Local reporter fails to get Watergate fame…

December 19, 2008

(Copyright 2008)

The WALTHER REPORT

By Tony Walther

The death of Deep Throat of Watergate fame brings me back to the time I was assigned to what you might call an investigative journalism piece. It did not bring me fame as it did Woodward and Bernstein, instead it piled on to the frustrations that would bedevil me throughout what I always refer to as my “so-called career in journalism”.

Before I reminisce more, I’ll update anyone who did not take note that it was reported today that Mark Felt who was the former FBI agent and the legendary Deep Throat of Watergate fame has died at the age of 95. Felt was the secret inside source that provided the Washington Post investigative duo of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein with so much invaluable info for news stories broke by their newspaper the Washington Post which led to coverage by other news outlets that eventually led to the resignation of Richard Nixon as president of the United States.

During my years as a newspaper reporter I did little to no actual investigative reporting. There was little time and nearly no interest at the outfits where I worked. The closest I ever came was a story I tried to do on a controversy involving a drowned boy, an ambulance driver/deputy coroner/real estate agent (who advertised heavily with our newspaper and threatened to sue it and me if we mentioned his name, on what grounds, I don’t know), and the fact that the boy was not taken immediately to the hospital, and that then he was eventually revived, but died later.

It was quite a story, but we never published more than the minimal details of the immediate incident – no investigative piece.

I was assigned by my editor to look deeper into the matter and I did. Actually, beside the fact that the ambulance driver decided not to take the boy immediately to the hospital, pronouncing him dead at the scene, and then instead stopped and talked to witnesses in order to fill out his coroner’s report, I found nothing too startling, although I guess all that was startling enough.

My investigation was done, as I recall, basically on my own time, in addition to my normal news beat duties, although, since I had a fairly free hand on how I conducted my work, it would be hard to differentiate between normal job time and my own time. I don’t recall I was paid overtime, though.

Except for a weekend drive by, I don’t recall that I did much touring of the actual scene of the incident. But I did make a lot of phone calls and I did do an interview over at the Sheriff’s Department.

I do distinctly remember receiving the phone call from that ambulance driver, who was also the deputy coroner and a real estate salesman, who ran a long list of classified ads in our paper each day.

“If you use my name in your story I’ll sue you and the newspaper,” he gruffly warned me over the phone.

While I was assured by both the editor and the general manager of the newspaper that his threat would not interfere with our reportage, such was not the case.

When I finally submitted my story, the editor told me he would have to first submit it in turn to the general manager (this had never happened before). He did. We kept waiting for the big man’s decision. It never came, or maybe in reality I should say it did come. The result was the story never saw the light of day. I left that job in disgust a month or more after doing that story, not just over that, but many other things.

Sometime after I left, they published an editorial that claimed the newspaper had done an exhaustive investigation on the drowning incident and had concluded there was no wrongdoing. Not only was my aborted story not an exhaustive investigation, I must admit, but the newspaper did not bother to share with the readers what they supposedly found other than, no story here folks, let’s move along.

After being away from town for several years, I came back and served for awhile as a radio reporter. New on the beat, I introduced myself to a honcho at the Sheriff’s Department, one I had interviewed on the drowning story. Either he had a bad memory, a strange sense of humor, or I just don’t make that much of an impression on folks, but he proceeded to let me know something:

“We have a pretty good relationship with the press here, an understanding. A few years ago we had a story about a drowning that was too hot to handle. I lived next to the general manager of the newspaper and we agreed to have the story killed.”