“Follow the money,” that famous and dramatic line about the Watergate scandal, was made up for the cinema.
But because it’s so pithy and compelling, the passage is routinely treated as if it had been advice vital to unseating President Richard Nixon and unraveling the greatest scandal in American politics.
“‘Follow the money,’ FBI Deputy Director Mark Felt (‘Deep Throat’) told Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein during their investigation into the Watergate break ins. It remains good advice for participants in commodity markets.”
Felt — whose family disclosed in 2005 that he had been the fabled “Deep Throat” source of the Washington Post — didn’t offer such guidance to Woodward during their periodic meetings in 1972 and 1973 as the scandal unfolded. Felt, moreover, never spoke with Bernstein during Watergate.
Nor does the advice to “follow the money” appear in All the President’s Men, Woodward and Bernstein’s book about their Watergate reporting. And the line can’t be found in any Watergate-related article or editorial in the Washington Post before 1981.
The derivation of the line lies in the screenplay of All the President’s Men, the cinematic version of Woodward and Bernstein’s book. The movie came out 35 years ago and has been seen by millions of people, easily qualifying it as the most-viewed film about Watergate.
All the President’s Men included a boffo performance by Hal Holbrook who played the stealthy, conflicted “Deep Throat” character.
Holbrook advised the Woodward character, played by Robert Redford, to “follow the money” — and did so with such quiet assurance and insistence that it sure seemed as if the guidance were vital to rolling up Watergate.
But had the advice indeed been given to Woodward, “follow the money” would’ve have taken the reporter only so far. Watergate, after all, was a scandal far more complex than the misuse of campaign monies.
As I write in Getting It Wrong, my media-mythbusting book that came out last year, some 20 men associated with Richard Nixon’s presidency or his 1972 reelection campaign went to jail for crimes linked to Watergate.
To unravel a scandal of such dimension, I write in Getting It Wrong, “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 [second] 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.”
As I’ve noted previously at Media Myth Alert, what cost Nixon the presidency wasn’t of the improper use of campaign funds but his obstruction of justice in attempting to thwart the FBI’s investigation of the scandal.
The misunderstanding about “follow the money” is an element in the broader mythology of Watergate, which centers around the historically inaccurate notion that Woodward and Bernstein, through their dogged investigative reporting, brought down Nixon’s presidency.
Recent and related:
- ‘Too early to say’: Zhou was speaking about 1968, not 1789
- A ‘follow the money’ hat trick
- ‘Follow the tenspot’
- Fact-checking Watergate advice that ‘worked’
- Scoring political points with ‘follow the money,’ that made-up line
- Invoking media myths to score points
- Cinema and the tenacity of media myths
- Talking ethics and the ‘golden days’ of Watergate
- The Watergate myth: Why debunking matters
- Didn’t: A Watergate primer
- 24/7 news cycle no new phenomenon
- JHistory: ‘Getting It Wrong’ deserves to be required reading