Ed Driscoll

Follow the Truthiness

Veteran screenwriter William Goldman, whom we referenced in the previous post last night, also played a key role in creating one of the most iconic lines of the Watergate-era, which many people to this day assume was actually spoken in real life. W. Joseph Campbell writes on his blog for his myth-busting book on a century of journalism, Getting It Wrong, that the phrase “follow the money” doesn’t appear in the Post’s articles from the period on Watergate, nor does it appear in Woodward and Bernstein’s best-selling book:

Safire wrote that 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.”

(New York Times columnist Frank Rich wrote in 2005 that Goldman took credit for coming up with “follow the money.”)

The Post in an article last summer praised All the President’s Men, which was released in 1976, saying the movie had “held up not only as a taut, well-made thriller but as the record itself of the Watergate scandal that transpired four years earlier.”

The Post article also stated:

“It barely matters that the film’s most iconic piece of dialogue–’Follow the money’– was never spoken in real life.”

How so, it barely matters?

It certainly does matter. The memorable, often-quoted but phony line is emblematic of the exaggerations that characterize the movie.

Far from being “the record itself of the Watergate scandal,” the cinematic version of All the President’s Men presented “a neat, tidy, and vastly simplified account” of the scandal, I write in Getting It Wrong. It’s a version “that allowed viewers to sidestep the scandal’s complexity while engaging in an entertaining storyline.”

The movie version helped cement the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate by leaving the inescapable but erroneous impression that Woodward and Bernstein were central to unraveling the scandal and to forcing the resignation of a president.

And then there was the role of Deep Throat, aka FBI man Mark Felt, who died in late 2008. When Felt was revealed as Deep Throat in 2005, Professor Bainbridge wrote:

Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once said:

Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.

I’ve heard investigative reporters invoke that quote to justify their jobs. So I have a question: Why doesn’t that apply to journalistic sources? Why should we trust stories based on unnamed sources, when there have been so many prominent cases lately of journalists just making stuff up? Why shouldn’t journalists have to name their sources?

Update: Timothy Noah points out that Felt had parochial bureacratic reasons to serve as Deep Throat:

Hoover had died. Hoover loyalists at the bureau were frantic that President Richard Nixon would get his mitts on the FBI, which Hoover had kept independent of political control through a variety of nasty methods, including blackmail. The Hooverites’ bureaucratic anxieties were well-founded: After the Watergate break-in, Hoover’s acting successor, a Nixon loyalist named L. Patrick Gray, routinely passed FBI files about Watergate directly to White House counsel John Dean, who was a party to (but eventually would expose) the White House’s illegal coverup. In effect, the White House ended up knowing everything the FBI knew. (That’s why it seemed so plausible that, if not Felt, Deep Throat might be Deputy White House Counsel Fred Fielding, a theory that, I regret to say, undermined in recent years my previous rock-solid conviction that it was Felt, or at least some other high-ranking G-man? case closed.) Felt pushed back by helping Woodward and Bernstein discover that high-level White House aides were in up to their necks in Watergate, up to and including Nixon.

DC turf wars make the story a lot less romantic, don’t they? At the very least, as Glenn Reynolds notes, “I don’t mind Nixon going — I think he was a pretty lousy President for all sorts of reasons aside from Watergate — but it’s obvious that the simplistic Woodward & Bernstein hero-tale is a bit, um, incomplete.” But it also speaks to my point about anonymous sources: Might we not have evaluated Woodward and Bernstein’s work with a more informed eye if we knew they were being fed stories by somebody with a bureaucratic axe to grind?

And as Mark Steyn wrote that same year, in a profile of Felt that’s also well worth your time:

Now we learn that Deep Throat was not, in fact, Alexander Haig, David Gergen, Pat Buchanan or Len Garment, but a disaffected sidekick of J. Edgar Hoover, an old-school G-man embittered at being passed over for the director’s job when the big guy keeled over after half-a-century in harness.

Hmm. Like the ”Star Wars” wrap-up, ”How Mark Felt Became Deep Throat” feels small and mean after three decades of the awesome dramatic burden placed upon it.

The nobility of the Watergate myth — in which media boomers and generations of journalism school ethics bores have sunk so much — seems cheapened and tarnished by this last plot twist.

But let’s get back to this section in Campbell’s post on the “Follow the Money” catch phrase:

The Post in an article last summer praised All the President’s Men, which was released in 1976, saying the movie had “held up not only as a taut, well-made thriller but as the record itself of the Watergate scandal that transpired four years earlier.”

The Post article also stated:

“It barely matters that the film’s most iconic piece of dialogue–’Follow the money’– was never spoken in real life.”

That last sentence was from an article by the Post’s Ann Hornaday which attempted to connect All the President’s Men with Fair Game, this year’s Joseph Wilson and Valerie Plame poli-spy film starring that veteran globe-trotting journalist turned part-time actor Sean Penn.

We linked to Hornaday’s article when it appeared this past August, to note this passage:

As long as dramatists seek to make protagonists out of mere humans — to reduce their tangled webs of contradictions, complexities and banalities to a set of single-minded motivations and fatal flaws — audiences will need to approach these narratives with a blend of sophistication and skepticism. But maybe the best way to understand these films isn’t as narrative at all, but an experience more akin to ritual. When religious pilgrims travel to the sacred sites of the Holy Land, for example, the locations they visit often aren’t the literal places where a biblical figure was born or baptized. Instead, they’re the sites that, through centuries of use and shared meaning, have become infused with a spiritual reality all their own.

Thus, the movies about Washington that get the right stuff right — or get some stuff wrong but in the right way — become their own form of consensus history. “Follow the money,” then, assumes its own totemic truth. Ratified through repeated viewings in theaters, on Netflix and beyond, these films become a mutual exercise in creating a usable past. We watch them to be entertained, surely, and maybe educated. But we keep watching them in order to remember.

As P.J. Gladnick wrote at Newsbusters when he linked to the article:

Wow! So the “truth” of a “usable past” can be “ratified” through repeated viewings in theaters? That is the Orwellian reasoning that makes Valerie Plame name leaker Richard Armitage a non-person. Armitage never existed because he doesn’t appear in “Fair Game.”

And in my own post on Hornaday’s article, I added:

Hornaday’s article is titled “Washington-set films may fudge facts, but good ones speak to larger truths.” Note that it appears in the paper which served as the JournoList HQ for all sorts of writers who believed that truth was fungible. (See also, tweet at top of post.) But her idea of a “usable past” actually pre-dates Orwell’s 1984 by several decades. It’s not Orwellian so much as it’s Sorelian — Georges Sorel, the French socialist theorist from the first half of the twentieth century. As Lee Harris noted a few years ago at Tech Central Station:

Sorel, for whom religion was important, drew a comparison between the Christian and the socialist revolutionary. The Christian’s life is transformed because he accepts the myth that Christ will one day return and usher in the end of time; the revolutionary socialist’s life is transformed because he accepts the myth that one day socialism will triumph, and justice for all will prevail. What mattered for Sorel, in both cases, is not the scientific truth or falsity of the myth believed in, but what believing in the myth does to the lives of those who have accepted it, and who refuse to be daunted by the repeated failure of their apocalyptic expectations. How many times have Christians in the last two thousand years been convinced that the Second Coming was at hand, only to be bitterly disappointed — yet none of these disappointments was ever enough to keep them from holding on to their great myth. So, too, Sorel argued, the myth of socialism will continue to have power, despite the various failures of socialist experiments, so long as there are revolutionaries who are unwilling to relinquish their great myth. That is why he rejected scientific socialism — if it was merely science, it lacked the power of a religion to change individual’s lives. Thus for Sorel there was “an…analogy between religion and the revolutionary Socialism which aims at the apprenticeship, preparation, and even the reconstruction of the individual — a gigantic task.”

Even beyond All the President’s Men, a pretty fair chunk of the accepted pop culture of the 1970s was, in retrospect, often invented out of whole cloth and then repackaged as Truth — “truthiness,” as faux journalist Stephen Colbert would say — by the film, television industry, and (actual) journalists of the day.

A minor example, also from the mid-1970s, was Travolta’s Saturday Night Fever. It was sold to the public as being an adaptation of a magazine article on the real-life exploits of disaffected Brooklyn youth, when it reality, it was basically Quadrophenia with better dance moves, updated clothes, and cockney accents replaced with Brooklynese:

Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night” was the title of a 1976 New York Magazine article by British rock journalist Nik Cohn. It was the basis for the plot and characters in the movie Saturday Night Fever.

Originally, the article was published as a piece of factual reporting. However, around the time of the twentieth anniversary of the film, Cohn revealed that the article was actually a work of fiction. Assigned to write an article about the early 1970s disco scene, Cohn, a newcomer to the United States, was unfamiliar with the American working-class subculture he was trying to cover.

To overcome this problem, Mr. Cohn based his piece on a young man he knew in England. “My story was a fraud,” he wrote. “I’d only recently arrived in New York. Far from being steeped in Brooklyn street life, I hardly knew the place. As for Vincent, my story’s hero, he was largely inspired by a Shepherd’s Bush mod whom I’d known in the Sixties, a one-time king of Goldhawk Road.”[1] The fraud was successful because mod and disco subcultures shared certain similarities, both emphasized fashion and music, and both the US and UK characters were working class.

(Which in retrospect was a perfect example of Tom Wolfe’s “Information Ricochet” theory in action.)

Perhaps far more insidiously, given the hugely influential ABC miniseries, big chunks of Alex Haley’s supposedly non-fiction Roots were plagiarized. Haley paid out over half a million dollars to settle a lawsuit instigated by Harold Courlander, the author of the 1967 novel, The African:

The novel was the story of a slave’s capture in Africa, his experiences aboard a slave ship, and his struggle to retain his native culture in a hostile new world. In 1978, Courlander filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, charging Alex Haley, the author of Roots, had used 81 passages from his novel.[1] After a five-week trial in federal district court, Courlander and Haley settled the case[2], with Haley making a financial settlement of $650,000,[3]. Haley denied plagiarism but conceded that three brief passages in his book had apparently come from Courlander’s and said somebody had probably had given the passages to him without attributing them to The African.[4] He issued a statement that “Alex Haley acknowledges and regrets that various materials from The African by Harold Courlander found their way into his book Roots.”[5]

Given that much of what’s taken as The Official Narrative of the 1970s was built on useful fiction, how much of the decade we just lived will also be remembered inaccurately as well? James Lileks had some fun this week pointing out all of the inaccuracies of the films and TV series about ancient Rome we take for granted:

“Spartacus: Blood and Sand and Nipples,” for example. I love things Roman, and this is Roman enough, but it’s old-line Roman, where society consists entirely of Brit-accented upperclass twits and their wives (cracker-dry old schemers or ripe red-haired voluptuaries, nothing in between) and buff glistening gladiators. The twain intersect at dimly-lit parties where the slaves are either serving lark-brains-on-crackers or performing slo-mo theatrical sex acts. Yes. Of course. That’s exactly what Rome was like. One of those shows where people don’t have conversations, they have SPEECHES. Everyone talks in portentous SPEECHES. And then there’s the slo-mo splatter of combat. Somehow it takes you out of the moment when the blood drips on the camera lens. Makes me nostalgic for HBO’s “Rome,” which reveled in the quotidian details of life in the lesser districts. Makes you realize that in 2000 years they’ll make movies about our era, and everyone will be half-naked and sweaty while they commit mortgage fraud.

Why not? As I quipped last month, “Everything You Know About the Last 100 Years is Wrong.” (Yes I was being hyperbolic. But how wrong? This wrong.) Since “a usable past” helps aid The Official Narrative, expect the history of the decade we just lived to get twisted into a pretzel as well.

(H/T: 5’F)