W. Joseph Campbell

Mythical ‘follow the money’ line turns up in sports

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on December 5, 2010 at 6:29 pm

I’ve noted at Media Myth Alert how media-driven myths–those dubious and improbable stories that masquerade as factual–can infiltrate the sports pages.

There was, for example, a sports column a month ago that invoked the mythical “Cronkite Moment” of 1968–a hardy media myth that I take up and debunk in my latest book, Getting It Wrong.

And today, the famous made-up line of Watergate, “follow the money,” popped up in the sports pages of a newspaper in Midland, Texas.

The phrase supposedly was offered as advice by “Deep Throat,” the high-level, anonymous source who met from time to time with Bob Woodward of the Washington Post during the newspaper’s Watergate investigation.

A sports writer for the Midland Reporter-Telegram, invoked the “follow the money” line in referring to the NCAA investigation of Auburn quarterback  Cam Newton, whose father is suspected of having sought more than $100,000 if his son would sign with Mississippi State University. (The NCAA recently said it had determined that Cam Newton knew nothing about the purported scheme.)

The Reporter-Telegram item stated:

“In the words of Bob Woodward’s famous Watergate source ‘Deep Throat’ it’s time to ‘follow the money’ when it comes to Cam Newton. Newton has been ruled eligible [to play], but I don’t think we’ve heard the last of this.”

While the NCAA ruling certain raises eyebrows, it’s the use of “follow the money” that most interests Media Myth Alert.

While the line often is attributed to “Deep Throat,” it never figured in the Post’s Watergate coverage.

I’ve conducted a search of an electronic archive of the issues of the Post from June 1, 1972, to October 1, 1974, the period embracing the Watergate scandal, and no article or editorial published during that time contained the phrase “follow the money.”

However, the line was uttered in the cinematic version of All the President’s Men by Hal Holbrook, the actor who played “Deep Throat.” (The movie, an adaptation of Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s book by the same title, came out in 1976.)

“Follow the money,” Holbrook advises the Woodward character, played Robert Redford. The scene is a parking garage, not unlike the one in suburban Virginia where Woodward and “Deep Throat” sometimes conferred.

“What do you mean?” Redford asks in the garage scene. “Where?”

“Oh,” Holbrook says, “I can’t tell you that.”

“But you could tell me?”

“No,” Holbrook says. “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.”

The most likely author of “follow the money” was William Goldman, the screenwriter of All the President’s Men. Frank Rich, a columnist for the New York Times, wrote in 2005 that Goldman told him, “I just want you to remember that I wrote, ‘Follow the money.'”

Goldman’s comment to Rich came shortly after the disclosure in Vanity Fair magazine that W. Mark Felt, a former senior FBI official, had been Woodward‘s “Deep Throat” source.

As I point out in Getting It Wrong, the 30-year guessing game about the identity of “Deep Throat” helped keep Woodward, the Post, and its Watergate coverage “in the public eye far longer than they otherwise would have been.”

And that guessing game is an important reason why the dominant popular narrative about Watergate is the notion that the reporting of Woodward and Bernstein brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency.

But that, I note, is “a particularly beguiling media-driven myth.”


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