Big Think Interview with Carl Bernstein
Carl Bernstein is a veteran journalist who shared a Pulitzer Prize with Bob Woodward in 1973 for their investigative coverage of the Watergate scandal for The Washington Post. He has authored or co-authored six books, including the acclaimed "All the President's Men," which he wrote with Woodward. He has written for a variety of publications, including Vanity fair, Time, USA Today, Rolling Stone and The New Republic, and he was a Washington bureau chief and correspondent for ABC News.
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.
Question: What were some of the biggest lessons you learned from Watergate about investigative journalism?
Carl Bernstein: Let me say one thing about investigative journalism. I’m not one who really believes that there’s a pseudoscience called investigative journalism that’s different from all the rest of journalism. I think all good reporting is the same thing—the best attainable version of the truth. How do you do that? What is the methodology? Whether you’re covering the Congress, whether you’re covering something like Watergate, whether you’re covering sports, or City Hall, the methodology is to go to as many sources as you possibly can, not get pressured to go into print too fast.
If you read "All the President’s Men," you’ll see that we chafed at Ben Bradley and some of the other editors saying, “Hey guys, haven’t got it yet.” We had the advantage of a great, great management and a courageous publisher. When the Nixon White House and the Nixon Administration tried to fight us by trying to take away the economic lifeblood of The Washington Post Company by revoking... trying to revoke the television licenses owned by The Washington Post Company, she said, "No." And when we got subpoenas for our notes from the committee to reelect the President of the United States, the Nixon Reelection Committee on a kind of bogus lawsuit they filed to try to get at our notes, she took possession of my notes and said, you want the notes, you’re going to have to take me to jail. And so this was a remarkable woman. And Bradley was a remarkable editor.
And there was a – that newsroom and the standards that governed it, particularly during Watergate, are to me the real lessons of Watergate. About being responsible, about having more than one source, about... you know, we had a two-source rule. That because the stakes of what we were doing was so high, we had to have the information from two sources before we would put it in the paper. Should you have that rule every day? Not necessarily. But it’s a pretty good thing to keep in the back of your head.
I was lucky enough to... I’ve now been in the business 50 years. I went to work just about 50 years ago, probably the week that we're recording this, at The Washington Star, a great afternoon newspaper, in 1960, as a copyboy. And I went to work with people a good deal older than I, I was 16-years-old, as I say. And these were great reporters as well as some great hard-drinking characters... who had this idea that the function of a newspaper is the best obtainable version of the truth. And they... and even more than The Washington Post in those days, The Star made sure that that was the mission, the reportorial mission of the newspaper. This separation between the editorial policies of the paper—it was a conservative newspaper—its editorial policy was anathema to the Kennedy Administration which came in the next year. Nonetheless, its coverage was absolutely, spectacularly deep and committed to the truth.
Question: Given the current state of the media, do you think that something as big as the Watergate investigation could happen today?
Carl Bernstein: I think... I think hypothetical questions are very difficult to answer, especially "if" history questions. But 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.
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. The press did its job. We did what we were supposed to do.
Then you had a great judge, the judiciary worked. The great judge pried some secret information out of the defendants in his courtroom and helped break open the conspiracy based partly his actions on what he had read in our stories. Then you had, even though the prosecution was overwhelmed by its closeness to the Nixon White House and by nefariousness in the Justice Department. You then had a great congressional investigation, the Senate investigation into Watergate. Could you have that today in the partisan atmosphere that exists on Capital Hill? Could you have a real bipartisan investigation that would take the facts wherever they went? I’m not all sure.
The Congress is a dysfunctional institution, it’s broken. One of our three branches of government is broken. Perhaps irrevocably, it is... we’re paying a terrible price for its mendacity and its inability to deal with the problems of America. The Congress of the United States, the mediocre quality of so many of its members as well as the ideological divides and many other factors that make the Congress so dysfunctional. You then add in Watergate—a special prosecutor who, when the President of the United States claimed that he had the privilege to withhold his tapes from the investigation, it went to the Supreme Court and the Supreme Court decided unanimously that the President was not above the law and that he had to turn over his tapes. And that was with the President of the United States expecting the Chief Justice that he had appointed to support him. Would that happen today?
And then you had a vote by the House Judiciary Committee to impeach the President of the United States, several articles of impeachment. Would that happen today with the same information and the partisan environment? It was Republicans that really held Nixon accountable and said, "Look, he might be a Republican, but he is a criminal President." He has, you know, bent the Constitution, violated his oath of office. Would that happen today in our political system? I’m not at all sure. I’m not nearly as worried about the press as I am about the political system.
Question: Is it hard to have had such a major success with Watergate so early in your career?
Carl Bernstein: Both Bob and myself have had the most incredible opportunities as a result of Watergate. And hopefully we’ve both taken advantage of those opportunities to, you know, in our very different ways, explore the same things that really we did in Watergate, which is the use and abuse of power.
I’ve written five books, I guess. Two with Bob, doing another one now, and you know, from the Biography of Hillary Clinton to the Pope, John Paul II, or memoir about the McCarthy era and my parents. But almost all the work is focused on that, though I still every once in a while I’ll do a little bit about rock music, because I was a rock music critic at one point. But we’ve had great opportunities.
And sure, there have been times when I think that, hey, you know, you can’t be judged on this one thing every day because there’s not going to be another story like that. And... but look, people have been extraordinarily wonderful by and large, you know. You walk down the street, I walk down the street, people come up to me all the time, they’re grateful about what we did, about our continuing work, my continuing work.
And look, has post-Watergate been a life of hardship? Hell no. It’s been wonderful and then every once in a while you get hit in the face.
Question: Were you relieved when Big Throat revealed his identity in 2005?
Carl Bernstein: Not at first. We were both horrified. And had... our instinct was not to confirm the report because it was a weak report in some regards. And we were not convinced that Mark Felt had actually given his permission. That we knew at the time that he had serious dementia and that we thought that this had perhaps been coaxed... and had more to do with his family and a lawyer who purported to represent him than it did with his own wishes. And I don’t think that if he was not in his advanced state of dementia, I doubt seriously that he would have, since he was so adamant during all the time up until then that he not reveal and we not reveal his identity.
At the same time, and meeting with him afterwards, and I think that we were able to sense some real connection despite the dementia. I think he was genuinely relieved in some way, or happy at the attention and that he must have had some sense that he was being regarded somewhat heroically.
And I think it’s important to understand what Mark Felt did and what he didn’t do. There’s a myth about our coverage, The Washington Post coverage, and that Deep Throat threw all these secrets over a transom and gave us the keys to the kingdom. Not quite the case. We, Bob especially, had to pry information out of him. Most of what Deep Throat did was confirm information we had gotten elsewhere from other sources. And it was invaluable that confirmation because it gave us a certainty that we were right, even as everyday the leader of the free world got up and attacked us, a 28- and 29-year-old kids really, at the time. You know, and that was kind of a heavy experience to have that going on. And yet, we had the certainty, partly because of Deep Throat, that we knew our information was good and unshakable. But in terms of original information, it came from other sources. And so this was not then... I think there’s a little bit of revisionism that goes on about this.
What really is extraordinary is that we were able to keep this secret for 30-something years, you know. That the Russians knew pretty much every thing about us and we knew everything about the Russians. And this was the one real secret in the world, and only three of us knew, Bradley, Woodward, and myself and we were smart enough, the two of us not to tell our ex-wives who it was and—that would have been the end of it. And so.
And one other thing that is apparent in retrospect, you were asking about so-called investigative reporting. We were young, we were not national reporters, we were local reporters and we went about this story very much like the kind of police reporting you do and learn when I first got into the business at The Washington Star, you worked your way up. We interviewed secretaries and clerks before we even knew any higher-ups. We got tables of organization of the White House and the Nixon Reelection Committee and we studied them and getting them was like getting classified information.
So we used this very basic methodology and knocked on doors, hundreds of doors, most of which were slammed in our face. So it’s about shoe leather in terms of this commitment of resources more than anything else. It’s about the management and reporters who are willing to keep going... and days without a story in the paper. And can you do that in the environment of the Web? I don’t know. That’s one of the questions. There’s so much pressure to get it in print, get it out there, get it on the wire very quickly.
And the other thing is, we were single at the time. We did most of our work at night, our reporting at night. We visited people in their homes, away from the pressure of the White House or the Committee to Reelect the President. So, we went... we started interviewing people and knocking on doors at 7:00 in the evening and we’d go to till 11:00 at night. So that became our methodology and being single made that easier.
Question: What are some of the most difficult ethical issues you've faced as a journalist?
Carl Bernstein: The most important ethical issues and the most difficult ones are the human ones because a reporter has enormous power to hurt people. And the best example I can give of it is not in Watergate, but one of the favorite stories that I have ever done that I really enjoyed doing was a huge takeout about a group of people who are part white, part black, part Indian. They are known as Tri-Racial Isolates. And there are a couple hundred thousand people organized in tri-racial isolate communities in America. And the particular group I wrote about were called the We Sorts. And they lived in Southern Maryland. And they had never been able, like most tri-racial isolate groups, to integrate with either the society at large, with blacks, or with whites. So they had evolved. And there are many of these communities, the Melungeons in Tennessee, the Jackson Whites in New Jersey, that We Sorts in Maryland which comes from an expression that "We sorts of people are different than you sorts of people." And I wrote about this amazing community. And little did I think that the children would be ostracized in school because they share their six core last names... there’s a lot of inter-marriage. And children of these six core families were really ostracized in school.
And it really made me think. As a number of other... I think more than anything, I always has a consciousness of how you have the power to hurt someone. And therefore you’re obligation to be fair, to give people an opportunity to say, “Hey, is this really what happened?” And to look at the consequences of what now. Could I have avoided? I don’t know what I could have done to avoid that hurt, but it was one of those things that made me very conscious.
Question: If you were coming up today as a journalist, what medium do you think you'd be drawn to?
Carl Bernstein: I’d try to go to work for The New York Times, or The Washington Post because I still think... first of all, I mean the website of The New York Times particularly, is one of the most amazing sources of news and information I’ve ever seen. It’s better than the paper, you can drill deeper. I still love reading the paper, I read The Washington Post, I read The New York Times in their paper form a couple days a week, but I really look at it on the Web. And you know, those institutions still do old fashioned reporting, and do it well. So that would still be my first, my first choice.
I think the main thing is to find something that gives you joy doing it. You know? The most fun years of my life perhaps in many regards were age 16 to 20 at The Washington Star. Learning and becoming a reporter very young and learning this craft and being with these wonderful people. Now, whether that exists anymore, I kind... I don’t think it does. I don’t think there’s the kind of camaraderie that there once was, but look, I think you can do great work for Vanity Fair; you can do great work for New York Magazine. There are plenty of places to do it and it can be exciting. I think it’s very difficult for a young person to get the kind of notice because there’s so many people involved in what’s called journalism today and as there are fewer and fewer major sources of information that draw disproportionate attention there’s a dilution and it’s harder to get noticed because readers go to more places and it was easier I think for individual journalists to get noticed 30-40 years ago.
Question: What does it take to be a great journalist?
Carl Bernstein: Well I think one thing is, I would say, be a good listener. I think that most journalists tend to be very bad listeners, particularly as television superseded so much in importance of what newspapers once had in terms of prominence in community which occurred in the '70s and the '80s and '90s. 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.
You know, almost all the good stories that I have ever done, I’ve had a preconceived notion of what the story might be, and my preconceived notion has always turned out to be wrong; from Watergate to anything else that I’ve done. It’s fine to have that preconceived notion to maybe ask some questions, but then give people to chance to answer those questions. Don’t hammer them with your preconceived notion. And I think that’s so much of our journalism is about that and reporters have become lousy listeners. To me, you sit there and you wait long enough, people want to tell the truth, actually, if you give them a chance. And to give you so much of that grey matter. Things are not always black and white. So I think being a good listener is something that—and I learned that very young, I’m happy to say, because I loved to find out what people want to tell me. Let them dictate the conversation, not me. Then if I want to say at some point, “Look why’d you put your hand in the cookie jar?” If that’s what the relevant question is, get it in at some point. But let’s, you know, maybe the hand was in the cookie jar, you know, for reasons I never dreamed of. I’d like to know those reasons before I started acting... you know, we’re not prosecutors.
And that’s the other thing in Watergate, you know, we were not prosecutorial. We went where the information took us. Prosecutors had a different function. It looked like all our reporting was going to go for naught in terms of having a, you know... Nixon was reelected by a huge margin after the major stories we had written. So if the object was at that point, if our object had been to be prosecutorial, we had failed. But that wasn’t our object. Our object was the best obtainable version of the truth. I think that simple concept is – the more you ponder, “The best obtainable version of the truth,” the more you become imaginative about what that means and how to go about it and how to be fair and how to be judicious and not judicial. And another thing is to have fun at this. You know? I think an awful lot of that aspect has been lost. The fun. This ought to be fun because you’re examining the human condition. That’s fun.
The other about the best obtainable version of the truth is that it doesn’t exaggerate one aspect of our culture. For instance, the sensational, fame, you know, most people aren’t famous, yet there’s this great desire in our culture for fame, which is an important thing to write about. And to look at, but at the same time, we need to look at how most people live. We need to look at what’s really going on among human beings and the institutions that they interact with.
Question: Do you consider yourself an optimist?
Carl Bernstein: I’ve always been an optimist about this country. I’m not an optimist right now. Too many things aren’t working. The government is truly dysfunctional largely because of the Congress of the United States and one branch of government is broken, perhaps irrevocably. And you know, the founders were very specific about making the Congress the first part of the constitution to be defined in its powers. And in the last 30 years, if somebody can tell me the great accomplishments of the congress of the United States, I’d sure like to know about them and interestingly enough, a couple of them occur on Obama’s watch. You know, it is an accomplishment what has been done with a system of health insurance as rudimentary as it is in its initial phase in the way the legislation is written, but it will be built upon the way Social Security was built upon.
But look at the infrastructure of this country – it’s broken. We’ve got bridges falling into rivers. We don’t have the ability financially to fix our roads anymore. We have schools... my brother-in-law is a school teacher, he’s a substitute teacher, they’ve laid off the substitute teachers in California because there’s no money to pay them. School terms have been shortened. Our education... public education system in this country is broken.
We’ve got huge problems that we haven’t addressed for a very long time. We kicked the can down the road on medical care, on infrastructure, on education, and now we don’t have the financial ability and probably won’t for a very long time to address these questions as well as a question of national will. Our political debate is debased. It’s... you don’t need to say it because people know that that is the case. What works in our country is popular culture, music, sports, entertainment, and certainly we’ve made great, great accomplishments in terms of technocracy, the web. But we’ve got problems that we’re not willing to look at.
And I date a lot of it, I think that the abolition of the draft in this country was a terrible mistake. That if there was a draft, I don’t think for a minute we would have had this horrible war in Iraq. 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.
So we haven’t dealt with our problems. And what our national conversation is about, if you look at the web and you look at television, is there great stuff on the web? Absolutely. Is there great stuff on television? Absolutely. But what are most people watching and what are most people calling up on their computer screens? It’s not so great.
Recorded July 22, 2010
Interviewed by David Hirschman
A conversation with the Watergate journalist.
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