“Follow the money” is one of the most memorable phrases of Watergate-era American journalism.
And it’s a made-up line.
The item discussed how the Washington Post continues to be buoyed by its Kaplan education-testing service unit, saying:
“If Kaplan’s business ever went south, the Washington Post Co. would be in big trouble—and the flagship newspaper would likely become a shadow of its former self.”
The MarketWatch item closed by invoking the “follow the money” phrase, stating:
“The Post family had better pray that nothing unsettles Kaplan’s business. Kaplan is their lifeblood and future. As the Post preached during its glory days, the Watergate investigations of the 1970s, follow the money.”
The attempt to offer a cute closing line misfired. “Follow the money” never figured in the newspaper’s Watergate coverage–which is the topic of a chapter in my latest book, Getting It Wrong.
A search of the electronic archive of all issues of the Post from June 1, 1972, to October 1, 1974, the period embracing the Watergate scandal, produced no returns for the phrase “follow the money.”
The line, however, was uttered in the cinematic version of All the President’s Men by the anonymous and mysterious source code-named “Deep Throat.” The movie dramatized the Watergate reporting of Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein and was based on their non-fiction book by the same title.
But the phrase “follow the money” doesn’t appear in the book.
That item quoted an NPR research librarian as saying that newsman Daniel Schorr once asked her “to find the phrase ‘follow the money’ in the book All The President’s Men.”
The librarian was further quoted as saying that she “went through the book page by page,” finding that the “phrase does not appear there.
“And then in talking to Bob Woodward and the screenwriter, William Goldman, Dan discovered that [the phrase is] actually kind of made up for the movie.”
I also noted that former Nixon speechwriter William Safire offered in 1997 a somewhat more detailed version of the anecdote, writing in the New York Times Sunday Magazine that Woodward and Goldman blamed each other for having invented the line.
“The screenplay was written by William Goldman,” Safire wrote. “When Schorr called him, the famed screenwriter at first insisted that the line came from the book; when proved mistaken about that, he said: ‘I can’t believe I made it up. I was in constant contact with Woodward while writing the screenplay. I guess he made it up.”’
Safire wrote that Schorr “then called Woodward, who could not find the phrase in his exhaustive notes of Watergate interviews. The reporter told Schorr he could no longer rely on his memory as to whether Deep Throat had said the line and was inclined to believe that Goldman had invented it.”
(New York Times columnist Frank Rich wrote in 2005 that Goldman took credit for coming up with “follow the money.”)
The Post in an article last summer praised All the President’s Men, which was released in 1976, saying the movie had “held up not only as a taut, well-made thriller but as the record itself of the Watergate scandal that transpired four years earlier.”
The Post article also stated:
“It barely matters that the film’s most iconic piece of dialogue–‘Follow the money’– was never spoken in real life.”
How so, it barely matters?
It certainly does matter. The memorable, often-quoted but phony line is emblematic of the exaggerations that characterize the movie.
Far from being “the record itself of the Watergate scandal,” the cinematic version of All the President’s Men presented “a neat, tidy, and vastly simplified account” of the scandal, I write in Getting It Wrong. It’s a version “that allowed viewers to sidestep the scandal’s complexity while engaging in an entertaining storyline.”
The movie version helped cement the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate by leaving the inescapable but erroneous impression that Woodward and Bernstein were central to unraveling the scandal and to forcing the resignation of a president.
Recent and related:
- Cinema and the tenacity of media myths
- WaPo ‘didn’t like Nixon’ and that’s ‘how we got Watergate’: Huh?
- Sniffing out media myths
- Media myths, the junk food of journalism
- On Cronkite, Jon Stewart and ‘the most trusted’ man