W. Joseph Campbell

Fox News misremembers Watergate and ‘follow the money’

In Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on August 16, 2011 at 9:20 am

I’ve referred to “follow the money” as Watergate’s best-known made-up line.

It also can be thought of as Watergate’s best-known misremembered line.

I say that because a Fox News commentary posted yesterday thoroughly misremembered the phrase as having been part of the “media circus” of Watergate in the months before the scandal reached its denouement with Richard Nixon’s resignation in August 1974.

The Fox commentary declared:

“America was transfixed for months by [Watergate-related] televised hearings presided over by the colorful Sen. Sam Ervin. … We learned about the mysterious insider, pornographically code-named ‘Deep Throat’ murmuring intriguing clues like ‘Follow the Money….’ It was a media circus.”

But as I’ve noted at Media Myth Alert, follow the money” was not part of the vernacular of Watergate. It was never offered as advice — murmured or otherwise — by the stealthy “Deep Throat” source, who met periodically with Bob Woodward of the Washington Post as the scandal unraveled.

(The identity of “Deep Throat” remained a secret for more than 30 years until W. Mark Felt, a former top FBI official, self-identified himself as having been Woodward’s secret source during Watergate.)

What’s more, “follow the money” appeared in no Watergate-related article or editorial in the Post until June 1981.

Nor is the line to be found in All the President’s Men, the book Woodward and his Post colleague, Carl Bernstein, wrote about their Watergate reporting.

The phrase exists only in the movies — in the cinematic version of All the President’s Men, which came out in April 1976.

Follow the money” was written into the screenplay of All the President’s Men and spoken by the actor Hal Holbrook, who turned in a memorable performance as “Deep Throat.”

Holbrook intoned “follow the money” with such steely assurance that it did indeed seemed to suggest a way — however simplistic — to unravel the scandal.

But even if “Deep Throat”/Felt had counseled Woodward to “follow the money,” the advice would have neither unraveled Watergate nor led the reporter to Nixon.

Nixon quit the presidency not because he misused campaign funds; he resigned in disgrace after it became clear he had sought to obstruct justice by covering up the signal crime of Watergate, the break-in at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in June 1972.

As I note in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, rolling up a scandal of the dimension and complexity of Watergate 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 those recordings, which captured him plotting the cover-up” — which cost him the presidency.

WJC

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