The passage was offered up credulously by these news outlets yesterday:
- The Huffington Post, in (yet another) commentary about the phone-hacking scandal that has battered Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. The commentary declared: “During the Washington Post‘s investigative reporting of President [Richard] Nixon’s attempts to cover up the Watergate burglary, it’s [sic] source, ‘Deep Throat’ gave the reporters the best advice. ‘Deep Throat’ said that the truth would be discovered if they ‘follow the money.’ They did and it ultimately led to the resignation of President Nixon.”
- The Register-Guard newspaper of Eugene, Oregon, in a column about the phone-hacking scandal: “As Deep Throat advised reporters unraveling a different national scandal, ‘Follow the money.’”
- The Business News Network in Canada, in a blog post about interest rates in that country: “I’ll take the advice of Mark Felt, the former FBI agent most famously known as Deep Throat, the key source in Bob Woodward’s Watergate investigation: follow the money.”
- The Hindu newspaper in India, in a commentary about suspected banking improprieties: “‘Follow the money’ was the advice given by the secret informant within the government to Bob Woodward of Washington Post at the beginning of the Watergate scandal.”
As those cases suggest, “follow the money” is impressively versatile. Its popularity seems limitless.
But however appealing and catchy, “follow the money” is contrived.
The phrase was never uttered by the “Deep Throat” source, who met periodically with Woodward as Watergate unfolded. (“Deep Throat” was self-identified in 2005 as W. Mark Felt, formerly the second-ranking official at the FBI. Felt never spoke during Watergate with Woodward’s reporting partner, Carl Bernstein.)
According to a database of Washington Post content, the phrase “follow the money” appeared in no news article or editorial about Watergate before 1981.
“Follow the money” doesn’t appear, either, in All the President’s Men, Woodward and Bernstein’s book about their Watergate reporting, which came out in 1974.
The derivation of the passage lies in a scene in All the President’s Men, the cinematic version of Woodward and Bernstein’s book. The movie was released to much fanfare in April 1976, 20 months after Nixon resigned the presidency for his guilty role in obstructing justice in the Watergate scandal.
Holbrook played a twitchy, conflicted, shadowy “Deep Throat.” In a late-night scene in a darkened parking garage, Holbrook told 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.”
Holbrook delivered the line with such quiet conviction that it did seem to be a way through the labyrinth that was the Watergate scandal.
But the guidance, had it really been offered to Woodward, would have taken him only so far. Watergate, after all, was much broader than a case of improper use of campaign monies.
In the end, Nixon was toppled by his efforts to cover up the signal crime of Watergate, the break-in at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in June 1972.
As a simplistic key to explaining the scandal, the follow-the-money interpretation minimizes the far more decisive forces that unraveled Watergate and forced Nixon from office.
As I point out in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, rolling up a scandal of Watergate’s complexity and 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.
“Even then,” I write, “Nixon likely would have served out his term if not for the audiotape recordings he secretly made of most conversations in the Oval Office of the White House.”
Only when compelled by the Supreme Court did Nixon surrender the Watergate-related recordings that captured him plotting to cover up the Watergate break-in.
Recent and related:
- Inflating the exploits of WaPo’s Watergate reporters
- The hero-journalist myth of Watergate
- Scoring political points with ‘follow the money,’ that made-up line
- Always ‘follow the money’ — even if it’s made up
- A ‘follow the money’ hat trick
- Fact-checking Watergate advice that ‘worked’
- Mythical ‘follow the money’ line turns up in sports
- Talking ethics and the ‘golden days’ of Watergate
- The Watergate myth: Why debunking matters
- Those delicious but phony quotes ‘that refuse to die’
- Two myths and today’s New York Times
- Every good historian a mythbuster
- ‘Getting It Wrong’ wins SPJ award for Research about Journalism