W. Joseph Campbell

‘Follow the money’ and the power of cinema

In Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on January 8, 2012 at 9:17 am

No film about the Watergate scandal has been viewed by more people than All the President’s Men, the cinematic paean to the Washington Post and the reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.

And no single line from All the President’s Men has proved more memorable and quotable than “follow the money.”

The line is so compelling that it’s often thought that “follow the money” was genuine and vital advice offered by the stealthy, high-level source whom the Post code-named “Deep Throat.”

Except that it wasn’t genuine advice.

Follow the money” was invented for the movie.

The line was spoke by Hal Holbrook, the actor who played “Deep Throat” in All the President’s Men. (The real “Deep Throat” was self-revealed in 2005 to have been W. Mark Felt, a senior FBI official.)

Although it is fundamentally a contrivance, “follow the money” is granted no small measure of reverence, as suggested by a commentary posted the other day at a blog of London’s Guardian newspaper.

The commentary in its opening paragraph declared :

“The famous advice of Deep Throat to Woodward and Bernstein in the dark underground car park during the Watergate investigation applies to the world of politics as much as it does to investigative journalism. ‘Follow the money,’ the FBI agent Mark Felt is said to advised the two Washington Post reporters.”

“Deep Throat” the source met Woodward a half-dozen times in 1972 and 1973 in a car park — a parking garage — in the Rosslyn section of Arlington, Va. That’s true.

But “Deep Throat”/Felt was exclusively Woodward’s source. Bernstein met Felt only a few weeks before Felt’s death in 2008.

And Felt never advised Woodward to “follow the money.” That he did is cinema-induced pseudo reality.

Not only that, but Felt as “Deep Throat” wasn’t all that vital to the Post’s reporting on Watergate, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1973.

We know that from Barry Sussman, the Post’s lead editor on Watergate, who wrote in 2005:

“Deep Throat was nice to have around, but that’s about it. His role as a key Watergate source for the Post is a myth, created by a movie and sustained by hype for almost 30 years.”

Note the passage, “created by a movie.”

All the President’s Men is more than an engaging, mid-1970s film that has aged admirably well. As Sussman noted, the movie certainly helped propel the myth of “Deep Throat” — and make famous “follow the money.”

The film — which the Post once described as journalism’s “finest 2 hours and 16 minutes” — also was central in promoting and solidifying the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate.

As I discuss in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, the heroic-journalist myth is the notion that Woodward and Bernstein’s reporting brought down the corrupt presidency of Richard Nixon.

Which is an interpretation of Watergate that not even the Post embraces.

As Woodward once said in an interview with American Journalism Review:

To say the press brought down Nixon, that’s horse shit.”

But it’s clear, I write in Getting It Wrong, that the cinema “helped ensure the myth would live on by offering a neat, tidy, and vastly simplified account the Watergate scandal, one that allowed viewers to sidestep the scandal’s complexity while engaging in an entertaining storyline.”

Indeed, what could be more straightforward and understandable than a story featuring two young reporters guided by a shadowy source who, oracle-like, advises them to “follow the money”and helps them bring down a crooked president?

It’s Watergate simplified, Watergate made easy.

But it’s also a far-fetched and distorted version of America’s greatest political scandal.


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