Carl Bernstein: The "Golden Age" of Investigative Journalism Never Existed

Legendary Watergate journalist Carl Bernstein says that he's not as concerned about the state of investigative journalism as some of his contemporaries are—in fact, he thinks that newspapers like the New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal are doing excellent work uncovering secrets in the halls of power. Rather, he's more concerned about today's readers, because he thinks there is much less reading of serious journalism going on today.


In his Big Think interview, Bernstein says the secret to becoming a great journalist is being a good listener—something that he says journalists today usually aren't. As television superseded newspapers as the major news medium in the '70s, '80s, and '90s, Bernstein says, "A lot of reporters ran in with microphones and stuck them in people’s faces with the object of sound bytes really for the purpose of manufacturing controversy.  The real purpose of reporting, of journalism is to illuminate what is real, you know, real existential truth.  What’s going on around us?  That’s not sensationalism, that’s not manufactured controversy, that’s not—it’s about context and listening."

Bernstein also talks about the Watergate era and the legacy of his and Bob Woodward's investigation of the Nixon White House. Asked if such an investigation could happen with today's media, Bernstein says that such a question is not really about the press. "Do I think that there are news organizations that if they had the same kind of information that Bob Woodward and I had in Watergate would go ahead and print the stories?  Absolutely, I do," he says. "I think what is really a bigger question is, how would readers respond?  How would the political system respond?  The great thing about Watergate is, is that the system worked.  The American system worked." Today, Bernstein is not so sure that the system would be as accountable. He also talks about what it was like to score such a major story so early in his career—and what it's been like trying to follow up that success.

Finally, Bernstein suggests that the United States needs to reinstate the draft. "If there was a draft, I don’t think for a minute we would have had this horrible war in Iraq," says Bernstein. "I don’t think members of Congress would have voted to send their own children into that theater, or into Afghanistan, not a chance. That the end of the draft has permitted a cowardly politics, a huge consequence to who we are as a people  I think there’s a need in this country for national service for all young people, for a year or two, whether it be in the military, whether it be building roads, whether it be in public health, whether it be in helping to teach children.  But the idea that there is no unifying activity for young people such as could be provided for national service is a terrible shortcoming in our culture."

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