W. Joseph Campbell

That made-up Watergate line resonates abroad

In Cinematic treatments, Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Furnish the war, Murrow-McCarthy myth, Newspapers, Washington Post, Watergate myth on November 30, 2010 at 9:38 am

Watergate’s most famous made-line up — “follow the money,” which was a cinematic invention not the revealing words of guidance — is often invoked by U.S. news outlets. Surprisingly, it resonates as well in news media abroad.

“Follow the money” is often attributed to “Deep Throat,” the stealthy, anonymous source to whom Bob Woodward of the Washington Post frequently turned during the newspaper’s Watergate investigation.

But the phrase “follow the money” never figured in the Post’s Watergate coverage, which is the topic of a chapter in my mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong.

What’s more, a search of the electronic archive of all issues of the Post from June 1, 1972, to October 1, 1974, the period embracing the Watergate scandal, produced no returns for the phrase “follow the money.”

The line, however, was uttered in the cinematic version of All the President’s Men by the character who played “Deep Throat.” The movie, which was released in 1976, was an adaptation of Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s book by the same title.

The most likely inventor of “follow the money” was the screenwriter of All the President’s Men, William Goldman.

Testimony to the line’s impressive adaptability abroad appeared yesterday in an item posted at a South Africa news outlet called the Daily Maverick. The item included this passage:

“‘Follow the money,’ as the informant ‘Deep Throat’ famously told Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein during the Watergate scandal.”

The line also popped up not long ago in Le Devoir, a French-language daily newspaper in Quebec. The article in Devoir stated:

“Comme Deep Throat disait dans l’affaire du Watergate: follow the money.” [As Deep Throat said in the Watergate affair: follow the money.]

So why does this made-up line from a long-ago motion picture possess such international appeal?

In a way, “follow the money” is like media-driven myths that have gained popularity abroad–among them, the mythical Cronkite Moment, the Murrow-McCarthy tale, the famous “furnish the war” vow attributed to William Randolph Hearst. And, of course, the heroic-journalist myth, according to which the investigative reporting of Woodward and Bernstein brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency in the Watergate scandal.

They are decidedly American tales that offer reductive, mediacentric interpretations of important historical moments.  News outlets abroad–intrigued as they often are by American culture and politics–are scarcely immune from the temptation to offer up these tales. Or pithy lines like “follow the money,” which sums up fairly well an important path of inquiry in the Watergate scandal.

Pithiness can be a powerful propellant of movie lines–and media myths.

Besides, these tales are straightforward, unambiguous, and as such memorable. They can be readily invoked to make a telling point, usually about the power and importance of the news media.

But often, that message is misleading.

As I write in Getting It Wrong, “media-driven myths are neither trivial nor innocuous. They can and do have adverse consequences. Notably, they tend to distort understanding about the role and function of journalism in American society, conferring on the news media far more power and influence than they necessarily wield.”

Media myths, I add, “often emerge from an eagerness to find influence and lasting significance in what journalists do….”

Debunking these myths helps to place media influence in a more coherent context.


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