Joan Felt (gasp!) Was Once Young and Restless!

Pack journalists are often criticized for flogging a story of only marginal importance until it finally collapses of its own weight. As recent dalliances with the “runaway bride” and “BlackBerry thumb” have shown in all their unglory, no amount of “real” news will budge them from the favored place they hold in the hearts of some hacks.

While we’ve pretty much thrown up our hands with this obsession with the trivial and the personal (and the trivially personal) on the part of the Larry Kings and Greta van Susterens of the world, we still tenaciously hold our major daily newspapers to a slightly higher standard. As we all know, however, hopes and high standards only go so far, and often our news organizations fall well short of these standards.

For example, yesterday, the normally reliable Washington Post decided to give over a good chunk of its Sunday front page to 2,200 word story taking an in-depth look at the life of … Joan Felt.

Yeah, Joan Felt, you know, W. Mark Felt’s daughter? Mark Felt, as in “Deep Throat”?

The occasion for the Post’s hard-hitting look at Joan’s life is confounding, as it makes no attempt to move the Deep Throat story in any particular direction. The piece mostly tries to paint Joan as a former radical hippy, playing off her dad’s image as a stern, establishment G-man. The fact is, while Joan Felt did briefly live in a commune in the 1970s and was involved with Adidam, a cult-like faux Eastern religion, in the end she got a life, and today she is who she is — an unremarkable woman in a quiet suburb who cares for an ailing father while teaching Spanish at Sonoma State University.

Reporter Lynne Duke didn’t give up so easily, though, interviewing present and former colleagues, bosses, her parents’ Virginia neighbors from the 70s, and even the niece of one of her parent’s former neighbors — trying to uncover the “real” Joan Felt.

Apparently channeling the prose stylings of Yoda, Duke tries to play up the differences between father and daughter, writing, “One can easily imagine each being embarrassed by the other, so different were they then.”

Indeed. Backwards reels the mind, for sure!

One of the oddest aspects of this story is the way it shifts focus several times, trying, in vain, to find some hook to latch on to. For example, it begins as if it’s a profile of Adidam, and we explore the various legal battles the group has faced over the years, while being told that its founder currently lives with a few hardcore followers on the tiny Fiji island of Naitouba. After some meandering down this path, Duke drops the whole thing entirely in favor of talking about Joan’s love of cooking and her gift-giving habits at work. But the story manages to come full circle in the end, getting all “Woodstein” on Joan Felt by connecting the dots between the Fijian guru and the two of the home care specialists Joan hired to take care of her ailing father. It seems both were once residents of Fiji. Follow the money!

In the end, all this seems like a rather bizarre waste of scarce front page real estate, trying to divine the life of the daughter of an anonymous source from a story that occurred 30 years ago.

Admittedly, before Duke’s piece, the world knew precious little about Joan Felt. But a better story might have been one looking in to where the hell Carl Bernstein has been since the late 70s.

Now there’s an exploration we’d tag along on.

Paul McLeary

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Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.