06/01/2005 09:07 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Vanity Fair and Deep Throat: The Story Behind the Story

Who the hell is John D. O'Connor? That's what I kept thinking as I read O'Connor's piece in Vanity Fair on Mark Felt, a.k.a. Deep Throat. Turns out O'Connor has had a pretty interesting career himself. But the question I was really wondering is, Why not Woodward and Bernstein? If Felt was going to come forward, why not choose the guys who'd always protected him to disclose his secret?

The answer seems to be that it wasn't the 91-year-old Felt who wanted to reveal his identity, but Felt's family, and particularly his daughter Joan. And that raises some disturbing questions about how exactly this story came into being.

The Vanity Fair story is an odd piece of journalism: it features virtually no input from its reputedly cooperative subject. In what's probably a 7,500-word piece, there are exactly two direct quotes from Mark Felt—as relayed by O'Connor—and neither of them feels quite kosher.

Here's the first, from Felt to O'Connor on the subject of going public as Deep Throat: "I'll think about what you have said, and I'll let you know of my decision."

Here's the second, "confided" to O'Connor "on several occasions": "I'm the guy they used to call Deep Throat."

One wonders if Felt repeatedly told O'Connor that he was Deep Throat, and repeatedly forgot that he'd done so.

There's a stilted quality to these quotes that doesn't feel true. Moreover, the quotes are exactly what the writer needs them to be. The first suggests that Felt engaged in protracted consideration of the decision to go public (meaning that he's capable of reasoned thought). The second is the money quote, the soundbite you need to publicize the story. That's why Vanity Fair chose it as the article's title.

I've learned from my experiences with Stephen Glass that when a quote does exactly what a writer needs it to, editors and readers should consider it skeptically. Sometimes it's right. Other times, as with Glass, it's massaged or outright fabricated, to serve the writer's purpose.

True, O'Connor does make several references to Felt's mental capability following a stroke, but they're along the lines of "his memory for details seemed to wax and wane."

In fact, it's hard not to wonder if Felt is really of sufficient mind to make a credible decision to disclose his identity. In a 7,500-word piece about Deep Throat, you want more than two unsatisfying quotes from the man himself. The only reason not to print more is that Felt isn't capable of saying more.

(One caveat: I haven't seen if Felt has been interviewed anywhere. If he has been interviewed and comes across as coherent, then I'm obviously wrong.)

Certainly Bob Woodward didn't seem to think that Felt was behind this decision. The article concedes that Joan Felt was discussing a book with Woodward, who doubted that Mark Felt was of compos mentis. And so, to Woodward's great credit, he resisted Joan Felt's imprecations in order to honor his vow of secrecy until Deep Throat's death.

Woodward and Carl Bernstein were obviously surprised by yesterday's disclosure, which meant that Vanity Fair didn't contact them for comment before printing the story. (Surely, the magazine wanted to protect its scoop.)

Meanwhile, the article also admits that Joan Felt—the only Felt family member pictured with Mark Felt—hopes to make a little money off the story.

We're left with a picture of an ambitious, media-savvy attorney/writer; a daughter who very much wants to disclose her father's secret; and a profile subject who doesn't seem to be all there.

If Felt were mentally sound, how would he feel about this story? Judging from the biographical information the story includes about him, this isn't how he would have wanted the disclosure to happen. Even the choice of glossy Vanity Fair seems to contradict Felt's buttoned-down nature.

Don't get me wrong; I'm not blaming Vanity Fair. If I were still an editor at George magazine and O'Connor brought this story to me, I'd hold my nose and rush it into print. Journalism's an imperfect business; outing Deep Throat's a hell of a story.

Still, there's something sad and tawdry about the way this story has come to light—something that makes me wish that I'd had to wait a few more years to find out who Deep Throat really is.