W. Joseph Campbell

India high court order invokes phony Watergate line

In Debunking, Furnish the war, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on August 2, 2011 at 9:48 am

Two Supreme Court judges in India last month turned to Watergate’s most famous made-up line in ordering an investigation into large sums of money believed stashed in banks abroad.

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.

Follow the money” was never uttered by Woodward’s stealthy source, who was code-named “Deep Throat.”

The line appears nowhere in the All the President’s Men, the book Woodward and Carl Bernstein wrote about their Watergate reporting for the Post.

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.

Follow the money” was written into the screenplay of All the President’s Men, the 1976 movie based on Woodward and Bernstein’s book.

Many people and many news outlets over the years have cited “follow the money” as if it were real, as if it had been advice to Woodward that really worked.

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.

And as I point out in my media myth-busting book, Getting It Wrong:

“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.

The “Deep Throat” character was played in All the President’s Men by the actor Hal Holbrook, who turned in a marvelous performance.

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.


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