The "Golden Age" of Investigative Journalism Never Existed

The legendary journalist isn't concerned about the current state of investigative reporting. But he does worry that readers are less interested in serious journalism than they used to be.
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TRANSCRIPT

Question: Are you concerned about the state of investigative journalism today?

Carl Bernstein: I’m not quite as concerned as a lot of people about the state of investigative journalism.  What I’m concerned about is that the standards that were established over a half a century or a century in old newspaper, great old newspaper standards be maintained on new platforms as they develop.  I think there’s a tremendous amount of good reporting going on, both online and in newspapers.  I think The New York Times is doing fabulous things, I think The Washington Post is doing fabulous things. 

The New York Times is probably a better paper than it’s ever been in its existence.  It’s probably the best newspaper, modern newspaper we’ve ever seen; what The New York Times looks like today.  

So I’m not too concerned.  What bothers me... and I also think that there’s a little too much nostalgia about maybe a golden age of “investigative journalism” that never really existed.  You know, The Wall Street Journal still does some terrific things. It’s a question of having resources committed over a long period of time to knock on a lot of doors, to talk to a lot of people, and have a management that is committed to that.  And the real question is whether we’re going to have enough such managements on the old platforms and the new so that this form of very important work can flourish.  

I’m also a little concerned about readers, perhaps more than I’m concerned about the journalists.  Because I think that there’s much less serious reading going on of journalism than there was 35 years ago.

So to me, it’s a question of really it’s up to... and also one other thing about the Web is that you know, there’s a lot of self-financed terrific reporting going on.  And the question is whether it can get the attention that it deserves.   

Question:
Would government funding for newspapers compromise the quality of their journalism?

Carl Bernstein:  I don’t know whether it would compromise the quality of the journalism, I think that it might compromise the perception of the quality of the journalism, which is equally important.  I think also that it might lead to some kind of self-censorship. 

And I think self-censorship is really the great danger, not just in the United States, but in the west and Asia as well. Because the old Draconian model of censorship by government body doesn’t work any more partly because of the Internet.  And also, what we’re finding... I did an introduction to the Committee to Protect Journalists’ Annual Report last year and what we found was that, you know, there’s a tremendous amount of violence directed at journalists around the world today.  There’s an awful lot of journalists being killed, targeted assignations. And the intent of that is to impose self-censorship because government censorship is all but impossible except in a place... China still does it to some extent, Burma does it, North Korea does it, but the old nation/state with the ability to shut down the press and own it, even in Venezuela, it’s tough to do.

Question:
Is the government more secretive now than it was during the Watergate era?

Carl Bernstein: There’s plenty of secrets. And secret government, you know, is really the enemy.  That’s the enemy.  It’s not the ideological enemy that we ought to be just concerned about here, meaning within our Republicans and Democrats.  That’s secret government and the tendency to secrecy.  

Whether it has to do with waste, fraud, and abuse.  And one of the things the Obama Administration’s doing is very interesting is that, that the President and the people around him recognize that there are regulatory tools and investigative tools in the departments, whether it’s the Center for Medicare and Medicaid, the FDA, all kinds... DOD.  There are all kinds of ways to put the mechanisms of government investigation to work to save money as well as end corruption.  And there is terrible corruption.  

If you look at the Medicare and Medicaid system, what individual contractors and medical suppliers and insurance companies are doing is an outrage.  There are some legitimate ones and there’s some legitimate services and goods, and then there’s a whole other subculture.  So the Obama Administration, unlike its immediate predecessors has really started to get serious about this, in the Department of Education, in the FDA, in Health and Human Services, in the Department of Defense.  There are plenty of secrets.

Recorded July 22, 2010
Interviewed by David Hirschman