Behind the Leak
Organizations victimized by unauthorized disclosures often obsess about the real motivation of media leakers.
News outfits like to dub their sources "whistle blowers" and paint them as paragons of virtue. Often, that's not the case.
There is an interesting new book out called "Leak: Why Mark Felt Became Deep Throat." In it, author Max Holland contents that the prime source for Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein during Watergate, Mark Felt, was not motivated by a desire for good government or to thwart powerful men doing bad deeds-- he simply wanted a promotion. Felt imagined himself as the replacement for FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and, according to the book, saw leaking as a means to that end.
"The portrait of Felt that emerges when we follow this thread does not resemble any of Bob Woodward's depictions," Holland writes. "Felt held the news media in contempt and was neither a high-minded whistle-blower, nor was he genuinely concerned about defending his institution's integrity."
"Woodward believed that he and Felt were on the same side, allies in the struggle to expose the facts and larger truth. For Felt, however, their relationship was simply a means to the end of becoming FBI director. If that end was best served by salting the information he gave Woodward with details that had only a casual relationship with the facts, so be it."
What lessons can government agencies, corporations, large institutions and others draw from the Felt Affair when they are the subject of leaks? Only this: it doesn't matter what the motivation of the leaker is.
Sure, if you can identify the leaker (something which took about a third of a century in Deep Throat's case) and prove that they have some self-serving motive -- you can undercut them a bit and perhaps keep them from being honored on the cover of Time Magazine. But in the end, the media don't care about the motivation -- they care whether the information they receive is true or, if it cannot be proven true or false, whether it is plausible and dramatic. Once that test has been met the leaker's damage will be done.
So while an organization inevitably will spend time and effort trying to track down and discredit its critics -- their time is better spent dealing with the facts.