The judges in their order cited the made-up line as if it had been genuine advice from a high-level source to Bob Woodward of the Washington Post during the newspaper’s investigation of the Watergate scandal.
The line is “follow the money” — and it had no role whatsoever in the Watergate scandal.
Nor did the passage appear in any Watergate-related news article or editorial in the Post before June 1981 — nearly seven years after the scandal reached its denouement with President Richard Nixon’s resignation.
Just last week, for example, a column in London’s high-brow Financial Times newspaper described “follow the money” as the “mantra” of Watergate. And a column posted at Huffington Post a couple of weeks ago also repeated “follow the money” as if it had been vital guidance to uncovering Watergate.
But finding its way into a high court order probably represents a first for “follow the money.”
As noted in a Bloomberg news service report yesterday, the two judges — B. Sudershan Reddy and S.S. Singh Nijjar — invoked “follow the money” at the outset of the order they released early last month.
Credulously, the judges wrote:
“‘Follow the money’ was the short and simple advice given by the secret informant, within the American Government, to Bob Woodward, the journalist from Washington Post, in aid of his investigations of the Watergate Hotel break in.”
So how is it that such errors are made? What explains the impressive reach and popularity of this appealing but contrived statement?
A partial explanation is that “follow the money” seems just too good, too delicious, not to be true. It’s in the class of William Randolph Hearst’s purported vow to “furnish the war” with Spain: It’s a quotation that really ought to true.
“To thwart media myths, journalists can start by applying a measure of skepticism to pithy, telling quotes such as Hearst’s vow to ‘furnish the war.’ … Turns of phrase that sound too neat and tidy often are too perfect to be true.”
The popularity of “follow the money” goes beyond appealing pithiness and is rooted in the dramatic quality of All the President’s Men, the most-watched movie ever made about Watergate.
In a late-night scene in a darkened parking garage, the shadowy, raspy-voiced Holbrook told 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.”
Holbrook delivered the line with such quiet insistence that it truly seemed to offer a way through the labyrinth of the Watergate scandal. And the popularity of the movie carried “follow the money” into the vernacular.
But such guidance, had it really been offered to Woodward, would have taken the reporter only so far. Watergate, after all, was much broader than the improper use of campaign monies.
Nixon was toppled not by heroic journalists who followed a money trail, but by irrefutable evidence captured on audiotapes that he had ordered the cover up Watergate’s signal crime, the break-in at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in June 1972.
Recent and related:
- An outbreak of ‘follow the money,’ that phony Watergate line
- A media myth eruption: WaPo, Watergate, and Nixon’s fall
- The Fin Times and the ‘mantra’ of Watergate
- Scoring political points with ‘follow the money,’ that made-up line
- Inflating the exploits of WaPo’s Watergate reporters
- The hero-journalist myth of Watergate
- Always ‘follow the money’ — even if it’s made up
- A ‘follow the money’ hat trick
- Talking ethics and the ‘golden days’ of Watergate
- Every good historian a mythbuster
- Myth appeal runs deep abroad; Watergate a case in point
- ‘Getting It Wrong’ goes on Q-and-A