I followed a hyperlink the other day to the Winter 2010 number of Rethinking Schools magazine to find that Watergate’s most famous made-up line prominently presented as if it were advice vital to unraveling the scandal.
The opening paragraphs of an article in Rethinking Schools, titled “The Ultimate $uperpower,” read this way:
“In 1972, two young Washington Post reporters were investigating a low-level burglary at the Watergate Hotel and stumbled upon a host of unexplained coincidences and connections that reached to the White House.
“One of the reporters, Bob Woodward, went to a high-level government source and complained: ‘The story is dry. All we’ve got are pieces. We can’t seem to figure out what the puzzle is supposed to look like.’
“To which the infamous Deep Throat replied: ‘Follow the money. Always follow the money.’
“For nearly 40 years, ‘follow the money’ has been an axiom in both journalism and politics—although, as Shakespeare might complain, one ‘more honour’d in the breach than the observance.'”
Nor, it should be noted, did the Post bring down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency.
In a scene showing a late-night meeting in a parking garage, 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.”
As an article in the Post last summer pointed out that “the film’s most iconic piece of dialogue — ‘Follow the money’ — was never spoken in real life.”
Indeed, as I’ve noted previously at Media Myth Alert, no Post article or editorial related to Watergate used “follow the money” until June 1981 – nearly seven years after Richard Nixon resigned the presidency and well after the successor who pardoned him, Gerald Ford, had lost reelection. (The article in June 1981 merely noted that the line was used in a fifth grade play.)
Since then, millions of people — among them, the author of the Rethinking Schools article — have unwittingly repeated the line, oblivious to its falsity, believing it had been guidance vital in rolling up Watergate.
But what harm is there in that? It’s just a movie, after all. A movie made a long time ago.
The phony but often-quoted line is suggestive of the exaggerations that infuse the cinematic version of All the President’s Men — a version that offers up “a neat, tidy, and vastly simplified account” of the scandal, as I write in Getting It Wrong.
The simplified version of Watergate enables viewers “to sidestep the scandal’s complexity while engaging in an entertaining storyline,” I further note.
“Follow the money” also lends the inaccurate suggestion that unraveling Watergate was a matter of identifying, pursuing, and reporting about an illicit money trail. It was more than that.
What ultimately brought down Nixon was indisputable evidence of his order to cover up the signal crime of Watergate, the 1972 break-in at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee. Nixon’s guilty role in the coverup was captured by audiotape recordings he secretly made of his conversation in the Oval Office of the White House.
Moreover, the movie version of All the President’s Men celebrated and helped firm up what I call the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate. The film’s inescapable but erroneous conclusion is that Woodward and Bernstein were central to unraveling the scandal and to forcing the resignation of a dishonest president.
Recent and related:
- Media myth and Truthout
- Talking ethics and the ‘golden days’ of Watergate
- The Watergate myth: Why debunking matters
- Jimmy Carter fumbles Watergate history
- Cinema and the tenacity of media myths
- WaPo ‘didn’t like Nixon’ and that’s ‘how we got Watergate’: Huh?
- 24/7 news cycle no new phenomenon
- Sniffing out media myths
- Media myths, the junk food of journalism
- Getting It Wrong among 90 titles at NPC Book Fair