“Follow the money” is lousy advice for a journalist.
The catchphrase, which is spoken by Hal Holbrook’s Deep Throat in the movie version of All the President’s Men, but nowhere in the book, is supposed to represent the distilled wisdom that Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein learned while reporting Watergate.
That was indeed the essence of the law enforcement investigations that they cribbed off, but they were no more capable of following private bank transactions than any other reporter is. They got their biggest story, one that triggered three immediate investigations, when a Miami prosecutor showed Bernstein some bank records. They got other items from a leaking Democrat on a grand jury, not to mention the help they got from Mark Felt, aka Deep Throat, who handled the investigation for the FBI.
This isn’t to knock Woodward’s immense accomplishments, but his method was never “Follow the money,” unless investigators already had financial information for him.
Still, two generations of reporters have embraced the advice, taking investigative journalism into territory that is often irrelevant to anyone but other journalists. Or can I interest you in a multi-part series on lobbyist registrations? Maybe yet a detailed graphic on the Koch brothers’ network? Point being, most money you’d actually be interested in following is either actually private (yay) or made private by government decree (boo). Reporters become the proverbial drunks looking for their keys under the lamppost.
So I thought it was interesting that Bernstein offered a revision of the phrase at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner Saturday night: “Follow the money, but follow also the lies.”
Or let’s make it simply, “Follow the lies.” That is, journalists shouldn’t feel like frauds because they don’t have magic investigatory powers. They should feel like frauds for accommodating fraudulence too often.
Challenge lies, and you might get somewhere interesting. Bernstein elaborated: “Almost inevitably, government secrecy is the enemy. It’s usually the giveaway about what the real story might be. And when lies deny the secrecy, there is usually a pretty good roadmap in front of us.”
If there’s been any reaction from the media in attendance, I missed it. A lot of the media think they’re already hip to this, as seen in the explosion of weakly argued and misleading fact-checks, not to mention the sudden concern with false equivalence. What little coverage Bernstein picked up over the weekend had to do with him following up the speech by going on CNN and calling President Trump the lyingest lying liar of them all.
However, Trump is the worst possible example of the point he’s trying to make. Trump’s labile outbursts are the opposite of the sort of calculated dishonesty we see from politicians and institutions whose interests are threatened, the sort that might prove to be a roadmap.
Bernstein is saying that if you want to find the truth, first you’ve got to figure out who is lying to you. This goes much deeper than simply calling out false claims in print, a practice I applaud even when it’s done poorly, because it’s always revealing. Either a lie gets exposed or the biased reporter does.
You find the roadmap when you go a step further, and realize that one side of a dispute may be lying continually, as a strategy. It might be a public safety union trying to snow the public about a failing pension. It might be a prosecutor ruining an official’s future with charges motivated by politics. They’re relying on the same thing — superficial news coverage.
The crooked hide behind complexity, knowing that reporters will usually quote each side and move on. On a deadline, covering some strange topic, that’s often all they can manage. But newsrooms around the country actually hold this up as a goal.
I was once formally disciplined for using phrases like “he’s guilty” in a newsroom, in assessment of the evidence assembled in a case. I was guilty of thinking too much about what that evidence meant, which is usually that the accused is guilty. But the only way you find the great stories — and on the crime beat, that might mean unethical prosecutors or lying cops — is by thinking about what the facts mean.
The one really good story I ever uncovered started just the way Bernstein describes. There was a board member at the University of Texas who was facing impeachment in the state legislature over allegations that seemed to me to be obvious pretexts. I checked them out, and they were.
So I took a crack at checking out his main claim — that a lot of the most powerful politicians in Texas were getting their unintelligent offspring into the University of Texas and its law school. The facts took months to assemble, owing to secrecy laws, and I wasn’t sure I had anything until the home stretch. That was a long way to walk following nothing but Bernstein’s roadmap, but trusting the trustworthy paid off.
Now T. Rees Shapiro, the young Post reporter best known for following the lies that Rolling Stone told about University of Virginia frat brothers, seems to have come across a scandal that may turn out much like the one I covered at UT. The University of Virginia appears to be charging a premium to admit the underqualified children of the wealthy. We’ll see if it’s a “bump” for B-students, as many will tell him, or if it’s the wholesale corruption of the public trust.
I can already tell him which of the people he’s quoting are telling lies, but I’m sure he’ll figure it out. Not everybody takes as long as Bernstein.