W. Joseph Campbell

Posts Tagged ‘Follow the money’

The media myths of Watergate: Part Three

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Media myths, Newspapers, Quotes, Washington Post, Watergate myth on June 19, 2012 at 5:25 am

This is the third of five posts addressing prominent media-driven myths about the Watergate scandal, which began
unfolding 40 years ago this week with the foiled burglary at the headquarters in Washington of the Democratic National Committee.
This installment discusses the most famous made-up line of Watergate.

“Follow the money.” It’s the best-known, most popular turn-of-phrase associated with the Watergate scandal of 1972-74.

Felt: Never said it

It’s often said that “follow the money” was sage counsel offered by the stealthy, high-level “Deep Throat” source with whom Bob Woodward of the Washington Post periodically met as the scandal unfolded.

The guidance to “follow the money” supposedly proved crucial in understanding and unraveling the labyrinthine scandal that was Watergate.

Except that it really wasn’t.

“Deep Throat” never advised Woodward to “follow the money.”

The passage appears in no Watergate-related article or editorial in the Post until June 1981, nearly seven years after Nixon’s resignation. It doesn’t appear, either, in All the President’s Men, the book Woodward and his Post colleague, Carl Bernstein, wrote about their Watergate reporting.

Follow the money” was written into the screenplay of All the President’s Men, the cinematic adaptation of Woodward and Bernstein’s book.

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

Holbrook in All the President’s Men turned in a marvelous performance as a twitchy, conflicted, chain-smoking “Deep Throat.”

‘All the President’s Men,’ the movie

He delivered the line, “follow the money,” with such raspy assurance and conviction that it seemed for all the world to be vital to understanding the scandal that began unfolding 40 years ago.

Follow the money” is certainly Watergate’s most memorable and mythical phrase; it is so pithy and emphatic that it seems almost too good not to be true.

Indeed, “follow the money” tends to be treated with reverence by news media. A “credo,” it’s been called.

Take, for example, a recent post at the “Daily Intel” blog of New York Magazine. The blog post began by invoking the famous phrase, with emphasis:

Follow the money. The pithy investigative advice Woodward and Bernstein attributed to Deep Throat is still brilliant and important, whatever else the Watergate reporters may have embellished.”

Brilliant and important?

Made up is more like it.

But even if Woodward had been counseled to “follow the money,” the advice neither would have unraveled the Watergate scandal nor led him to Nixon.

Besides, Woodward and Bernstein already were on the money trail.

One of their most important stories was in reporting that a $25,000 check to Nixon’s reelection campaign had been deposited in the bank account of one of the Watergate burglars.

The scandal, though, was much more than Nixon’s improper use of campaign funds. The president was forced to resign because he obstructed justice by approving a plan to cover up the burglary at the Democratic National Committee.

The simplified, follow-the-money construct not only is inaccurate and misleading: It serves to deflect attention from the array of forces that combined to expose Nixon’s crimes.

As I note in my 2010 book Getting It Wrong, rolling up a scandal of Watergate’s depth and dimension 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” that cost him the presidency.

WJC

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‘Immortal advice’ given only in a movie

In Debunking, Media myths, Watergate myth on November 23, 2011 at 8:06 am

Add the New Yorker blog “Rational Irrationality” to the lineup of news organizations and outlets that have invoked Watergate’s most famous made-up line — “follow the money” — as if it were genuine.

Felt: Didn't say it

As if the Washington Post’s stealthy “Deep Throat” source really spoke the line “follow the money” as guidance to unraveling the Watergate scandal.

Which he didn’t.

The “Rational Irrationality” blog the other day joined the likes of the Financial Times, Fox News, the Huffington Post, Minnesota Public Radio, the Providence Journal, media critic Eric Alterman, the Hindu newspaper in India, among others, in invoking the line as if it had been advice earnestly offered by “Deep Throat.”

“Rational Irrationality” referred to the line as “immortal advice,” stating:

“There are two ways to figure out what is really happening in Washington politics. One is to interview Administration officials, congressmen, Capitol Hill staffers, think-tank wonks, and so on, and write down what they say. The other journalistic technique is to heed Deep Throat’s immortal advice to Bob Woodward and follow the money trail. When it comes to budgets and the deficit, the Deep Throat methodology is usually the more informative.”

The line certainly may be timeless. Even “immortal.”  But “Deep Throat” never told Woodward, he of the Washington Post, to “follow the money.”

That line appears nowhere in All the President’s Men, the book Woodward wrote with Post colleague Carl Bernstein about their Watergate reporting — reporting that did not, as I discuss in my latest work, Getting It Wrong, bring down Nixon’s corrupt presidency.

Moreover, “follow the money” appeared in no Watergate-related article or editorial published in the Post  before 1981 — which was years after Nixon quit the presidency in disgrace.

Follow the money” was a line made for the movies: It was written into the screenplay of the cinematic version of All the President’s Men.

The line was memorably uttered not by the real-life “Deep Throat” — who in 2005 was self-revealed to have been W. Mark Felt, formerly a top official at the FBI — but by Hal Holbrook, the actor who played “Deep Throat” in the movie.

Holbrook turned in an outstanding performance as a conflicted, tormented “Deep Throat.”

And he delivered his “follow the money” lines with such grave assurance and certainty that it seemed to offer a way to understand the intricacies of the Watergate scandal.

But as I’ve noted at Media Myth Alert, even if Woodward had been counseled to “follow the money,” the advice would have taken him only so far.

It wouldn’t have led him to Nixon.

What forced Nixon from office in 1974 was not the misuse of campaign funds but the president’s active role in attempting to obstruct justice by covering up the signal crime of the Watergate scandal, the break-in at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in June 1972.

Rolling up the scandal of Watergate’s complexity and dimension was scarcely as straightforward as pursuing misused campaign contributions.

As I write in Getting It Wrong, unraveling Watergate 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 argue, “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” that cost him the presidency.

WJC

Many thanks to Instapundit
Glenn Reynolds for linking to this post

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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.

WJC

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The Fin Times and the ‘mantra’ of Watergate

In Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on July 28, 2011 at 7:33 am

The single phrase associated most often with Watergate surely is “follow the money” — guidance supposedly given to Washington Post reporters covering the scandal in the early 1970s.

“Follow the money” also is the best-known made-up line of Watergate.

The statement is only as real as images projected on the screen: “Follow the money” was written into the screenplay of All the President’s Men, the cinematic version of the Watergate book by Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.

But because it sounded so compelling, because it seemed to be such crucial guidance to unraveling the dimensions of Watergate, “follow the money” made a smooth transition from cinematic fiction to the vernacular.

So it’s commonly believed that “follow the money” was guidance uttered by the  Post’s high-level secret source, who was code-named “Deep Throat.”

The usually sober and usually well-reported Financial Times of London yesterday invoked “follow the money” as if it were genuine, stating in a column on financial matters:

“’Follow the money’ might have been the mantra for Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in investigating the Watergate scandal. But ‘follow the debt’ would be a better way of summing up where investors should be looking for the next bubble.”

We’ll leave “follow the debt” to bubble-seeking investors.

What intrigues Media Myth Alert is the reference to “follow the money” as the “mantra” of Watergate.

No way was it Watergate’s “mantra.”

The line appeared in no Watergate-related news article or editorial in the Post until 1981 — nearly seven years after Watergate had reached a climax with the resignation of President Richard Nixon.

Moreover, “follow the money” appears nowhere in Woodward and Bernstein’s book about their Watergate reporting. The book came out in June 1974, a couple of months before Nixon quit the presidency in disgrace.

So the phrase was no “mantra.”

What pressed “follow the money” into the vernacular was the marvelous performance of actor Hal Holbrook in the cinematic version of All the President’s Men.

Holbrook played a conflicted, shadowy, even tormented “Deep Throat” character. In a memorable, late-night scene in a darkened parking garage, 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 “follow the money” line with such quiet conviction that it seemed to be a guide to unraveling the labyrinthine scandal that was Watergate.

Bernstein (Newseum photo)

But had it really been offered to Woodward (“Deep Throat” never met Bernstein during Watergate), “follow the money” would have taken him only so far.

Watergate, after all, was much broader than the misuse of campaign funds.

What ultimately brought down Nixon was  his plotting to cover up the signal crime of Watergate — the break-in at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in June 1972.

As I note in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, rolling up a scandal of Watergate’s dimension 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 the Watergate-related recordings that captured him plotting to cover up the Watergate break-in.

Heeding advice to “follow-the-money” scarcely would have enabled investigators to uncover the decisive evidence about Nixon’s misconduct.

WJC

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An outbreak of ‘follow the money,’ that phony Watergate line

In Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on July 23, 2011 at 7:05 am

From Oregon to Canada to India, news outlets turned yesterday to Watergate’s most famous made-up phrase, treating the line as if it were genuine.

Felt: Not his line

The line is “follow the money,” which supposedly was vital guidance that a secret source code-named “Deep Throat” gave to the Washington Post during its Watergate investigation in 1972-74.

The passage was offered up credulously by these news outlets yesterday:

  • The Huffington Post, in (yet another) commentary about the phone-hacking scandal that has battered Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. The commentary declared: “During the Washington Post‘s investigative reporting of President [Richard] Nixon’s attempts to cover up the Watergate burglary, it’s [sic] source, ‘Deep Throat’ gave the reporters the best advice. ‘Deep Throat’ said that the truth would be discovered if they ‘follow the money.’ They did and it ultimately led to the resignation of President Nixon.”
  • The Register-Guard newspaper of Eugene, Oregon, in a column about the phone-hacking scandal: “As Deep Throat advised reporters unraveling a different national scandal, ‘Follow the money.’”
  • The Business News Network in Canada, in a blog post about interest rates in that country: “I’ll take the advice of Mark Felt, the former FBI agent most famously known as Deep Throat, the key source in Bob Woodward’s Watergate investigation: follow the money.”
  • The Hindu newspaper in India, in a commentary about suspected banking improprieties: “‘Follow the money’ was the advice given by the secret informant within the government to Bob Woodward of Washington Post at the beginning of the Watergate scandal.”

As those cases suggest, “follow the money” is impressively versatile. Its popularity seems limitless.

But however appealing and catchy, “follow the money” is contrived.

The phrase was never uttered by the “Deep Throat” source, who met periodically with Woodward as Watergate unfolded. (“Deep Throat” was self-identified in 2005 as W. Mark Felt, formerly the second-ranking official at the FBI. Felt never spoke during Watergate with Woodward’s reporting partner, Carl Bernstein.)

According to a database of Washington Post content, the phrase “follow the money” appeared in no news article or editorial about Watergate before 1981.

“Follow the money” doesn’t appear, either, in All the President’s Men, Woodward and Bernstein’s book about their Watergate reporting, which came out in 1974.

The derivation of the passage lies in a scene in All the President’s Men, the cinematic version of Woodward and Bernstein’s book. The movie was released to much fanfare in April 1976, 20 months after Nixon resigned the presidency for his guilty role in obstructing justice in the Watergate scandal.

What pressed “follow the money” into the popular consciousness was an outstanding performance turned in by actor Hal Holbrook in the cinematic version of All the President’s Men.

Holbrook played a twitchy, conflicted, shadowy “Deep Throat.” In a late-night scene in a darkened parking garage, 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 conviction that it did seem to be a way through the labyrinth that was the Watergate scandal.

But the guidance, had it really been offered to Woodward, would have taken him only so far. Watergate, after all, was much broader than a case of improper use of campaign monies.

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

As a simplistic key to explaining the scandal, the follow-the-money interpretation minimizes the far more decisive forces that unraveled Watergate and forced Nixon from office.

As I point out in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, rolling up a scandal of Watergate’s complexity and dimension 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 the Watergate-related recordings that captured him plotting to cover up the Watergate break-in.

WJC

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Those delicious but phony quotes ‘that refuse to die’

In Cinematic treatments, Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Furnish the war, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth, Spanish-American War, Washington Post, Watergate myth on June 25, 2011 at 10:31 am

Craig Silverman, author of Regret the Error, posted an intriguing column yesterday about appealing but dubious quotations that journalists seem especially prone to cite, noting that such famous lines “often turn out to be manufactured or inexact representations.”

It’s an important reminder, given the endless popularity of quotations that are neat, tidy, and irresistibly delicious. As I note in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, “Turns of phrase that sound too neat and tidy often are too perfect to be true.”

Plouffe: Not so 'queasy'?

Silverman’s column, titled “Misquotes that refuse to die,” was centered around a comment attributed in 2009 to David Plouffe, Barrack Obama’s campaign manager in 2008.

Plouffe supposedly said he felt a bit “queasy” about the prospect of Obama’s facing Jon Huntsman, the Republican former Utah governor, in the presidential election in 2012.

“Plouffe never said it,” Silverman wrote, describing how the queasy line took on life of its own.

Journalists can be particularly susceptible to such succinct “little gems,” as Silverman put it, because the gems are so effective in making a point or in distilling complexity.

Silverman’s column noted two famous, dubious quotes that I dismantle in Getting It Wrong.

One of them is the comment misattributed to President Lyndon Johnson who,  in reaction to Walter Cronkite’s on-air assessment that the war in Vietnam was “mired in stalemate,” supposedly said:

“If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”

Or something to that effect.

Versions as to what Johnson supposedly said vary quite a lot — which can be a marker of a media myth. I also point out in Getting It Wrong that Johnson did not see the Cronkite report when it aired on CBS on February 27, 1968.

The other dubious quote discussed in Getting It Wrong and mentioned by Silverman is William Randolph Hearst’s purported vow to “furnish the war” with Spain.

Reasons for doubting the Hearstian vow are many, I write, and include the fact that the telegram in which Hearst supposedly made the statement has never turned up. Plus, Hearst denied making such a vow.

A number of other famous and delicious quotes favored by journalists likewise have proven to be false, made-up, or of mythical dimension; among them:

  • Too early to say.” It’s often said that Chinese premier Zhou Enlai offered the observation in 1972, as sage, far-sighted analysis about the effects of the French Revolution of 1789. But according to a retired American diplomat, Charles W.  (Chas) Freeman Jr., Zhou’s comment, which came during President Richard Nixon’s visit to China in February 1972, was about political turmoil in France in 1968. “I cannot explain the confusion about Zhou’s comment, except in terms of the extent to which it conveniently bolstered a stereotype” about Chinese leaders taking an exceptionally long and patient view of history, Freeman said recently. Freeman was Nixon’s interpreter on the trip.

So what to do about these delicious but dubious and phony quotations?

Keep pounding away at them, calling them out for what they are, whenever they appear. That’s the only effective way of debunking.

But even then, thorough and utter debunking can be rare.

WJC

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Six years on: Identity of Watergate’s ‘Deep Throat’ revealed

In Anniversaries, Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on May 29, 2011 at 6:22 am

It’s been six years since W. Mark Felt,  once a senior FBI official, was revealed to have been “Deep Throat” of the Watergate era, the most famous source in modern American journalism.

Alias 'Deep Throat'

Felt’s “Deep Throat” identity had remained a secret — and was a topic of often-intense speculation — for more than 30 years.

On May 31, 2005, Vanity Fair disclosed that Felt had been the Washington Post’s elusive and enigmatic source as the Watergate scandal unfolded in 1972-73.

The disclosure was made with the consent of Felt — who then was 91 and in declining physical and mental health — and his daughter, Joan.

The Vanity Fair report meant that the Post effectively had been scooped on its own story.

“The identity of Deep Throat is modern journalism’s greatest unsolved mystery,” Vanity Fair crowed in its article lifting Felt’s secret. “It has been said that he may be the most famous anonymous person in U.S. history.”

As I note in Getting It Wrong, my media-mythbusting book that came out last year, the prolonged guessing game about the identity of “Deep Throat” help solidify the notion that the Post and its lead Watergate reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, were central to uncovering the scandal and forcing President Richard Nixon’s resignation.

I point out that speculation “about the identity of the ‘Deep Throat’ source provided periodic and powerful reminders about the Post and its Watergate coverage, serving to keep Woodward and Bernstein in the public eye far longer than they otherwise would have been.”

I further note:

“They and the mysterious ‘Deep Throat’ source became central figures” in what the Philadelphia Inquirer once called “the parlor game that would not die. … With each passing year, as ‘Deep Throat’s’ cloak of anonymity remained securely in place, his perceived role in Watergate gained gravitas.”

“And so,” I write, “… did the roles of Woodward and Bernstein.”

Although Alexander Haig, John Dean, and Henry Kissinger were among the suspects mentioned in the “Deep Throat” guessing game, Felt’s name always placed high on the roster of likely candidates.

As I discuss in Getting It Wrong, speculation about the identity of “Deep Throat” began in earnest in June 1974, with a front-page article in the Wall Street Journal, and continued periodically over the next 31 years.

The Journal article appeared soon after publication of All the President’s Men, Woodward and Bernstein’s best-selling book about Watergate in which they introduced the furtive source they called “Deep Throat.”

The Journal article described Felt as the top suspect.

Felt, though, repeatedly and adamantly denied having been “Deep Throat.” He was quoted as saying in the Journal article in 1974:

“I’m just not that kind of person.”

He told the Hartford Courant newspaper in 1999 that he “would have been more effective” had he indeed been Woodward’s secretive source, adding:

“Deep Throat didn’t exactly bring the White House crashing down, did he?”

That’s a revealing point that goes to the heart of what I call the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate: Disclosures by “Deep Throat” didn’t bring down Nixon’s corrupt presidency; nor did the reporting of Woodward and Bernstein.

(Bernstein, by the way, never spoke with Felt during the Watergate scandal; Felt was Woodward’s exclusive source. Bernstein finally met Felt in November 2008, shortly before the former G-man’s death.)

On the day six years ago when Felt was confirmed to have been “Deep Throat,” his family issued a statement calling him “a great American hero who went well above and beyond the call of duty at much risk to himself to save his country from a horrible injustice. We all sincerely hope the country will see him this way as well.”

Felt, though, hardly was such a noble character.

In his senior position at the FBI, he had authorized illegal burglaries as part of FBI investigations into leftists associated with the radical Weather Underground in the early 1970s.

Felt was convicted in 1980 on felony charges related to the break-ins, but pardoned by President Ronald Reagan.

Interestingly, his “Deep Throat” alter ego may best be known for a line Felt never spoke: “Follow the money.”

As I’ve discussed at Media Myth Alert, Felt never offered such guidance to Woodward. He never advised the reporter to “follow the money.”

The line doesn’t appear in the book All the President’s Men. But it was written into the script of the cinematic adaptation of Woodward and Bernstein’s book.

Follow the money” was spoken by Hal Holbrook, who delivered a bravado performance as “Deep Throat” in the movie.

Holbrook delivered his “follow the money” lines with such quiet insistence and knowing authority that it sounded for all the world as if it really had been guidance crucial to rolling up Watergate.

WJC

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Fact-checking Watergate advice that ‘worked’

In Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Washington Post, Watergate myth on March 11, 2011 at 8:32 am

In an online commentary posted yesterday, media critic Eric Alterman treated as factual the most famous invented line of the Watergate scandal, “Follow the money.”

As I’ve noted at Media Myth Alert, “follow the money” was advice written into the screenplay of All the President’s Men, the 1976 cinematic version of the book by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein about their Watergate reporting for the Washington Post.

Felt: Didn't say it

The line was spoken by the actor Hal Holbrook, who in the movie played Woodward’s secretive high-level source, “Deep Throat” (who in real life turned out to be W. Mark Felt, formerly the second-ranking official at the FBI).

“Follow the money” doesn’t appear in All the President’s Men, the book.

It appears in no Post article or editorial published during the Watergate period.

And in his periodic meetings with Woodward (he never spoke with Bernstein during Watergate), “Deep Throat”/Felt never uttered the line.

Alterman, the author of  What Liberal Media? and other books, ruminated in his commentary about what he called the willingness of people in politics and the media “to debase themselves for cash.”

His essay appeared beneath the headline, “Think Again: ‘Follow the Money’,” and opened with an allusion to “follow the money,” declaring:

“Deep Throat’s advice worked for Woodward and Bernstein, and it remains useful today.”

Maybe it is “useful” still.

But it is a made-up line.

Screenwriter William Goldman has taken credit for writing “follow the  money” into the script of All the President’s Men, which came out in April 1976 — 20 months after Watergate reached a denouement with the resignation of President Richard Nixon.

Since then, millions of people have repeated the evocative and pithy line, oblivious to its derivation and unaware of its falsity.

As I point out in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, “Turns of phrase that sound too neat and tidy often are too perfect to be true.”

So it is with “follow the money”: Too good to be true.

In that respect, it’s akin to William Randolph Hearst’s purported vow to “furnish the war” with Spain. That famous line is almost certainly apocryphal, as I discuss in Getting It Wrong, which addresses and debunks 10 prominent media-driven myths.

But why bother calling attention to “follow the money”? After all, the movie into which the line was written is nearly 35 years old.

It matters because historical accuracy matters.

As I’ve noted, “follow the money” suggests that rolling up Watergate was a case of identifying and pursuing a money trail. There was, though, much more to the scandal than that.

Nixon lost the presidency not because of illegal campaign contributions but because he obstructed justice in the investigation of the scandal’s signal crime, the break-in in June 1972 at the Democratic National Committee headquarters.

All the President’s Men the movie doesn’t reach that level of complexity.

Calling attention to “follow the money” also matters because of the power and influence invested in the cinema.

I note in Getting It Wrong that high-quality cinematic treatments can be “powerful agents of media myth-making, and can enhance a myth’s durability.”

Richard Bernstein, in an essay published in 1989 in the New York Times, offered a thoughtful discussion about cinema’s capacity to shape perceptions about historical events. Although Bernstein didn’t mention All the President’s Men, his essay is germane nonetheless.

He noted that “even small details have value as history.

“To change them is the rough cinematic equivalent of a newspaper’s inventing quotations on the grounds that, even if nobody actually made the quoted statement, it represents what people were thinking or feeling at the time.”

Indeed.

Bernstein’s essay quoted Richard Slotkin, a Wesleyan University English and American studies professor, as saying:

”Even when you know that something didn’t happen, movie photography gives you the illusion that it did.”

And that helps explain the wide and enduring appeal of “follow the money”: The made-up line was delivered by Holbrook with such quiet assurance and dramatic effect that it offered the illusion of having been advice essential to investigating Watergate.

That is, to being advice that “worked.”

WJC

Many thanks to Instapundit Glenn Reynolds for linking to this post

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Hat-tipping ‘On Language’

In Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Media myths, New York Times, Washington Post, Watergate myth on February 26, 2011 at 7:36 am

The New York Times yesterday announced it was ending “On Language,” a quirky and popular column that has appeared 32 years in its Sunday magazine.

For 30 years, it was the venue for the sometimes-obscure, sometimes-brilliant work of William Safire, a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist who died in 2009.

Of the column’s passing, the incumbent writer of “On Language” stated that time had come  “to bid adieu, after some 1,500 dispatches from the frontiers of language.”

That vague and unsatisfactory explanation notwithstanding, the end of “On Language” offers an occasion to revisit, and offer a tip of the chapeau to, Safire’s laudable effort to call attention to a prominent media myth — that famous, often-invoked but totally made-up line of Watergate, “follow the money.”

Safire, 2006

In an “On Language” column titled “Follow the Proferring Duck” and published August 3, 1997, Safire wrote:

“Who first said ‘Follow the money’? Everybody knows the answer: ‘Deep Throat,’ the anonymous source quoted by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in their book ‘All the President’s Men.’ Those three words from a mysterious Administration official whose identity is unknown even today impelled the young journalists to money laundered in Mexico and ultimately to payments to burglars and a Nixon White House slush fund.

“But wait,” Safire added, “thanks to Daniel Schorr, the National Public Radio commentator … we now have a new and disconcerting take on the origin of the famous phrase.”

Safire explained that Schorr had searched All the President’s Men for the phrase, and had failed to find it.

“Nor was it in any of the Watergate reporting in the Washington Post,” Safire wrote. The line first appeared in the cinematic version of All the President’s Men. It was spoken by the actor Hal Holbrook, who played the stealthy “Deep Throat” character.

“The screenplay was written by William Goldman,” Safire noted. “When Schorr called him, the famed screenwriter at first insisted that the line came from the book; when proved mistaken about that, he said: ‘I can’t believe I made it up. I was in constant contact with Woodward while writing the screenplay. I guess he made it up.’

“Schorr then called Woodward, who could not find the phrase in his exhaustive notes of Watergate interviews. The reporter told Schorr he could no longer rely on his memory as to whether Deep Throat had said the line and was inclined to believe that Goldman had invented it.”

Safire added:

“If the line was indeed a fiction, as it seems to be, what does that portend for its nonfictional source? Schorr only poses the question, but the irony is this:

“When recently asked on ‘Meet the Press’ what the lasting legacy of Watergate was after a quarter-century, Ben Bradlee of the Washington Post (brilliantly portrayed in the movie by Jason Robards Jr.) replied with the words of William Goldman: ‘Follow the money.'”

Indeed, the transcript of the program shows Bradlee did say that.

(In 2005, W. Mark Felt came forward to say was Watergate’s “Deep Throat.” Not long afterward, Goldman took credit for having written “follow the money” into the screenplay.)

If anything, “follow the money” has become more popular — and invoked more often — in the years since Safire wrote the column.

As I’ve noted at Media Myth Alert, “follow the money” is pithy, punchy, and easily remembered; like many other media myths, it is readily applicable.

And as I write in my latest book, Getting It Wrong:

“Turns of phrase that sound too neat and tidy often are too perfect to be true.” William Randolph Hearst’s pithy vow to “furnish the war” with Spain is a particularly telling example.

“Follow the money” lives on for other reasons, too. After all, it supposedly represented vital guidance in rolling up the Watergate scandal.

Its purported decisiveness certainly helps explain why the line crossed so smoothly from the silver screen to the vernacular.

But Watergate, of course, was more than a matter of identifying, pursuing, and explaining a money trail. In the end, Richard Nixon’s attempts to obstruct justice by covering up the break-in at headquarters Democratic national committee headquarters in 1972 was what brought down his presidency.

Safire, by the way, had been a speechwriter for Nixon during his presidency. And Safire used an “On Language” column in 1984 to challenge another hardy media myth — that Nixon ran for president in 1968 claiming to have a “secret plan” to end the war in Vietnam.

WJC

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‘Follow the money’: Why the made-up Watergate line endures

In Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Furnish the war, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on February 8, 2011 at 10:32 am

Watergate’s most famous made-up line — “follow the money” — is impressively versatile and doggedly persistent, some 35 years after it was written into a screenplay.

Mark Felt, 'Deep Throat' source

It’s a phrase that has resonance internationally. It’s made its way onto the sports pages and into publications on topics as diverse as secondary education and systems analysis.

And yesterday, the CBS business news site BNET invoked the passage in a post discussing a recent report of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission.

The reference to “follow the money” appeared at the end of BNET, as if it were an attempt at a witty ending:

“As Deep Throat said about the Watergate investigation, ‘follow the money.'”

But “follow the money” is really more clichéd than witty.

More important, it was a line not spoken by the stealthy “Deep Throat” source (see photo, above) of the Washington Post during its investigation of the Watergate scandal. The passage never appeared in the newspaper’s Watergate-related coverage.

No, it wasn’t the “Deep Throat” newspaper source who uttered “follow the money.” It was the actor Hal Holbrook, who played “Deep Throat” in the motion picture, All the President’s Men. The movie was based on Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s book about their Watergate reporting for the Post.

Screenwriter William Goldman has taken credit for writing “follow the  money” into the script of All the President’s Men, which came out in 1976, less than two years after Watergate reached a climax with the resignation of President Richard Nixon.

Since 1976, millions of people have repeated the line, oblivious to its derivation and unaware of its falsity.

So why does this made-up line persist? Why is “follow the money” so appealing and versatile?

Like many media myths, “follow the money” is pithy, accessible, and easy-to-remember.

As I write in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, “Turns of phrase that sound too neat and tidy often are too perfect to be true.” William Randolph Hearst’s pithy vow to “furnish the war” with Spain is a particularly telling example.

There are, of course, other explanations for the persistent popularity of “follow the money.” It is, after all, a supposedly famous piece of advice — advice presumably crucial in unraveling Watergate.

The line suggests that rolling up the scandal was accomplished by identifying, pursuing, and reporting on an illicit money trail. Its purported centrality to understanding the Watergate scandal is an important reason why “follow the money” crossed smoothly from the silver screen to the vernacular and lives on.

But the Watergate scandal was more than a matter of a money trail. In the end, Nixon’s attempts to obstruct justice by covering up the break-in at headquarters Democratic national committee headquarters in 1972 brought down his presidency.

Moreover, “follow the money” is adaptable advice. It can be applied in many contexts. As Frances Miller wrote last year in the American Journal of Law and Medicine:

“Follow the money is a versatile phrase; the term can be used as an exhortation, designate a pathway, or denote a lifestyle choice. When it comes to health care, following the money is at least part of the sine qua non for anyone seeking to understand how this complex sector of the U.S. economy has arrived at its present sorry state.”

Similarly, “follow the money” has offered pertinent lessons in systems thinking, a broad-based approach to organizational assessment.

The journal Quality Progress invoked “Deep Throat” and “follow the money” in observing in 2004:

“What Deep Throat did, in effect, was lead Woodward, his colleague Carl Bernstein and the rest of us Watergate observers through an experiential workshop in systems thinking. The general instruction he gave the reporters to unravel the plot was, ‘Follow the money.’

“He assured them the money would connect the dots for them and eventually reveal the conspiracy’s entire ‘circulatory’ system. Identifying resources is one way to sketch in the outlines of some systems.”

That assessment was offered in the year before W. Mark Felt, formerly the second-ranking official at the FBI, identified himself as having been the “Deep Throat” of the Washington Post.

WJC

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