W. Joseph Campbell

‘Follow the money': As if it were genuine

In Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on February 4, 2011 at 8:00 am

I followed a hyperlink the other day to the Winter 2010 number of Rethinking Schools magazine to find that Watergate’s most famous made-up line prominently presented as if it were advice vital to unraveling the scandal.

Nixon resigns, 1974

The opening paragraphs of an article in Rethinking Schools, titled “The Ultimate $uperpower,” read this way:

“In 1972, two young Washington Post reporters were investigating a low-level burglary at the Watergate Hotel and stumbled upon a host of unexplained coincidences and connections that reached to the White House.

“One of the reporters, Bob Woodward, went to a high-level government source and complained: ‘The story is dry. All we’ve got are pieces. We can’t seem to figure out what the puzzle is supposed to look like.’

“To which the infamous Deep Throat replied: ‘Follow the money. Always follow the money.’

“For nearly 40 years, ‘follow the money’ has been an axiom in both journalism and politics—although, as Shakespeare might complain, one ‘more honour’d in the breach than the observance.'”

It may be an axiomatic line — it’s certainly invoked frequently enough — but it wasn’t used in the Washington Post investigation of the Watergate scandal.

Nor, it should be noted, did the Post bring down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency.

As I note in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, the contributions of Woodward and Bernstein’s investigative reporting, I write, “were modest, and certainly not decisive” to the outcome of Watergate.

The line “follow the money” was created, for dramatic effect, for the movie version of Woodward and Bernstein’s book about their Watergate reporting, All the President’s Men.

It wasn’t the “Deep Throat” source who uttered the line. It was his cinematic character, played in All the President’s Men by the actor Hal Holbrook.

In a scene showing a late-night meeting in a parking garage, Holbrook tells the Woodward character, played by Robert Redford:

“I have to do this my way. You tell me what you know, and I’ll confirm. I’ll keep you in the right direction, if I can, but that’s all. Just follow the money.”

As an article in the Post last summer pointed out that “the film’s most iconic piece of dialogue — ‘Follow the money’ — was never spoken in real life.”

Indeed, as I’ve noted previously at Media Myth Alert, no Post article or editorial related to Watergate used “follow the money” until June 1981 – nearly seven years after Richard Nixon resigned the presidency and well after the successor who pardoned him, Gerald Ford, had lost reelection. (The article in June 1981 merely noted that the line was used in a fifth grade play.)

“Follow the money” was the creation of screenwriter William Goldman. He has taken credit for working it into the script of All the President’s Men, which came out in 1976.

Since then, millions of people — among them, the author of the Rethinking Schools article — have unwittingly repeated the line, oblivious to its falsity, believing it had been guidance vital in rolling up Watergate.

But what harm is there in that? It’s just a movie, after all. A movie made a long time ago.

The phony but often-quoted line is suggestive of the exaggerations that infuse the cinematic version of All the President’s Men — a version that offers up “a neat, tidy, and vastly simplified account” of the scandal, as I write in Getting It Wrong.

The simplified version of Watergate enables viewers “to sidestep the scandal’s complexity while engaging in an entertaining storyline,” I further note.

Follow the money” also lends the inaccurate suggestion that unraveling Watergate was a matter of identifying, pursuing, and reporting about an illicit money trail. It was more than that.

What ultimately brought down Nixon was indisputable evidence of his order to cover up the signal crime of Watergate, the 1972 break-in at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee. Nixon’s guilty role in the coverup was captured by audiotape recordings he secretly made of his conversation in the Oval Office of the White House.

Moreover, the movie version of All the President’s Men celebrated and helped firm up what I call the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate. The film’s inescapable but erroneous conclusion is that Woodward and Bernstein were central to unraveling the scandal and to forcing the resignation of a dishonest president.

WJC

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