mark Felt, played by actor Hal Holbrook) over the bullshit tangential clues that he is feeding Woodward and his partner Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman). They need some thing meaty, and preferably on the record. Felt demurs, and insists that the duo “follow the money”. Despite Woodward’s frustration, the Washington Post reporters do end up busting the Watergate scandal wide open without any “on the record” comments from Felt. The fact that Felt was the source that brought down the Nixon Administration was kept secret by Woodward until Felt himself revealed that fact three years before his death and thirty-one years after the fact. It is fortunate that Woodward was Felt’s contact at the Post. Because if it was “Fire and Fury” author Michael Wolff, the secret might not have lasted 31 days, or even 31 seconds, “off the record” or not.
Granted things have changed since the 1970s. The explosion in the number of media outlets and blogs posing as media outlets has made it harder and harder to get attention from an audience with an ever shrinking attention span, which has increased the pressure on reporters and writers to get juicy stories. And the ubiquity of video and audio recording devices in the form of tablets and cell phones has lowered the standard of privacy to be expected by public figures and private alike. Nevertheless, some reporters and writers recognize the need to nurture sources in order to get reliable conduits of information over one’s entire career–not just for the next story. Other, well, not so much.
The most egregious example of blowing up one’s sources prior to Michael Wolff was probably Michael Hastings, that of the infamous “Runaway General” expose of General Stanley McChrystal in Afghanistan. Hastings, who intentionally ingratiated himself with soldiers and officers with the intention of betraying that trust in order to mine his embedded assignment for as many salacious comments as possible, was unapologetic about doing so after the fact.
One source had confronted Hastings in a bar, grilling him on his intentions. “You’re not going to fuck us, are you?”
Rather than taking an opportunity to deal with his sources transparently, Hastings chose obfuscation. “I’m going to write a story; some of the stuff you’ll like, some of the stuff you probably won’t like,” he said in response.
The result was a gleeful hatchet job published in Rolling Stone magazine. McChrystal was eventually forced out as commander of the U.S. forces in Afghanistan by President Obama, and the US’ military position in the country never fully recovered from the loss of its most capable counterinsurgency general.
Hastings received a number of media awards for writing the McChrystal story, but the triumph turned out to be Pyhrric–Hastings found that nobody trusted him anymore, including other reporters. His career in a nose dive, he relapsed as a substance abuser and eventually killed himself by wrapping his Mercedes Benz 250 around a palm tree in Los Angeles at a high rate of speed only three years after his release of his famous article.
A more contemporary example of the Hastings treatment was New Yorker reporter Ryan Lizza’s exposure of a rant by newly minted White House Communication Director Anthony Scaramucci. Lizza used a longtime family relationship to gain Scaramucci’s trust, and then secretly recorded his conversation with Scaramucci, publishing his comments shortly thereafter in the New Yorker. Scaramucci was fired not long after.
Lizza later found out that he didn’t possess a monopoly for breaching trust when a colleague exposed an inappropriate sexual relationship to his superiors, getting him fired from the New Yorker and Georgetown University. Ironically, Lizza’s disgrace and Trump’s repudiation of form advisor and Breitbart CEO Stephen Bannon may end up rehabilitating Scaramucci for an eventual return to the White House.
So you would have thought that the Lizza-Scaramucci affair would have sounded the alarm bells in the Trump Administration, particularly given Trump’s penchant for labeling media reporting as “fake news”. Nope. It seems Wolff got all the access he needed.