W. Joseph Campbell

‘Follow the tenspot’

In Debunking, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on December 12, 2010 at 10:39 am

I’ve noted at Media Myth Alert how Watergate’s most memorable made-up line — “follow the money” — finds surprising and unexpected use in news media abroad.

Further confirmation of that observation came yesterday, in a whimsical, travelogue sort of story in London’s Guardian newspaper.

In 3,300 words, a writer for the Guardian recounted how tracked the movement of a single $10 bill across six heartland states in October this year. The article was framed as a way of gathering insight into the ailing U.S. economy–and it invoked the made-up Watergate line in its opening paragraph, which read:

“What do you do if you want to test the mood of a country as it emerges from the deepest recession for almost a century? You can delve into banking reports or believe what you hear from politicians. You can spend endless hours with academics and accountants. Or you can take the advice Bob Woodward was given by his Watergate source Deep Throat: ‘Follow the money.'”

Following a single tenspot as it moves from the place to place is intriguing if gimmicky.

While light-hearted and amusing in places, the Guardian article offers little telling insight. (The American heartland suffers from rural flight as well as blight in places: Not much new, there. There are 1.6 billion $10 bills in circulation: Interesting, but mildly.)

In the end, the over-long article invites such questions as: “So what?” and “Why bother?”

It’s more than a little gimmicky, and self-absorbed.

What’s of particular interest to Media Myth Alert is the casual and erroneous reference to “the advice” the stealthy anonymous source “Deep Throat” offered Woodward of the Washington Post during the newspaper’s Watergate investigation.

“Follow the money.”

It is, as I’ve noted, one of the most memorable phrases of Watergate-era American journalism. But the phrase never figured in the Post in its Watergate coverage–the topic of a chapter in my mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong.

A search of the electronic archive of issues of the Post from June 1, 1972, to October 1, 1974, the period embracing the Watergate scandal, turned up no returns for the phrase “follow the money.”

Indeed, no Post article or editorial invoked “follow the money” in a Watergate-related context until June 1981–long after Richard Nixon had resigned the presidency, well after the successor who pardoned him, Gerald Ford, had lost reelection. (And the occasion then noted the line’s use in a fifth grade play.)

“Follow the money” was made for the movies, specifically the cinematic version of All the President’s Men, Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s book about their Watergate reporting.

The line was uttered, and rather insistently, by Hal Holbrook, the actor who played “Deep Throat” in All the President’s Men.

Holbrook-“Deep Throat” tells Woodward: “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’s most likely author was William Goldman, the screenwriter of All the President’s Men. He told a New York Times columnist in 2005 that he had invented “follow the money.”

So let’s return those questions raised about the Guardian article–“so what” and “why bother”–and apply them to “follow the money.” So what difference does it make if “follow the money” is a made-up line? Why bother tracking down its derivation?

A number of reasons offer themselves–notably that “follow the money” contributes to a simplistic interpretation of what was a sprawling scandal that sent nearly 20 of Nixon’s men to jail.

As I write in Getting It Wrong:

Media myths … tend to minimize or negate complexity in historical events and offer simplistic and misleading interpretations instead. Edward Murrow no more took down Joseph McCarthy than Walter Cronkite swayed a president’s views about the war in Vietnam. Yet those and other media myths endure, because in part they are reductive: They offer unambiguous, easily remembered explanations about complex historic events.”

So it is with “follow the money”: The line is easily remembered, yet undeniably reductive and misleading.

It is recalled nowadays as having represented crucial guidance, as a key to unraveling the scandal: Follow the money trail and you will lay bare the crimes of Watergate.

Were it only that easy.

As I note in Getting It Wrong, rolling up a scandal of the dimensions 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 add, “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 and authorizing payments of thousands of dollars in hush money.”

WJC

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  3. […] 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 […]

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