W. Joseph Campbell

Scoring political points with ‘follow the money,’ that made-up line

In Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on February 20, 2011 at 8:06 am

Media myths have many uses, none of them necessarily praiseworthy.

Media myths can offer simplified and misleading versions of important historical events. They can be invoked as presumptive evidence of the power of the news media.

And they can be used to score points against political opponents.

That latter application was evident the other day in a commentary at Huffington Post that invoked the most famous made-up line of Watergate, “follow the money.”

Pope (Sierra Club)

The HuffPo commentary — written by Carl Pope, chairman of the Sierra Club environmental group — declared:

“But if, as Watergate’s ‘Deep Throat’ advised Woodward and Bernstein, we ‘follow the money,’ it’s clear that the real strategic objective of the far right is an American society ruled domestically by a predatory oligarchy and projected globally as a militaristic empire.”

While the claim is exaggerated nonsense, Media Myth Alert is most interested in Pope’s blithe, off-handed use of “follow the money” as if it were genuine, as if it had been vital guidance offered by a stealthy Watergate source. As if it lends Pope’s argument some sort of higher moral authority.

Felt

Deep Throat” — who as it turned out was the second-ranking official at the FBI, W. Mark Felt — spoke periodically with Bob Woodward (but never Carl Bernstein) as the two reporters investigated the emergent Watergate scandal for the Washington Post.

But “follow the money” was advice never given by Felt in periodic meetings with Woodward, which sometimes took place in a parking garage in the Rosslyn section of Arlington, Virginia, across the Potomac River from Washington.

And as I’ve noted at Media Myth Alert, no Post article or editorial related to Watergate invoked “follow the money” until June 1981 – nearly seven years after the scandal forced Richard Nixon to resign the presidency. (The Post article in 1981 simply mentioned that “follow the money” had been used in a fifth grade play.)

“Follow the money” was the creation of screenwriter William Goldman. He has taken credit for writing it into the script of All the President’s Men, the cinematic version of Woodward and Bernstein’s book about their Watergate reporting.

The book came out in 1974, just as Watergate was reaching a climax. The movie was released in 1976, as the wounds of the scandal were just beginning to heal. The book and, especially, the movie served to promote what I call the heroic-journalist interpretation of Watergate — the endlessly appealing notion that Woodward and Bernstein’s reporting brought down Nixon.

Since 1976, untold millions of people — now including Carl Pope — have invoked the line, oblivious to its derivation.

“Follow the money” was spoken by the actor Hal Holbrook, who was the “Deep Throat” character in All the President’s Men.

And Holbrook, who turned 85 last week, played the part exquisitely well.

In a memorable scene depicting a late-night meeting in the parking garage, in which 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.”

The line was delivered with authority, certainty, and insistence — and it sounded for all the world as if it were advice crucial to understanding and unraveling Watergate.

In that way, it represents a simplified version about how the scandal was uncovered, about how the thread of Watergate corruption led to the Oval Office and Nixon.

Watergate, though, was far more complex than identifying and pursuing a money trail.

As I point out in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, rolling up a scandal of Watergate’s dimensions required more than simply following the money.

I note in Getting It Wrong:

“To roll up a scandal of such dimension required the collective if not always the coordinated forces of special prosecutors, federal judges, both houses of Congress, the Supreme Court, as well as the Justice Department and the FBI.”

Against the tableau of prosecutors, courts, federal investigations, and bipartisan congressional panels, I write, “the contributions of Woodward and Bernstein were modest, and certainly not decisive,” in the outcome of Watergate.

In the end, Nixon’s efforts to obstruct justice by covering up the break-in at headquarters Democratic national committee headquarters in 1972 was what forced his resignation in 1974.

It’s important to note, too, that “Deep Throat” in real life was no hero. As I point out in Getting It Wrong, Felt was convicted in 1980 on felony charges related to break-ins he had authorized as part of FBI investigations into leftists associated with the radical Weather Underground.

Felt was pardoned by President Ronald Reagan.

WJC

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