W. Joseph Campbell

A ‘follow the money’ hat trick

In Anniversaries, Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on May 14, 2011 at 9:32 am

Follow the money,” the line so readily associated with the Washington Post and its Watergate reporting, is freighted with no fewer than three related media myths.

One is that the Post’s stealthy, high-level source known as “Deep Throat” uttered “follow the money” as guidance vital to unraveling the Watergate scandal.

What page is it on?

Two is that “Deep Throat” conferred privately with both Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the Post’s  lead reporters on Watergate.

Three is that “follow the money” appears in Woodward and Bernstein’s book about Watergate, All the President’s Men.

All three are untrue.

And all three were incorporated into a blog report posted yesterday at the online site of the Providence Journal, in what was a rare “follow the money” hat trick.

The Providence Journal item described “follow the money” as “the famous admonition from the source ‘Deep Throat’ to Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein during the Watergate scandal that brought down President Richard M. Nixon. It was immortalized in the reporters’ book, and the subsequent movie, ‘All the President’s Men.'”

No, no, and most definitely no.

The Post’s “Deep Throat” source — who was revealed in 2005 to have been W. Mark Felt, formerly a senior FBI official — never recommended that the Post “follow the money” as a way to get a handle on Watergate.

“Deep Throat,” moreover, conferred only with Woodward, sometimes late at night in a parking garage in the Rosslyn section of Arlington, Va., across the Potomac River from Washington. Felt/”Deep Throat” never met Bernstein until weeks before Felt’s death in 2008.

And, no, “follow the money” certainly does not appear in Woodward and Bernstein’s book, which came out in June 1974, just as the Watergate scandal was nearing its denouement with Nixon’s resignation.

The famous line was written into the cinematic version of All the President’s Men, which came out 35 years ago last month.

Follow the money” was spoken not by Felt but by the actor who played “Deep Throat” in the movie — Hal Holbrook.

As I’ve noted at Media Myth Alert, Holbrook turned in a marvelous performance as a twitchy, tormented, conflicted “Deep Throat.”

And he delivered his “follow the money” lines with such quiet conviction that for all the world they seemed to suggest a way through the labyrinth that was the Watergate scandal.

But even if guidance such as “follow the money” had been offered to Woodward (and/or Bernstein), it would have taken them only so far in investigating Watergate. The scandal was, after all, much broader than the misuse of campaign monies.

In the end, Nixon was toppled by his felonious conduct in attempting to cover up the signal crime of Watergate, the break-in at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in June 1972.

The simplified, mediacentric, follow-the-money  interpretation of Watergate tends to minimize the more decisive forces that unraveled the scandal and forced Nixon from office.

As I note in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, rolling up a scandal of Watergate’s dimensions 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 write, “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.”

Against the tableau of subpoena-wielding investigative authorities, the contributions of Woodward and Bernstein in the Watergate scandal fade into comparative insignificance.


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