W. Joseph Campbell

Fact-checking Watergate advice that ‘worked’

In Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Washington Post, Watergate myth on March 11, 2011 at 8:32 am

In an online commentary posted yesterday, media critic Eric Alterman treated as factual the most famous invented line of the Watergate scandal, “Follow the money.”

As I’ve noted at Media Myth Alert, “follow the money” was advice written into the screenplay of All the President’s Men, the 1976 cinematic version of the book by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein about their Watergate reporting for the Washington Post.

Felt: Didn't say it

The line was spoken by the actor Hal Holbrook, who in the movie played Woodward’s secretive high-level source, “Deep Throat” (who in real life turned out to be W. Mark Felt, formerly the second-ranking official at the FBI).

“Follow the money” doesn’t appear in All the President’s Men, the book.

It appears in no Post article or editorial published during the Watergate period.

And in his periodic meetings with Woodward (he never spoke with Bernstein during Watergate), “Deep Throat”/Felt never uttered the line.

Alterman, the author of  What Liberal Media? and other books, ruminated in his commentary about what he called the willingness of people in politics and the media “to debase themselves for cash.”

His essay appeared beneath the headline, “Think Again: ‘Follow the Money’,” and opened with an allusion to “follow the money,” declaring:

“Deep Throat’s advice worked for Woodward and Bernstein, and it remains useful today.”

Maybe it is “useful” still.

But it is a made-up line.

Screenwriter William Goldman has taken credit for writing “follow the  money” into the script of All the President’s Men, which came out in April 1976 — 20 months after Watergate reached a denouement with the resignation of President Richard Nixon.

Since then, millions of people have repeated the evocative and pithy line, oblivious to its derivation and unaware of its falsity.

As I point out in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, “Turns of phrase that sound too neat and tidy often are too perfect to be true.”

So it is with “follow the money”: Too good to be true.

In that respect, it’s akin to William Randolph Hearst’s purported vow to “furnish the war” with Spain. That famous line is almost certainly apocryphal, as I discuss in Getting It Wrong, which addresses and debunks 10 prominent media-driven myths.

But why bother calling attention to “follow the money”? After all, the movie into which the line was written is nearly 35 years old.

It matters because historical accuracy matters.

As I’ve noted, “follow the money” suggests that rolling up Watergate was a case of identifying and pursuing a money trail. There was, though, much more to the scandal than that.

Nixon lost the presidency not because of illegal campaign contributions but because he obstructed justice in the investigation of the scandal’s signal crime, the break-in in June 1972 at the Democratic National Committee headquarters.

All the President’s Men the movie doesn’t reach that level of complexity.

Calling attention to “follow the money” also matters because of the power and influence invested in the cinema.

I note in Getting It Wrong that high-quality cinematic treatments can be “powerful agents of media myth-making, and can enhance a myth’s durability.”

Richard Bernstein, in an essay published in 1989 in the New York Times, offered a thoughtful discussion about cinema’s capacity to shape perceptions about historical events. Although Bernstein didn’t mention All the President’s Men, his essay is germane nonetheless.

He noted that “even small details have value as history.

“To change them is the rough cinematic equivalent of a newspaper’s inventing quotations on the grounds that, even if nobody actually made the quoted statement, it represents what people were thinking or feeling at the time.”

Indeed.

Bernstein’s essay quoted Richard Slotkin, a Wesleyan University English and American studies professor, as saying:

”Even when you know that something didn’t happen, movie photography gives you the illusion that it did.”

And that helps explain the wide and enduring appeal of “follow the money”: The made-up line was delivered by Holbrook with such quiet assurance and dramatic effect that it offered the illusion of having been advice essential to investigating Watergate.

That is, to being advice that “worked.”

WJC

Many thanks to Instapundit Glenn Reynolds for linking to this post

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