Watergate car park has become an icon to shoe-leather journalism

America Letter: Washington media bubble traps reporters in ‘Beltway provincialism’

A sign outside the car park in Rosslyn, Arlington, Virginia, where journalistic source Deep Throat met Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward six times between October 1972 and November 1973.

A sign outside the car park in Rosslyn, Arlington, Virginia, where journalistic source Deep Throat met Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward six times between October 1972 and November 1973.

 

The din of passing traffic spills down an air vent from the street above, while water drips in a corner. Every sound, from the footsteps of a person returning to their car to the growl of a starting engine, is amplified in this concrete cavern.

Film director Alan J Pakula captured the eerie atmosphere of this underground car park brilliantly when he recreated the real-life meetings between Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward and the ultimate journalistic source, “Deep Throat”, in his movie All the President’s Men. It told the tale of the greatest political conspiracy and the biggest newspaper story of all time: the secret black operations run out of the White House and the subsequent cover-up that led to the downfall of the 37th US president, Richard Nixon.

Descending two flights of stairs and walking to a secluded corner at parking spot 32D, you can see why Deep Throat chose this location to meet Woodward six times between October 1972 and November 1973 and leak the most explosive information disclosed to a journalist.

Short drive from Washington

You can see people approaching from far off and, if you need to run at short notice or without notice, there’s an exit door right next to you. The car park, at 1401 Wilson Boulevard in Rosslyn, is a short drive from Washington across the Potomac river into Arlington, Virginia.

Mark Felt identified himself as Deep Throat in 2005. He was second in command at the FBI at the time of the June 1972 break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate complex that exposed the clandestine chicanery around Nixon.

After Felt outed himself, Woodward confirmed his story and revealed the location of their secret meetings.

On Thursday, one of the unlikely heroes of the Watergate scandal, Tennessee senator Howard Baker, died at the age of 88.

Baker posed the famous question at the Watergate Senate hearings in 1973 that cut to the heart of the conspiracy: “What did the president know and when did he know it?”

Earlier this month, the Arlington county board approved a plan to knock down the 1960s-era underground car park and buildings above, and replace them with a residential and commercial complex.

The board has promised to restore the historical marker erected at the car park in 2008 at the new development. The “temporary historical marker” at the famous parking space – a cut-out of a local magazine article taped to a car park column with yellow and black hazard tape – is unlikely to have such an assured future.

News of the forthcoming demolition of this iconic location for US journalism coincided last week with the 40th anniversary of the publication of All the President’s Men, the detective story that Woodward and Carl Bernstein, his fellow reporter on their Pulitzer Prize-winning Watergate report, wrote about the scandal.

In an interview with radio station NPR, Woodward recalled the shoe leather worn by the two reporters on the Watergate story as they called to door after door of potential sources at night – when the people were relaxed and more willing to speak to a reporter.

Interviewed on CNN last week, these two journalistic legends discussed how the Washington political press corps had misread the greatest campaign story in generations: the stunning defeat of the Republican majority leader of the House of Representatives, Eric Cantor, in a primary election. Most political pundits had predicted that Cantor would sail through to November’s general election and failed to notice the growing unease within his Virginia congressional district about a Washington insider who had lost touch with his grassroots.

Tell-tale signs

This failure was attributed to the absence of boots-on-the-ground national reporters in the constituency, who might have read the tell-tale local signs, or noticed he was rarely there on the campaign trail.

New York Times media correspondent David Carr blamed the Washington media’s blindspot on “Beltway provincialism” – the refusal to leave “the white-hot centre of power” in case something big happens – multiplied by the decline in non-national newspapers, an industry that has halved since 2007.

Virginia papers such as the Richmond Times-Dispatch kept a closer eye on the local race (as they would), along with a few national media outlets, notably political news website Politico, but Cantor’s loss startled many Washington-based reporters.

“Plenty of reporters are imprisoned in cubes in Washington, but stretched news organisations aren’t eager to spend money on planes, rental cars and hotel rooms so that employees can bring back reports from the hustings,” wrote Carr. “While the internet has been a boon to modern reporting – All Known Thought One Click Away – it tends to pin journalists to their desks.”

Hopefully, by the time the historical marker at the Deep Throat car park finds its new home, it won’t require the additional line: “Back when reporters actually left their desks to source information.”

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