That most famous invented line of Watergate is: “Follow the money.”
“During the investigation into the 1972 Watergate scandal, Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward found a source, whom he referred to only as ‘Deep Throat,’ who told him to ‘follow the money.’ Woodward and fellow journalist Carl Bernstein followed the money trail and unraveled the mysteries behind the crimes and subsequent cover-ups of President Richard M. Nixon and his White House staff.”
Simple as all that, eh? “Follow the money” was key to unraveling “the mysteries behind the crimes” of America’s greatest political scandal?
As is the case with all media-driven myths, there are elements of accuracy in that narrative. Woodward did periodically discuss Watergate with a high-level government source to whom the Post referred as “Deep Throat.”
But in real life, “Deep Throat” never counseled Woodward to “follow the money.”
Nor does “follow the money” doesn’t appear in All the President’s Men, the book Woodward and Bernstein wrote about Watergate.
Nor does the line appear in any Post article or editorial published during the Watergate period.
Nor was unraveling Watergate a simple matter of pursuing a money trail.
Far from it.
As I note in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, which debunks 10 prominent media-driven myths, 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 added, “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.”
The popularity of “follow the money” — a line for which screenwriter William Goldman has taken credit — highlights another characteristic of media myths: Their tendency to minimize complexity and offer simplistic and misleading interpretations instead.
I note in Getting It Wrong that high-quality cinematic treatments — and All the President’s Men is a telling example — can contribute significantly to solidifying and making believable mythical accounts of historical events.
“Follow the money” is just one of the distortions presented in All the President’s Men, the movie.
More broadly, the film promotes what I call the “heroic-journalist” interpretation” of Watergate.
The heroic-journalist meme is a trope that knows few bounds. It is the most familiar storyline of Watergate — the mediacentric version that Woodward and Bernstein, through their dogged and courageous reporting, brought down Nixon and his corrupt presidency.
It is one of American journalism’s most self-reverential stories — one propelled by the movie version of All the President’s Men.
As I point out in Getting It Wrong, the film placed Woodward and Bernstein “at the center of Watergate’s unraveling while denigrating the efforts of investigative agencies such as the FBI.
“The effect was to solidify and elevate the heroic-journalist myth, giving it dramatic power, and sustaining it in the collective memory.”
All the President’s Men offers no version of Watergate other than Woodward and Bernstein, with the help of “Deep Throat,” brought about the first-ever resignation of a U.S. president.
That’s an abridged and misleading interpretation, a misreading of history that deserves serious counterpunching.
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